When planning a trip to the largest country in the world, it's best to establish your travel priorities. The vast majority of visitors are going to want to spend time in Moscow and St Petersburg; both of these historic cities deliver the goods in terms of memorable sights and comfortable facilities, and function as bases for trips further afield to locations in Western European Russia or the Golden Ring. Siberia’s splendid natural attractions are pretty irresistible but you’re going to need time to see this vast area, which is more manageable when split into west and east regions. To get fully off the beaten track, head to the Russian Far East, Northern European Russia or the Caucasus.
The illustrious Tretyakov and Pushkin Galleries are only the beginning of the art in Moscow, where contemporary artists and their patrons are taking over former factories and warehouses to display their works.
The Kremlin shows off the splendour of Muscovy’s grand princes. St Basil’s Cathedral recounts the defeat of the Tatars. And on Red Square, Lenin lies embalmed.
The city’s classical performing arts are still among the best in the world. Nowadays, even the most traditional theatres are experimenting with innovative arrangements and cutting-edge choreographies.
Churches & Icons
Admire the quintessentially Russian images of golden cupolas and whitewashed monastery walls guarding stunning medieval frescoes and icons encased in richly decorated altars.
From Vladimir to Yaroslavl, drive or cycle the picturesque A113, which skirts through dark coniferous forests, sun-filled birch-tree groves and neat villages of brightly painted log houses and dilapidated churches.
Wake up in a gingerbread cottage, plunge into the nearby lake or river, savour your breakfast bliny and then take it easy for the rest of the day in a garden chair, with a book and a jar of freshly picked strawberries for company.
Grand imperial palaces line the embankments of the Neva River, its tributaries and canals. Restoration over the past two decades has been painstaking – and the results are breathtaking.
Everything about St Petersburg is revolutionary: from Peter the Great’s determination to forge a new Russia by opening the country to the rest of Europe, to Lenin’s leadership of a coup in 1917, which led to the creation of the world’s first communist state.
The Hermitage collection is unrivalled anywhere else in the country. The Russian Museum groans under the weight of its unique collection of Russian paintings, from icons to the avant-garde.
Western European Russia
The formidable stone fortresses of early Rus trading towns such as Veliky Novgorod, Pskov and Smolensk stand today as majestic backdrops to historical explorations.
Enter the ancient monastery at Pechory or the icon-crammed cathedrals of Veliky Novgorod and Smolensk to witness the revival of Orthodox Christianity in the region where the religion originally took root centuries ago.
The family estates of Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy provide insight into the country life of the gentry in the 19th century. In Staraya Russa, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s home looks as if the writer has only just popped out for a stroll.
A rebuilt Gothic cathedral and the city’s gates and fortifications are fragments of the time when Kaliningrad was Königsberg in the kingdom of Prussia.
Learn about maritime history at the Museum of the World Ocean and be dazzled by artworks carved from petrified tree resin at the Amber Museum, both in Kaliningrad. Be charmed by the sculptures and gardens at the Herman Brachert House-Museum near Svetlogorsk.
Discover some of Russia’s best beaches at Yantarny and Zelenogradsk and in the Kurshskaya Kosa National Park, where massive sand dunes and wind-sculpted pines are sandwiched between the Baltic and Curonian Lagoon.
Northern European Russia
Each season offers its own adventures, from swimming with human ‘walruses’ in winter to summertime fishing for champion salmon in rugged yet pristine rivers.
From the wooden marvels of Kizhi and the haunting stone edifices of Solovki to the nautically inspired churches of landlocked Totma, the architectural landscape here is as worth traversing as the natural one.
The mineral-heavy towns of the Kola region rock several highbrow geology repositories; exhibitions in Kargopol and Totma offer unique glimpses into local life; and Arkhangelsk’s WWII-centric museum is a destination in itself.
Food & Culture
Historic kremlins overlook the Volga River in Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan and Astrakhan, and monumental Stalinist buildings rise up out of Volgograd, contrasted by simple wood cottages in towns throughout the region.
The Volga has many different faces. The Samara Bend is perfect for hiking, and in the Volga Delta this magnificent river culminates in a spectacular wetland where boats are often the only mode of transport.
Tatar culture dominates Kazan and Astrakhan, where you can best sample Tatar cuisine. Buddhism and a very different culinary culture prevail in Kalmykia, and across the region you can sample hearty Russian dishes.
Cities & Towns
The Ural Mountains may only be truly spectacular in the north, but they are a lush, picturesque getaway elsewhere – check out Lake Zyuratkul or the ice cave of Kungur.
Yekaterinburg, home to a good variety of museums, is the most famous of the region's cities. Chelyabinsk is idiosyncratic beneath its urban grit, and Perm is eccentric and different.
Gulag & Art
Contrast Perm-36, the once-horrific Gulag camp located outside the city, with the modern and contemporary art space PERMM, which offers up the shock of the new.
From Sochi, access the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana, which, thanks to the Olympics, has scores of memorable runs and an excellent assortment of cosy guesthouses and revitalising bani (hot baths) for when the day is done.
The Caucasus are a magnet for adventure seekers. You can summit majestic Mt Elbrus – Europe’s highest peak – or go on multi-day treks exploring some of Russia’s most dramatic scenery.
Pretty mineral water towns such as Kislovodsk and Pyatigorsk, nestled in the Caucasus foothills, are idyllic settings for scenic walks in the surrounding hills.
The Altai Republic's snow-capped mountains and remote lakes make the region a playground for nature lovers. Tourism is massively underdeveloped here, though, so be prepared to rough it.
Skiing & Snowboarding
The Sheregesh ski resort may be rough around the edges, but at least you won’t have to queue long for the lifts. It also enjoys a stunning location in the heart of the Siberian countryside.
Tobolsk, Siberia’s old capital, sports a handsome kremlin and charmingly decrepit old town. In Siberia’s ‘cultural capital’, Tomsk, it’s easy to lose yourself in a wonderland of wooden mansions and log cabins with intricately carved facades.
Whether you hike the Great Baikal Trail, discover the impenetrable taiga on horseback, click on skis for a bit of off-piste action or kayak Lake Baikal’s sapphire waters, Eastern Siberia is outdoorsy bliss.
Show-stopping vistas are ensured in Tuva's grasslands, Krasnoyarsk’s Stolby Nature Reserve, the back country of the Barguzin Valley, and the snow-whipped Eastern Sayan Mountains.
Be rendered speechless by the intricacy of Scythian gold, take a virtual submarine to Lake Baikal’s murky depths, and peruse a mini Khakassian Stonehenge at the region’s intriguing repositories of the past.
Russian Far East
Kamchatka hogs the glory with its volcanoes, but Russia’s entire eastern seaboard from Vladivostok to Magadan is a riot of old-growth taiga and icy peaks primed for adventure.
In addition to anything mountain-related, you might hitch the Chukotka highway or drive a reindeer sled across the Arctic – you’re only limited by your imagination (and bank balance) here.
The weak don’t survive in the ‘pole of cold’, and so it is that the Far East’s native inhabitants are among the world’s hardiest. Journey to their villages, where they fish and herd reindeer, or celebrate the summer solstice with the Sakha at Yakutsk’s Ysyakh.