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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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. nicolebarton.com.