Russia Travel Guide
Novodevichy Convent, Russia. Photo by Anton Zelenov
Why holiday in Russia?
This vast and diverse country, occupying the top chunk of a continent all the way from Poland to Japan – and a big chunk of world history too – demands attention.
The architecture is both glorious and hideous, the history is monstrous, the art is sensational and the people can be touchingly friendly.
Absurd Fabergé eggs? Extraordinary onion domes? Caviar crepe? Yes, please.
A hard day’s White Night in St Petersburg? Slamming vodka with your taxi driver in Moscow? Da!
Big, brutal, beautiful and intriguing, Russia is an enigma that’s got to be sampled by any serious world traveler.
‘A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma‘ Churchill
– Most of Russia is no longer cheap, especially Moscow which is one of the priciest cities in the world, though there is budget accommodation available.
– Hygiene can be a problem.
– Officials are often unpleasantly boorish.
– Crime and corruption in the cities require an ever-open eye.
– Visas are a pain to get.
Moscow business district. Photo by GURken
The Trans Siberian Railway
This week long, non-stop 10,000km (6,000mls) journey goes from Moscow to either:
– Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast.
– via Mongolia to Beijing.
– via Manchuria and Harbin to Beijing.
This is reputedly one of the world’s great train journeys but does not necessarily deliver a comfortable or fascinating experience for everyone.
Trans-Siberian train downsides
– there are no showers, except for a few lucky 1st class passengers.
– conditions will be cramped.
– dining car food will be abysmal.
– the scenery is mainly dull, tending towards endless forests and grassy plains, interspersed with the occasional log cabin, log village or vast lake. The train stops for 10 minutes a few times a day, leaving no time to explore, just time to acquire emergency supplies from the platform.
– As a consequence, life on the train is paramount, and this depends on various factors coming together. Is your car attendant cordial? Are your fellow passengers interesting? Does anyone snore? Do you mind living off fairly basic food for six days? Can you happily stare out of a dirty window looking at birch trees for hours on end? Is TV an integral part of your life? Do you have a good selection of books with you? Do you like vodka? And so on…
– you can arrange to take a stop over at key points en route, for example attractive Irkutsk and nearby huge, mountain-hemmed Lake Baikal. Siberian timber buildings are often charming, colourfully decorated and carved.
– due to the fame of the train and the number of foreigners on it there will almost always be someone interesting you can find to chat to for days, though a good companion and a monster picnic hamper (loaded with – you’ve guessed – vodka) would be a useful starting point.
– if you are actually going east/west for a purpose – such as for work in Japan or China – you will be saving the air fare.
Train Survival hints
– don’t drink the tap water. A samovar (hot water pot) in each carriage supplies sterile water.
– clean your window to improve views and photos.
– stand well clear when flushing the toilet, it can backfire if the train is moving at speed.
– learn a few key Russian phrases to charm your surly attendants.
– take lots of vodka with you. You can buy some snacks, fruit, cigarettes etc during 15 minute stops at stations, but no alcohol, and you will be doing a lot of socialising!
Things to Do in Russia
The country is spacious – to say the least – and outdoor activities are popular but facilities and safety measures can be primitive so get specialist advice before undertaking anything halfway dangerous.
In fact travel in Russia generally can be like being given a series of problem-solving exercises, one thing after another, glorious sights and experiences interspersed with oh sh**! moments. If you’re ever going to take a guided tour organised by experts, then Russian holidays would surely fit the bill perfectly.
Hiking: There is no shortage of excellent trekking terrain, just a shortage of marked trails or maps, so extracting information from locals regularly is essential and as a consequence a few words of the language are vital. Either that or hire a good guide.
Lake Baikal, the Elbrus area of the Caucasus, west Ural Mountains and Altay Mountains are prime targets.
White Water rafting: The Katun River in the Altay Republic, Vladisvostok and Kamchatka.
Climbing: The Elbrus area of the Caucasus are superb but get specialist advice before arriving in Russia, safety aspects included.
Cycling: roads are often in bad shape, cars and drivers even worse shape, but biking can still be rewarding, with care, a tough bike and essential spares. Local hospitality is tremendous.
Canoeing: rivers can be heavily polluted so inland journeys are tricky to recommend, though the Volga River delta is supposed to be alive and delightful, while the coasts up north offer prospects of isolated adventure.
Boat cruises: either on posh tourist boats or cheap, dilapidated Russian craft.
The main highway is the Volga River and boats go to/from Moscow, Novgorod, Volgograd and many other attractive cities. Volgograd to Rostov-Don is supposed to be the most interesting section. June-September only.
Fishing: mostly salmon out east e.g. from Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
Skiing: Cross country skiing is traditionally more popular than down-hill skiing; snowboarding is becoming increasingly popular and heli-skiing is available and remarkably good value.
There are more than a hundred ski areas, many of which need modernisation, though some resorts in the Caucasus Mountains offer good facilities and comfortable accommodation.
For instance, Cheget in the Baksan Valley offers challenging runs, including the longest of 2.5 km; or Mount Elbus – Europe’s highest peak at 5,642m (1,8513 ft) – hosts one of Russia’s largest resorts, Prielbrusye.
There are at least 20 ski slopes within 50 miles of Moscow and some can even be reached by metro!
Ice Skating: Possibly the country’s most popular pastime with frozen lakes and outdoor rinks all over during the long winter and even indoor rinks open in the summer. Inexpensive and very cheerful.
Banya bathing: this Russian style sauna is a good way to experience authentic Russian social life, particularly if you are a graduate of an old British public school where extreme heat, cold and beatings were a way of life.
There are banyas everywhere, ranging from appallingly dilapidated to highly polished.
St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, approaching May Day celebrations in Moscow. Photo by Anton Zelenov.
The big cities have good metro and bus services at low prices.
Locals enjoy life as illegal taxi drivers for extra cash. Beware though, some are pure evil, others wonderful, hospitable guides.
Hitch-hiking is common for Russians but not advisable for tourists.
Trains connecting Moscow to St Petersburg are common, efficient and inexpensive. The Aurora day train takes 6 hours, the evening train 4 hours.
Passenger boats are common between cities – tho’ slow – including Moscow to St Pete.
For exploring the countryside around big cities consider car hire, with or without a driver/guide. It’s not expensive and very convenient.
Moscow and St Petersburg are both easy to reach from many European cities by fast, efficient trains and buses; other Russia cities are more difficult to access directly.
Chechenya and the north Caucasus are not recommended destinations; check the Foreign Office site or tour operators for up-to-date information. Otherwise stay on the regular tourist routes.
Don’t flash your cash!
Pickpocketing and bag filching may occur on crowded public transport while hotel rooms are by no means thief-proof. Lock everything into your bags before leaving the room and use a safe deposit if there is one.
Take care with taxis. Don’t get in if there is anyone other than the driver inside, and don’t necessarily trust the driver.
See Safety page.
All visitors need a visa which will take time, trouble and money to acquire, though it’s actually easier than getting a visa to the USA. Travelling with a tour group is the painless way to deal with Russia’s bureaucracy.
Do not drink Russian tap water, not even for cleaning your teeth.
Check you are up to date with all jabs, and consider including vaccinations for diptheria, typhoid, hepatitis A and B.
A flu jab is also useful if you plan a Russian holiday in spring or autumn when the bugs are rampant.
Beware mosquito-borne diseases in Siberia’s summertime. Keep the blighters off!
Foreigners usually prefer to be treated at private clinics, which are very costly. Get Insurance!
You are supposed to have a place booked in order to get a tourist visa.
There’s a wide range of accommodation from luxury hotels at stratospheric prices to cheapish hostels, but it’s important to book well ahead for the June-September season.
Private home stays are widespread, giving the tourist relatively good value rooms and a close look at real Russian life. The downside is that the place may be out of the way, the bed lumpy and the morning-after breakfast provider in-your-face during your recovery time.
Camping is fine in many places though – as usual – check with locals before bedding down. Organised camping sites are rare and usually open mid-June to mid-September.
25 Dec- 5 Jan, Russian Winter is celebrated with traditional activities such as music, dance, sleigh rides, folk shows. New Year’s Eve tends to be a family/friends occasion, so not wildly exciting.
late Feb-early March, Goodbye Russian Winter, as above.
Easter Sunday, Moscow, procession and service in stunning Kolomenskoe (Orthodox) church.
April/May, Moscow Music Spring Festival, classical music.
May 9, Victory Day Parade, Moscow. A stirring military procession.
June, the White Nights arts festival is St Petersburg’s liveliest event.
April/May, St Petersburg Music Spring Festival, classical music.
You can eat well and inexpensively, especially in cafés and fast food places in the cities.
Do choose places that look clean and are busy, poor hygiene could result in intestinal blowout.
Moscow and St Petersburg in particular have plenty of cafés, bars and restaurants, including classic Chinese, Japanese and Italian offerings, western fast food chains and traditional Russian cuisine.
Russian food tends to be rich and on the heavy side in winter, such as meaty dumplings, meaty cabbage rolls, cabbage soup with sour cream, and the national icons – borscht (beetroot soup), blinis (pancakes) and caviar, while lighter foods like superb soups and salads are around in the summer.
Avoid eating shellfish except in St Petersburg and street ice-cream anywhere.
Most of us know the varied pleasures of vodka, particularly drunk chilled and in one gulp, but Russia also does a fine line in local beers with lively flavours, good champagne, not such good wine, passable tea and effective coffee.
Russians love to press drinks on foreigners so prepare your excuses now. Or practice chugging.
Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world, but elsewhere Russia can be good value if you don’t mind slightly crude accommodation and eat/drink at local establishments rather than typical tourist places.
Change money for roubles only at official exchanges or banks. Cash is easier to change than cheques.
About 10% to taxi drivers and 10-15% to waiters in restaurants.
Electric sockets are 230v and take 2 round pin plugs.
There are masses of reasonably priced web cafés in bigger cities.
Some locals speak English, French, or German but ability to recognise the Cyrillic alphabet and a few words of Russian would really help your experience along.
The Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, one of the world’s largest and best collections of art. Photo by Alex Fedorov.