Your most potent memories of Russia are likely to be of the company of the hospitable locals, whether it be sharing vodka shots and slices of kolbassa (sausage) on a Trans-Siberian train, sweating it out in one of the country's famous banyas (saunas) or tucking into shashlyk (skewered meat) al fresco at a dacha (country home).
Russia is so rich in artistic, architectural, cultural and natural treasures that a lifetime of vacations wouldn't be sufficient to experience them all. But after taking in old favourites such as dynamic Moscow, historic St Petersburg and beautiful Lake Baikal, you must dive further and deeper into the largest country in the world.
This vast land offers diverse landscapes of icy tundra and sun-kissed beaches, dense silver birch forests and mysterious lakes, snow-capped mountains and swaying grasslands. Factor in ancient fortresses, luxurious palaces, swirly spired churches and lost-in-time wooden villages and you'll begin to see why Russia is simply amazing.
History and politics, art and architecture, size and geography all distinguish these two capitals, giving them distinct urban personalities. Get to know the ins and outs of each before you pick your side.
Three routes. Seven time zones. Hundreds of stops. Some 9000km. It all adds up to countless encounters and adventures waiting to happen. Jump aboard and discover the best places to detour en route.
Only in Moscow is the public transportation system also a major tourist attraction, adorned with extraordinary ornamentation and artworks. Take a station-by-station tour of this antique marvel of urban design.
Moscow and St Petersburg are linked by a 650km long railway. A week is the absolute minimum needed if you want to experience the cream of both cities. Add on another week if you plan on visiting the Golden Ring towns, the palaces around St Petersburg, and Novgorod, where it's best to stay at least one night.
2 - 4 weeks
The 9289km journey between Moscow and Vladivostok can be done, nonstop, in a week, but unless you're into extreme relaxation we recommend hopping on and off the train, making more of an adventure of it. Spend time seeing the sights in Moscow and St Petersburg and you could easily stretch this trip to a month.
Travel junkies will relish this off-beat trip involving overnight train journeys, hopping around on planes and helicopters, and possibly a bumpy ride by bus through forbidding stretches of taiga and tundra. In summer there's also the chance to relax on a languid river cruise between Khabarovsk and Komsomolskna-Amure.
Got questions? We've got answers. Here, experts from Lonely Planet and Visa answer commonly asked questions about travelling to Russia and managing your money while you're there. Have more questions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: How much will my trip cost?
Answer: [Lonely Planet expert] More than you think. Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world, while St Petersburg is not far behind. You'll pay about £20 for a dorm bed, £60 for a very basic private room and upwards of £120 for a comfortable hotel room with amenities. Meals are £20 per person even at casual restaurants, while the fancy places start at £40 and go all the way up. Fortunately, prices are much more reasonable outside the two capital cities.
Question: Can I use my Visa credit, debit or prepaid card in Russia?
Answer: [Visa expert] Yes. Most tourist areas are well populated with ATMs that accept internationally issued Visa cards - just look for the Visa logo. Similarly, all retailers who accept Visa will clearly display the Visa logo in their stores.
Question: Do I need to let my bank know that I'm traveling before I depart? And who at the bank should I tell?
Answer: [Visa expert] Yes, it is good practice to let your bank know you will be travelling so they don't decline any of your legitimate transactions. Call your bank's credit card customer service centre - the number is usually on the back of your card.
Question: What do I do if I lose my card?
Answer: [Visa expert] Call your bank immediately to cancel your card. In an emergency, you can get a temporary card replacement or cash disbursement in 24-48 hours with the help of Visa's Global Customer Assistance Service (GCAS).
Question: What exchange rate will I receive when using my Visa card abroad?
Answer: [Visa expert] Exchange rates on Visa cards are competitive and may be better than rates available from other sources. You can research Visa's current exchange rate for your destination using the Visa exchange rate calculator. This will allow you to compare it to the exchange rates offered by foreign exchange bureaus. Do remember that there is always a charge for changing currency, no matter where you do it – at a bank, hotel, bureau, online or by buying travellers' cheques. Visa cards are no exception.
Question: If the shopkeeper offers to charge me in my home currency instead of the local currency, is that a good idea?
Answer: [Visa expert] When you travel internationally, some merchants may offer you the option to convert your purchases into your home currency at the register. This is called Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) and means the merchant - not Visa or your issuing bank - is converting the currency. While you may appreciate the convenience of knowing the exact price in your home currency at the point-of-sale, you should be aware that the merchant may charge you for this service. Visa requires that you be given a choice to either accept or decline DCC. In addition, Visa requires merchants offering this service to inform cardholders of the exchange rate including any applicable commissions or fees being charged. Only agree to this do this if you think you are getting a good deal.
Question: What is the best way to access cash when I am abroad?
Answer: [Visa expert] With your Visa card you can access local currency from 1.8 million ATMs worldwide - just look for the Visa or PLUS sign. All ATM transactions require a PIN so make sure you know yours prior to leaving on your trip. Your PIN should be 4 digits as many international ATMs do not accept longer PINs. It's a good idea to contact your issuing bank before you leave and ask if your cards have daily cash withdrawal restrictions.
Question: What is the best way to travel around Russia?
Answer: [Lonely Planet expert] Train travel in Russia is comfortable, affordable and reliable. The only reason to consider flying would be if distances make the train trip too long.
Question: Can I get by speaking English?
Answer: [Lonely Planet expert] You can expect to speak English (and be understood) at most hotels, hostels, tour agencies and other services catering to travellers. Most people walking on the street or working in shops do not speak English. English signage is posted on the streets and in major museums in Moscow and St Petersburg, but not elsewhere in Russia.
Question: Is Russia safe?
Answer: [Lonely Planet expert] Travelling in Russia is just as safe as travelling in other parts of Europe. Petty street crime does exist - especially in Moscow and St Petersburg - so travellers should always be aware of their surroundings (when out on the town, resist the urge to drink yourself silly). There are occasional reports of harassment and violence against individuals with dark skin and/or Asian or African features. Such reports are disturbing but infrequent, and tourists are rarely targeted.
Question: Will I be charged a fee for using my Visa card while overseas?
Answer: [Visa expert] Fees are dependent on your issuing bank and whether they will just charge you the foreign exchange conversion rate or include an additional service charge. Some banks charge an ATM access fee as well. For more details, contact your issuing bank.
Question: What is the best time of year to visit Russia?
Answer: [Lonely Planet expert] Russia's most pleasant and festive season is late spring (May and June), thanks to temperate weather, long days and celebratory holidays. Early autumn (September) is also delightful.
First two weeks in January
An outdoor fun-fest for those with antifreeze in their veins. Teams compete to build elaborate ice sculptures in front of the Pushkin Museum and on Red Square. In 2007, Pushkinskaya pl was the sister site of the first-ever international ice chess tournament, which took place simultaneously on Trafalgar Square in London.
Mid to late February,
St Petersburg's principal dance theatre hosts this week long international festival in the pretty green-and-white Mariinsky theatre, built in 1859 as the home of the Imperial Russian Opera and Ballet companies.
Late March to early April
Two weeks of performances, held in Moscow by Russia's premier drama, opera, dance and musical performers, culminating in a prestigious awards ceremony. http://www.goldenmask.ru/
This three-day avant-garde festival in St Petersburg brings together an array of international figures. Named after the eclectic Russian musician Sergei Kuryokhin, a key part of the Leningrad rock and jazz underground of the 1970s who died in 1996, it features alternative modern music and performance. http://www.kuryokhin.com/eng/
Big military parades are held in Moscow and St Petersburg, celebrating not only the end of WWII but also the breaking of the Nazi blockade, and are well worth attending. The highlight is a victory parade on Nevsky pr, culminating in soldiers marching on Dvortsovaya pl and fireworks over the Neva in the evening.
1st - 10th June
This festival showcases Russian music and attracts a wide range of classical talent. Symphony orchestras, choral groups and string quartets perform nightly in various venues throughout Smolensk with free concerts held beside Glinka Park. Stop by Mir Puteshestvii for details.
Held every year since 1968, the Grushinsky Festival in Samara draws thousands of admirers of bard music - a key element of the informal Soviet adventure travel culture of the 1960s. Due to a split between the organisers there are two festivals held in July, one at the old venue, Mastryukovskiye lakes, and another one at Fyodorvskye meadows.
Tuva's most dramatic festival, vastly less touristy than the Mongolian equivalent, Naadym is your best chance to hear khöömei concerts, watch horse races and to see if Russia's sumo champion Mongush 'Elephant' Ayas wins the khuresh wrestling as usual.
The Kalmyk equivalent of the Mongolian Naadam, this festival in Elitsa is an annual celebration of the Kalmyk epic Dzhangar - a 12-song story about life in the blessed land called Bumba.
This major fashion event is held at the boutique Defile in St Petersburg. A week of fashion shows, parties and symposia allows both established and up-and-coming designers to showcase their latest lines. A second fashion show takes place in April. http://www.defilenaneve.ru/
Ded Moroz (Father Frost) is the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. Father Frost festivals in Veliky Ustyug create several 'high seasons', notably around his 'birthday', 5 July, the weeks leading up to New Year, and other Russian holidays.
Perhaps Moscow's most prestigious music event, this an annual festival is hosted at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, with a month of performances by high-profile musicians and an art exhibit to accompany it. http://www.museum.ru/gmii