Think Russia is too hard, too risky, too unfamiliar? Think again. Once famous mostly for its repressive regime and Soviet bureaucracy, Russia has cast off its gloomy past and developed into a lively, hip region full of contrasts.
Moscow and St Petersburg are two of the best-known cities, but there are many other experiences that will more than satisfy. Kazan, sometimes called ‘the third capital’, is more than 1000 years old and still contains an authentic Tatar settlement. The ‘Golden Ring’ is a group of ancient medieval cities around Moscow that evoke the days of black princes, white knights, chivalry and damsels in distress. Or you can take the Trans-Siberian Railway and see over 80 cities, plus the Ural Mountains, the woods of Siberia, Lake Baikal, and much more.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s lasting influence on the culture, society and customs of Russia is reflected in its many beautiful cathedrals. The exotic golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, the world’s tallest Russian Orthodox cathedral or the iced cupcake-like decorations of St Basil’s Cathedral give a flavour to the landscape unlike anything else in the world. There are also many beautiful religious paintings and mosaics of icons.
A luxurious cruise along the Volga River is a great way to see the country and experience its history at a more leisurely pace. These run between Moscow and St Petersburg and usually include on-land tours of the major cities.
Russia has been home to many famous authors – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gogol – and visiting the homes where they lived and wrote gives a wonderful understanding of their thoughts and dreams. There are also regular concerts of inspiring music by composers such as Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Borodin.
No-one parties like the Russians. One of the best times of the year to visit is around the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg (annually June – July) and also the Mid-Summer’s Eve Festival in Moscow (June). Both events have plenty of street fun, great traditional food (and drink) and lively performances. Even better if you can tie in a visit with the four-yearly Moscow International Ballet Competition – past winners have included Mikhail Baryshnikov, Julio Bocca and Patrice Bart – so get your tutu and Tchaikovsky on for a night full of beauty and grace.
Winter turns the landscape into a sparkling wonderland of ice and snow, and it is a very festive time, especially around the New Year with lots of entertainment, parties and fun. Muscovites in particular like to dress up so take your best winter gear to avoid looking like a tourist. Temperatures usually range from -20 to -10 in the major cities, and occasionally can get down to -40 but this is rare. However, in the interior temperatures as low as -70 have been recorded, so dress for the region.
If you are after a cultural experience, many people are on holiday in August and the theatre and ballet companies normally stop operating and go on tour at the end of July.
Russia is still somewhat of an enigma to many people and not yet a regular tourist spot. Some parts of Russia carry safety warnings and if you are planning a visit it is good to be well-prepared and informed.
However, it is becoming a tourist mecca among the more adventurous and those searching for a different experience. We recommend you read our article ‘5 Risks and 5 Rewards of Travelling to Russia’ for some tips, and also visit the Smartraveller website for the latest travel advisories.
Most full-service air carriers including Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Thai Airways, British Airways and Emirates fly to Moscow if not the other major airports.
Moscow connects by train to most major cities in Eastern Europe, including Warsaw, Prague, Tallinn, Minsk and Budapest. St Petersburg is connected via train to cities including Berlin, Tallinn, Helsinki and Budapest.
The trains are reliable and on time. It is easy to fly into one of the major cities and then take the train across the country – less trouble than a flight and a much more authentic way to see the country.
Take precautions against pickpockets targeting foreigners – especially in Moscow and St Petersburg.
There is an ongoing risk of terrorism in Russia, which is expected to heighten around the time of the Olympics.
Your travel may be disrupted due to severe weather in winter – snow and ice, storms and blizzards.
Health risks include tick-borne encephalitis, rabies, giardia (from tap water), infectious diseases such as typhoid, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, diphtheria and tuberculosis, among others.
Public medical facilities in the cities in Russia are well below Australian standards and quite primitive in the regional areas. Private facilities may require upfront payment or proof of travel insurance before treating you.
Find out more in our article ‘5 Risks and 5 Rewards of Travelling to Russia’.
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