There’s a lot we can write about Russia. After all, it is the world’s largest country that is transcontinental and spans from Europe to Asia. With 6.602 million square miles to explore, it will take you multiple trips to discover what this vast country has to offer and even then, you’ll still struggle to see it all.
But to make it easy, most people will separate the country into three parts – European Russia in the West, Central Russia in Asia, and Eastern Russia in Asia. While the country is Eurasian, the division between the two is made by the Ural Mountains and Ural River. While the majority of Russia, including Siberia are in Asia, the two most popular city destinations – Moscow and Saint Petersburg are in Europe.
добро пожаловать – Welcome to Russia
Moscow is the capital of Russia, which is famous for its Red Square and Kremlin. Both are strong symbols of Russia’s power and they are located close by to Moscow’s other iconic building, Saint Basil’s Cathedral. But beyond the top icons, the city is filled with old and new. History paves the streets with Soviet reminders, but modernity pushes the city forward. Yet, beyond the stunning architecture, the city is also known for excelling at the performing arts. The Bolshoi Ballet is a world-renowned company that operates out of a historic theater that bears their name. While other big performance attractions are the symphony and circus. With endless entertainment, Moscow is one of Russia’s most thrilling destinations.
Culture and Language
While Russia is most famous for their Tsars, wars, and Communism, the country started off their beginnings with the East Slavs and Vikings. In 862, the Vikings created a new state, Rus’, and united the land around Kiev with two other ancient cities – Staraya Ladoga and Novgorod. During the Byzantine empire’s rule, Christianity became the main religion.
Ivan the Great (Third) was a famous leader of Russia in the 15th century, who helped create the national state. On the other hand, Ivan the Terrible (Fourth) was destroying the country by 1547 with a series of failures, massacres, and divisions. The most famous recent history of Russia includes the start of World War I with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Grigori Rasputin is perhaps the most famous person from this period of time because of his influence over the Tsar and his wife. But with the fall of Rasputin and the Tsar with his family, Russia officially turned into a Soviet state by 1917 with Vladimir Lenin in charge.
In World War II, Russia fought against Germany and became known for having the largest battle during the war. The Battle of Stalingrad started in August of 1942 with massive losses on both sides, but Russia ultimately won. But while Russia was against Nazi Germany, they would eventually turn into enemies for the United States, which started the Cold War. Now, Russia is ruled by a President, though they can’t quite shake their Communist ties and many people will still say that Russia is Communist due to a weak democracy.
But while Russia’s expansive history may shape how the world sees the country, its people are known to still be generous and have excellent hospitality. While most Russians will be rather cold up front and with strangers, it only takes a little time before you are invited in with a smile. You’ll also find that Russians value their family and religion. The majority of people are Russian Orthodox, which has helped people in hard times. The babushka is a famous Russian figure, which is a wise old grandmother who always gives the best advice.
But with such a large country and 11 times zones, you tend to get a huge mixture of ethnicities. There are 190 ethnic groups in Russia, which all vary in customs and traditions. A large percent of the population is Russian, but other major ethnicities include Tatars, Ukrainians, Chechens, and Armenians.
While Russia large, it only one language that is considered to be official throughout the entire nation – Russian. The Russian language is taught in 97% of the countries schools and is used by the government and media. But there are 35 official languages spoken in the country, though none are as widespread as Russian. With a diverse ethnicity, there are an additional 100 minority languages used in smaller communities, but you will likely only hear them if you step out of the touristy areas.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Russia, you will face a difficult and complicated path to getting a tourist visa. Tourist visas are absolutely required to enter the country and they are only given after completing a strict process. It is also expensive with most people paying $210 US dollars. A visa on arrival does not exist and you will need an official visa issued by a Russian Embassy or Consulate in advance to your travel to the country.
In order to obtain a Russian tourist visa, the first step is getting a Russian sponsor. Every traveler must be sponsored by a Russian. Acceptable sponsors include a hotel, tour company, relative, university, or employer. The sponsor will apply for a tourist visa on behalf of the traveler and stay in touch with them throughout their time in the country.
With a sponsor, you can apply with an Embassy or Consulate for a tourist visa. The tourist visa will be stamped with two dates. One for the earliest possible date the traveler may travel to and enter Russia, as well as an exit date. If you do not leave by the exit date, you will be held in Russia until a solution is determined by the Russian government. The only exception that can change the dates would be the case of a medical emergency. An invitation letter with dictate the dates, so it is important that you triple check to ensure they are correct. Any errors in dates cannot be changed once you are in the country and the Russians are willing to issue a visa for as short as 4 days (even if the dates were written in error).
A tourist visa will be valid for as long as 90 days and if you wish to stay in Russia for any longer, you will need to seek the appropriate and corresponding visa. But along with an entry visa, you need an exit visa. The exit visa will be the date that is marked on your invitation letter and states that you can legally leave the country by a specific date. If an error is made or you overstay your visa, you may not be able to stay at hotels and you will be held in the country for up to 20 days, while the government works to issue you an exit visa.
The Russian government is also very strict, and you should be aware that if you lose your visa, a photocopy is not an acceptable replacement. The same issue applies to a lost passport. You would have to go to the US consulate and replace your passport and then ask the Russian government for a valid exit visa. If you are traveling by train, also be aware that if your departure time has you crossing an international border after midnight on the day of your exit visa, you may be held in the country for up to 20 days because you will be considered to be using an expired exit visa. Yes, this means that you will have to leave the country by 11:59pm on the date of your exit visa to avoid problems.
Russian police also have the right to stop you at any time and ask for documents like your passport, visa, and migration cards. So, you should always carry the originals with you. A migration card is given if you stay longer than 7 days and simply means that you registered your visa. Registering your visa is another step to ensure you are legal in the country and is required if you stay for longer than 7 days. You can register through your sponsor or at a local post office. The form requires that your sponsor fills out the top half, while the traveler keeps the bottom half as their migration card. This process is repeated if you travel to another part of Russia for more than 7 days.
Other requirements a valid US visa. Your visa must also remain valid for 6 months beyond your date of departure from Russia. For each visa, you also need one blank page – two blank pages in total.
While it’s certainly a chore to obtain a visa to visit Russia, many people find it worth the hassle. But once you have obtained your visa, it is important that you consider your spending budget while you are planning your trip. Russia is not as expensive as you might think for visits and many people can travel on an affordable budget to the most popular destinations. The most important parts of your budget will be the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
For most people visiting from the United States, they are eager to see European Russia. This means that traveling through Europe is the most convenient way to reach the country. While Russia seems like a land far, far away – it really isn’t. Moscow is usually the top destination for travelers, and it is only 2 hours by airplane from Berlin or just under 4 hours from London. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll still be able to fly for cheap. The average cost of a flight from the US to Russia is about $900 US dollars. You may be able to find more affordable tickets or ones that cost well over $1000 US dollars. Different factors like the time of year that you travel and how far in advance you book your ticket can affect the overall cost.
Russia’s high tourist season lasts from May to October, which means that tickets will be the most expensive during these months. The increase of tourism also drives up the price, so if you want to try and save a few dollars, you should travel in the off season. But be aware that the off season means traveling during the Russian winter, which can be dangerous and not feasible. As well, you should always book your ticket further in advance, rather than waiting until the last minute to get the best price.
Once you’ve gotten your plane booked, the next most important part of your budget will be your accommodation. Russia is a country where you can stay in affordable places or have a lavish and luxurious vacation. Affordable accommodation options would be a dorm bed in a hostel for $11-$13 US dollars per night. A nicer accommodation option, like a hotel, would cost about $31-$50 US dollars per night. The nicest locations would cost you more than $80 US dollars per night and would likely be a 5-star accommodation establishment.
But while sleeping is important, everyone gets hungry, so you’ll also have to budget food and drink. Just like the country is vast and diverse, so it its food. Russian cuisine is influenced by Asia, Europe, Caucasian, and Siberian cultures. Borscht is one of the most famous dishes, which is beet soup with meat and other vegetables. Shchi is a cabbage soup with meat or chicken, which also has a sour shchi version topped with sauerkraut. Pirozhki is Russia’s take on a meat pie and pelmeni are their version of dumplings.
No matter what excited your taste buds, most foods are affordable and cost around $10 US dollars. Smaller dishes in less tourist places can cost as little as $4 US dollars, while the more touristy spots the prices will climb up to $12 US dollars for a dish. But there will always be the occasional fancy place and you could see prices similar to other European cities if you are sticking to staying in, near, or dining at luxury locations.
Russians are also famous for drinking, especially vodka. Inexpensive vodka will cost about $6 US dollars for a bottle, while nicer versions could easily cost triple that price. The cheapest vodka will cost half the price with a bottle being about $3 US dollars. Beer is another popular alcohol that at times can be more or less expensive than vodka. Though an affordable beer would be about $4 US dollar per bottle.
Overall, Russia is not as expensive to visit as other countries and you can easily maintain an affordable budget. The lowest budget would be to spend about $30 US dollars per day, while a midrange budget would have you spending about $60 US dollars per day. For a nicer vacation, you should plan to spend about $100 US dollars per day or more.
How to Get Around
Russia is absolutely massive and let’s be real, you won’t get to see it all on one trip. You won’t even get to see a good chunk of it on a trip. Most people will only see a small portion of Russia because it is so large, and it can be difficult to travel domestically.
Airplanes are the fastest way to travel around Russia, but domestic flights are expensive. Most flights within the country will still cost about $280 US dollars, which is unaffordable for many travelers if they wish to see lots of different places. But Aeroflot and Sibir Airlines are two major companies that are the most popular for domestic flights.
The most affordable way to travel quickly around Russia is to take a train. High speed trains are very popular because they are affordable with most tickets costing about $80 US dollars if you travel from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. However, the Trans-Siberian Railway is famous in Russia and some people choose to travel off the beaten path and take an adventure. While the train goes long distances, you should expect to pay more. Third class on the Trans-Siberian Railway will cost about $112 US dollars, second class about $335 US dollars, and first class is a whopping $560 US dollars for a ticket.
If you are traveling around a specific city, many will have affordable public transportation. Moscow has a metro while smaller cities may have public buses. Most public transport systems cost less than $2 US dollars per day and per person. They are also the best choice because taxis are the less favored way to travel, though they are also affordable.
In very concentrated areas, you can always walk and that is the best way to get around because it is free. But you should always be cautious about your surroundings, keep your belongings close, and never walk alone.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While Moscow is the most well-known city, there are plenty of other cities to visit in Russia that are eager for tourists. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Russia.
Moscow is massive with a population of 12 million people and even more people are eager to visit its streets and view iconic buildings like the Kremlin, Red Square, and onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. But with a difficult past, the city is also filled with museums that can educate you on the country’s complicated relationships. After a history lesson, you can educate yourself further and slip into the performing arts to witness the beauty of human talent.
Saint Petersburg was once the capital of Russia and used to be known as Leningrad, before it was reverted back to its original name. The city sits on the Neva River and is a top destination for cruises. The Hermitage is a world-renowned collection of art or you can go shopping on its famous Nevsky Prospekt.
Known for their onion domes, the Golden Ring is a collection of cities outside of Moscow. The area is known for being a tranquil place to witness the beauty of architecture. With an old world feel, the city is like witnessing history alive.
A blend of Europe and Asia, Kazan is a mix of the past and present. Old sites like the Kazan Kremlin are reminders of the dark past with Ivan the Terrible, while modern buildings represent the future. Kazan is also known for having the highest standard of living in Russia outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
For those who are braving a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Irkutsk is the most popular stop on the route. The historic town is filled with wooden houses, which still remain standing. Plus, it’s close location to Lake Baikal makes it a great place to stay if you decide to head to the famous lake.
Points of Interest
While cities are always a great place to explore, you may find that there are also fun points of interest too.
Lake Baikal is Earth’s oldest lake, as well as the deepest. The lake is absolutely massive and holds 20% of our planet’s fresh water supply. It is located in Siberia and is also one of the clearest lakes in the world. With gorgeous blue water or crystal-clear ice, visitors are eager to hit the lake’s popular resorts for a little vacation time.
Kizhi Island is famous for the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior, which features 22 onion domes with a stone-grey color. The impressive structure sits on its own and stand a full 120 feet high. With a quiet area, you can also explore wooden windmills, barns, and houses.
Valley of Geysers
Located in Far East Russia, the Valley of Geysers is an attraction for scientists and tourists. The area is beautiful with multiple geyser vents and lush greenery. It is also the second largest geyser field in the world.
Mount Elbrus is the highest summit in Asia, which stands at 18,510 feet. The summit is part of the Seven Summits, which is popular amongst extreme mountaineers who wish to climb the seven tallest mountains in the world. One mountain for each continent. Mount Elbrus can be walked and climbed, but a cable car also runs up the side and stops at an altitude of 12,500 feet.
Get Out and Go
While Russia is large and there’s so much to see, you’ll find yourself wanting to return for more. The diversity of the country from its three main parts each attract visitors who are looking for an adventure. Whether you want to see the icons in European Russia or explore the vastness of Siberia, Russia has a little something for everyone to enjoy.