The world’s largest nation, Russia sprawls across 11 different time zones and is home to more than 140 million people. Needless to say, there are numerous adventures to be had in this vast country filled with cosmopolitan cities, snow-capped mountains and the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake.
Journey with us through a slideshow that will help you figure out where to go on your Russian vacation. For your out-of-this-world dreams, spending a day at the Cosmonaut Training Center can be a thrill. Go for the gold and visit Sochi, a beach resort turned Olympic venue. Or wander through Siberia’s Permafrost Kingdom, where larger-than-life ice sculptures will delight your eyes and a shot of vodka will keep you warm enough to explore the endless underground tunnels.
Venture into a Land of Volcanoes
The Kamchatka Peninsula, located in the Russian Far East, is a spectacular destination for the nature lover. Here you can soak in hot springs, go whitewater rafting and take a scenic helicopter excursion over a landscape dotted with more than 1,000 volcanoes.
If you’re looking to relax in some natural hot water, the Viluchinski thermal springs are in the valley of the Viluch River at the Geyser Hotel, with temperatures ranging from 100 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. There are also numerous hikes showcasing the peninsula’s waterfalls, smoky volcanoes and wildlife (including bears!).
Because the area is both vast and remote, we recommend exploring the area with a private guide or group tour. Alpine Interface, 56th Parallel and Vision of Kamchatka are a few recommended operators.
Learn to Cook Like a Russian
One of the best ways to take home your travel experience and share it with loved ones is by learning to cook a few of Russia’s tastiest dishes. With a cooking class in St. Petersburg, you can discover how to make traditional Russian foods such as borscht, a vegetable beet soup, and pelmeni, a type of dumpling that can be filled with a variety of meats and vegetables.
Viator offers several two- to three-hour cooking classes taught by professional local chefs in St. Petersburg. Not only will they show you how to blend the right ingredients, but they will also teach you about Russia’s rich culinary history. Of course, the best part is the end of the class, when you get to taste the fruits of your labors.
Discover an Icy Underworld
At the Permafrost Kingdom in Yakutsk, Siberia, you can explore a world of frozen tunnels below the earth, filled with exquisite ice sculptures and ancient woolly mammoth tusks. This is one of the coldest places on the planet, with winter temperatures hovering around -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Come in the summer instead, and you can still tour this icy underworld — without the bone-chilling temps outside.
After suiting up in a warm jacket, you will descend hundreds of feet into the earth, traversing an elaborate complex of tunnels. Along the way you’ll see dozens of ice sculptures carved by local artisans, ranging in design from animals to people. Creative lighting helps set the mood, and visitors can even enjoy some local vodka in glasses made from ice.
Make Yourself at Home
A dacha, or Russian summer home, was one of the must-have possessions of the wealthy and middle class in the 19th century. Russian writers such as Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekhov describe these cottages in their writings. They were multifunctional second homes, used as a place to escape the city, socialize, grow vegetables and relax.
ExploRussia offers travelers a chance to spend time in a modern-day dacha with its Soviet Dacha Experience, a two-hour excursion from Moscow. You’ll meet a Russian family who will share stories about their lifestyle today and how it differs from the way they lived in dachas half a century ago. Wander through the garden, pick some veggies and fruits, and enjoy a drink such as tea or vodka.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Two Days in Moscow by RichardNika
“Through a large decorative archway, we saw the Square, complete with the famed domes and towers at the far end. We went through it. Red Square is a huge paved area, wide and even longer, with all the famed domes at the other end. It was crowded with visitors, befitting a summer day.” Read more!
Jump in a Lake
One of the highlights of a trip to Siberia is the stunning Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. Fed by hundreds of streams and rivers, the lake isn’t for fainthearted swimmers; summer temperatures average about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to a wetsuit to stay warm, bring a snorkel — there are dozens of species of fish to see in the surprisingly clear water. You might even spot a few Baikal seals.
If swimming isn’t your thing, consider a boating trip; participants often get to explore uninhabited beaches. You can also go hiking in the surrounding snow-capped mountains, which are a haven for bears, deer and wolves.
Lake Baikal isn’t an easy destination to navigate independently because of its remoteness. Consider an organized trip from a company such as 56th Parallel; its two-night Lake Baikal Cruise package takes travelers to abandoned railways and scenic mountain paths. The company also offers biking, trekking, kayaking and cultural discovery trips.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Trans-Mongolian Trip Report by GregW
“After leaving the Urals, you enter Siberian plains. It’s a lot of forests, open grass plains and boggy, swampy areas. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, as I imagine they are in the forests and keeping a low profile. Approaching Irkutsk the land starts to get hillier heading up towards Lake Baikal. Baikal is a long, thin but very deep lake, holding one-fifth of the world’s fresh water.” Read more!
Go for the Gold
Sochi is a Black Sea resort, best known prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics as a place where the Russian elite would vacation in the summer. (Joseph Stalin had a dacha nearby, which is now open to visitors.) The Games brought new, modern infrastructure, leaving numerous hotels, restaurants and cafes for visitors to explore.
There’s plenty to do, from wandering through botanical gardens to relaxing on the beach. A visit to see the multimillion-dollar Olympic venues is a must; because these buildings are sometimes shut down for local events, you may want to consider booking a tour to avoid disappointment. SochiCityGuide.com offers more info.
Be Dazzled at a Noble’s Palace
Glitz, glamour, intrigue and murder all make up the story of the Yusupov Palace (also known as the Moika Palace), a must-see in St. Petersburg. Ornate decorations fill what was once the richest aristocratic house in Russia; the Yusupov family’s art collection includes more than 40,000 pieces, including works by Rembrandt.
The palace is most famous as the place where Rasputin was murdered by Prince Felix Yusupov and his contemporaries. Today you can see the chamber where the assassination took place, complete with wax figures of the people involved.
The palace served as the Yusupov family home from the early 1800s until the Bolshevik Revolution, when the property was confiscated by the new government. It’s now a public museum. We recommend hiring a guide to ensure a tour in English; GetYourGuide.com is one good resource.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Baltics Cruise Norwegian Star by L v Schalkwyk
“From there we walked through the Palace Square to the bus. Then it was the typical Russian architecture Spilled Blood Church. It was built on the spot were Alexander II was killed by a bomb thrown by a terrorist in 1881. We have seen a lot of churches but this one is very unique. All the murals are made out of thousands of small mosaics.” Read more!
Train Like a Cosmonaut
Ever dream about going into space? At the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, outside of Moscow, you can have a hands-on training experience inside a space station simulator. Incredible Adventures offers a Cosmonaut for a Day excursion that can be customized with various options such as trying on a space suit and training in a vestibular chair. It’s a one-of-a-kind way to discover what it feels like to be an astronaut, but it doesn’t come cheap; the one-day experience has a four-figure price tag.
Take a Bath Russian-Style
The experience of a Russian banya is steeped in history and a whole lot of steam. A traditional Russian bathhouse is a room heated with firewood and filled with wooden benches where bathers can lie down and relax. Part of the ritual is to be smacked with veniks, or bundles of twigs and leafy branches bound together. When you feel warm enough, dip into a pool of cold water or, in wintertime, roll around in the snow.
Today most banyas include the traditional elements as well as options for massages and other modern-day treatments. If you are in Moscow, consider a trip to the Sanduny, Russia’s oldest and fanciest banya. In St. Petersburg, indulge yourself at the Taleon Spa. Sochi’s Parus has myriad options from waterfalls to saunas. If you love the banya experience, you’re in luck — you can find them in most cities and small towns across the country.
Discover the Art of Throat Singing
The Tuva Republic is located in southern Siberia, on the edge of Mongolia, and is best known for khoomei, or Mongolian throat singing. Said to have been developed among the nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia, the practice involves a performer producing a fundamental pitch while simultaneously producing another pitch or two over the first one.
Tours are the most efficient way to get around this remote region. The Trans-Siberian Travel Company offers a four-night tour of the area that includes a stay in a traditional yurt camp, where visitors can witness a throat singing performance as well as a shamanic rite and a traditional local tea ceremony.
Best Time to Go to Russia
Russian winters are long and cold — but travelers seeking great deals and winter activities shouldn’t let frigid temperatures stop them. Russia is beautiful in the snow, and many worthwhile winter festivals take place in the country during the colder months of the year. Summer is the most popular season for tourism to Russia, with autumn a close second. No matter which time of year you visit, it’s important to plan ahead. All foreign travelers need a visa to enter Russia.
Russia on a Budget
Flights from North America to Russia can be quite expensive. To save on airfare, book a flight departing during shoulder season or winter. Russia is a vast country, but train travel is an affordable and convenient way to get from place to place if you’re looking to sightsee extensively. Additionally, many travel providers offer discounted package tours to Russia, which is often a budget-friendly way to see the country. (A package tour will make organizing your trip much easier, as planning a vacation in Russia can be a daunting task.)
–written by Masada Siegel