From the colourful, onion domes of Red Square in Moscow, the treasures of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to the frozen landscape of Siberia, Russia exerts a strong pull on the imagination.
This vast, vast country bridges two continents (Europe and Asia) and has 11 time zones stretching from Kaliningrad in the West to Ratmanov Island in the Bering Strait in the east.
Moscow is its jewel and capital city, but there are more reasons to visit Russia than to see the Kremlin, Red Square, or experience its hedonistic clubs – even if cheap flights to Russia have become more plentiful in recent years. St Petersburg was capital of the Russian Empire for more than 200 years until the revolution in 1917. Its cityscape is magnificent, its public buildings awe-inspiring, and its treasures straight out of a fairytale.
Away from the man-made wonders, there are more than 30 national parks, skiing and snowboarding at Mount Cheget and Mount Elbrus and the Lapland Biosphere Reserve in Murmansk, which is home to reindeer, elks, brown bears and wolves.
The largest country in the world, Russia has several different climates. About 65 per cent of it is under permafrost, but in the most populated areas such as Moscow and St Petersburg there is a continental climate – hot summers and very cold winters with lots and lots of snow. Along the Black Sea coast, in Sochi, a humid subtropical climate holds sway – mild winters and hot summers. Northern European Russia and Siberia has a subarctic climate and along the Arctic Ocean shore (and islands) the climate is polar.
Moscow and St Petersburg are two of the most popular tourist destinations and they are “visitable” for much of the year. The early summer (May and June) has the festivals, exhibitions, carnivals and concerts; autumn (September) is a great time to visit for the foliage; and late winter (January and February) is when these cities are covered by thick falls of snow. Moscow’s temperatures can range between -30 to 30 degrees; St Petersburg’s average winter temperature is about -10 degrees and summer highs are about 25 degrees.
St Petersburg (and other northern cities such as Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Aberdeen) enjoys White Nights when the sun does not set until after 10pm – twilight melts into dawn – between late-May and early-July.
Winters are bitterly cold. If you look for cheap flights to Russia in the off-peak season, be sure to bring plenty of warm clothes.
Aeroflot Russian Airlines, the national airline, has a comprehensive domestic flight network. It flies from Moscow to several cities including St Petersburg, Kazan, Samara and Vladivostok
S7 Airlines is based in Novosibirsk and flies to several destinations including Irkutsk, Kazan, Moscow, Nizhni Novgorod and Omsk.
Transaero offers flights around much of the country including to St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kiev, Odessa, Chimkent, Tashkent and Kamchatsky.
Rail: the Trans Siberian railway is the longest railway in the world. It starts in Moscow and chugs through Nizhni Novgorod, Kirov, Ekaterinburg, Omsk and over to Vladivostok.
Russian Railways operates a good range of passenger services throughout Russia, from Archangelsk to Zabaykal’sk. Journeys are inexpensive, if slow, but there are usually three classes of service on long journeys. Travel third class (Platskartny) for a more “Russian” experience. Moscow and St Petersburg have metro systems; good service and really beautiful stations.
Bus travel is also cheap and links cities and towns around Russia, but is not very comfortable. The main bus station in Moscow is called Schyolkovsky Bus Terminal.
(prices quotes are from London)