Russia Holiday Planning Guide
Feared and revered not long ago as the land "behind the Iron Curtain" (and before that as "the land of the Tsars"), Russia is a land of many contrasts. Spreading over two continents, it is also the largest country in the world and one of the most powerful. Founded by a group of East Slavs in the 10th century, it is home to over 160 different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples. They have all left their mark on the land, but the Slavic and Byzantine traditions hold a special place in Russia's rich historical and cultural legacy. The diverse natural beauty includes vast swathes of plains intersected with thousands of rivers, lakes, and dramatic mountain ranges along the southern borders. Arctic tundra, taiga, mixed forests, steppe, and desert-like areas successively carpet the land from the north to the south. Perfectly preserved ancient towns surrounded by mighty kremlins with colorful onion-domed churches attract tourists just as much as the nation's biggest metropolises, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Places to Visit in Russia
Regions of RussiaNorthwestern District
: Many national parks and nature reserves surround St. Petersburg, one of the top Russia places to visit.Central Russia
: Despite the name, Central Russia is the country's westernmost region and is the heart of Russian politics, culture, and economics. Volga District
: Surrounding the massive Mother Volga river, Volga District features a picturesque landscape and is abundant in historical monuments. Southern District
: Boasting the "Russian Riviera" of seaside resorts and the ski resort area of the Caucasus Mountains, Southern District offers diverse attractions for Russia sightseeing. Siberian District
: Take the Trans-Siberian Railway through Siberian District to experience Russia’s North Asian history and scenic landscape. Far Eastern District
: Russia's "final frontier" of Arctic tundra, you'll find Pacific Ocean islands and volcanoes in Far Eastern District, a massive and isolated region. Urals District
: Steppes, meadows, and mountains dominate the landscape of Urals District, a region rich in natural resources. Kaliningrad Oblast
: Somewhat isolated from the rest of Russia, Kaliningrad Oblast's unique mixture of medieval and Soviet architecture continues to draw visitors. Crimea
: The lush seaside region of the Crimean Peninsula serves as a popular vacation destination, but travellers should know that Russia's annexation of Crimea is not universally recognized, leaving the area as a controversial holiday destination.
Cities in RussiaSt. Petersburg
: Majestic palaces, ornate mansions, and enormous cathedrals showcase the influence of Imperial Russia in St. Petersburg, a metropolis brimming with museums and other cultural offerings. Moscow
: Russia's capital and largest city, Moscow draws visitors on a Russia holiday for its brightly colored historical center and architectural heritage. Peterhof
: Named after Peter the Great, Peterhof boasts a World Heritage-listed array of palaces and gardens that is often compared to Versailles. Pushkin
: Easily accessed from St. Petersburg, the “Imperial Village” of Pushkin features some of the best Russian Baroque architecture in the world. Kazan
: The famous Kazan Kremlin built by Ivan the Terrible dominates the skyline of Kazan, Russia's "Third Capital." Sochi
: Famous for hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014, Sochi is actually more popular among Russians as a summer destination for its sandy beaches and lively nightlife. Vladivostok
: Russia's Pacific Ocean port, Vladivostok draws comparisons to San Francisco, Naples, and Istanbul for its hilly streets and busy bay area. Yekaterinburg
: The cultural capital of the Urals District, Yekaterinburg attracts visitors and foodies to its vibrant restaurant scene.
Things to Do in Russia
Popular Russia Tourist AttractionsState Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace
: With over 3 million pieces of artwork from around the world, State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace is home to the world's largest collection of paintings. Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
: Perhaps Russia's most recognizable building, the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is elaborately decorated and contains more mosaics than any other church in the world. Grand Palace
: Visit Great Palace, the summer residence of Russian monarchy, to see glittering halls and Peter the Great's velvet throne. Red Square (Krasnaya ploshchad)
: Red Square (Krasnaya ploshchad) represents one of the top Russia tourist attractions, offering an impressive orientation point for visiting Moscow. Moscow Metro
: One of the largest and most impressive subway systems in the world, Moscow Metro features elegant stations with vaulted ceilings, complex mosaics, and beautiful chandeliers. St. Basil's Cathedral
: Vividly colored onion-shaped domes and an asymmetrical design are St. Basil Cathedral's defining features, causing it to resemble a building from a fairy tale. St. Isaac's Cathedral State Museum-Memorial
: The 19th-century St. Isaac's Cathedral State Museum-Memorial features a large golden cupola offering unmatched views of St. Petersburg. Catherine Palace and Park
: A stunning example of Russian imperial architecture, Catherine Palace was built under the orders of Empress Catherine I and once served as the royalty's summer residence.Moscow Kremlin (Moskovsky Kreml)
: The Russian president's official residence, the enormous Moscow Kremlin (Moskovsky Kreml) has earned the title "fortress inside a city." The State Tretyakov Gallery
: Containing a large collection of Russian art, Tretyakov Gallery in Lavrushinsky Lane includes works by Repin, Kandinsky, and Malevich.
Planning a Russia Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Russia with Kids
Taking kids on a Russia holiday is easy, as the country features a large number of attractions and sites to keep children entertained. When planning a Russia itinerary, consider making Moscow
or St. Petersburg
one of your first stops in order to familiarize the family with Russian culture. The cities also offer a number of fun and exciting places to visit with kids. In Moscow, make your way to the Space Museum
to learn about Soviet and international space programs, or the Eksperimentanium
to explore interactive science exhibits. Take a stroll through Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure
to enjoy play areas, fairs, and a large riverside ferris wheel. In St. Petersburg, kids are sure to love the quirky design of Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
, as well as the fantasy world of Divo Ostrov
, a theme park with more than 30 rides.
Things to Do in Russia with Kids
Russia is famous for ballet, and the State Academic Bolshoi Theater Museum
attracts visitors from around the world to witness famous productions, including kid favorites like "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker." Treat your family to a ballet performance, with the best prices available from the Bolshoi Theatre's own website. If ballet is not your family's cup of tea, check out one of Russia's many puppet theatres. The State Academic Bolshoi Theater Museum
, named after renowned Russian puppeteer Sergey Obraztstov, is a great place to catch a show.
Russia's Southern District
, particularly Sochi
, provides a seaside retreat from the big cities. You can get adventurous at Krasnaya Polyana Mountain Cluster
, an all-year resort for skiing and hiking, or visit Olimpiyskiy Park
to see the venues of the 2014 Winter Olympics as well as an on-site theme park depicting Russian culture.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Russia
Families should not have many problems while visiting Russia tourist attractions, but should remember some common etiquette and behavior. Russians are generally quiet with one another in public, and kids should be advised to follow suit. It is also considered rude for kids to rest their elbows on a table while dining.
On a more practical level, be sure to obtain your travel visas well in advance of your intended travel dates, and guard carefully your family's migration cards when travelling--they are needed to stay at hotels, as well as to leave the country.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Russia
Cuisine of Russia
Russia's size, diversity, and history have contributed to its eclectic and unique cuisine. A Russia vacation would be incomplete without sampling some national and regional delicacies, such as the famous borscht beet soup, or blinis--a savory buckwheat pancake. Russia's culinary foundations include a lot of rye, wheat, millet, and buckwheat, making bread, pancakes, and cereals nearly ubiquitous. St. Petersburg
offer the best of Russian cuisine, from cheap street kiosks to internationally acclaimed fine dining. Stuffed potatoes, blinis, and other "fast food" options are common across Russia, while delicacies like caviar can be found in upscale establishments (though it may cost you more than your entire trip). Note that when dining in Russia, it is best to drink only bottled water and other bottled drinks.
Shopping in Russia
Russia uses the ruble (RUB) for currency, and it is a good idea to bring sufficient cash, as bank cards and foreign currency are often refused. Banks, ATMs, and currency exchange offices offer the best rates.
Some of the most popular Russian shopping items for tourists include wooden Matryoshka dolls, ushanka fur hats, and Russian wristwatches, such as those found at the Petrodvorets Raketa Watch Factory Tours
. Russia also produces an assortment of fine foods and drinks that make great gifts and souvenirs. The distinguished caviar and vodka are great choices, but you might also consider sparkling wine, often referred to as "Russian champagne." Add the GUM Department Store (Glavny Universalny Magazin)
to your Russia itinerary to shop in style while admiring opulent 19th-century architecture.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Russia
History of Russia
Russia's modern history can be traced to the 14th century, when Moscow, previously a principality, evolved into a major economic and religious center as the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Romanov Dynasty remained in power until 1613 and Tsar Peter the Great, through a number of successful wars, expanded the Tsardom and established the Russian Empire in 1721. The Russian Empire became one of the strongest in Europe, undergoing a cultural and political revolution to carry Russia through the Enlightenment. Peter the Great's enormous legacy on Russian history can be found across the country, from theKunstkamera Peter The Great's Antropology and Ethnography Museum
in his namesake city to the Peter The Great Monument
The Russian Empire thrived during the 18th and 19th centuries, which was the era of Tolstoy, Catherine the Great, and Dostoevsky. By the start of the 20th century, however, the Russian Empire was characterized by discontent with the autocratic government, war-weariness, and economic strain. All of these factors contributed toward the the Russian Revolution in 1917, which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and established the Bolshevik (Communist) government. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks successfully overthrew the government and marched through Moscow
's Red Square (Krasnaya ploshchad)
, establishing it as the new capital. The country expanded as the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin until the regime's ultimate collapse in 1991. Today, Russia holds the status of federation under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, while attempting to regain the superpower status it enjoyed before the Soviet Era.
Customs of Russia
Before embarking on a Russia holiday, be sure to familiarize yourself with several customs to ensure a comfortable and trouble-free vacation. Russians are well-mannered and sincere, but often have little tolerance for poor etiquette. In public places and among strangers, smiling is uncommon; though not considered rude, a smile might be interpreted as insincere. Courtesy towards women, while sometimes bordering on chauvinistic, is also a common sight and practice. Paying bills, opening doors, and carrying heavy items for women is everyday and often expected. Other etiquette includes speaking at a low volume in public places, and, like with most travel destinations, avoiding discussions of political or sensitive issues, such as the annexation of Crimea, the former Soviet Union, or the president.
Travelers should also be aware of certain illegal and ill-tolerated behaviors. Homosexuality and same-sex behavior is extremely taboo in Russia; gay tourists are advised to avoid public displays of affection or disclosure of their orientation. Always carry some form of identification with you, such as a passport or a photocopy of it, to properly identify yourself to a police officer if necessary. Travelers are also encouraged to visit the United Nations Human Rights Council website to learn more about xenophobia and other tense situations in Russia.
Holidays & Festivals in Russia
Russia celebrates several national holidays and puts its own spin on other popular ones. Christmas, for example, is widely celebrated on January 7. Nationalist holidays celebrating military and political achievements include Defender of the Fatherland Day on February 23, Victory Day on May 9 to commemorate the end of World War II, and Russia Day on June 12 to celebrate the Russian Federation's sovereignty from the USSR. Many more official commemorative holidays exist, and many unofficial ones are also celebrated.
For more lighthearted and celebratory festivals, spend New Year's Eve in Russia; it's one of the country's most important holidays. Listen to the chimes of theMoscow Kremlin (Moskovsky Kreml)
's clock as it strikes midnight, then watch the fireworks create a backdrop to the brightly-lit St. Basil's Cathedral
. Another popular festival is the Maslenitsa, celebrated in the last week before Lent. Russians celebrate Maslenitsa by eating blinis, ice skating in Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure
, and spending time with friends and family.
Russia Travel Tips
Climate of Russia
Covering much of the European and Asian North, Russia is generally quite a cold country. Winters in St. Petersburg and Moscow average -10 C (14 F), with snow between November and April. Summers are generally hot, especially in the south around Sochi
, where temperatures rise to 35 C (95 F). Further east, the climate is more varied and often more extreme, making summer the ideal time to visit Russia tourist attractions.
Transportation in Russia
Russia is big, making transportation across the country at large rather expensive or complicated. If you're sticking to the west and south, you'll find trains to be the most convenient transportation option. Timely departures and arrivals connect most cities and towns in the country, including many overnight options. Note that all long distance trains in Russia run on Moscow time. For an unforgettable (but very long) train journey in Russia, take the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow
Language of Russia
Russia is the proud lingua franca across Russia, though it is claimed that hundreds of languages are spoken across the immense country. Russian is generally spoken everywhere, and learning a few common words and phrases in Russian--though difficult for English-speakers--goes a long way. English is spoken mostly by young people in the large cities but is virtually nonexistent in rural areas.
Tipping in Russia
Russians have embraced tipping along with capitalism only since the fall of the Soviet Union. A 10 percent tip is customary. When paying for a meal, if more than the exact amount is offered, it will be interpreted as a tip and kept. If you do not want to leave a tip, simply ask for change.