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Posted By Nicole Barton, Sunday, July 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

As the largest country in the world, Russia proves to be a unique destination that can cater to many different tastes. Its expansive land allows for extreme diversity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, tourism has grown rapidly. Its turbulent past and rich culture attracts visitors from all over the world. The most popular tourist destinations are the 2 largest cities- Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both offer stunning architecture, eclectic museums, art galleries and chic hotels.

A Taste of Russian Culture

The biggest challenge facing visitors is the language barrier. While the English language uses the Latin alphabet, the Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet. This makes understanding the written word difficult when reading signs, maps, etc. It’s best to study basic phrases before visiting. You will find that the younger generation is more likely than the older generation to speak English.

The currency in Russia is the Ruble or Rouble. Changing US Dollars or Traveler’s Checks can be done at most banks or bureau de change. Most banks have the same rates but it may be worth shopping around if you have the time. Most places do accept credit cards as well, with Visa and Mastercard being the most common. Some places will ask to see your passport so do be sure to bring it with you.

The food in Russia varies from very basic to extravagant. In the larger cities it is easy to find high-quality cuisine from around the world. Some of the trendier restaurants can be quite expensive so be sure to check the pricing ahead of time. The tap water in most areas in not drinkable and visitors should drink bottled water only to avoid bacteria and giardia, a parasite.

Driving can be difficult, especially in larger cities. Rather than renting a car, consider using buses, trams or trolleys, which are all inexpensive and efficient. The Metro system is by far the most popular way of getting around. It’s a good idea to learn the metro routes before visiting. Taxis can be overpriced and honestly, a bit scary. Many tour companies do offer excursions that include transportation, making it much easier. Hotel concierges can be extremely accommodating in helping you plan your transportation.

There are plenty of souvenir shops to choose from and it’s fun to bring a bit of Russia home with you. Some of the must have souvenirs are hand-painted Russian nesting dolls, authentic lacquer boxes, artwork and the world-famous Russian vodka. Hotels and airports will typically be more expensive than other shops.

St. Petersburg

Peter the Great created St. Petersburg in 1703 to be his "window to Europe”. Since then the city has seen its share of change mainly due to government and war. Fortunately it is now peaceful, and provides a great look at Russian history and culture.

Being the second largest city in Russia, St. Petersburg offers everything a visitor could ask for. There are an unlimited number of sites to see including the Kazan Cathedral, Michael’s Castle, Peter and Paul Fortress and Kanal Griboedova. There really is something here for everyone.

Due to the numerous waterways and canals, St. Petersburg is often referred to as the "Venice of the North”. One especially popular tour is a boat tour through the city’s many canals and rivers. The city is situated on over 40 islands with more than 70 canals and rivers. Its bridges, over 450, are considered by some to be the most beautiful in the world. A boat tour provides a very unique view of how the city is situated and where it came from.

A trip to St. Petersburg would not be complete without a visit to The Mariinsky Theatre, also known as the Kirov Ballet. It was originally built in 1860 as an opera house but 2 decades later ballet was added to its repertoire. Michel Fokine, a past choreographer at the Mariinsky is considered by some to have been the creator of modern ballet. Many believe that it has produced some of best singers, dancers and composers in the world. Due to its popularity it’s best to get tickets well ahead of time.

An interesting phenomenon that occurs here is something called the White Nights (Beliye Nochi.) From mid-May thru early June the nights do not get dark at all, resulting in 24 hours of daylight. The brightest period is typically from June 11th thru July 2nd. This occurs due to the city’s high latitude and northern location. This occurrence is celebrated greatly throughout the city with various festivals and tours.

Be warned, there is an air of danger as you walk down the streets of St. Petersburg. Though the danger is not apparent, there is a colder feeling that most people aren’t used to. Most of the locals seem like they’re in a hurry to get to where they’re going, similar to New York City. However there are plenty of friendly people and some do speak English. A wonderful way to see

St. Petersburg is by foot, but do use extreme caution because ped-estrians definitely do not have the right of way. Most drivers are a bit reckless and also seem to be in a hurry. It’s best to cross with large crowds and avoid taking any risks.

Pick pocketing and petty theft are both common in St. Petersburg. It’s a good idea to keep money in your inner pockets, don’t leave bags unattended and try not to appear as though you have money. With basic precautions you will be safe but it’s better to prepare yourself ahead of time.

The State Hermitage Museum

Situated on the River Neva in the city of St. Petersburg and encompassing 6 buildings lies the State Hermitage Museum. The Hermitage opened in 1764 when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of Western European paintings. The Hermitage is home to more than 3,000,000 works of art, ranging from the Stone Age to the 20th century. Its collected works are so numerous that it would take years to view everything. Some highlights include works from European painters Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Even those not interested in art will appreciate the eclectic collection of works that the Hermitage holds. Due to its size visitors may want to consider a few short trips rather than one extremely long day. Guided tours are offered or you can walk through on your own at your own pace. If you are interested in taking photos a special pass can be purchased for a nominal fee.


Located on the Moskva River lies Moscow, the capital of Russia. With a population of approximately 10 million people, it is the most populated city in all of Europe. It is the most important center of Russia for business, transportation and politics.

Interestingly, you will notice the Soviet past colliding with the capitalist future. For instance Lenin’s Mausoleum now faces a de-partment store. Run-down Soviet buildings lie next to fancy shops. It’s a mix of 2 completely different worlds. These unlikely contrasts are what make Moscow so fascinating and rare.

One of the most popular sites in all of Russia is Red Square. It is an extremely impressive space located next to the Kremlin and is a vital stop for anyone visiting Moscow. While in Red Square be sure to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. Designed in 1924 by Alexei Shchusev, it is now the resting place for Lenin, the founder of the Soviet State. Its black labradorite symbolizes mourning and the red granite symbolizes Communism. Another must see is St. Basil’s Cathedral. You can’t miss its colorful arches, towers, domes and unique pattern. It was originally built in the 1550’s to honor Ivan the Terrible’s capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan.

Located in the core of the city is the Kremlin, which means "fortified town”. The Kremlin contains armories, churches and palaces. Over the centuries rulers have added their own special touches, creating quite a mix of styles. Some of the most striking structures are the Cathedral of the Assumption and The Arsenal. Because the Kremlin palace is an official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, you can only visit part of the Kremlin territory. However, there are many sites to see so be sure to allow for plenty of time.

Russians have always been known for taking pride in their military. Moscow is a great location to view military museums and learn more about the powerful Russian military. Some of the most popular museums to visit are The Red Army Choir, Armed Forces Museum and Stalin’s Bunker.

In the former Soviet Union, statues of Stalin, Lenin and Marx covered the town. Today many signs of the Communist time are still spread throughout Moscow. Sites not to be missed are the Lubyanka and The Metro.

With its incredible style and proud people, Russia is a country well worth a visit. There is a feeling in Russia that you can’t quite put your finger on but it is very unique and mysterious. It is unlike any other place in the world and that individuality attracts many. With basic precautions and an open mind you are sure to leave Russia with memories to last a lifetime.

Photos by Nicole Barton and Shutterstock.
Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Barton.

Nicole Barton is a freelance writer and photographer from Southern California. She enjoys traveling to remote locations throughout the world to photograph nature and wildlife.

Tags:  Moscow  Russia  St. Petersburg 

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