Russia Travel Guide
Spanning a mind-boggling 17 million square kilometres that ranks it first in the world in land area, and over 143 million people that makes it the world’s 9th most populated country, Russia is a nation so immense, it can be difficult to know where to begin first.
From one of the iconic landmarks in the world in Red Square, to the largest and deepest fresh water lake in the world in Lake Baikal, there is no shortage of attractions to see in this colossus of a country. Even essential pieces of infrastructure are an attraction in themselves, as the Trans-Siberian Railroad allows one to travel from Europe to Asia in a week of captivating vistas and cultural experiences.
Emerging as one of the world’s superpowers after the Second World War had concluded, there plenty about this nation’s history to be intrigued about, from its Soviet days in the recent past to the days of the czars in the medieval period. For all its draws though, Russia has had a penchant for stirring up controversy through the years, and being difficult to love at times on the world stage.
From the days of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the UN promising to bury the West, to its chilling attitude towards GLBT individuals and left wingers in the present day, it may be difficult to rationalize a trip based on one’s personal values. While this is understandable to an extent, it’s important to realize that authorities and politicians don’t speak for an entire nation, and by traveling, you get a more holistic sense of a place then if you were to simply accept what you’ve been told through the media.
While it still makes sense at this point to be guarded about your sexuality and your political views with regards to the present social climate in Russia, don’t let it stop you from exploring and discovering one of the world’s most influential and gargantuan nations for yourself.
Currency: Russian ruble
What To Do
When you are ready to start seeing the sights of this massive country, it makes sense to start in Moscow at Red Square. This public gathering place is considered the centre of Moscow, and of all of Russia, as all the major city streets in the metro area radiate out from this point, which then become all of Russia’s major highways. Flanking Red Square are a number of attractions that are of paramount interest to the cultural traveler.
The first of these is the Kremlin, a vaunted fortification that has served and continues to serve as the working home of the president of Russia; in other words, when you walk in here, you’re in Putin’s house! Dating back to the 14th century, it contains five palaces and four cathedrals within its expansive walls, and despite being closed to tourists for a period during Soviet times, it is open to visitors in the present day. If nothing else, be sure to check out the diamond collection in the armoury, as its extravagance will stun you!
St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its iconic checkered and striped onion bulb domes that are synonymous with Russian Orthodox churches, should be your next stop in Red Square. Its design evokes a bonfire rising into the sky, marking a departure from Byzantine inspired construction that had influenced the design nation’s buildings up to the 16th century. Inside, it operates as a history museum, but the true attraction is the murals that cover the walls and pillars throughout the building.
Finally, Lenin’s Mausoleum will prove to a surreal and potentially creepy conclusion to your tour of Red Square. Containing the embalmed body of the first leader of the Soviet Union following his death in 1924, the fact that his body still exists in its preserved to this day is a testament to the techniques put in place to make this exhibit possible. Be sure to dress in a respectful manner, as this is the resting place of a respected and sometimes venerated icon.
After leaving Moscow, make the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg your next point of interest on your tour across Russia. Being the former home of the Russian Federation in the days of the czars, it served as the home of many leaders from 1732 to 1917, including one of Russia’s best known rulers from the Renaissance days, Peter the Great. The largess of the Imperial days of the Russian Empire is reflected in the grandeur of this opulent structure, as it contains 1,500 rooms and over 1,900 windows, and the interior is festooned by fine granite walls, gilded surfaces and countless chandeliers hang from the ceilings.
Those that want to get to the root of the origins of the Russian Orthodox Church should check out the Trinity Monastery, located in Sergiev Posad, which is only one hour by rail outside of Moscow. Walled in by a fortress as was common during medieval times, this place is not just worth visiting for its aesthetics, but for the atmosphere surrounding it all, as locals and worshippers from outside the area offer up prayers to the various icons within the sanctuary, often mixing in kissing to show their passion.
Being the home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi is a rapidly developing winter sports resort, but it has been popular among Russians for much longer as a warm weather locale as well. Boasting palm trees (palms in Russia?!), rocky but beautiful beaches along its Black Sea frontage, and a ski resort that will make for an Olympic level experience should you come by in winter.
Russia spans two continents, so to spend your entire trip in the European portion of the nation would be doing this place an injustice. Taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad will allow you to see the expansive Siberian hinterland that lies between Russia’s European roots, while being transported to its Asiatic holdings in about a week on continuous rail travel.
One whistle stop you should make along the way even if you’re constrained by time/and/or money is Lake Baikal, which ranks as the world’s deepest and largest lake. It measures 636 kilometres long, and is 79 kilometres at its widest point. At its murkiest depths, Baikal drops down nearly 1,600 metres (ONE mile, or more than 1.5 kilometres straight down!) To give you an idea how much freshwater that is, Lake Baikal contains 20% of the world’s ENTIRE supply of drinkable water. When the apocalypse strikes, clearly this is the place to be!
Truly adventurous souls will want to make a trip to the mysterious Kamchatka Peninsula, a place in Russia’s extreme northeast (closer to Anchorage, Alaska, USA than Moscow) that was off-limits to anyone not affiliated with the Russian military during the Soviet years. In the present day, certain areas are restricted access zones, but tourism to this wild volcanic hinterland is starting to trickle in more recent times.
All sorts of wilderness activities await you here, from climbing active volcanoes to heli-skiing down them in the dead of winter, hot spring soaking, fishing and even big game hunting. Just don’t be surprised if the earth trembles beneath your feet at some point during your stay, as this region is one of the most geologically active places on Earth, averaging a 6.0 quake once every 3-5 years, with smaller shocks occurring much more frequently!
What To Eat
Russia’s cuisine has its basis in hearty foods, as the growing season through much of the Federation is short, which favours vegetables and grains that are hardy enough to tolerate the cold conditions that occur throughout the balance of the year.
Shchi is a cabbage soup that is a favourite among many Russians, as it contains a variety of wholesome ingredients such as cabbage, carrots, onions, celery, apples, various kinds of meat and a collection of herbs. Its heartwarming nature has made it transcend class boundaries, with the wealthy having more ingredients, with their poorer cousins using soley cabbage and carrots for their concoctions.
Pelmeni is a dumpling with Siberian origins, with many convinced that its inspiration could be tied to contact with Chinese citizens over the years. Containing minced meat from three animals (beef, mutton and pork), dice onions and black pepper, these pocket-sized morsels are frozen in the snow in traditional Siberian settings to provide nourishment through the winter, while Russians in the cities buy them in bulk from the grocery store as a comfort food during their hectic lives in this day and age.
Parts of Southern Russia have adopted the gastronomic elements of Central Asia. One of these delectable treats include Shashlyk, which is a type of BBQ that sticks meats such as lamb, pork or beef in marinades of wine, vinegar, or fruit juices overnight, and then the next day, it is roasted over an open flame to create a carnivorous experience that will have card-carrying meat-eaters drooling!
Finally, make time to tuck into Pirozhki during your time in Russia. This pastry is a meat pie that contains various types of cooked flesh, along with mushrooms, onions and even rice in the Asiatic portions of the country!