Although the news may give you a drastically different idea of Russia, it’s actually a fairly safe, modern and very fascinating country to visit. As the largest country in the world, Russia is a place of breathtaking scenery, intriguing cities and a unique culture. Here’s my list of the top wonders of Russia you need to see and/or experience:
- Moscow – The bustling capital city of Russia is home to many important attractions. You’ll definitely want to visit Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil Cathedral. If you have time, catch a show at the Bolshoi Theatre. If you’re looking for something more quirky, check out the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games where you can trade your rubles for kopeks and practice shooting and driving like a true comrade.
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Note: Moscow has a lot to see, but it can be a little more challenging to navigate (especially if you don’t speak Russian—many metro signs are only in Cyrillic!). Make sure to grab a city map and metro map (often available for sale in touristic areas or from your hotel or hostel) or get a good app on your phone!
- St Petersburg – Although Moscow is certainly impressive, many people find St Petersburg to be the more interesting of the two cities. The Hermitage Museum is widely considered one of the best in the world—even if you can’t find something intriguing in the millions of artifacts, the architecture of the whole Hermitage Complex is stunning. Even more entrancing, for most of the month of May, St Petersburg never reaches full darkness but instead only falls into twilight—as written about in Dostoevsky’s White Nights.
- Kazan – Moscow and St Petersburg receive the bulk of travelers to Russia, but Kazan, the center of Tartar culture, is another fascinating city to visit. See the Kazan Kremlin and learn about its history in relation to Ivan the Terrible, who destroyed the Tartar fortress that originally stood on this site. Also of note in the city is the Soviet Lifestyle Museum, where you’ll likely feel like you’ve stepped back decades into the past, especially on Sunday afternoons when you’ll find musicians playing popular songs of the USSR.
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- Sochi – This Black Sea resort area has long been popular with Russians, but it’s now famous worldwide for having hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics Games. It’s a great place for outdoor enthusiasts, with a wonderful stretch of beach and boardwalk along the sea and its nearby mountains where you can go skiing, hiking or mountain biking.
- Lake Baikal – Not only is Lake Baikal a monumentally scenic place, but it’s also important geographically: it’s the deepest and largest freshwater lake in the world. Actually, if you put all five Great Lakes together, Lake Baikal would still be larger! There’s some great camping and hiking in the area, or relax on one of the numerous beaches, either on the shores of the lake or on one of its islands, such as Olkhon.
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- Derbent – This city in the northern Caucasus is Russia’s oldest city, with a history going back roughly five millennia. It was once an important point along the trade route between the Middle East and western Russia. Today, you can see the towers and wall of the sixth-century Naryn-Kala Citadel up at the top of the hill or follow the ruins of the old city walls down the hill and towards the sea.
- KIZHI Museum – This is a gem of Russian architecture and culture that is often overlooked. The open-air museum takes up much of an island in the middle of Lake Onega and consists of roughly 90 historical wooden buildings and structures—chapels, windmills, houses and more. The whole island is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but particularly astounding is the 22-domed, 37 meter tall Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior. It can be a bit difficult and pricey to get to the island, but it’s definitely worth the trip!
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- Magadan Oblast – While we’re talking about historical sites, we can’t forget the Russian gulags, where hundreds of thousands of people died from overwork, cold and assorted ailments. The Kolyma Gulags were a horrible place to end up—but now they’re worth a visit if you have time. Not only is it important to reflect on the past, but it’s also fascinating to see the bleak landscape and places such as Dneprovsky Mine, one of the best-preserved gulag sites. It is especially amazing to see how the area has bounced back from a place of suffering to a place popular for activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, rafting and sailing.
- Trans-Siberian Railway – This epic train journey stretches across the entirety of Russia. Although spending a week staring out the window of a train may not seem like the most interesting thing, the real treat of this trip is meeting fellow travelers. You’ll get a real cross-section of Russian culture on the train, including plenty of unique characters. It’s a great way to learn about what makes Russia special.
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- Russian Cuisine – You’ve probably heard of borscht, the popular beetroot-based soup, but there’s plenty more to Russian cuisine. You’ll find plenty of pelmeni (small, meat-filled dumplings), pirozhki (fried bread pockets filled with meat, rice, and carrots or other vegetables), blini (thin pancakes with a variety of fillings that can be either sweet or savory), golubtsy (stuffed cabbage) and the list goes on and on. One thing’s for sure: you’re not going to go hungry in Russia!
Despite the image of Russia that we often see, it’s really an interesting and picturesque country to visit. As the largest country in the world, it has a beautiful variety of culture, food, landscapes and people. Get out and explore the cities and the sights, meet new people, embrace the Russian culture and don’t forget to eat plenty of delicious Russian cuisine!