Russia Tours and Travel Guide
Russia Attractions & Landmarks Guide
If some countries pride themselves on their laidback culture, Russia is on the other end of the spectrum. For travelers, this means respecting the Russian way of doing things. From applying for a Russian tourist visa to toasting friends with shots of vodka, understanding how the process works will grant you access to a splendid history of tradition and beauty maintained by a rich national pride.
Although Russians look to their history as their strength, they see the future everywhere around them. Start your trip in Moscow to get a sense of the political and economic might of the country. History and modernity are contrasted here, as the Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral sit alongside one of the most beautiful shopping centers in the world, the GUM Department Store.
Once you’ve experienced the "Russian Russia," take the train to St. Petersburg to experience a Europeanized Russia in what some people call the “Venice of the North.”
Moscow: The Center of Power and Wealth
To understand the Russian transformation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, one need only look at the capital city of Moscow and specifically at Red Square. This is where the history and vibrant colors of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the imposing walls and towers of the Kremlin, and the GUM Department Store stand next to one another in a capitalist-socialist juxtaposition.
Take in the famed Russian ballet at Bolshoi Theatre (if you can get tickets) and make sure you venture into one of the city’s many cathedrals or churches. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is an impressive structure to satisfy one’s cathedral fix and also symbolizes Russian reconstruction following the turmoil of the last century (the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II, and the fall of the Soviet Union).
If architecture is your thing, the Seven Sisters, buildings Stalin developed to show the world the strength of the Soviet people following World War II, are a sight to be seen. Among the most striking are Moscow State University and the Hotel Ukraine, now a Radisson hotel. Just in case you were wondering, you cannot tour the KGB Headquarters. It is, as one Russian woman stated, a “one-way ticket.”
Lastly, take in some shopping on Arbat Street or peruse the artwork at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art or one of the many subway stations on the Circle Line. These subway stops doubled as bomb shelters during World War II and most are filled with splendid art (mosaics, frescoes, and statues) that some museums would envy.
St. Petersburg: The Northern Capital
It is said that if Moscow is the head of Russia, then St. Petersburg is the heart. And upon arriving in St. Petersburg, you will see why. The former capital of Russia provides a stark contrast to Moscow with its European influenced design, Venetian-like canals and inlets, and a series of palaces that will make your jaw drop.
The Hermitage, founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century, provides one of the most stunning collections of art in the world. Visually, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Kazan Cathedral, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral should impress with both their grand scale and the intricacy of detail that went into their design.
If you’re traveling in summer, a visit to Peterhof Palace is a must and can be complemented with a stop at Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Both will redefine what opulence and grand summer homes mean. If you arrive from May through July, also prepare yourself for the White Lights, when daylight lasts nearly the entire day and the sun never fully sets. The never ending daytime encourages St. Petersburg’s citizens and visitors to continue dining, drinking, and living in the splendor of their high northerly latitude.
Can You Visit Siberia?
Yes! Don’t let the short summer, and long chilling winters fool you. This frosty region of Russia is a top destination when it comes to touring the great country. Spanning through most of Eurasia and North Asia, Siberia makes up 57% of Russia. Among the frequented tourist locations, the most predominant attraction is the Trans-Siberian Railway. Existing as the longest railway in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway connects Moscow to the eastern regions of Russia.
The span of the railway travels through many Russian must-see spots. The spectacular Moscow, historic Kazan, Novosibirsk, Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, and the route’s terminus, Vladivostok, are among the many included destinations.
Nature and wildlife are prominent forces in Russian travel and culture. Tours focusing on nature generally revolve around the Siberia region of Russia. On these tours you will see all the wonders that Siberia has to offer, including the breathtaking:
1. Lake Baikal - Located in mountainous Siberian Russia, Lake Baikal is the world's deepest and oldest freshwater lake, originated over 20 million years ago. Popular tours at Lake Baikal consist of summertime wildlife spotting and winter ice skating and dog sledding excursions.
2. Irkutsk - Located in Siberia, Russia along the Angara River, this southeastern city is lined with beautiful Russian Orthodox churches and buildings and is located close to the Mongolian border.
3. Vladivostok - A major Pacific port city bordering with North Korea and China, Vladivostok is well known for being the final eastern stop of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Starting from Moscow, you can make it to Vladivostok within seven days along the railway.
4. Bering Strait - This narrow body of water separates Russia and Alaska, U.S. along the International Date Line. You will be awestruck at the beauty of nature taking a tour that crosses through this famous strait.
Wildlife to spot in Russia
There are many remarkable species of wildlife to spot throughout Russia. When touring the far east, look out for brown bears, Amur tigers, red deer, Eurasian lynxes, and polar bears when approaching the northern regions and the arctic. Some endemic Russian species are Fresh water seals of Lake Baikal, Putorana snow sheep, Russian desmans, and Barguzin sables.
Adventure is around every corner in Russia. Whether it be forging across the Siberian terrain, visiting and lodging in authentic Russian villages, or hiking and trekking through Russia’s beautiful, vast countryside, there is an adventure awaiting every traveler at every physical level.
Top national parks to explore the outdoors in Russia
There are 48 national parks in Russia. The oldest are Sochinsky National Park (Sochi National Park) in Western Caucasus, near Sochi, and Losiny Ostrov National Park (Elk Island National Park) in Moscow. Some must-see Russian national parks include:
Pleshcheyovo Ozero National Park -Located in Yaroslavl (northeast of Moscow) on the Golden Ring tourist route, this park sits on a awe-inspiring lake. Partially forested, this park is filled with beautiful tree species and over 300 species.
Elk Island National Park - Also known as Losiny Ostrov National Park, Elk Island was the first national park in Russia, established in 1983. Popular activities in the park include, hiking, cycling, and elk watching.
Sochi National Park - Russia’s second oldest national park is one of the most popular among locals and tourists. This park is laced with incredible waterfalls and caves, and is a prime spot for a hike or a swim.
Tunkinsky National Park - Tunkinsky is a mountainous national park located in south central Siberia. As one of the largest national parks in Russia, it is located between the famous Lake Baikal on the east and Lake Khövsgöl (Mongolia) on the west.
Zabaikalsky National Park - Located right on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal, Zabaikalsky National Park is home to many Siberian wildlife species such as brown bears, foxes, wolfs, lynxes, sables, and otters.
Kenozersky National Park - Located north of Moscow in the Arkhangelsk Region, this national park has views that are hard to beat. Laden with rolling hills, picturesque lakes, and quaint, historic villages, Kenozersky National Park is an official biosphere reserve, protecting its unique and exquisite nature and wildlife.
Best places for adventure travel in Russia
Ice Diving In Baikal Lake/Ice-cycling across Lake Baikal - The historic Lake Baikal becomes a thrilling adventure playground in the winter. Activities such as ice diving and ice-cycling make the list of action-packed activities. During the chilling winter months, the ice can get up to 1.5-2 meters (5-6.5 feet) thick!
Trekking in the Altai Republic - If you are taking a trip along Trans-Siberian Railway, a stop in the Altai Republic is convenient in fun! Excursions in the Altai Republic consist of hiking around the beautiful, crystal clear blue lakes, to trekking around Siberia’s highest mountain, Mt. Belukha. With trails being hard to follow and surrounded by wilderness, it is advised to be accompanied by a guide.
Rafting In The Ural Region - The Ural Region is mountain range that runs vertically along the European/Asian border within Russia. Scattered with rivers, the Ural Region is a prime spot for water and boat activities, such as rafting. The most popular spot for rafting is the Vishera River. If you are an experienced rafter, you can do the trip on your own, otherwise, it is recommended to raft with a guide.
Hiking Mt. Elbrus - Mt. Elbrus is located in southern Russia and is Europe’s highest mountain. It is a top destination for thrill seeking climbers attempting to conquer the highest peaks! Guides are highly recommended, and if you are not a climber, you can still enjoy the views on a gondola tour up the mountain.
Diving In Ruskeala Marble Quarry - Bordering with Finland, the Ruskeala Marble Quarry is a top destination for divers. From the main pool, you can reach several chambers with varying depths. Ice can get thick and water can become below freezing in Ruskeala Marble Quarry, depending on the season. There are also activities for non-divers, such as boating, hiking, and exploring the wondrous caves.
Russian culture is one rich in customs and traditions dating back to the 1st millennium. Shaped from both Scandinavian and Asian influences, the unique and ethnic culture of Russia is portrayed strongly through many mediums:
1. Language - The Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet consisting of 33 letters. With over 144 million speakers in Eurasia, Russian is the largest native language in Europe, and the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages.
Russian is a very direct language with a simpler sentence structure than English. For instance, the Russian language does not use articles such as “a” and “the.” Make sure to learn some basic Russian phrases before your Russia trip! (Hello: privet, yes: da, no: nyet).
2. Religion - The most prominent religion in Russia is Russian Orthodox Christianity consisting of 43% of the population. Russian Orthodox runs deep in the country’s history, having been established as the state religion in 988 by Prince Vladimir of Kiev. In more recent times, Russia has become more religiously diverse.
Aside from non-believers or atheists, Muslims have the second largest religious community in Russia. Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Krishnaites, Buddhists, Judaists, and Unified Evangelical Lutherans also make up smaller portions of the population.
3. Art - Russian art has played a major role in the country’s history dating back to 22,000 BCE with stone age period human sculptures. Ranging from the remarkable metal work in the Bronze and Iron age, to Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, Russian art pieces and influence can be found in museums and in everyday Russian life and architecture.
For instance, the fine art of the Petrine Art era can be seen in Saint Petersburg’s architecture and design, as issued by Russia's greatest Tsar, Peter the Great.
4. Ballet - First presented to Russian society by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, Russian Ballet was introduced to society in 1689 to adopt and eventually compete with Western culture and ideals. In modern times, Russia is the home of the worlds’ two most famous ballet companies—the Bolshoi (Moscow) and the Mariinsky; Kirov (Saint Petersburg). Russian ballet is unique in that it blends classicism and Russian folk dance to create the popular and whimsical dance form.
5. Literature - The roots of Russian literature can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Growing in importance during the Age of Enlightenment, Russian literature rose to a level of major importance and recognition in the 19th century. During the “Golden Era,” Russia produced some of the greatest world masterpieces, depicting the honesty and accuracy of the human experience as well as the artistic form of poetry.
Some of these literary pieces include works by Vasily Zhukovsky and his protégé, Alexander Pushkin, and novels by Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
6. Architecture - The colorful ornamented style of architecture we can see in great Russian structures today dates back to the 13th century during the Kievan Rus' war. This architecture style had strong influences from Byzantine architecture, including the iconic “onion dome,” which was introduced solely for aesthetic purposes.
These decorative domes are what comes to mind when one thinks about Russian architecture and can be found on structures such as the Church of the Transfiguration, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, St. Basil's Cathedral, and Church of the Savior on Blood.
7. Folk Music - Russian folk music is the traditional Russian music accompanied by Russian folk dance. The most popular Russian folk music and dances are the Barynya, a fast-paced dance with clapping and raising of the knees, and Russia’s oldest dance, The Khorovod, involving group singing and circle dancing.
8. Dress - Traditional Russian clothing was prominent until the 18th century when Peter the Great deemed that Russia adopt more western style clothing. After this time, traditional attire was found in rural areas or religious gatherings.
Traditional dress had centered around the basic “Rubakha,” or oversized shirt. This clothing item could be worn by rich and poor, men and women alike. The most prominent item of clothing for females were the sarafan, or long dress. The Shuba (fur coat) is a lasting form of Russian dress that has been modernized and implemented into Russian fashion today.
Top Souvenirs from Russia
Wondering what to bring back from your Russia adventure for your loved ones? Don’t fret, because there are a plethora of options!
1. Russian Nesting Dolls - The most commonly known Russian item is the Russian Matryoshka Doll (also referred to as the Russian nesting doll). These exquisite wooden dolls are culturally identifiable symbols of Russia.
They come in a set, where each doll can be pulled apart to reveal a smaller version inside. There are usually 6 or more dolls inside one another. The elegant paintings on these dolls typically present detailed depictions of traditional Russian women’s dress. This is a perfect souvenir to bring home to dazzle your loved ones with Russian culture.
2. Vodka - As is commonly perceived, Russians are known for their vodka. The smooth, high-quality vodka made in Russia is a guaranteed crowd pleaser for an adult-friendly souvenir option. Some of the best Russian vodka brands are Russian Standard Gold, Mamont Vodka, Beluga, and Moskovskaya Osobaya.
Make sure to check your country’s customs and border protection limits on alcohol that can be brought back with you from your Russia trip. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits alcohol transported by plane to 5 liters per person with alcohol content up to 140 proof (in a checked bag). Purchasing alcohol at Duty Free stores can cut down on the amount of taxes that you pay to take the alcohol out of the country. Check out the Duty Free Americas site for details about Duty Free purchasing for US residents.
3. Amber - Commonly known as a beautiful honey-yellow gemstone, the translucent fossilized resin is a staple in Russian jewelry. A majority of all the amber in the world comes from the Kaliningrad region in the west of Russia. On tours in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, you will see a vast amount of amber gems and jewelry sold.
4. Gzhel Ceramics - Gzhel is a style of Russian ceramics which originates from the village of Gzhel nearby Moscow. Produced since 1802, this fine blue and white ceramic artwork makes for great tea set and kitchen item souvenirs.
5. Valenki - Valenki boots are traditional Russian winter footwear in the form of felt boots. These are traditionally calf or knee-length boots for women that came into fashion in the 1930’s and is re-emerging into contemporary Russian fashion today. You can also find Valenki boots in smaller more rural towns sold by local merchants for the use of keeping warm in the winter.
6. Khokhloma - Khokhloma painting is a type of Russian wood painting where wooden artiles, usually in the form of kitchenware, are beautifully decorated. They are handcrafted and painted deep red and golden colors. This technique is known as the national ornament of Russia which dates back to the 17th century. The paintings on these items usually include vivid leaf, flower, or berry patterns.
Are Russians Unfriendly?
Russian people tend to be more reserved than those from many western cultures. If you smile at someone on the street, chances are, they will not return the greeting. When meeting someone one-on-one, however, you will soon find that they are quite friendly and hospitable. Also, refrain from giving a “thumbs up” or “Okay” sign to a Russian person. In many instances, this can be considered an obscene gesture.
Travelers to Russia are in for a treat when it comes to the cuisine. Russian food is delicious and flavorful, consisting heavily of soups, porridges, fish, potatoes, dumplings, and pastas - There is something for everyone’s taste buds in Russia!
Here are some of the must try foods when you visit Russia:
Pelmeni - Pelmeni is the national dish of Russia and is a must try on your trip. These Russian meat-filled dumplings are prepared with a thin dough wrapping for a perfect taste.
Borscht - This popular Russian dish is a beet soup, with a deep red color. It is known for being a healthy, comfort food with a bit of a tangy twist.
Shchi - Shchi is a cabbage soup, made with spinach greens and sauerkraut for an extra zing!
Solyanka - This thick meat and vegetable soup has a kick of both spice and sour. Infused with many vegetables and meats, this soup is filling and delicious.
Pirozhki - These Russian puff pastries can be prepared with a variety of fillings. Savory fillings include meat or vegetables, and savory fillings include fruit, jam, or cottage cheese.
Beef Stroganoff - This savory Russian dish consists of sautéed beef in a creamy mushroom smetana sauce (sour cream based). This dish has Russian origins dating back to the 19th century and has gained worldwide popularity.
Photography Tips for Traveling in Russia
Russia is filled with breathtaking views, architecture, and culture. These lend themselves to picture-perfect photo opportunities and destinations.
Of the two great cities on the European side of Russia: Moscow and surroundings (the ancient Golden Ring) and the beautiful Baltic city of Saint Petersburg, there are countless picturesque locations.
Some of the most popular and stunning photo spots in Moscow include:
1. The magnificent Red Square
2 The Kremlin
3. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
4. Moscow’s underground Metro
5. Moscow’s Central Core
6. The Museum of Cosmonautics
7. Tverskaya Street
When touring Saint Petersburg, don’t miss the prime photo opportunities at: the
1. Grand Peterhof Palace, the Hermitage Museum
2. St. Isaac's Cathedral
3. Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
4. St Nicholas Naval Cathedral
You will be in awe at the vibrant colors and unique architecture these structures have to offer. Be careful of photo regulations inside of these landmarks, however, and always make sure to check in with your tour guide or surrounding staff to see if photos are permitted indoors.
What to Wear When Traveling in Russia
Modern Russian attire is typically more conservative and lacks a vibrant array of colors. Jeans are very popular and tend to be worn in both summer and winter months, pairing with lighter clothes in the summer, and more layers in the winter.
You will notice many people wearing big coats in the winter months, and fur coats are also popular. In the two main metropolitan cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, you will notice that people tend to dress in less casual and more formal attire, as is the case in many big cities.
Make sure to bring your boots and warm layers in the winter, but be prepared to shed layers depending on your location and destination. For instance, those traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway will definitely need to bundle up outdoors but will be toasty warm inside of the train during transit.
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