- 2 Weeks
Most first-time visitors to Russia have both Moscow and St Petersburg high on their wish list of places to visit. Around both cities are worthwhile side-trip destinations that provide an insight into both rural and royal life.
Start in Moscow where the Kremlin, Red Square, the Tretyakov Gallery, a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre and riding the grand metro system must all be factored into your schedule. Stretch your legs in the revamped Gorky Park and along the embankments by the Moscow River.
Break your journey between the two big cities at tourist-friendly Veliky Novgorod. It’s home to an impressive riverside kremlin, ancient churches and a wonderful open-air museum of wooden architecture.
The historic heart of St Petersburg offers the incomparable Hermitage and Russian Museum, as well as the opportunity to cruise the city’s rivers and canals. Enjoy some of Russia’s top restaurants and bars, and attend first-rate performances at the Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky Theatres.
The Trans-Siberian Odyssey
- 4 Weeks
The classic Russian adventure is to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway, an engineering wonder that spans, and holds together, the world’s largest country. So that you can finish up with a grand party in Moscow or St Petersburg, go against the general flow by commencing your journey on the Pacific Coast.
Situated on a stunningly attractive natural harbour, the port of Vladivostok is worth a couple of days' sightseeing before boarding the train. An overnight journey west will take you to your first stop at Khabarovsk, a lively city with a lingering tsarist-era charm located on the banks of the Amur River.
Two more days down the line hop off the train at Ulan-Ude, the appealing capital of Buryatiya, where Russian, Soviet and Mongolian cultures coexist; from here you can venture into the steppes to visit Russia’s principal Buddhist monastery, Ivolginsk (Ivolga) Datsan.
The railway then skirts around the southern shores of magnificent Lake Baikal. Allow at least three days (preferably longer) to soak up the charms of this beautiful lake, basing yourself on beguiling Olkhon Island. Check out historic Irkutsk on the way to – or back from – the lake.
Flush with oil wealth, happening Krasnoyarsk, on the Yenisey River, affords the opportunity for scenic cruises along one of Siberia’s most pleasant waterways. Siberia's capital of Novosibirsk offers big-city delights, including the gigantic Opera & Ballet Theatre. Detour slightly from the main Trans-Siberian Railway line to Tomsk, the ‘cultural capital of Siberia’, to hang with its lively student population and admire the city’s treasure trove of wooden architecture.
Crossing the Urals into European Russia, spend a day or so in Yekaterinburg, a historic, bustling city well stocked with interesting museums and sites connected to the murder of the last tsar and his family. Perm is also doing an excellent job of reinventing itself as a cultural centre; use it as a base from which to make trips to an ice cave at Kungur and the Gulag labour camp Perm-36, preserved as a museum.
Finally, take a reviving break in the Golden Ring towns of Yaroslavl or Vladimir, which is also the access point for the idyllic village of Suzdal: all are stacked with beautiful, old onion-domed churches. You should then be fortified for the bustle of Moscow and St Petersburg.
Lakes of the Russian North
- 3 Weeks
This water-themed journey towards the Arctic Circle covers historic towns, lovely lakes, sublime landscapes and incredible examples of traditional wooden architecture.
Top up on big-city culture and fun in St Petersburg, then take the train to Petrozavodsk to access Lake Ladoga and the island of Valaam, home to a beguiling working monastery. Return to Petrozavodsk, where you can board a hydrofoil that will zip you across Lake Onega to the island of Kizhi, an architectural reserve that includes the astounding Transfiguration Church, a symphony of wooden domes, gables and decoration.
The White Sea is the location of the Solovetsky Islands; the beautiful landscapes and monastery here were also the setting for some of the most brutal scenes in Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. More offbeat adventures, including top fishing sites, await in the Kola Peninsula.
Finish in Murmansk by checking out a decommissioned nuclear icebreaker and the giant concrete soldier Alyosha. In the summer, the sun never fully sets, while in winter you may witness the amazing northern lights.
Volga Route to Astrakhan
- 3 Weeks
Follow the mighty Volga as it flows east from Russia's capital to the Caspian Sea, stopping off at fascinating towns and cities along the way.
Starting in Moscow, head east towards Nizhny Novgorod where the river can be viewed from above on a cable-car ride. Spend a day or so here enjoying the town’s kremlin and museums. Consider making a day trip by hydrofoil to Gorodets, known for its folk arts.
The next major stop is the intriguing Tatarstan capital of Kazan with its World Heritage Site–listed kremlin that includes an enormous mosque and a small satellite branch of St Petersburg’s Hermitage. The Volga continues to guide you south past Lenin’s birthplace of Ulyanovsk and Samara, from where you could go hiking in the rocky Zhiguli Hills or search out the town’s several offbeat design and cultural sights.
The 17-hour train journey to Volgograd, a city entirely rebuilt after Russia’s bloodiest battle of WWII, is worth it to see the amazing 72m-tall statue of Mother Russia Mamaev Kurgan. The Volga spills into the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan, the jumping-off point for exploring the glorious natural attractions (including rare flamingos) of the Volga Delta; this is the home to the endangered sturgeon, the source of Beluga caviar.
Siberia’s Deep South
- 4 Weeks
This journey, in the footsteps of the Siberian conqueror Yermak Timofeevich and the exiled writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, covers some of Siberia’s lesser-known locations.
Begin in the oil-rich city of Tyumen, which includes several picturesque areas of traditional architecture. Journey northeast to Tobolsk, whose splendid kremlin lords it over the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers; the last tsar and his family were exiled here before their fateful journey to Yekaterinburg.
Next, head south to Barnaul, the gateway to the mountainous Altai Republic. Here you can arrange a white-water rafting expedition or plan treks out to the pretty village of Artybash and beautiful Lake Teletskoe. Stop in Gorno-Altaisk to register your visa. Drive along the southern section of the panoramic Chuysky Trakt, a helter-skelter mountain road leading to yurt-dotted grasslands.
Return from the Chusky Trakt to Biysk, take a bus to Novokuznetsk and then a train to Abakan to arrange onward travel to Tuva. This remote and little-visited region, hard up against Mongolia – with which it shares several cultural similarities – is famed for its throat-singing nomads and mystical shamans. Kyzyl has a good National Museum and Cultural Centre and can be used as a base for expeditions to pretty villages and the vast Central Asian steppes.
Adventures in the Caucasus
- 3 Weeks
The violence in parts of the Caucasus in recent decades has put off visitors, but this stunningly beautiful and multifaceted region of Russia is actually an amazing and, for the most part, safe place to travel, offering beaches, mountains and a fascinating mix of cultures.
Start in cosmopolitan Rostov-on-Don, where you can take a stroll or cruise along the Don River. Upriver it's worth making a day trip to the Cossack capital of Starocherkassk. Take an overnight train south to the coastal resort of Sochi to experience the glamour of the Russian Riviera as well as Stalin's extraordinary dacha. Next, head inland on another overnight train to the relaxing Mineral Waters spa town of Kislovodsk. Hire a taxi for a spectacular journey over the Gum-bashi Pass to the even more stunning mountain resort of Dombay. After a few days of hiking or skiing (depending on the season), hop on a series of marshrutky (fixed-route minibuses) via Nalchik to the big daddy of the Greater Caucasus range, Mt Elbrus. If you're planning to climb Europe's tallest peak, you'll need to set aside at least a week. If not, ride the cable cars up the mountain for out-of-this-world views.
Russian Far East circuit
- 4 Weeks
Travel in the Russian Far East isn't so much a holiday as an expedition. This epic itinerary involves overnight train journeys, hopping around on planes and helicopters, and bumpy bus rides through forbidding stretches of taiga and tundra.
Spend a few days in the booming capital of the region, the port of Vladivostok, taking in its beautiful location, thriving food and bar scene, great new arts centre and oceanarium, and constantly improving infrastructure. Next, head north to the attractive city of Khabarovsk by the Amur River, using this as a base for a side trip to Birobidzhan, the sleepy yet interesting capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region. Continue west to lively Blagoveshchensk with its splendid tsarist architecture (China is on the opposite bank of the Amur River).
An overnight train will transport you to Tynda, the main hub on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), which has a museum dedicated to this other Trans-Siberian rail route. Continue by train to Neryungri, where you have a choice: either fly or endure a very bumpy all-day ride in a Russian UAZ 4WD or van to Yakutsk, the extraordinary permafrost-bound capital of the Sakha Republic. In Yakutsk, visit the Permafrost Kingdom and Mammoth Museum. If it’s the summer sailing season, cruise to the scenic Lena Pillars on the Lena River.
Backtrack to Neyrungri, reboard the BAM and take it through to the attractive city of Komsomolsk-na-Amure, built from scratch in the 1930s and decorated with some amazing Soviet-era mosaics.
Return by train to either Khabarovsk or Vladivostok, from where you can fly over the Seat of Okhotsk for a spectacular climax to the trip in Kamchatka. Be prepared to spend several days planning your outdoor adventures (and likely waiting for good weather) in the volcano-studded peninsula’s capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Splash out on a helicopter tour to the amazing Valley of the Geysers, the bear hot spot of Lake Kurilskoe or the fuming caldera of Mt Mutnovskaya. Finally, make your way north to the lovely Evenki village of Esso, friendly to independent travellers with cheap guesthouses, public hot springs and well-mapped trails for trekking.