Russia has undergone massive changes in the last 30 years. Transitioning from a dilapidated Soviet power to a world leader has caused all sorts of societal change for the average Russian. However, the introduction of Levi jeans, iPhones, and McDonald's hasn't diluted the power and beauty of Russian culture. The countryside of Russia -- away from the glitz and glamour of Moscow and Saint Petersburg -- is especially fascinating.
From the wastelands of Siberia to the coastal cities, right across to Vladivostok overlooking Golden Horn Bay, there are so many destinations to explore throughout this vast country. Russia provides many opportunities to revisit the past, while also giving travelers a chance to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, as well as the many historical sights and architectural wonders it has to share.
If you have always wanted to explore Russia, now is a perfect time, and going on an organized tour will make your trip to this more off-the-beaten-path destination more readily accessible.
Culture & History Tours
If you are interested in any aspect of Russian history -- be it Imperial Tsarist History, the Russian Revolution or the Soviet Era -- you will find plenty of interesting museums and historical sights to keep you busy. From the Museum of the Cosmonauts in Moscow, to the Soviet Lifestyle Museum in Kazan, and on to the cram-packed Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, there is something to please all interests.
While the big cities have the slickest offerings, small towns offer some quirky museums and monuments to visit, too. A tour dedicated to helping you understand Russia's fascinating history and culture will hand-select the best sites for you to experience.
Russia has many areas of wilderness to explore. While still developing, the outdoor activities sector in Russia is growing, with some tourists taking hiking tours coupled with ‘banya’ sessions -- the unique Russian sauna, taken naked (and often shared with half the neighborhood).
At one of the Black Sea summer resorts, you can indulge your passion for ice cream and sunbathing, while winter is full of opportunities to explore Russia's piste areas or the fond pastime of sledding down ice slides. Tours dedicated to exploring the great outdoors will offer different activities depending on the season you're traveling in.
While Russian cuisine might not be to everyone’s liking, there is no denying that they can brew a good vodka. The Russians are pretty proud of their vodka, too, and you’ll have lots of opportunities to taste it during any trip to the country.
With a range of different influences, Russian cuisine features lots of heavy food to help soak up all that alcohol. Delicious borscht (beetroot and beef soup), pelmeni (minced meat dumplings), caviar (fish eggs/roe), and blinis (thin, small pancakes) make up just some of the many delicacies to sample. A comprehensive culinary tour will help make sure you don't miss the best dishes!
Planning Your Trip
There are a few things you need to consider when visiting Russia. Since it's such a massive country, you'll need to be picky about which sites and cities you really want to see, and for how long. You'll also need to think about the time of year you will visit because this will have a massive impact on your trip.
Best Time to Visit Russia
Russia in winter, while beautiful, can be very, very cold. Unless you are prepared to withstand temperatures of less than 5 degrees Fahrenheit, it's recommended to visit in the spring or summer. While the summer months come coupled with long lines at attractions, a tour often gives you the chance to skip the line by issuing your participants pre-ordered tickets. If you plan on visiting Saint Petersburg, make sure you are there between late May and early July, when you can experience the magical White Nights.
What to Look for in a Tour to Russia
The most famous cities of Russia -- Moscow and Saint Petersburg -- are amazing. All first-timers to Russia must see these cities. However, depending on your interests, visiting the rest of Russia is also important. If you are interested in imperial Russian history, for example, you may wish to visit Tobolsk or Yekaterinburg. Sheregesh is known for excellent skiing, and Sochi has both a ski resort for the winter months and a beach resort for the summer.
When looking for a tour, think about what will really interest you. Is it a cultured, city visit, complete with a night at the ballet and museum experience, or a visit to the smaller cities of Russia where you can gain an appreciation for everyday life there? There are tours that offer the opportunity to do both, as well as specialist tours, such as photography.
You should also look at the target audience for each tour agency, and clarify what language the tour will be conducted in. Many tours are actually targeted to Russian nationals or Chinese visitors. Take a look at reviews from former visitors to help you decide whether the tour is for you -- and whether the pace and tour style is appealing.
Typical Tour Cost
Russia is a big country. As a result, tours can be on the expensive side, due to the miles covered. However, there are tours to suit all budgets and travel styles.
A mid-range, all-inclusive week-long tour, covering Moscow and Saint Petersburg and traveling by coach and rail, is likely to set you back around $1800. A hostel option would start at $1200. A longer trip mid-range covering some lesser-known cities (such as Yekaterinburg or Kazan) would be around $3000 and include some longer train trips.
If you really want to splash out, luxury train tours throughout Russia are extremely popular, and you can expect to pay upwards of $5000 for a private compartment, plus visa costs if you head through China, Mongolia, and the Stans.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
For most trips to Russia in summer, you do not need any special gear -- just everyday street clothes that you can comfortably layer. If you are visiting in winter, make sure you have a very warm down jacket and lots of woolen or thermal layers. Adventure style tours might require you to hire skiing or snowboarding equipment, for example, but your tour company will provide the necessary equipment or help you with rentals. Most major cities have standard shops, like H&M and Zara, in case you need to pick up any staple clothing you forgot to pack.
Other Tips for Travel in Russia
The citizens of most countries will require a visa to visit Russia, but the good news is that your tour operator will be able to help you with this requirement, or at least guide you through the process of obtaining a visa in your home country.
When you arrive in Russia (if you are staying for longer than three days), you may be expected to register with the local branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within a set period of time. Your tour agency and hotel will likely do this for you, but it is best to check with them.
If you're a female, remember to bring a headscarf so you can duck into the beautiful Orthodox churches that dot most cities in Russia.
Health & Safety
It might be difficult to obtain certain medications in Russia, so fill any prescriptions in your home country before you go. It's best to carry a doctor's prescription note with this medication when you enter Russia, too. If you have any special dietary requirements (especially if you're vegetarian!) you would be best to clarify that so your tour operator can provide for your preferences, or allow you to bring in your own food. You should avoid drinking the tap water throughout Russia. It is sensible to take a small first aid kit with you that contains basic medications from home, too.
While Russia is infinitely safer than it was during the 90s, you should still remain vigilant. If a police officer requests your passport for no apparent reason, they may be looking for a bribe. If you are ever put in this position, you are best to call over (or phone) your guide, who will speak fluent Russian. Having a Russian-speaking national represent you can quickly help diffuse the situation. Keep an eye on your belongings and pockets. While it is perfectly safe to wander around by yourself during the day, avoid doing so at night and always travel on well-lit streets.