Russia is a beautiful, diverse, and huge country with lots to offer travelers. Hello, I am Varvara (my name is the Russian version of Barbara).
I grew up in St. Petersburg, moved to Moscow for work, and now I live in Nizhny Novgorod (one of the biggest cities in central Russia). It’s a big of a challenge to attempt a mini travel guide for the biggest country in the world (we’re surrounded by three oceans and have eight time zones!) but I will do my best.
Must go in Russia
This is always my number one recommendation and only partly because this is my hometown. St.Petersburg was the capital of Russia for more than 200 years (Moscow became the capital 1918), so all the glory and beauty of Russian culture is here.
St. Petersburg is a city of canals, rivers, islands and bridges – we call it Russian Venice. The best timing to visit St.Pete is June-July, which we call White Nights (make sure you book it in advance, this is a very high season).
During this time of year, night is extremely short. So it’s a super romantic time to walk around the beautiful city all night in just twilight, watch the opening of the drawbridges and wait for the sunrise. You should also check out canal boat trips and take a rooftop tour.
Plan at least one day for St.Petersburg’s suburbs. There are many to choose (in old times there were a lot of royal residences around the city), but the best is Peterhof (or Petrodvorets). This is a Russian Versailles (maybe even better) with enormously large and beautiful park, palaces and more than 100 fountains. You can’t miss it!
The capital is definitely a must-see. There are the obvious must-dos: Red Square and the Kremlin, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, St.Basil’s Cathedral, art exhibitions at Tretyakovskaya Gallery, and the University building at Vorobyovy Gory.
I also recommend going for a walk in Moscow parks (Gorky park is the most famous), boulevards (e.g. Chistiye Prudiy, which means “Clean Pond”) and rest near city ponds (Patriarshy Prudiy surrounded by Stalin’s architecture).
Find some time to walk around the curvy roads of old Moscow districts (Zamoskvorechie, Khitrovka) and find the spirit of old disappearing city where around the corner you can find the cute small Russian church.
Moscow and St.Pete are great but they are west type of cities. If you really want to taste Russian culture, take a trip to the cities of the Golden Ring around Moscow. The trip will take at least two days, the rest will depend on the route and your time limitations.
The most popular cities of the Golden Ring are Sergiev Posad, Yaroslavl, Rostov, Vladimir, Suzdal. The cheap way would be to travel by bus or train but you would definitely need somebody local to accompany you. In case you have a budget, take an organized tour – it will worth it.
If you have have more time, I highly recommend you to explore more to the East. I particularly love Kazan. This is something absolutely not how you imagine Russia (even how a Russian person would imagine Russia).
The city is a capital of the Republic of Tatarstan which is still the part of Russia but looks like an absolutely different world (with their own language, president, religion, food). It really reminds you that Russia is a multicultural country.
Take a walk along the pedestrian Bauman street, then inside the Kazan Kremlin where you can look into the reconstructed amazing Qol-Şarif mosque and have a dinner at the roof-top restaurant in Marriott Hotel with the view on Kremlin and the mosque. If you have one more day – travel to Sviyazhsk Island (the trip will take two hours by car) – the small authentic city situated on an island.
I fell in love with Kamchatka Peninsula. The trip is a bit expensive (mainly because of the road – you need to cross almost half of the globe, guys). Kamchatka is an absolute kingdom of nature – volcanoes, the Valley of Geysers, hot springs, waves of the mighty ocean coming to the virgin shore covered with the volcanic black sand.
I do not think this is something you could see anywhere else. It’s great for particularly adventurous folk: take the helicopter trip, go hunting the bear (seriously, not joking) and enjoy the seafood bought right on the fish market. The best time to visit is autumn.
Must Do in Russia
Go to the ballet
The Russian ballet is world famous so this is something you must see. In Moscow, try to get tickets to the Bolshoy theater, in St.Pete try the Maryinsky theater. If possible, reserve tickets in advance because they sell out quickly.
Try a Russian Sauna (“Banya”)
Not to be confused with a Finnish Sauna or a Turkish hammam. This is not just washing your body, this is a whole bathing ritual. Russian “banya” is super wet, super hot and is complemented by being hit with bunches of dried branches and leaves.
If it’s winter, the best way to cool yourself is to jump out of “banya” right into the snow (you would probably like to choose the authentic place for “banya” beforehand to make this crazy thing).
This is the one-week festival celebrated by eating pancakes every day. We wrap up the festival by burning the scarecrow of Maslenitsa which symbolizes the end of winter and start of spring. There is no specific dates as Maslenitsa is celebrated 40 days before Easter, thus dates are different every year. If you skip it during your travel, watch the movie “The Barber of Siberia” to get the sense of what I mean.
Ice swimming and fishing
No need to be sad if you are visiting Russia in the winter – there are plenty of extraordinary things to explore. For example, ice swimming on the Orthodox day of Christ Baptizing. This does not mean you have to try this, but it worse to see. Another winter extreme is under ice fishing.
May 9th celebration and city parade
Many European countries celebrate the end of the Second World War, but Russia does it most enthusiastically. In every city you will have parades of army and military equipment and veterans are thanked with flowers and words of “Thank you for the peace.” At the end of the day there are always fireworks.
Must Eat in Russia
Shchi (cabbage soup)
the authentic Russian soup could be done from fresh cabbage or from sauerkraut.
Are dumplings consisting of a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough. The meet inside could be different, it also could be fish. In case you are struggling with the choice in the restaurant, take Siberian pelmeni and ask to serve them with sour cream called “smetana”.
All kind of pickled vegetables: mushrooms (dozens of types of mushrooms), tomatoes, cucumbers, wild leek, salty herring. If you decide to try drinking vodka, you always should eat something salty afterwards – pickles are the best for this purpose though they are good separately as well.
Sure, you’ve had pancakes before, but not like this. Russian pancakes are special, very thin and when served with caviar you would die for them.
They’re our most popular side dish. Try fried potatoes with chanterelles mushrooms, fried in the sour cream. They are especially good in the autumn just taken fresh from the wood.
All kind of cereals if they are cooked good are super tasty. Depending on with what it is served it could be morning dish with berries or if it is meat or pumpkin it could be a separate independent dish.
Cultural tips for traveling in Russia
Get the visa. All foreigners need visa to get to Russia and the process to get it is not quick. Take care that you have it in advance. I’ve heard stories of people who thought they didn’t need a visa and their the travel plans were all ruined.
Prepare for translation. While the young generations in big cities can speak English, the majority of the population will struggle to understand you. Moreover, most of the headings, street names are written in Cyrylics (we are improving, but there is still a way to go). So, get prepared to speak slowly and try several times and learn some common phrases in Russian to survive.
Do not worry that nobody smiles. Foreigners think we could look gloomy and not friendly. This is just the outside! However you should know that as soon as you are a friend, we will put all the food on the table and you will feel enormous hospitality when you are not a “stranger”.
Cheap travel tips for Russia
Do not take the taxi in the airport. At your arrival as soon as you enter the airport building you will start being attacked by people offering you a taxi drive. Never take it – this is super expensive, plus they can cheat you knowing you are foreigner.
In Moscow – take the express train to the city; in other cities better take a public bus to get to the center. Take the subway. In the cities where there is a subway (Moscow, St.Petersburg) you can use it without any hesitation.
Besides, that it is the cheapest and the fastest way to travel across the city, the metro stations are amazingly decorated and each station has it own style. There are even separate excursions to explore the metro.
Thank so much for sharing your insights, Varvara! I’ve been wanting to visit Russia since fourth grade when I discovered the school library’s copy of Baba Yaga. Are there any other Russian readers who can share their travel tips? Have you traveled to Russia?
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