No visitor to St Petersburg should miss its world-famous historic and cultural highlights, such as the Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortress and Mariinsky Theatre. But Russia’s imperial capital is full of much less celebrated attractions worth searching out. From the city’s rooftops to its hidden bars, here is a selection of places that many locals won’t know about.
The roofs of St Petersburg
A phenomenon that’s taken off in St Petersburg in recent years, ‘roofing’ is very popular among those looking for extreme thrills, but almost all tours are still illegal. There is only one official tour provider that offers government-approved rooftop tours – Panoramic Roofs. A specially equipped roof on Ligovsky Prospekt is open to anyone who wants to see the city from above in a safe environment (including protective gear and safety briefing) and learn about the origins of this danger-loving subculture. This is how it goes: you meet with the guide who has a special key to enter the building, then go upstairs and clamber out on the roof space through a wooden dormer. The roofer should explain where to walk and which of the tangle of head-high wires and chimney bricks are safe to hold. While the experience is definitely not for those afraid of heights, the views over St Petersburg are not easy to forget.
Pharmacy of Dr Poehl and Sons
Founded in 1760, the Pharmacy of Dr Poehl and Sons is the oldest still-operating pharmacy in St Petersburg, located in the heart of Vasilyevsky Island. In the 19th century it was the most famous pharmacy in Russia because it supplied the imperial court with medicines. This place is worth a visit not only because of the pharmacy itself but also to check out the red-brick Griffins’ tower in the yard of the building. The tower is 11m high, has no windows or doors and almost every brick of the tower is numbered. It’s these numbers that led to numerous urban legends. The most interesting story is connected with the pharmacy’s owner Wilhelm Poehl, who was both a royal pharmacist and an alchemist. According to the legend, in his free time he used the tower to incubate magic griffins. Because the griffins were invisible and could only be seen reflected in windows at midnight, the numbers on bricks put together a magic code and those who managed to decrypt the code would solve the universal mysteries. Go and give it a try!
Nikonov Revenue House
The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is, of course, the most famous Russian Revival-style building in St Petersburg, but there’s another great example of this fantastical architecture. The owner of the Nikonov Revenue House was Nikolay Nikonov, a leading architect of the Russian Revival who designed many notable religious buildings across Russia in the 19th century. In 1899, Nikonov bought a two-story house on Kolokolnaya street and rebuilt it adding three more stories. The architect also designed the facade which is decorated with colourful, floral majolica ornamentation on the windows, balconies and columns. Among St Petersburg locals the building is known as the ‘fairytale house’ and it indeed looks like one. Nowadays there’s a nice small hotel in this building, perfect for those who want to stay in the centre yet away from the city buzz.
St Petersburg Angel
There are almost 6000 monuments in St Petersburg but not all of them make it to the pages of guidebooks and travel magazines. While the Bronze Horseman may be one of the most famous statues in the world, the St Petersburg Angel in Izmaylovsky Garden is definitely one of the sweetest. It is an old man sitting on a garden bench with a book. The ‘angel’ is the work of St Petersburg artist Roman Shustrov, who dedicated it to the older generations of St Petersburgers who lived through the WWII Siege of Leningrad and Soviet-era repressions.
If you happen to be on the famous Rubinshteyna street, you should definitely try to find this little gem. Located in the courtyard of house number 2, this one-of-a-kind small bar offers cocktails you have never tried before. The drinks include only unique, traditional Russian ingredients, such as polugar (bread wine), chacha (Georgian pomace brandy), khrenovukha (vodka made from horseradish), samogon(Russian moonshine) and many more. The cocktail menu has five sections, each named after one of the greatest Russian artists: Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Alexander Blok and Ivan Shishkin.
You might not expect to find a Buddhist temple in a city like St Petersburg, but located right next to the lovely Yelagin Island, the peaceful and quiet Datsan Gunzechoinei is one of the northernmost datsans (temples)in the world, with a fascinating history. Although the Russian Orthodox Church was against its construction, Tsar Nicholas II approved the plan of the Dalai Lama’s envoy to Russia and the temple was constructed between 1909 and 1915. During the communist rule the datsan was used as a military radio station and later served as a laboratory for the Zoological Institute, but it was returned to the city’s Buddhist community in 1990. Check out the stained-glass windows designed by Nicholas Roerich and the garden around the temple with a small cafe that serves authentic Buryat and Nepalese food.
Museum of Bread
The St Petersburg Museum of Bread is the only attraction of its kind in Russia. Despite the fact that this is a state museum, it remains little known among locals and tourists alike. The museum showcases the history of grain farming in Russia, the bakers’ craft (with the focus on the 19th-century St Petersburg, which was famous for its professional bakers and skilled flour confectioners), the bread trade and various other subjects. One of the most thought-provoking sections is the exhibition dedicated to the difficulties endured during the WWII Siege of Leningrad. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine that during the siege the only food St Petersburg citizens got for a day was a small 125gr piece of rustic bread… and nothing more. This has became a powerful symbol of all the suffering during the darkest period in the city’s history.
The largest country in the world, Russia offers a broad array of travel experiences, from treks up the slopes of glacier-capped mountains to strolls along the shoreline of Earth’s oldest lake. Historical sites and cultural activities in the country’s great cities abound as well. Whether you’re exploring the grounds of Moscow’s Kremlin or wandering through the steppes of Mongolia, a visit to Russia is an adventure not soon forgotten. These top tourists attractions in Russia can inspire a great Russian itinerary for a memorable trip.
10. Trans-Siberian Railway
Part of the longest railway system in the world, the classic Trans-Siberian railway runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, a city near Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. Begun in 1891 by Tsar Alexander III and completed by his son, Tsar Nicholas II, in 1916, the line is known as the route of the tsars. Most travelers use the train as overnight accommodation from one destination to the next. The train features first-, second- and third-class sleepers, some with private bathrooms and showers.
9. Mount Elbrus
Mount Elbrus is located in the Caucasus Mountain Range in Southern Russia. At 5,642 meters (18,510 ft), Elbrus is included as one of the Seven Summits, the highest summits on each of the planet’s seven continents, attracting both experienced and novice mountain climbers. While the mountain was formed from a volcano, it is considered dormant, with no recorded eruptions. A cable car system can take visitors as high as 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), facilitating ascents to the summit.
8. Valley of Geysers
Situated on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, the Valley of Geysers is the second largest geyser field in the world. The Valley of Geysers was discovered in 1941 by local scientist Tatyana Ustinova. Since then it became a popular tourist attraction in Kamchatka and attracts a lot of interest from scientists and tourists.
7. Kizhi Island
Located in Karelia, a region in Northwestern Russia that borders Finland and the White Sea, Kizhi Island is best known for its incredible open-air museum. Karelians have lived in the region since the 13th century, torn between the cultures of the East and the West. The museum’s collection features the 120-foot high Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior, a structure made famous by its 22 domes. Other tourist attractions includes dozens of wooden houses, windmills, chapels and barns. The peasant culture is represented with craft demonstrations and folk ensembles.
6. St Sophia Cathedral, Novgorod
Located in Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city, Saint Sophia Cathedral is situated within the grounds of the city’s Kremlin. Standing 125 feet high and adorned with five spectacular domes, the cathedral is the oldest church building in Russia. Saint Sophia Cathedral features an array of ancient religious artifacts, including The Mother of God of the Sign, an icon that legend says saved Novgorod from attack in 1169. The cathedral’s three famous ornately carved gates also date back to the 12th century.
5. Lake Baikal
Many travelers on the Trans-Siberian railway make plans to stop at Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest lake on Earth. Lake Baikal holds around 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Located in Siberia, the 25-million-year-old lake is surrounded by mountain ranges. The lake is considered one of the clearest lakes in the world. Known as the Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal is home to several resorts, making the area a popular vacation destination.
Once the capital of several Russian principalities, Suzdal is the jewel of Russia’s “Golden Ring,” ancient cities that the country has preserved as living museums of Russia’s cultural past. Those who wish to experience the best of Russia’s historic architecture, full of onion-dome topped kremlins, cathedrals and monasteries, will find it in Suzdal. Dating back to 1024, the entire city is like a large open-air museum that transports visitors back in time.
3. Moscow Kremlin
The Kremlin is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Moscow. Home to the nation’s top governmental offices, the walled enclosure also houses four cathedrals built in the 15th and 16th century as well as several notable museums. The 250-acre grounds include the Armoury, filled with royal treasures of the past, and the Diamond Fund Exhibition, a collection of jewelry that includes a 190-carat diamond given to Catherine the Great.
2. Hermitage Museum
Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia is a massive museum of art and culture showing the highlights of a collection of over 3 million items spanning the globe. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors.
1. Saint Basil’s Cathedral
Built between 1554 and 1561 and situated in the heart of Moscow, St. Basil’s Cathedral has been among the top tourist attractions in Russia. It is not the building’s interior artifacts that attract visitors, but rather the cathedral’s distinctive architecture. Designed to resemble the shape of a bonfire in full flame, the architecture is not only unique to the period in which it was built but to any subsequent period. There is no other structure on earth quite like St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Moscow isn’t all soldiers marching in goose step or austere Stalinist buildings. It’s also not all covert agents lurking in dark alleys – Moscow is, after all, the setting for many spy novels. One of the great capitals of the world, Moscow boasts many outstanding attractions, from St. Basil’s Cathedral to the Kremlin and Red Square.
When you visit Moscow, you’ll want to have a few sips of Russia’s most popular spirit, vodka, and sample some traditional foods such as borscht and blini. Not only can you dine like a tsar, you can sleep like one, too. Some of the best places to stay in Moscow feature opulent, elegant furnishings from the imperialist era of the 19th century.
7. Hotel Baltschug Kempinski Moscow
Located across the street from the Moskva River, the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski offers good views of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Since it’s in the city center, it’s within walking distance of major sights, including Red Square and the Tretyakov Gallery. The 1898 building that houses the hotel has been restored; the Kempinski has been located there since 1992. While the exterior is traditional, the inside is modern, with the contemporary décor extending to its 227 rooms and suites.
6. Hotel The Ritz-Carlton Moscow
The days of the tsars are long past but you can still get a feel for their era at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow. Hotel décor represents the best of 19th century imperialist Russia through lush fabrics and fine furniture. Staff greets you at check-in with a traditional Russian welcome of bread and salt. Hotel The Ritz-Carlton Moscow is really close to the Kremlin and Red Square, so close, as one reviewer put it, if you snore you could wake Lenin in his tomb. The rooftop lounge has an amazing view and tasty drinks.
5. AZIMUT Hotel Olympic Moscow
The AZIMUT Hotel Olympic Moscow may be a far from city center, but it’s only a five-minute walk to the Olimpivsky Stadium. It’s also within a mile of other attractions, including the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, a military museum and botanical garden. Plus, it’s a short walk to the metro station; the hotel offers free bus service to downtown. The hotel does not fit your traditional Russian design, rather it is curve-shaped, heavy on the glass windows.
4. National Hotel Moscow
You’ll be stepping into the late 19th and early 20th centuries when you stay at the National Hotel Moscow. Built in 1903, the building features traditional Russian architecture of the wealthy, with an ornate motif. Inside, the décor is pure 19th century with fine furniture and luxurious fabrics. It has a very elegant feel. The hotel offers 202 rooms, of which 55 “historical” suites furnished with Russian antiques. Considered an historic landmark, the hotel offers great views of the Kremlin and Red Square.
3. Hotel Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya
It’s pretty hard to miss seeing the Hotel Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya. That’s because it towers over all the buildings around it. One of the Stalinist skyscrapers, the hotel was the best luxury hotel in Moscow when it was built in 1954. Inside, the main light fixture was at one time the longest in the world. It’s been part of the Hilton chain since 2006. The décor throughout the hotel is nothing short of palatial, something that probably wasn’t the norm in Stalin’s days.
2. Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel
The exterior of the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel certainly lives up to that name, and continues into the lobby with its glass dome and fountain. If you’ve come to Moscow to shop, this is the place to stay. The hotel is located on Tverskaya Street, with great shopping opportunities just outside the entrance. The neoclassical Yeliseev’s Food Hall is a 10-minute walk away, but Red Square and the Kremlin are 30 minutes away by foot. The rooms are somewhat bland, but contain the latest amenities.
1. Hotel Metropol Moscow
The Hotel Metropol is an historic landmark in Moscow. Under construction from 1899 to 1907, noted artists of the day help decorated the reinforced concrete dome. It was the first Moscow hotel to have in-room telephones and hot water. The Metropol is the only hotel built before the 1917 Russian Revolution that stands today. For a few years after the revolution, it housed Soviet bureaucrats, but reclaimed its hotel status in the 1930s. It’s located on Theatre Square close to the Bolshoi.
Russia, once the largest and most powerful member of the former USSR, nonetheless remains a fascinating country to visit. It is a country of contrasts, from great subtropical beaches to bitterly cold winter regions in the north. The east may have fewer people, but its lovely cities are among the most popular places to visit in Russia and can hold their own against the west. Russia is steeped in history everywhere a traveler goes, from vicious battles to great classical music and literature. And almost everywhere visitors can see examples of magnificent art, not only in museums but also in its churches.
Yekaterinburg is an industrial city in the Ural Mountains that has many things going for it. It is, however, largely remembered as the place where Tsar Nicholas, the last tsar of Russia, and his family were executed in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. Today’s Yekaterinburg has a vibrant cultural scene, home to many libraries, theaters and playwrights, and dance companies as well as popular Russian rock bands. Russia’s fourth largest city also has more than 30 museums, including the oldest wood sculpture in the world at the Shigir Collection; another museum houses more than 300 Nevyansk icons.
Sochi on the Black Sea is a great winter sports destination and, in fact, hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. Skis aside, Sochi also hosts the Russian Formula 1 Grand prix and will be a host city for the 2018 Fifa World Cup. Despite winter snow, Sochi offers a subtropical climate and great beaches, making it a key part of the Russian Riviera. The resort city makes a great summer (and winter) getaway for Russians. Strolling along the pedestrian-only sea embankment is a pleasant experience. Environmentally conscious travelers may want to visit the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve. Sochi also is home to the area’s northern most tea plantations.
Founded in the 10th century, Veliky Novgorod is one of the oldest cities in Russia’s far north. Veliky Novgorod claims to be the birthplace of Russia since its early residents invited the Scandinavian Prince Rurik to rule Russia, creating a ruling dynasty that lasted 750 years. Top sights include the Saint Sophia Cathedral and Bell Tower, the oldest in Russia; the Hanseatic Fountain, said to return 1,000 rubles for every one thrown into it; and a host of museums, including ones on iron, porcelain and history. Located on Lake Ilmen, Veliky Novgorod is a good place to eat borscht and buy bio-honey.
Mountains and bays surround Vladivostok, making it a stunning beautiful city in Russia’s east. The last stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok is the country’s largest port on the Pacific Ocean; it is just a hop, skip and a jump away from North Korea and China. The city offers many cultural attractions from theaters to museums to concerts; actor Yul Brynner was born here in 1920. Travelers may want to stroll through some of the city’s lovely parks, including Minny Gorodok, which was once a military base. The city’s main square is Admiralsky Skver, with a museum devoted to a submarine nearby.
Russia’s fifth largest city sits at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers. The town began as a fortress in the 13th century; at one time it was known as Gorky, after Maxim Gorky who was born here. The old town is walled in, though the Archangel Cathedral was about the only thing standing after the city was devastated by Bolsheviks. Nizhny Novgorod is a good place to immerse oneself in Russian art and architecture, with more than 600 monuments and statues, and at least 200 art museums, concert halls and the like.
The de facto capital of Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk is by far the most popular stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and the east. With Lake Baikal only 45 km away, the city is the best base to explore the lake’s western shoreline. Travelers who visit historic Irkutsk may be pleasantly surprised by what they find. Decorated wooden houses stand beside standard Soviet block apartments, plus wide boulevards with not too much traffic for a city of more than 500,000 souls. Irkutsk was the site of many bloody clashes between Russian factions in various revolutions. It also served as a place of exile for intellectuals, artists and others, which may be why the city has five universities. Several churches, including Ascension Church, and geology and history museums call Irkutsk home.
Kazan is sometimes referred to as the Istanbul of the Volga because it is a city where European and Asian cultures meet. The capital of Tatarstan is a lovely city where church tower and minarets fill the skyline. Also known as the third capital of Russia, after Moscow and St. Petersburg, Kazan residents enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Russia. Sights to see include the remains of the Kazan Kremlin that was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible; the Kul-Sharif Mosque, named after a man killed defending Kazan from Ivan; and Bauman Street, a pedestrian shopping street.
The Golden Ring strings together several cities outside of Moscow that fill the senses with awe. Picturesque countrysides filled with cherry orchards, quaint cottages, onion-shaped domes and iconic churches that contain the country’s oldest art make this region a special place to visit. One of the oldest regions in Russia, today it is very popular with Russian tourists who want to experience a bygone era. The traditional way to view the cities and towns makes a counter clockwise loop beginning and ending in Moscow: Vladimir, Suzdal, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov Velikiy, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy and Sergiev Posad. White stone churches, monasteries and fortresses are only some of the sights to see.
2. Saint Petersburg
Russia’s second largest city may be known as Leningrad, but most people refer to it by its birth name, St. Petersburg. Founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, St. Petersburg was once the imperial capital of Russia; its name was changed to Leningrad in 1924. Because of its location on the Neva River, which feeds into the Gulf of Finland and then into the Baltic Sea, the city is a popular northern cruise destination and one of the most popular places to visit in Russia. Known as the cultural capital of Russia, the city boasts one of the finest art collections in the world at the Hermitage, with churches adding to the city’s magnificent art. Nevsky Prospekt is the city’s famous shopping and dining street.
As the capital of Russia, Moscow is the most important city in Russia, but not just for political reasons alone. This city of more than 12 million is also well known for its artistic endeavors, including ballet, symphonies and art. Onion-shaped domes of historic churches fill the skyline. The stately Kremlin and impressive Red Square, one of the largest squares in the world, are sights not to be missed, as are statues of Lenin and Stalin, controversial leaders in the 20th century. Further evidence that Moscow’s past wasn’t always squeaky clean can be seen in the Gulag and Cold War museums.
To be perfectly honest, Russia was never high up on our travel bucket list. It’s one of those countries that we assumed we would visit eventually, but that we wasn’t actively dreaming about like some other places on my list.
But when we was presented with a chance to go to Russia this past autumn, we decided we really couldn’t pass it up. Russia is, after all, a fascinating country with iconic cities, a rich history, and cool UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We figured we would suck up the expensive visa fee and just go for it.
The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg
A cool UNESCO site: Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega
A lot of travellers have certain preconceptions about Russia. We associate the country with communism and the Cold War, and have visions in our heads of ugly Soviet-era buildings and dour locals. Many even assume that Americans are not welcome in Russia.
We admit that we wasn’t immune to these stereotypes. We was expecting fairly ugly cities and unfriendly locals. We was slightly worried that we would be given a hard time at immigration. And we wasn’t entirely sure that we was even going to *like* Russia. We was definitely intimidated.
But what I found surprised me.
Yes, Russia still has plenty of issues (the gap between the rich and poor, for example, is really staggering at times). And no, I’m not really in love with the country’s politics. But I liked the Russia I saw much more than I ever expected to.
Here are a few things that surprised me about visiting Russia for the first time:
It’s not all Soviet-era apartment blocks
Even though the standard picture most Americans have in their heads when it comes to Russia is of drab, gray buildings from the Soviet days, the reality in many cities is actually quite different. We mean, sure, you WILL find those Soviet apartment blocks. But you’ll also find some incredible architecture the far predates the Bolshevik Revolution.
In St. Petersburg, for example, the wide streets and Baroque buildings reminded me of Paris. And the canals there reminded me of Amsterdam (which isn’t actually surprising, since Peter the Great studied ship building in the Netherlands as a young man).
In St. Petersburg
The churches – all the churches!
Churches are not the first thing we think of when we think of Russia. But let me tell you that they are everywhere in the country. We’re not sure why this was so surprising (maybe from the knowledge that religion was banned during the Soviet years?), but we was absolutely blown away by all the beautiful churches, cathedrals, and monasteries that we saw in Russia.
Troitse-Sergiev Monastery in Sergiev Posad
Golden domes inside the Kremlin in Moscow
There are the famous ones like St. Basil’s in Moscow and the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. There are churches that survived the Soviet years, and others that were destroyed and have only been rebuilt in the last two decades. There are even a handful of churches inside the walls of the Kremlin.
St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg
We’d never been inside a Russian Orthodox church before this trip, and didn’t realize how ornate and beautiful they could be.
Inside St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Inside the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
The Metro is incredibly affordable
When we visit a new city on our own, we almost always rely on public transportation to get around. And while we didn’t need to rely on it much on this trip since we was on a cruise, we still got a taste of the Metro on a couple walking tours.
The Metro in Moscow especially is almost a tourist attraction in and of itself – the stations dating back to the 1930s are breathtaking, resembling underground palaces more than they do your average metro station. With marble walls and floors, bas-reliefs, chandeliers, and even mosaics and stained glass windows, we would recommend taking the Metro even if you don’t need to just to see some of these stations.
Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow
And the best news? The Metro is incredibly affordable. A single ride in Moscow and St. Petersburg costs between 30 and 35 rubles – which is right around 50 cents USD!
And this is a good thing because…
The traffic is insane
Just as we was blown away by all the churches in Russia, we was also baffled by the insane traffic in both Moscow and St. Petersburg (but especially in Moscow). We’ve never seen so many cars inching along on 6- or 8-lane highways. It’s not just rush “hour” here – more like rush HOURS.
The explosion of car ownership after the fall of the Soviet Union has led to Moscow’s traffic being rated the worst in the world. (And it doesn’t help that most locals choose not to use all those beautiful Metro stations…)
Luckily there wasn’t much traffic on the Volga River…
More English than we expected
We didn’t expect to find wide-spread English in Russia, and it’s true that people outside the cities speak very little of it. But for those worried about not being able to communicate in bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, we actually encountered much more English than we expected to – and especially within the tourism industry.
And, to be honest, the Cyrillic alphabet isn’t as difficult to learn and decipher as it first seems, either. I would brush up on your Cyrillic and learn a few key Russian phrases before you go, but you don’t need to be fluent to visit Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Russians do have a sense of humor
Russians are often depicted as being very severe and angry-looking. And this leads to them being characterized as unfriendly and lacking a sense of humor. But guess what? This is another one of those stereotypes.
This guy at a Russian folk music performance had me in stitches.
Sure, some Russians can be pretty dour. And they won’t smile at you on the Metro or on the street. But we actually met quite a few Russians with awesome senses of humor! we even had two separate tour guides tell Putin jokes.
We felt safe the entire time
We wasn’t sure what to expect in Russian. Would we be questioned heavily at immigration? Would people be rude to me? Would we feel unsafe?
Well, the short answer is no. We had no trouble at immigration, encountered no anti-American sentiments, and felt very safe the entire time in Russia. There definitely was a security presence at major tourist sites (and we even had to walk through a metal detector to get into the GUM department store), but it actually wasn’t much more than what you’d find in bigger cities around the World.
The Tsar Canon is a good symbol for Russia: it LOOKS super intimidating, but it poses no threat to tourists.
The media paints a certain (intimidating) picture of Russia, and we definitely don’t think it’s an accurate one.
Definitely worth it, though, to see things like this!
We totally understand the people who won’t visit Russia because they don’t agree with Putin and his politics – but, just like almost every other country in the world, the government in Russia does not always reflect the sentiment of the people who live there.
If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of traveling to Russia, we would say go for it.
The world’s largest country beguiles and fascinates with its world-class art, epic landscapes and multifaceted society. You may also find that perseverance and a sense of humour will go a long way in enriching your first-time Russian travel experience. Here are some author tips for avoiding common pitfalls when visiting Russia.
DO apply for a visa early and register on arrival
This is an absolute must for everybody. You can do it at the last moment, but it may cost you a fortune. Start the application process at least a month before your trip and consider using a specialist travel agency to arrange visas and make key transport bookings. Every visitor to Russia should have their visa registered within seven days of arrival, excluding weekends and public holidays. The obligation to register is with your hotel or hostel, or landlord, friend or family if you’re staying in a private residence.
DO check the events calendar
During major holidays – the first week in January (between New Year’s Day and Orthodox Christmas) and the first week or two of May (around Labour Day, or May Day, and Victory Day) – Moscow and St Petersburg empty out. Despite this, both cities are festive during these times, with parades, concerts and other events, but museums and other institutions may have shortened hours or be shut altogether. May to September is the best time to visit St Petersburg but mid-June is when the city is irresistible, with the White Nights revelling at its peak.
Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre at night.
DO dress up for a night on the town
We can’t guarantee you’ll make it past Moscow’s ‘face control’, but you can better your chances of getting in to the top clubs by making a sartorial effort – high heels and short skirts for women, all black for men. Russians also make an effort when they go to the theatre or a posh restaurant – you should do likewise to fit in.
DO learn the Cyrillic alphabet
Making an effort to familiarise yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet repays tenfold. Not only will you be able to understand more than you would otherwise, but a knowledge of the alphabet will also help you decode street and metro signs, maps, timetables and menus.
Interior of Moscow’s GUM shopping centre.
DO expect to spend
Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world and St Petersburg is not a cheap destination either; wallet-thinning shock is common at many restaurants and hotels. As a foreigner you’ll also find yourself paying more than a Russian for some museums – often as much as 10 times the price Russians pay. If you’re a student, flashing your ID can save you money at museums and other institutions. In restaurants, go for ‘business lunches’, which are great value and very filling. The latest fad in big cities are ‘anti-cafes’, where you pay by the minute and can enjoy coffee, snacks, wi-fi or even computer games. Taxi drivers and market sellers sometimes try to charge foreigners more, so you may want to learn a few phrases for bargaining in Russian.
DON’T ask for a mixer with your vodka
Few traditions in Russia are as sacrosanct as the drinking of vodka, and any foreign notions of drinking it with orange juice or tonic are anathema to your average Russian. If you need something to wash it down, you can chase it with a lemon, a pickle or, perhaps, a separate glass of water. Vodka is drunk in swift shots, not sipped. It’s traditional (and good sense) to eat a little something after each shot, so order some vodka snacks too.
Interior of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg.
DON’T be disrespectful in a church
Working churches are open to everyone but as a visitor you should take care not to disturb any devotions or offend sensibilities.Women should cover their heads and bare shoulders when entering a church. In some monasteries and churches it’s also required for a woman to wear a skirt – wraps are usually available at the door. Men should remove their hats in church and not wear shorts.
DON’T take photos of government buildings
Be very careful about photographing stations, official-looking buildings and any type of military-security structure – if in doubt, don’t snap! Travellers, including a Lonely Planet author, have been arrested and fined for such innocent behaviour.
A station entrance along the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia.
DON’T forget to check the train timetable
Right across Russia, timetables for long-distance trains are written according to Moscow time. The only exceptions are those for suburban services that run on local time – but not always, so double-check. Station clocks in most places are also set to Moscow time. Note that Moscow and St Petersburg share the same time zone.
DON’T be surprised if you’re stopped by the police
Carry a photocopy of your passport, visa and registration, and present them when an officer demands to see your documents. Russian authorities might expect an unofficial payment to expedite their service, so always ask for an official receipt.
If you’re ready to set aside creature comforts like hot showers and home-cooked meals, extraordinary landscapes and unforgettable experiences await on The Trans-Siberian Railway.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a 5,772-mile railway line connecting Russia’s capital city Moscow with the port city of Vladivostok in the far east of the country. Spanning eight time-zones, it takes a full seven days to complete the train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok without stops. It remains today, the longest railway line in the world.
Once hailed “the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars”, people from all over the world have embarked on this famous train journey and continue to do so. Perhaps, it is a longing for times past, or perhaps it’s a curiosity towards a wonder of engineering, a staggering symbol of man’s triumph over nature. One thing remains certain – like no other, the Trans-Siberian merges a romantic notion of travel with extraordinary landscapes and experiences into the journey of a lifetime.
A symbol of hope and a common identity
While the Trans-Siberian was built for a practical reason – a means of transporting goods across Russia – it has become more than just a transport locomotive. Amidst the harsh winters, Siberia is often associated with incredible beauty. The Trans-Siberian offers those living in the small towns along the railway a connection to the rest of Russia, the largest country in the world. It is a symbol of hope, and, perhaps, a common identity.
There are two other lines which branch from the Trans-Siberian; the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. Instead of passing through Russian territory for the entire journey, the Trans-Manchurian branches out to Chinese cities such as Harbin and Changchun, while the Trans-Mongolian passes through Mongolian border towns and Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
If you are into dramatic changes in scenery, from snow-covered hills to vast stretches of plains, take the Trans-Mongolian route, which starts from Moscow, passes through Ulaanbaatar, and then carries on to Beijing. The scenery from Russia to Mongolia and then on to China changes drastically, making the train ride very interesting.
When to go and how to plan an itinerary
Planning for a Trans-Siberian trip can be a mind-boggling exercise as there are many aspects to consider. One useful resource is website Seat 61, offering detailed information and advice with regards to purchasing tickets and itinerary planning.
Eastbound or westbound?
The suggested direction of the train would depend on whether you are planning to stay and visit Moscow or Beijing after the train ride. There is a sense of romanticism to traveling eastbound, as it is possible to get connecting trains from major European cities into Moscow. Being the more popular route, you might be able to meet like-minded travelers along the way.
Stops along the way
A two-week trip is sufficient if you are looking to make just one stop midway through the journey, and spend some days in both Moscow and Beijing. A suggested stop midway would be the Russian city of Irkutsk. It is the nearest city to view Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. When you are there, be sure to try local fish (omul) on sale at the nearby market, freshly caught from the lake.
Travelers are also encouraged to stop by Ulaanbaatar, should they wish to experience nomadic life. From Ulaanbaatar, it is possible to get transportation to the suburbs, for overnight stays in a Mongolian ger (traditional portable home, which are round tents covered in animal skin or cloth for insulation). Bring lots of warm clothing as it can get very cold at night.
For another stop on the journey, Ulan-Ude is located 62 miles south-east of Lake Baikal and is the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia, Russia. The most famous sight in the city is the bronze statue featuring the head of Vladimir Lenin. It is said to be the largest of its kind in the world. The architecture in Ulan-Ude is generally interesting due to both Russian and Mongolian influences.
The best time to visit
It depends on the type of landscape and scenery you are looking for – a popular time to go would be during the summer months between May and August. There will be a variety of landscapes to look out for, such as the rolling hills of Mongolia and the coniferous forests of Siberia. If you are into snow-covered winter landscapes, visit during the winter months between November and February.
Now, let’s get practical
Booking tickets can be a bit tricky. There is not one specific Trans-Siberian Express but many domestic ones as well as a few international trains crossing the borders to Mongolia and China. If you are planning to make a lot of stopovers, it might be cheaper to book smaller but slower domestic trains on the route. If you, however, are planning to spend a few days on the train there is an option of taking the Rossiya from Moscow to Vladivostok – a more comfortable and quicker train that only stops at bigger stations.
Tickets are most affordable when purchased through the Russian Railways official site. It takes a fair bit of linguistic finesse, as most of the crucial information is in Russian, but, as always, Google is there to help you. From Moscow to Irkutsk, it will cost around $350 for a second-class berth – in a compartment of 4 sleeper berths. Third-class tickets cost about $160, which is very affordable given the three-day ride. Just note that the system only allows you to book seats 60 days in advance.
A caveat is that booking tickets via the Russian Railways site can be a tad frustrating and certain credit cards are not accepted. Should you face issues, you could consider booking the tickets through a travel agency. If you’re pressed for time or are planning to make multiple stops along the way, an online travel agency could also help make all the necessary bookings for you. Do note that there will be a markup of about 15% – 20% on the price, should you choose this option. Apart from Real Russia, Seat 61 recommends a number of Russian online travel agencies – do check them out.
If you are on a really tight budget, it is possible to spend less than $610 on the train ride, if you go for third-class tickets and avoid dining at the restaurant car on the train. Doing so means that you have to stock up your own food before the trip, or hop off the train at major stops to purchase food before the train leaves. Hot water is provided on the train.
If you prefer more privacy and comfort, be prepared to spend slightly more than $1000 on the train ride. Such a budget gives you the option of visiting the restaurant cart from time to time, where one meal can set you back $25 per person. There is a plus when you travel in second-class, or the ‘compartment class’. The ticket is slightly more expensive, but you get a compartment to yourself if you travel in groups of four – great for privacy and security.
Note that the Russian ruble is a restricted currency, and it is not possible to get rubles outside of Russia. But there are several exchange offices and ATMs at the Sheremetyevo International Airport. It will be useful to bring some USD or EUR with you, as they are readily accepted by major exchange offices. Small-denomination notes in these currencies will be useful as contingencies.
For seat selection, it is suggested that you get both a lower and upper berth seat if you are travelling in pairs. The lower berth seats are for resting during the day, and you get a good view of the scenery outside. Should you get upper berth seats only, you might have to ask for permission to sit on someone else’s lower berth seat during the day. Most importantly, avoid selecting seats too close to the toilet. You know why.
One of the main reasons to go on this journey is the people you meet on your way. If you’re up for a local experience, travel on third-class. That’s where you’ll find most Russians, and, if you’re lucky, their children, who can be a breath of fresh air on a journey this long. On the Mongolia to Beijing leg, you may meet Chinese businessmen heading back to China from Ulaanbaatar. The train company typically groups travellers together, increasing the chances of you meeting like-minded folks.
Getting a Russian Tourist visa is probably the most tricky of the three countries. Before applying for one, you will need a visa support (tourist confirmation) letter. This is a letter from a Russian travel agency or a hotel which has the license to invite foreign tourists to Russia. Do note that this document is essential in the visa application process. It is not the same as a hotel booking confirmation. Note that some hotels may not be licensed to issue such documents. You can still stay at these hotels, by getting a visa support (tourist confirmation) letter from an online travel agency like Real Russia.
Chinese visas are required for citizens of most nationalities including the UK. You can refer to the Chinese visa guide for more information. For Mongolian visas, a visa is required for UK citizens. Visit the Real Russia site to find out more on the requirements by selecting your nationality.
It is generally safe to travel on the Trans-Siberian. However, it’s advisable to travel in pairs and to purchase a second-class ticket, which gets you a berth in a compartment of four with doors that can be locked from the inside, for added safety. Drinking does occur among passengers, but should you ever feel uncomfortable, do not hesitate to inform the staff, who might be able to move you to another compartment based on availability. You’re a smart traveler, but just a reminder: always keep your valuable belongings right next to you when you sleep.
Essentials to bring on the train
The absolute essentials for you to bring on the train ride would be toilet paper and wet wipes. It is essential not just for hygiene purposes, but for wiping and keeping the area around you clean after meals. Earplugs and an eye mask are a must, should you happen to be sleeping near a crying baby (that happens), or just feel like taking a nap in the middle of the day (that also happens).
The toilets are basic and come with a sink. There is no soap available so you’ll have to bring your own. Note that there are no shower facilities for the second and third-class trains, in which case the wet wipes come in very handy. Also, bear in mind that the train’s toilets are best used after a stop at a major station, where they are cleaned. Remember, it’s all an adventure.
Second-class berths come with bedding but do bring a sleeping bag if you prefer. Should you plan to stock up on your own food on the train, remember to bring along a can opener and a pair of scissors for opening food packages. There’s nothing worse than being hungry and not able to open your food.
Of course, a good camera is always a good idea when traveling. Additionally, bring along a flashlight for the dark nights as well as an iPad and a good book for entertainment.
The restaurant car changes at various legs of the trip. For instance, the restaurant car at the Chinese leg serves simple Chinese food, such as steamed rice, cabbage, celery, and chicken. Some quality trains, such as the Rossiya, offer tickets with or without ‘services’. ‘With services’ just means that one or more cooked meals is included in the price, either served in your compartment or eaten in the restaurant car. Other meals you’ll need to pay for in the restaurant or bring your own supplies.
The Russian restaurant car serves a wider variety of food, such as fried potatoes, soup, and dumplings. You can get snacks such as chocolate, potato chips, and instant pasta, but that is sold at a premium. The bar sells beer and Russian vodka as well, but the prices are steep, hence it may be a good idea to stock up on some food of your own.
Some suggested food to bring on board include snacks, tea/coffee bags, instant noodles, a loaf of bread, and most importantly canned food. You may be surprised at how delicious canned food can taste on the train. It bears some resemblance to a proper meal and can be great spread on bread. Do remember to bring along disposable cutlery, and a mug for hot tea on a cold night.
The journey of a lifetime
From the rolling Mongolian plains to the icy snow-capped peaks of Siberia, the Trans-Siberian Railway offers a lot of promise. But the Trans-Siberian isn’t just about the scenery. A large part of the journey is about living on the train – sleeping, eating, reading, and, perhaps, dreaming of a hot shower and a home-cooked meal.
As the old saying goes, “Life is a journey, not a destination”. The Trans-Siberian is a way of slowing down, enjoying the moment, taking a chance on life and its unpredictability instead of rushing to the finish line. It is a good way of getting to know the world around you, and an even better way to learn about yourself. The Trans-Siberian is not for tourists or destination seekers. But if you have an urge to go on an adventure, coupled with a thirst for self-discovery, this is the trip for you.