Due to the tense internal security environment and lack of commercial flight options in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, travel to the whole of Russia is strongly discouraged and foreign nationals still in Russia are advised to depart as quickly as possible.
The world's largest country offers it all, from historic cities and idyllic countryside to artistic riches, epic train rides and vodka-fuelled nightlife.
Historic & Contemporary
If ancient walled fortresses, glittering palaces and swirly-spired churches are what you’re after, focus on European Russia. Here, Moscow and St Petersburg are the must-see destinations, twin repositories of eye-boggling national treasures, political energies and contemporary creativity. Within easy reach of these cities are charming historical towns and villages, such as Veliky Novgorod, Pskov and Suzdal, where the vistas dotted with onion domes and lined with gingerbread cottages measure up to the rural Russia of popular imagination.
Arty & Adventurous
Whether you’re a culture vulture in search of inspiration from great artists and writers or an adventure addict looking for new horizons to conquer, Russia amply delivers. Tread in the footsteps of literary greats, including Tolstoy and Pushkin, on their country estates. Ski or climb lofty mountains in the Caucasus, go trekking or white-water rafting in the Altai Republic, hike around Lake Baikal, or scale an active volcano in Kamchatka – the variety of possibilities will make your head spin.
Off the Beaten Track
Russia’s vast geographical distances and cultural differences mean you don’t tick off its highlights in the way you might those of a smaller nation. Instead, view Russia as a collection of distinct territories, each one deserving separate attention. Rather than transiting via Moscow, consider flying direct to a regional centre such as Rostov-on-Don, Irkutsk or Yekaterinburg and striking out from there. With a welcome spread of Western-style hostels and hotels around the country and the ease of booking trains and flights online, it's simple to organise this kind of trip yourself.
A Riddle Worth Solving
We won’t lie: bureaucracy and occasional discomfort and inconvenience, particularly away from the booming urban centres, remain an integral part of the Russian travel experience. However, a small degree of perseverance will be amply rewarded: one of the great joys of travel in Russia is being swept away by the boundless hospitality of the people. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Winston Churchill both wrote famous lines about Russia being an enigmatic riddle. Embrace this conundrum and you, too, are sure to find yourself swept away by a passion for Mother Russia.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Russia.
The Armoury dates to 1511, when it was founded under Vasily III to manufacture and store weapons, imperial arms and regalia for the royal court. Later it also produced jewellery, icon frames and embroidery. To this day, the Armoury contains plenty of treasures for ogling, and remains a highlight of any visit to the Kremlin. If possible, buy your time-specific ticket to the Armoury when you buy your ticket to the Kremlin. Your tour starts upstairs, where the first two rooms house gold and silver objects from the 12th to the 17th centuries, many of which were crafted in the Kremlin workshops. In Room 2, you'll find the renowned Easter eggs made by St Petersburg jeweller Fabergé. The tsar and tsarina traditionally exchanged these gifts each year at Easter. Most famous is the Grand Siberian Railway egg, with gold train, platinum locomotive and ruby headlamp, created to commemorate the Moscow–Vladivostok line. The following rooms display armour, weapons and more armour and more weapons. Don’t miss the helmet of Prince Yaroslav, the chain mail of Boris Godunov, and the sabres of Minin and Pozharsky. Downstairs in Room 6, you can see the coronation dresses of 18th-century empresses (Empress Elizabeth, we’re told, had 15,000 other dresses). Other ‘secular’ dress is also on display, including an impressive pair of boots that belonged to Peter the Great. The following room contains the joint coronation throne of boy tsars Peter the Great and his half-brother Ivan V (with a secret compartment from which Regent Sofia prompted them), as well as the 800-diamond throne of Tsar Alexey, Peter’s father. The gold Cap of Monomakh, jewel-studded and sable-trimmed, was used for two centuries at coronations. End your tour in Room 9, which houses centuries’ worth of royal carriages and sledges. Look for the sleigh in which Elizabeth rode from St Petersburg to Moscow for her coronation, pulled by 23 horses at a time – about 800 in all for the trip. A one-hour audio guide is available to point out some of the collection's highlights, or you can download the Armoury Chamber app on your smartphone and use it instead.
This is Moscow’s premier foreign-art museum, split over three branches and showing off a broad selection of European works, including masterpieces from ancient civilisations, the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age. To see the incredible collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, visit the 19th & 20th Century Art Gallery. The Museum of Private Collections shows off complete collections donated by private individuals. What's left in the main building is also impressive, with many masterpieces from the Italian Renaissance. Artists such as Botticelli, Tiepolo and Veronese are all represented. The highlight is perhaps the Dutch masterpieces from the 17th century, the so-called Golden Age of Dutch art. Rembrandt is the star of the show, with many paintings on display, including his moving Portrait of an Old Woman. The rest of Europe is also well represented from this period. The Ancient Civilization exhibits contain a surprisingly excellent collection, complete with ancient Egyptian weaponry, jewellery, ritual items and tombstones. Most of the items were excavated from burial sites, including two haunting mummies. Another room houses the impressive ‘Treasures of Troy’ exhibit, with excavated items dating to 2500 BC. A German archaeologist donated the collection to the city of Berlin, from where it was appropriated by the Soviets in 1945. The Greek and Italian Courts contain examples from the museum's original collection, which was made up of plaster-cast reproductions of the masterpieces from Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as from the Renaissance. The 17th and 18th centuries dominate the 2nd floor, with several sections devoted to Italian and French artists. There is a separate gallery for the rococo period, featuring some appropriate dreamy paintings by Boucher. The main building will remain open during the construction of the new museum complex on ul Volkhonka, which is expected to be completed in 2019. After the opening of the new complex, the exhibits are likely to change locations.
The Hermitage fully lives up to its sterling reputation. You can be absorbed by its treasures for days and still come out wanting more. The enormous collection (over three million items, only a fraction of which are on display in 360 rooms) almost amounts to a comprehensive history of Western European art. Viewing it demands a little planning, so choose the areas you’d like to concentrate on before you arrive. Catherine the Great, one of the greatest art collectors of all time, began the collection. Nicholas I also greatly enriched it and opened the galleries to the public for the first time in 1852. It was the post-revolutionary period that saw the collection increase threefold, as many valuable private collections were seized by the state, including those of the Stroganovs, Sheremetyevs and Yusupovs. In 1948 it incorporated the renowned collections of post-Impressionist and Impressionist paintings of Moscow industrialists Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. The State Hermitage consists of five linked buildings along riverside Dvortsovaya nab. From west to east they are: Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Great (Old) Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre. The Hermitage's excursions office is the place to contact to arrange a guided tour. As much as you see in the museum, there’s about 20 times more in its vaults, part of which you can visit at the Hermitage Storage Facility. Other branches of the museum are the east wing of the General Staff Building (home to the Hermitage's amazing collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works), the Winter Palace of Peter I, the Menshikov Palace on Vasilyevsky Island, and the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory in the south of the city.
At the southern end of Red Square stands the icon of Russia: St Basil’s Cathedral. This crazy confusion of colours, patterns and shapes is the culmination of a style that is unique to Russian architecture. In 1552 Ivan the Terrible captured the Tatar stronghold of Kazan on the Feast of Intercession. He commissioned this landmark church, officially the Intercession Cathedral, to commemorate the victory. Created from 1555 to 1561, this masterpiece would become the ultimate symbol of Russia. The cathedral’s apparent anarchy of shapes hides a comprehensible plan of nine main chapels. The tall, tent-roofed tower in the centre houses the namesake Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God. The four biggest domes top four octagonal-towered chapels: the Church of Sts Cyprian & Justina, Church of the Holy Trinity, Church of the Icon of St Nicholas the Miracle Worker, and the Church of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. Finally, there are four smaller chapels in between. Each chapel was consecrated in honour of an event or battle in the struggle against Kazan. Legend has it that Ivan had the architects blinded so that they could never build anything comparable. This is a myth, however, as records show that they were employed a quarter of a century later (and four years after Ivan’s death) to add an additional chapel to the structure. The Church of St Vasily the Blessed, the northeastern chapel on the 1st floor, contains the canopy-covered crypt of its namesake saint, one of the most revered in Moscow. Vasily (Basil) the Blessed was known as a 'holy fool', sometimes going naked and purposefully humiliating himself for the greater glory of God. He was believed to be a seer and miracle maker, and even Ivan the Terrible revered and feared him. This 10th chapel – the only one at ground level – was added in 1588, after the saint's death. Look for the icon depicting St Vasily himself, with Red Square and the Kremlin in the background.
The Grand Palace is an imposing building, although with just 30-something rooms, it is not nearly as large as your typical tsarist palace. From the start of June to the end of September it is open to foreign tourists only between noon and 2pm, and again from 4.15pm to 5.45pm (to 7.45pm on Saturdays), due to guided tours being only in Russian at other times (it is quite possible to leave your group, however). While Peter’s palace was relatively modest, Rastrelli grossly enlarged the building for Empress Elizabeth. Later, Catherine the Great toned things down a little with a redecoration, although that’s not really apparent from the glittering halls and art-filled galleries that are visible today. All the paintings, furniture and chandeliers are original, as everything was removed from the premises before the Germans arrived in WWII. The Chesme Hall is full of huge paintings of Russia’s destruction of the Turkish fleet at Çesme in 1770. Other highlights include the exquisite East and West Chinese Cabinets, the Picture Hall and Peter’s Study. The Throne Room is the biggest in the palace, with Peter's red velvet throne as centrepiece, while the Picture Hall lives up to its name, with hundreds of portraits crowding its walls. After WWII, Peterhof was largely left in ruins. Hitler had intended to throw a party here when his plans to occupy the Astoria Hotel were thwarted. He drew up pompous invitations, which obviously incensed his Soviet foes. Stalin’s response was to pre-empt any such celebration by bombing the estate himself, in the winter of 1941–42, so it is ironic but true that most of the damage at Peterhof occurred at the hands of the Soviets. What you see today is largely a reconstruction; the main palace was completely gutted and only a few of its walls were left standing.
This imposing, stone-walled monastery is the heart and soul of the Solovetsky Islands. Founded in 1429, it has played various roles throughout its existence: a hermit's retreat, a vibrant religious community, a rebel enclave that held out against the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a fortress victorious against British warships, a gulag for the Soviet Union's damned and a museum. Revived post- perestroika, it flourishes once more as a spiritual institution. The kremlin yard is contained within massive boulder-chunk walls with six sturdy fortress towers topped with conical wood-shingle roofs. These, along with a quivering flurry of church towers and domes, reflect magnificently in Svyatoe Lake. The centrepiece is the 1566 Transfiguration Cathedral (Спасо-Преображенский собор), with its blend of Pomorsky architecture, powerful foundations and whitewashed walls, clusters of domes covered in a dense carpet of wooden scales and a dazzling six-level iconostasis upstairs. Upstairs is the vast dining room, connected to the rest of the complex by covered walkways. Next to it is the Assumption Church (Успенская церковь), a cavernous former refectory with sparse photo-history boards focusing especially on the 1992 return of the relics of monastery founders Saints Zosima, Savvaty and Herman. The sacristy (ризница) upstairs was used to house the monastery's treasures, but many artefacts were carted off by the Bolsheviks and destroyed. The tiny but magnificently mural-covered 1601 Annunciation Church (Благовещенская церковь) is entered through an unmarked door, one floor above the main gate. The prison has been in use since the 16th century, first to house those who'd committed crimes against the faith and later to punish those who'd erred against the state. The harshest punishments (leg irons, dreadful food) was reserved for the 'secret' prisoners who arrived with nothing but accompanying papers stating the conditions in which they should be kept. The monastery complex was heated using three powerful stoves and a series of heating vents that ran through the walls, with underfloor heating used to dry the grain before it was ground into flour. The 17th-century water mill, in turn, was powered by a network of canals that the industrious monks dug to connect the island's 500-something lakes.
The apex of Russian political power and once the centre of the Orthodox Church, the Kremlin is the kernel of not only Moscow, but of the whole country. From here, autocratic tsars, communist dictators and modern-day presidents have done their best – and worst – for Russia. Covering Borovitsky Hill on the Moscow River's north bank, it's enclosed by high walls 2.25km long (Red Square's outside the east wall). The best views of the complex are from Sofiyskaya nab across the river. Before entering the Kremlin, deposit bags (free) at the left-luggage office, beneath the Kutafya Tower near the main ticket office in Alexander Garden. The entrance ticket covers admission to all five church-museums and the Patriarch's Palace. It does not include the Armoury, the Diamond Fund Exhibition or the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which are priced separately. During warm months (April to October), many people try to visit the Kremlin around noon in order to watch the change of guards at Sobornaya Sq in the centre of the fortress. The ceremony involves a few dozen horses and men in historical attire performing sophisticated square-bashing choreography. Photography is not permitted inside the Armoury or any of the buildings on Sobornaya pl (Cathedral Sq).
Although Vladimir Ilych requested that he be buried beside his mum in St Petersburg, he still lies in state at the foot of the Kremlin wall, receiving visitors who come to pay their respects. Line up at the western corner of the square (near the entrance to Alexander Garden) to see the embalmed leader, who has been here since 1924. Note that photography is not allowed and stern guards ensure that all visitors remain respectful and silent. After trooping past the embalmed figure, emerge from the mausoleum and inspect the Kremlin wall, where other communist heavy hitters are buried, including Josef Stalin, the second general secretary, successor to Lenin; Leonid Brezhnev, the fourth general secretary, successor to Khrushchev; Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka (forerunner of the KGB); Yakov Sverdlov, a key organiser of the revolution and the first official head of the Soviet state; Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural chief and the second most powerful person in the USSR immediately after WWII; Mikhail Frunze, the Red Army leader who secured Central Asia for the Soviet Union in the 1920s; Inessa Armand, Lenin’s rumoured lover and a respected Bolshevik who was the director of Zhenotdel, an organisation fighting for equality for women within the Communist Party; Yury Gagarin, the first man in space; and John Reed, the American author of Ten Days that Shook the World, a first-hand account of the revolution.
Moscow's main city escape isn't your conventional expanse of nature preserved inside an urban jungle. It's not a fun fair either, though it used to be one. Its official name says it all – Maxim Gorky's Central Park of Culture and Leisure. That's exactly what it provides: culture and leisure in all shapes and forms. Designed in the 1920s by avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov as a piece of communist utopia, these days it showcases the enlightened transformation Moscow has recently undergone. Activities include cycling, rollerblading, beach volleyball, urban and extreme sports, table tennis and even pétanque. There are 13 bicycle- and skate-rental places around the park, with one conveniently located under the Andreyevsky pedestrian bridge. In winter, the ponds are flooded, turning the park into the city’s biggest ice-skating rink. Art objects pop up throughout the park as part of various exhibitions and festivals, but Darya Zhukova's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art plays the flagship role. There are also numerous eateries in the form of small kiosks, the main cluster being the Gorky Park Food Row.