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?
Russia travel resources
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.
Comprised of 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, while Novosibirsk is a great stop on your Trans-Siberian trip.
City focus: St Petersburg
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 optics 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
Two low-cost airlines (AirBerlin and German Wings) fly from Germany and Austria to Russia, while AirBaltic also offers good ticket options with layovers in Riga, Latvia. A lot of smaller companies offer charter flights to Europe, Africa and Asia, tickets can be purchased through tourist agencies.
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).
Getting around Russia
Most of the 83 regions in Russia have their own, mostly state-owned, bus companies. Bus travel is recommended only for shorter distances (less than six or seven hours), as the level of comfort leaves a lot to be desired.
A well-developed bus system can be found in the south.
Train travel in Russia is relatively inexpensive, but slow — the average speed is 60km per hour, and although services are not always on time, they are typically not affected by weather conditions. There are two main types of carriages: cars with lockable four-person compartments and cars with open-plan bunks arranged in groups of six. The railway network is very extensive, and is exclusively operated by RZD, which has recently started an all-encompassing modernisation program. A recent example is the fast train between Moscow and St Petersburg which covers the 708km between the two cities in less than four hours.
Car and camper rental
Car rental is currently not very popular and thus normally more expensive than elsewhere. Only the largest airports offer car rental, so if you plan to hire a car, check if this option is available at your destination before you go.
Cycling and hiking
Cycling is becoming more and more popular, especially after one has spent too much time in city traffic. However, there are no bike lanes to be found anywhere, so it’s more of an adventure than anything else. Cycling in the countywide is much more pleasant, and taking your bike to a small town or a dacha (Russian country house) and riding it there is a favourite pastime of many Russians.
The Black Sea coast offers great cruise and sailing possibilities between resorts as well as connections to Turkey.
A cruise down the river Volga in the summer or another Russian river cruise is a great way to experience Russia’s nature first-hand.
Top 10 things to do in Russia
- Travel the Trans-Siberian railway. The world-famous 9288km railway journey is worth taking if you are into fascinating natural scenery, getting to know the Russian character, and trying to calculate how many timezones you have passed. Don’t forget to stop at Lake Baikal for a couple of days.
- Get lost in the Moscow transportation system. A rite of passage on your first trip to Moscow. It can be tricky trying to navigate the complicated system, but eventually you will be rewarded with some the world’s most famous sights: the Kremlin, the Red Square, Moscow’s cathedrals and monasteries.
- Marvel at the beauty of St Petersburg and take a trip to the nearby Petergof, the splendid home of Russian tsars.
- Be surprised by the heat. 40ºC/104ºF isn’t exactly your first thought when you think of Russian weather, is it? Well, if you go to the south, namely to the Black Sea region, be prepared to be surprised and don’t forget the sun lotion. It’s the Tuscany of Russia.
- Stop by Sochi. This unique resort in the Krasnodar region will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. It boasts the largest beach in Russia, where a lot of prominent Russians choose to spend their summer vacation. In the winter it’s still quite warm with its subtropical climate, and yet only 30 minutes by car and you’re in the snowy mountains where you can ski and snowboard all you want.
- Eat borsch, pelmeni and pirozhki and find out that there are regional variations to every dish (for example, borsch can be vegetarian, with/without beetroot, or even green in colour).
- Go fishing on Onega or Ladoga lakes in the Republic of Karelia, try ice-fishing in the winter and early spring and sleep in wooden cottages just beside the lake.
- Climb Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
- Take a Golden Ring trip. Visit unique and picturesque monuments of Russian architecture (monasteries, cathedrals, and churches) from the 12th-18th centuries on a tour of this circle of cities not far from Moscow.
- Visit Kamchatka, preferably with a local guide. It is a little hard to get into (although there are flights from Moscow and Vladivostok available), but it is worth visiting because of the magnificent landscape. The region has more than a hundred volcanoes, some of them still active