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Home » Russia: A Comprehensive Travel Guide to the Land of Tsars and Tolstoy

Russia: A Comprehensive Travel Guide to the Land of Tsars and Tolstoy

Russia isn’t just a country. It’s an odyssey, a vast tapestry of stories woven through time and spread across a landscape that seems almost endless. Picture a realm so expansive that it makes you question the very concept of borders. From the frost-kissed realms of Siberia in the east to the bustling urban heartbeats of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the west, Russia stretches its arms across eleven time zones, beckoning to those with an insatiable wanderlust.

Walking through its cities, you can hear the murmurs of history, whispers of revolution, art, music, and literature. The likes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky once tread these very streets, perhaps musing over the same profound truths that captivated their readers. And yet, for all its cultural opulence, Russia’s true charm might lie in its quieter corners: the untouched wilderness where nature reigns supreme. Imagine a place where dense forests give way to serene lakes, where the Aurora Borealis paints the sky with a kaleidoscope of colors, and where the only sound for miles might be the distant howl of a wolf or the whisper of the wind through the trees.

But what captures the essence of Russia, even more than its physical beauty, is its soul. It’s in the warm smiles of babushkas selling home-made pies, the passionate strains of a street musician’s balalaika, and in the undying traditions that bridge the past with the present. It’s a country of contrasts and contradictions, but that’s what makes it irresistibly enchanting.

Top Destinations in Russia

Moscow

In the shadows of golden domes and beneath the watchful gaze of historic edifices, Moscow is more than just a capital; it’s the heartbeat of Russia. Walk around the iconic Red Square and feel the weight of history in the cobbled stones, from the fiery resilience of the Kremlin to the whimsical colors of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Yet, a few steps away, modern Moscow buzzes with chic cafes, avant-garde theaters, and the pulsating rhythm of nightlife.

Saint Petersburg

Often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’, Saint Petersburg is a city of canals, grand palaces, and artistic soul. The Hermitage Museum isn’t just a place; it’s an experience, where every corridor and room tells tales of emperors, artists, and epochs gone by. As dusk sets, the city takes on a surreal charm, with the famed White Nights painting the town in a twilight hue, an experience that’s straight out of a dream.

The Trans-Siberian Railway

More than just a mode of transportation, this is a journey through time and terrain. The train chugs along, knitting together the urban vibrancy of Ulan Ude with the vast steppes, dense forests, and the pristine waters of Lake Baikal, often referred to as the ‘Pearl of Siberia’. Each stop is a chapter, each landscape a verse in this epic poem called Russia.

Kazan

Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, is a fascinating blend of Islamic and Christian cultures. The Kul Sharif Mosque stands in harmonious coexistence with the Annunciation Cathedral, making Kazan a symbol of unity and cultural fusion. The city, with its rich tapestry of history and gastronomy, is a testament to Russia’s multifaceted identity.

Sochi

Best known for hosting the Winter Olympics, Sochi is where the mountains kiss the Black Sea. It’s a haven for sun-seekers and snow enthusiasts alike. With its subtropical climate, palm-lined promenades juxtapose against the snowy peaks in the distance, making it a destination for all seasons.

Another notable mentions: Altai Republic, Kaliningrad region, Vladivostok, Kamchatka Peninsula, Caucasus (Dagestan and other Republics), Baikal lake.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal

Travel Tips for Russia

To truly absorb Russia, it’s vital to be well-prepared.

Documentation & Visas

Russia is strict about its entry requirements. Ensure you have a valid passport with at least six months’ validity beyond your planned exit date. Most travelers will need a visa, which often requires an invitation or voucher from a Russian host or tour operator. Citizens from the following 55 countries can apply for a Russian electronic visa through this website: electronic-visa.kdmid.ru. You don’t need to arrange an invitation from Russia or book hotels and flights for evisa. Citizens of UK and USA are not eligible for electronic visa.

Russia Launches E-Visa for Citizens of 55 Countries

Language Barrier

While major cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg have a fair number of English speakers, it’s not widely spoken throughout the country. Consider learning a few basic Russian phrases or carrying a phrasebook (or Google Translate app).

Currency & Payments

The official currency is the Russian Ruble (RUB). While major cities have a plethora of ATMs and accept credit cards, foreign cards do not work in Russia since March 2022. Visa and Mastercard followed sanctions that were imposed on Russia after invasion of Ukraine.

You can open local debit card and use it for payments.

Dress Appropriately

Russia, especially in its churches and monasteries (and mosques), requires modest dressing. Women should consider bringing a headscarf and both genders should wear clothing that covers the knees and shoulders when visiting religious sites. The winters can be brutally cold, so if you’re visiting during this time, pack accordingly.

Stay Connected

While Wi-Fi is commonly available in hotels, cafes, and some public areas, consider getting a local SIM card if you need consistent connectivity. They’re relatively inexpensive and widely available.

Train Travel

The rail network in Russia is extensive, punctual, and an experience in itself. The Trans-Siberian Railway, for example, is more than just a mode of transport; it’s a journey through the heart of Russia. Always book tickets in advance, especially during peak seasons.

Safety & Etiquette

While Russia is generally safe for tourists, always be aware of your surroundings, especially in crowded places. When it comes to etiquette, remember that while Russians might appear reserved initially, they are warm and hospitable. Avoid discussing politics, or war in Ukraine (you might end up in jail).

Tipping

Tipping is becoming more commonplace, especially in restaurants and cafes. A tip of around 10% is considered good etiquette if you’re satisfied with the service. Tips is not expected for counter service.

Time Zones & Jet Lag

Russia spans 11 time zones, so plan your internal travel and activities with this in mind. Give yourself time to adjust if you’re hopping across multiple zones.

Off the Beaten Path: Hidden Gems in Russia

Russia, with its sweeping landscapes and historic cities, offers more than just the traditional tourist attractions. For those with an adventurous spirit Russia hides treasures that await discovery. Here are some of Russia’s hidden gems:

Kizhi Island: Wooden Wonders on Lake Onega

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kizhi Island is known for its awe-inspiring wooden churches, particularly the Church of the Transfiguration with its 22 domes. The island becomes even more magical under the northern lights’ glow.

Dargavs: The City of the Dead

Situated in North Ossetia, Dargavs is an ancient necropolis consisting of over 90 stone crypts. Steeped in mystery and legend, it offers a unique insight into the region’s history and customs.

Ruskeala Mountain Park: Nature’s Masterpiece

Once a marble quarry, Ruskeala is now a national park, with its crystal-clear lakes and marble canyons. Located in Karelia, it’s an oasis of natural beauty, perfect for trekking and boat trips.

Oymyakon: The Pole of Cold

Regarded as the coldest inhabited place on Earth, Oymyakon in Yakutia challenges travelers with its extreme temperatures. But for those willing to brave the cold, the stark, icy landscapes and the warm hearts of the locals offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Suzdal: A Trip Back in Time

Part of the Golden Ring of historic cities, Suzdal seems frozen in time. With its wooden cottages, medieval monasteries, and periodic festivals showcasing traditional Russian crafts and music, it’s a charming detour from the urban hustle.

Mount Elbrus: Europe’s Rooftop

Tucked in the Caucasus Mountains, Mount Elbrus is Europe’s highest peak. While it attracts mountaineers, its surrounding valleys, hot springs, and local Circassian culture make it a multi-faceted destination.

Kislovodsk

Samara

In the sun-drenched months, Samara’s residents affectionately dub their way of life as “Volga hedonism”. It’s a city where, come summer, every other individual saunters into their workplace with remnants of the beach, sand trailing from their shoes. The local brew, “Zhiguly”, becomes the favored complement to a midday meal, and sunsets, painted in hues of passion and warmth, are best enjoyed by the shoreline. Weekends reserved for escapades across the river, tents pitched ready for adventures.

Samara Travel Guide

Weather and Best Time to Visit Russia

Russia, with its expansive geographical spread, experiences a diverse climatic range. Its vastness means it spans everything from frigid Arctic conditions in the north to more temperate climates in the south.

Generally, Russian winters, especially in Siberia, can be intensely cold with heavy snowfalls, while summers are relatively warm but short. For travelers seeking the classic Russian winter experience, complete with snow-laden landscapes and winter festivities, December to February is ideal.

However, if milder temperatures and extended daylight hours are more appealing, consider visiting during the late spring to early summer months, from May to July. This period, characterized by blossoming landscapes and pleasant weather, is often considered the best time to explore both the major cities and the countryside.

The famed White Nights of Saint Petersburg, with nearly 24 hours of daylight, also occur during this time, offering a unique cultural and visual treat. Always bear in mind, though, that Russia’s sheer size can lead to varied conditions across regions, so tailor your plans depending on the specific area of interest.

How to Travel to Russia in 2023?

Presently, Russia faces numerous sanctions. This has led many airlines, especially those from Europe and the USA, to be restricted from entering Russian airspace. However, a few European carriers continue their operations, notably Air Serbia, Turkish Airlines, and other Turkish-based airlines like Pegasus. Middle Eastern Airlines also maintain flights to destinations like Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Attractive deals are available on websites of airlines such as Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, and Gulf Air. Moreover, Chinese airlines maintain their routes to Russia.

For a comprehensive view of flight routes to Russia, you might want to check Flightradar or FlightConnection websites.

If flying isn’t your preferred mode, consider entering Russia by land. Foreigners can traverse through various border checkpoints adjoining countries like Finland, Norway, Poland, the Baltic nations, Georgia, Kazakhstan etc.

Is it Ethical to Travel to Russia in 2023?

Many might question whether it is ethical to travel to Russia under the current circumstances. Russia initiated a war against Ukraine in February 2022, which continues to this day. Russia has found itself under numerous sanctions, and the attitude towards Russian authorities and people in many countries is extremely negative.

There are virtually no foreign tourists in Russia at the moment – Chinese tourists have not massively returned, tourists from Europe and the USA are refraining from traveling to Russia either due to moral reasons, visa difficulties, or issues with payment cards (Visa and Mastercard are not operational in Russia). Tourists from other countries rarely traveled to Russia.

We are not prepared to provide a definitive answer to the question “Is it ethical to travel to Russia in 2023?”. Each individual will need to answer this question for themselves. However, we are ready to provide you with practical information about traveling to all countries around the world, including Russia.

Kazan Kremlin

What is it like to travel in Russia now? Do Visa and Mastercard work there?

Suhas Mahajan, a traveler, recently posted his experience of entering Russia on the Facebook group ‘Every passport stamp‘. He crossed from Kazbegi to Vladikavkaz via the Lars Checkpoint, noting that his Indian passport made the process simple. He obtained a tourist visa from the ‘Russia Visa Application Center’ in Tbilisi within a week:

“I recently crossed from Kazbegi to Vladikavkaz at the Lars Checkpoint. It was easy for me being an Indian passport holder. I needed a tourist visa which I could obtain within a week from ‘Russia Visa Application Center’ in Tbilisi (Russia has since reintroduced the E-Visa program, so it’s more convenient now). For the border crossing, it’s best to take a shared/private taxi, preferably having Russian license plate, otherwise there is a slightly longer process for Georgia licensed cars. Anyway, the driver will take care of the car formalities. As a traveler, you need to get off the car. First you will clear immigration on Georgia side, then on Russia side.

The interrogation on Russia side varies depending on your nationality – it’s more difficult for Western passport holders these days. For me, it was done easily at the roadside counter itself, I wasn’t called inside for any further inspection. The immigration officer at the counter just asked me to wait a bit while she made a few calls to her supervisors to confirm my case. Then she stamped me in. My taxi driver was surprised because he assumed that I will be called in and take a long time to clear. We had mutually agreed that he would wait for up to 1 hour in case I get delayed -because there were other passengers sharing the taxi too. So, in case you are delayed and the taxi has left, then you can hitch a ride easily or find another taxi going to Vladikavkaz.

On the way to Vladikavkaz after clearing the immigration earlier, there is one more checkpoint where the officer asked me to get out of the car for further questioning. However, my driver jokingly told him “The guy doesn’t speak Russian and you don’t speak English. Why waste your time?!” So the officer just let us go!😅

In case you need, I have contacts of a few drivers who usually go from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, but it’s also easy to just show up at Tbilisi’s Didube Bus Terminal in early morning and find a taxi going to Vladikavkaz. I heard that there are usually no taxis from Kazbegi to Vladikavkaz unless you arrange your pickup with the driver coming from Tbilisi – I am not sure about it though.

Regarding currency exchange, it’s best to buy some Rubels from Tbilisi. The exchange rate in Kazbegi is much less favorable. Once in Vladikavkaz, you can buy more Rubels with USD cash from this exchange shop: https://yandex.com/maps/org/obmen_valyuty/176386493477 It had the best rate (90 Rubels for 1 USD).

If you’re staying longer in Russia, it’s best to open a Sberbank account and get yourself a Debit Card which I could do easily within 30 minutes from this Sberbank branch in Vladikavkazhttps://maps.google.com/?cid=5238313623896935011&entry=gps However, before going there, get yourself a SIM card (either MTC or Megafone) as it will be required to register the bank account and receive alerts for every transaction you do with the Debit Card. You can always buy Rubels with USD cash and deposit it in your Sberbank account at most ATMs.

Having a Sberbank Debit Card was extremely convenient as I could use it to order Yandex taxis, book train tickets on https://eng.rzd.ru/ , book accommodation on Ostrovok App, book flights on domestic airlines, and tap-pay for subways in SPB and Moscow. As you know, all of this is currently impossible using foreign cards, so having a local debit card made traveling so much easier!”’

Articles about Russia

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