Russia Travel Guide: Tips and Destinations

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The biggest country in the world is a nature lover’s paradise and an architect’s dream. You can spend hours in the mists of breathtaking scenery. Perhaps that’s why Russian architecture is so beautiful. Multicolored buildings, wooden century-old structures, opulent palaces and imposing temples seem to be the right answer to such a vast and generous environment. Thus, Russia is a great travel destination for a physical and mental journey. We wandered through a sea of trees, ocean-like lakes, stunning islands, charming towns and imposing cities. Additionally, Russian culture is old, artistic and resilient.

Traveling around Russia

Is Russia safe?

You are probably wondering: is Russia safe? When it comes to cars, buses, roads and trains, Russia is very safe. All the taxi drivers and bus drivers we met throughout the country drove carefully and without speeding. Likewise, every single car we took had an operating safety belt. Most of the trains we took were modern and in great shape. Nevertheless, the few that were a bit dated, were modern enough, operated on time and felt safe. Finally, for specific areas of the country check out the British Government’s Travel Advice.

Is Russia safe? - Suzdal

On the other hand, we felt completely safe on the street everywhere we went, even at night. Nobody harassed us or bothered us. On the contrary, whenever we interacted with Russians, people would take their time to help us. Nobody robbed us or cheated us. All bills were correctly added and everything that was promised was delivered accordingly. You can tell that Russians value doing the right thing and being professional. So my fellow travelers, don’t worry about safety and prepare to be dazzled: Russia is safe and a perfect travel destination!

Russia is safe - Matryoshkas

How to travel around Russia

Russia occupies both Eastern Europe and northern Asia. The European part is smaller (though it is the biggest country in Europe) and more populated (25% of the land with 75% of the population). Therefore, traveling around European Russia is ideal for cultural tourism. Likewise, the best way to travel through the European side is by train, on the extensive railway network that crosses the country. On the other hand, the Asian part, far larger and sparsely populated, is all about nature. While the famous Trans-Siberian line provides a glimpse of Siberian nature, distances are immense and landscapes similar. Hence, a combination of trains and planes is better to travel around the Asian part of Russia.

How to travel around Russia

Train employees were extra nice and professional. I still remember Valeria, who we met on the train from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan. She made sure we ate and kept warm all through the night!

Take note that all train timetables follow Moscow time. We didn’t know this and waited for hours at the Novosibirsk train station.

For train tickets check the Russian Railways official website.

For plane tickets check all Airline companies operating in Russia.

Russian Train Conductor

Russian hospitality

Before going we were told so many times that Russians are not friendly. After two months of traveling around Russia we got a completely different picture. From hotel personnel to people working at restaurants and coffee houses everyone is professional, nice and welcoming. Even more, Russia is the perfect place for those of us who like travel adventures and yet need comfort and privacy. On the one hand, you have to take long train journeys to reach faraway places. But once there, you rest in a great hotel, indulge in superb cuisine and further the experience. Exactly, Russia offers plenty of authentic palaces, wooden premier cottages and iconic buildings to stay and eat at.

Check out our post about where to stay in Moscow.

Russian Hospitality - Petroff Palace

Don’t worry about the Language

Though few people speak English outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, all Russians will get out of their way to help you. I speak Russian, but Eitan doesn’t, so I was worried he wouldn’t be able to get around. It turned out locals were very accommodating to him and in spite of the language barrier, he never had a problem and had a blast interacting with people. Russian, spoken by 150 million people as their native language, belongs to the group of Slavic languages. It uses Cyrillic script, which shares some letters with Latin. Therefore, with a little effort you should be able to dominate the letters in a week or so. Nevertheless, all train destinations are written in Cyrillic so if you can’t read it ask somebody to help you out.

Check out this text about the Russian Alphabet.

Russian Language shouldn't be a barrier

Getting around

Unlike in China, Google Maps works perfectly in Russia. Nevertheless, for specific shops and restaurants the local app Yandex is better. Its maps of Russia tend to be a more accurate and reliable travel resource. Public transportation outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg is not especially efficient. Though buses, trams and trolleybuses in most cities are pretty dated, you can check local routes on Yandex. Saint Petersburg’s metro is the only one with all stations written in Latin. For other transport systems we suggest downloading Google Translate’s Russian dictionary so you can use it offline. All you need to do is type the desired station in English and it will show its Cyrillic version (minor mistakes do occur).

Check out the Urbanrail website for all metro systems in Russia.

Getting around Russia - Moscow metro

Food

In all honesty, we didn’t expect much from Russian food. After all, it’s in the north, it’s cold and not that many things grow there right? Wrong! To our great surprise food served in street kiosks, chain coffee shops and fine restaurants is delicious. Ingredients are fresh and portions huge. Though we weren’t crazy about the famous Russian soup Borsch, we did love both Vareniki and Pelmeni, the Russian version of stuffed pasta. Additionally, international cuisine is everywhere and equally tasty. Finally, good coffee and superb cakes are easy to find.

Regarding food chains, we really liked three that seem to operate in every major city: Kofe Hauz, Shokoladnitsa and Travelers Coffee. Funny, since we usually avoid chains.

Russian Food - Restaurants

When to visit

Russia is the world’s largest country, but most of its territory lies above the 45th north parallel. Hence, cold weather lasts for over 6 months. Except for small areas around the Black Sea and the Caucasus winters are extremely cold throughout Russia (In Yakutsk temperatures can drop to – 50 degrees Celsius!!). Likewise, in most of the territory spring and autumn can be pretty cold too. Therefore, we absolutely recommend traveling around Russia in Summer. Even more, except for Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there are no masses of tourists! Besides, boats to some islands including outstanding Solovetsky operate only from June to September.

Check out average daily temperatures in Russian cities.

When to go to Russia?

LGBT

As a married couple, before traveling to Russia we were a bit worried about our safety. While homosexuality is not prohibited in Russia, there is a stupid law that forbids gay propaganda (whatever that may be). In reality you cannot be free and gay in Russia, so we refrained from showing affection in public. On the other hand, private space is sacred. Thus, we had no problem in asking for and getting a big bed in every hotel. Of course, Chechnya and any other conservative Russian Republic in the Caucasus might be even worse. When it comes to nightlife, we found Moscow and Saint Petersburg to be quite relaxed. On the other hand, both cities boast several gay clubs, some even out in the open.

In Petersburg we went to the Blue Oyster Bar in Lomonosova, the local party street.

In Moscow we had a blast in Mono Bar.

Gay Russia - Moscow heart

What to visit in Russia

After two months of traveling around Russia we were amazed by what we saw. We were able to visit both its main cities and the countryside. Our favorites spots are Russia’s natural sites, the more isolated the better. Likewise, the Golden Ring of cities and towns fascinated us. The following is a list of the places we visited in Russia; each quite unique and different. Of course, our list doesn’t include all this great country has to offer. Yakutsk, Vladivostok and the Kamchatka Peninsula are so remote we skipped them all together. No worries, we are definitively going back to discover these wonderful destinations!

To find out more about each place please click on the links under them.

Russia Travel Destinations

1 Vyborg

Vyborg is one of those places with a perfect location but that for some strange reason nobody visits. We took the train from Helsinki to Petersburg and hopped off upon crossing the border. While Vyborg feels somewhat abandoned, it actually hides a couple of real gems, both natural and architectural. Additionally you might actually end up being the only foreigner in town!

Vyborg is a city full of history: it was first Swedish, then Finnish and finally handed to Russia after World War II. Surrounded by a plethora of islands and peninsulas, it lies at the end of the Vyborg Bay by the Baltic Sea. Crumbling, yet interesting Finnish architecture from the beginning of the 20th century pack the city center. Nevertheless, the star of the city is the beautiful Mon Repos Park, just north of the center.

We recommend staying at the Druzhba Hotel, a perfect example of Russian brutalism with great views to the lake and complimentary bikes to discover the town.

visit Vyborg

2 Saint Petersburg

As Peter the Great wanted, Saint Petersburg is “a window to Europe”. However, the city is 100% Russian. Exactly, here you get to experience over 300 years of Russian history. This is where Tsars lived in excess and built the Unesco listed Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments. No wonder it was the battleground of the Bolshevik’s October Revolution.

The city that inspired Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Brodsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich is not only about architecture. Nature here is impressive too. Saint Petersburg lies on the Neva River, at the head of the Baltic Sea. There are thousands of canals to walk about, and enjoy splendid sunsets and dawns. It is also known as the “City of White Nights”, due to its super long northern hemisphere summer nights.

In Saint Petersburg stay at the Renaissance Hotel, within walking distance to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Hermitage Museum, Nevsky Prospekt Street and the Marinsky Theatre. For impressive views have a drink up in the terrace.

visit Saint Petersburg

3 Peterhof and Pushkin

Not only does Saint Petersburg homes world class architecture, but it also offers some outstanding day trips. The Petersburg’s region has an impressive collection of neoclassical palaces. Two of these are world famous: Peterhof and Pushkin. The Peterhof Palace used to be Peter the Great’s summer residence on the Baltic Sea. To get there take any of the fast boats that depart from Neva River, near the Admiralteystvo. It’s a 40 minute ride with superb views. You will never forget the garden in front of the palace and the main fountain.

To get to Pushkin or Tsarskoye Selo you have to take a rusty local train at Vitebsky train station. Though the palace complex is a bit away from the station, the walk is pretty pleasant. If you don’t like to cue you’ll probably skip Catherine’s palace. However, don’t miss the splendid gardens. Likewise, do not forget to visit the enormous Aleksandrovskiy Park mostly ignored by tourists!

In Peterhof stay at Samson Hotel, in front of the Palace complex.

In Pushkin stay at the Ekaterina, a part of the Catherine’s Palace. Yes, it is an authentic historic palace. We are telling you, Russian hotels are superb!

visit Peterhof and Pushkin

4 Solovetsky Islands

The Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, one of Russia’s best kept secrets, are perfect for us travelers looking for something different. These six isles and islets form an archipelago separating the White Sea from the Onega Bay. Additionally, the largest island, Bolshoi Solovetsky, homes an astonishing 15th century monastery, witness of a very turbulent past and still in use today.

Getting to Solovetsky Islands is quite an adventure. The overnight train drops you at run down Kem. From there, it’s a short taxi ride to Rabocheostrovsk, the pier where boats depart to Big Solovetsky Island, in the mists of the White Sea. Once you see the islands you will forget about the long journey. Isolated and silent, it’s hard to believe this paradise has been inhabited for more than 3000 years. Nature here is a soothing attack to the senses!

In Solovetsky islands we recommend Hotel Solovki, just a short distance from the port. Made of wood and set in lovely gardens, it has all modern day conveniences. The hotel also has a great restaurant.

visit Solovetsky

5 Petrozavodsk and Kizhi Island

Kizhi is a beautiful island located in Europe’s second largest lake, the Onega. Settlements and wooden churches brought from elsewhere in the country dot this open air museum. The 17th century Kizhi Pogost with two churches and a bell tower is one of the best examples of Russian wooden architecture.

Karelia is taiga territory, the world’s largest biome, apart from the oceans. Fir-greens, birch-woods, aspen-woods, alder-trees willows, bird cherries, ash berries, junipers and spurge-flaxes undergrowth inhabit it. The power of this sea of trees is something you have to experience. To access Kizhi Island take the ferry in Petrozavodsk and prepare to be dazzled. The trip lasts just over 40 minutes and provides fantastic views. Once on the island you can rent bicycles and tour this beauty under a deep blue sky.

Petrozavodsk’s best hotel is the Karelia, a high-rise on the banks of Onega Lake, just a short walk from the ferry pier. Go ahead and ask for a top floor room for breathtaking views. The hotel also has a great spa to relax after a day of sightseeing.

visit Kizhi

6 Moscow

Russia’s capital, Moscow is its most spectacular city. Its streets, buildings, parks, people, cuisine, colors and sounds are extremely varied. Huge soviet statues, enormous pavilions, Stalinist towers and onion domes lie next to shiny adorned hearts, gates, lamps and flower bouquets. What else could there be? Superb hotels and a vibrant nightlife!

Moscow is bold, huge, opulent, Asian, Soviet, European and Russian. Few cities in the world are as distinct and fascinating as Moscow. In fact, the largest city in Europe attracts people from all over Russia and the world, making it very cosmopolitan and diverse. Likewise, this unique metropolis is homes to all sorts of different architectural styles and influences. Exactly, Moscow is a feast to the eye!

In Moscow we recommend two outstanding hotels: the Petroff Palace Hotel, built for Empress Catherine the Great, and the Moscow Hilton Leningradskaya, housed in one of the so called Seven Sisters. Both hotels are much more than just premier facilities. At the Petroff you get to experience palace life like it was centuries ago. On the other hand, the Hilton is all about experiencing the luxury of post war Moscow.

go to Moscow

7 Sergiev Posad and Rostov Veliky

If you love fairy tales and have a serious case of wanderlust, the so called Golden Ring towns of Sergiev Posad and Rostov Veliky were built for you. Sergiev Posad, with its elegant 14th century Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius Monastery is the most visited. Nevertheless, since most tourists come by bus from Moscow during the day, staying overnight is quite an experience.  On the other hand, Rostov Veliky with its beautiful Citadel near the lake is fortunately overlooked by tourists, an extra pleasure.

These ancient towns, are a testament of the most important and significant events in Russian history. Set within gorgeous nature these are all “open-air museums” featuring monuments from the 12th to the 18th century. The Golden Ring is essential in any Russian travel.

In Sergiev Posad stay in Hotel Russkiy Dvorik an elegant boutique hotel with fantastic views of the monastery.

In Rostov Veliky we recommend the Selivanov Hotel, a classic hotel next to the Nero Lake.

go to Sergiev Posad and Rostov Veliky

8 Vladimir and Suzdal

Suzdal and Vladimir are also part of the Golden Ring. Vladimir was once Russia’s medieval capital and an important centre of the Russian language. Therefore, its two cathedrals and the Golden Gate are a testament of such a glorious history. On the other hand, Suzdal is Russia’s nicest little town. Its four large medieval monasteries are still in function today.

You can rent bicycles and wander about Kremlins, monasteries, wooden houses, cathedrals and churches. Staying overnight guarantees that you will have each town for yourself avoiding the masses of tourists coming on daily tours from Moscow. Exactly, these two places are pretty atmospheric and deserve to be visited alone.

In Vladimir, stay in the Monomakh Hotel. Located on a quiet street meters away from the Golden gate, it has a fantastic terrace with great views.

In Suzdal we recommend the Svetliy Terem Hotel, a lovely house with all modern day conveniences, complimentary bicycles and personalized service.

go to Vladimir and Suzdal

9 Nizhny Novgorod

If you take the train from Moscow towards Siberia you might stumble upon Nizhny Novgorod, another Russian hidden gem. Though you might not expect much from a city with such a weird name, you’ll be surprised just how pleasant it is. The city center lies above the mighty Volga River, where the Kremlin is. The views from there are outstanding.

In Nizhny Novgorod you’ll find several interesting pedestrian streets. One starts at the Kremlin and marks the center of the upper town, the other lies next to the river in the lower town. Across the Oka River there is a wonderful Neoclassical Fair. There is also a cable car that crosses the Volga River and takes you to a quiet suburb.

We recommend staying at the fabulous Hampton Inn by Hilton. The hotel has great views and a brilliant spa.

go to Nizhny Novgorod

10 Kazan

Kazan is arguably Russia’s most multicultural city, and quite as nothing you have ever seen before. The capital of historical Tatarstan is home to the only Kremlin with a mosque inside, included in Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. Both the mighty Volga and the Kazanka Rivers surround the city. There are also several canals and even a lake, Kaban.

The city offers plenty of things to see and do. There are two pedestrian streets. While one is lined with neoclassical buildings and churches, cafés and street performers, the other one homes many colorful wooden houses and old mosques. You can bike all along the river promenade enjoying the views and visiting the newly built bizarre houses.

In Kazan stay at the Shalyapin Palace Hotel, located on Bauman pedestrian Street.

go to Kazan

11 Novosibirsk and Barnaul

When thinking about Russia’s most beautiful cities certainly Novosibirsk and Barnaul don’t come to mind. Nevertheless, both are great places to stop on your way to the Altai Mountains and to Baikal Lake on the Trans-Siberian route. These two cities have a lively atmosphere and even some cool architecture.

Novosibirsk is Russia’s third largest city and the largest one in its Asian part. The city is relatively new and full of communist style blocks and lovely green parks. Additionally, the Massive Obi River flows through its center. On the other hand, Barnaul lies some 200 km away along the same river. Unlike Novosibirsk it houses plenty of nice neoclassical buildings and charming wooden houses.

In Novosibirsk stay at the Park Inn by Radisson in front of the Train station.

In Barnaul we recommend the Hotel Barnaul near the station.

travel to Novosibirsk and Barnaul

12 Altai Mountains

The Altai Mountains, located in the border of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China are an unspoiled piece of heaven. The Katun River digs deep into the mountains, with the main tourist infrastructure next to it. There are several lakes in the area, including the beautiful Teletskoye. Even more, the truly adventurous can go all the way to the glaciers to the south.

From Barnaul we took a bus along the Katun River. There are plenty of small villages along the river, being Chemal the biggest and a great base to discover the area. You can watch locals leading their everyday lives, walk through forests and rest at the beach. The place is completely authentic!

Stay at the Hotel Silver Springs, undoubtedly the best in Chemal. It offers comfort, a peaceful atmosphere and breathtaking views.

travel to Altai Mountains

13 Krasnoyarsk and Stolby Nature Sanctuary

Krasnoyarsk is a pretty Siberian city that has a nice historical core dotted with neoclassical buildings and charming wooden houses. Additionally, there is a very nice park packed with lakes across the Yenisei River. The Yenisei is the largest river system flowing into the Artic Ocean. This huge water mass surrounded by wonderful natural spots will for sure impress you.

Stolby Nature Sanctuary, Krasnoyarsk’s main draw, is located only half an hour away. The national park is accessed via a chairlift that drops you in the middle of an endless forest inhabited by all sorts of trees. Massive rocks are everywhere and if you manage to climb one you will be rewarded with unforgettable views. Cute little animals can be seen all around the park.

In Krasnoyarsk we recommend the old soviet style Oktyabrskaya Hotel for its great location and perfect comfort.

travel to Krasnoyarsk and Stolby

14 Irkutsk

Irkutsk is Siberia’s prettiest city. Most tourists make a short stop in Irkutsk on their way to Baikal Lake missing out on its magnificent wooden houses. Though a bit younger than Krasnoyarsk it has maintained most of its historical buildings, including neoclassical and hundreds of colorful two storey wooden houses.

The beautiful Angara River meets Irkutsk River right in the city’s center. The whole river bank was turned into a wonderful park. Likewise, the elegant city center has several lovely pedestrian streets. The Chinese built the main one replicating old houses in an exaggerated way.

We recommend staying at Berezka for its location in the middle of the Chinese neighborhood. Restaurants there are fabulous!

travel to Irkutsk

15 Baikal Lake

Baikal Lake is the world’s oldest and deepest lake. It is a natural place that gives you peace and joy, just by being there and admiring it. Arguably, Olkhon Island is the best place to fully enjoy Baikal Lake. Located to the north, and with a couple of small villages, pine forests, sandy beaches, and many cliffs, it offers the impressive views.

Olkhon Island is absolutely beautiful and completely authentic. The journey there takes some 6-7 hours on a minibus. Take note that the island has no asphalt, big hotels or street light at night. Khuzir is the only real village and homes most hotels, restaurants and shops. Additionally, there is an interesting spiritual place next to it and plenty of monumental cliffs on all sides.

In Olkhon Island stay at the wonderful Baykal Khan Hotel. The best hotel in the area has warm rooms with plenty of hot water and impressive views.

travel to Baikal Lake

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