Russia, the biggest country on the planet, remains a mythical place years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Bears walking down the streets, people drinking vodka from dawn till dusk and in-between, fascinating natural scenery, snow and low temperatures year-round; how much of this is true?
From northwest to southeast, Russia is bordered by Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and North Korea. It also has maritime borders with the United States.
Covering more than one-ninth of the entire Earth’s land area, Russia straddles Europe and Asia, with part of its territory in each continent. Natural reserves and resources seem to be infinite and the country boasts the highest mountain in Europe (Mt Elbrus), the deepest lake in the world (Baikal), the largest river in Europe (Volga), as well as seas, steppes, taigas, volcanoes and even deserts. Temperatures range from an unbelievable -55ºC/-77ºF to a surprising 40ºC/104ºF, and all climates are represented except for tropical.
Comprising 83 federal districts, Russia offers a unique blend of cultures, religions, ethnic groups, dialects and traditions. Moscow will surprise with a mix of old Russian and Soviet architecture, St Petersburg will stun you with its beauty and grace, and Novosibirsk is a great stop on your Trans-Siberian trip.
Moscow is considered to be the glamour capital of the country, while St Petersburg is deemed the intellectual capital. And it’s true; in Moscow boutiques, car dealerships and beauty saloons prevail, while in St Petersburg it’s mostly book and optical stores.
St Petersburg has a lot to offer. From May all the way through July you can witness the white nights; it is mostly at this time that travellers flock to see the bridges drawn at night. Be sure to walk down the entire Nevskiy Prospekt, and don’t miss the Kazan Cathedral, or Moika, Gryboedov and Fontanka bridges. St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on Blood are two of the most famous churches in St Petersburg, be prepared for crowds.
The Hermitage Museum boasts one of the biggest art collections in the world, you probably will need more than one day to see everything. Mariynskii Theatre will offer you the most delightful ballet performances by Russia’s most renowned artists.
Getting to and from Russia
Most major international airlines fly into Russia and land in one of Moscow’s three most-active airports. The national airline is Aeroflot, and its less-known rival is S7 or Siberia Airlines, offering more affordable prices than the country’s biggest carrier. You can also find cheap direct flights with low-cost airlines from many European cities.
You can travel direct by train from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Netherlands, France, China and Mongolia. Buses also connect Germany and some western Russian cities, but be prepared for 60-72 hours of bus travel including rough nights at the Russian-Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Polish borders.
Russian visas have never been easy to obtain, however the process is a bit smoother than it used to be even ten years ago. The best way is to book a hotel in Russia and request a voucher which you can then present at an embassy. Some tourist agencies in Europe and America provide the service of obtaining vouchers. Personal invitations are also possible, however it may take up to six weeks to receive a complete invitation form, then you have to present the original at the embassy and wait for your visa. Upon entering the country, your hotel or host will have to register you at the local Federal Migration office (assuming you stay in the country for longer than three days).