Why holiday in Russia?
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?
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.
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
- 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.
May, June, September, October.
(July/August can be wet and things gets booked up, especially long-distance
trains in August and Black Sea resorts as this is Russian holidays season.
Worst: November-March (winter is long, dark and extremely cold with short
days, but the snow scenes will be stunning. Early Spring is muddy,
slushy and falling icicles kill!)
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: Moscow or St Petersburg
are excellent for a wild and wooly underwear weekend.
Recommended: 2 weeks to take in Moscow, St Petersburg and some of
the surrounding towns - such as the Golden Ring - and countryside.
The Trans-Siberian Railway to Irkutsk (Lake Baikal) will require
at least 5 days.
a diverse and interesting city with masses of history, action and
must-see spectacles, though expensive and not on the same planet as St Petersburg
for architectural elegance. See
one of the world's most beautiful cities, with many splendid buildings
and museums, including the spectacular Hermitage, with a sophisticated
service industry. See St
190 km (118mls) south of St Petersburg, an important political and
artistic centre from the 9th century and still holds a wide and
varied collection of magnificent structures including Russia's oldest
cathedral, frescoes galore, and plenty of glorious oddities.
a few hours northeast of Moscow, are a collection of attractive
historic towns dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.
These can be visited on day trips, but better, hire a car or join
a boat with a guide and take your time to enjoy:
***Suzdal, the most important town
in the Golden Ring, Suzdal used be a political and religious centre
and has more than fifty quaint and well-preserved old structures.
About 210km (131 mls) from Moscow.
It is a major tourist attraction, yet still retains an enchanting,
**Vladimir is famed for its Golden
Gate and two splendid cathedrals. About 180km (112 mls) from Moscow.
**Rostov. This quiet, rustic town offers
the usual churches but also a lovely lake and spectacular kremlin.
**Yaroslavl is much bigger than other
towns in the Ring but totally crammed with gorgeous churches, if
you haven't seen enough. 250kms (156mls) from Moscow.
the 'Paris of Siberia', is a long way from anywhere except Mongolia,
but is on the Trans-Siberian train route (see more info left) and
well worth a stop-off. The city is mostly charming, with considerable
Chinese influence and some magnificent architecture, including typically
elaborate Siberian 'gingerbread' houses.
Another of Irkutsk's attractions is the proximity to lovely, 636km
(398mls) long Lake Baikal where hiking, biking, horse trekking,
fishing and boating are big time.
The north end is the most beautiful and isolated. Listvyanka village
is a popular place to stay for tourists.
the Volga River via some superb old towns like Kazan (ancient Tatar city), Shiryaeva
and Ulyanovsk (Lenin's birthplace). See Boat cruises, left.
Sea, Sochi. This is a Russian beach resort town with a warm climate and sophisticated
health spas (sanatoria), with beaches and tennis courts, scenically
situated at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains.
Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains is a pretty, pleasant city except perhaps
for Tsar Nick II and his family who met their end here and the USA's
U2 spy pilot who was shot down in the area.
The place offers excellent architecture, museums, entertainment
and access to the Urals for varied activities.
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
TS train downside:
- 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...
TS train upside:
- 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
- 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.
- 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!
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
Lake Baikal, the Elbrus area
of the Caucasus, west Ural Mountains and Altay Mountains are prime
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
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.
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,
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.
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
Office site or tour operators for up-to-date information. Otherwise
stay on the regular tourist routes.
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
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. More visa information.
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
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
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
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
April/May, St Petersburg Music Spring Festival, classical music.
For some precise dates, more suggestions and information see: Colourful Festivals or European Festivals
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
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
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
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.
Russia has plenty of good value web cafés now in all but
the most remote locations.
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