Written By: Stacey Hafner
Located between Europe and Asia, Russia is a country of contrasts and extremes. Geographically it is the largest country in the world, nearly twice the size of the United States and with over a dozen time zones. Tourists visiting Russia should expect to see the results of centuries of both clashing and melding between Eastern and Western cultures, Islam and Christianity philosophy, and Socialist and Capitalist ideals. Urban centers like Moscow and Saint Petersburg vie with the beauty and isolation of Siberia and the Ural Mountains. Narrowing a country and culture as vast as this to just a few top vacation spots isn’t easy, but here is a list of ten cities vacationers can begin their exploration of Russia.
As the capital of the largest country in the world, Moscow is a must-see for many travelers. An excellent vacation spot for history lovers, guests can lose themselves for days exploring political, architectural, and cultural hot spots. Vacationers often begin their Moscow adventure in the Red Square, which encompasses several historic sites including St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Lenin Mausoleum, and the Kremlin meaning ‘strong place’ in Russian. Towns and cities throughout Russia had one as a defense strategy, but Moscow’s was the largest and remains the most well-known.
2) Saint Petersburg
Although Saint Petersburg is relatively young, only 300 years old, it has played an impressive and vital role in Russian history. Briefly serving as the capital, today Saint Petersburg remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Travelers visiting in the winter can experience the wonder of White Nights when the sun never fully sets over the extravagant palaces and winding canals. Still a cultural center in Russia, anyone vacationing here should be sure to add a visit to the Kirov Ballet in the historic Mariinsky Theatre.
Vacationers looking for a little more sport and a little less history should plan their trip for Sochi. Currently getting ready to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi is a beautiful location for both summer and winter. Located near both the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, swimmers and skiers will find plenty to keep them busy.
Low key tourists will enjoy the gorgeous beaches, charming downtown streets, and serene parks in Samara. Not as full of historic landmarks as other towns on the list, Samara has its own appeal for tourists. Visitors should take a swim along the Volga and then walk the waterfront esplanade before stopping to sample the selection at the Zhigulevsky Brewery.
Vladivostok was largely off-limits during the existence of the USSR. Today vacationers can alternate days on island beaches with touring historic Soviet submarines. Located off the Golden Horn Bay in far eastern Russia, the scenery is spectacular but people should plan their vacation for September or October as most of the summer is wet and foggy. Vladivostok is also the last stop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, an iconic way to see the country for vacationers with the time and money to make the trek overland from Saint Petersburg.
Another great location for history buffs is Kazan, where Russians dealt a huge blow to Mongolian invaders in the thirteenth century. Located along the Volga River, Kazan embodies all the contradictions that make up Russia – the Eastern influences and the Western influences, Islam and Christian Orthodoxy, and the combination of Russian and Tartar culture. Travelers can check out the Kazan Kremlin and then see the Suyumbika Tower followed by the Millennium Bridge appreciating architecture that spans a thousand years.
Although the city of Irkutsk has a fascinating history, originally founded as a winter quarters for fur traders it eventually became the cultural center for exiled members of the aristocracy after the Decembrist rebellion in the 19th century, most visitors arrive in Irkutsk as the gateway to Lake Baikal which is about an hour away by train. Referred to as the blue eye of Siberia, Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest freshwater lake on Earth. Vacationers exploring the lake can sometimes see up to fifty meters into the water or looking up appreciate the beautiful mountains and forests surrounding them.
8) Nizhny Novgorod
An ancient medieval city that once rivaled Moscow for power, Novgorod has amazing views of the Volga River, historic sites commemorating pivotal moments and leaders in Russian history, and enlightening cultural activities. And the best part? Vacationers can make the rounds of all these sites on the city’s public cable cars.
Kaliningrad is a tiny piece of land sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It is an inexpensive stop and slightly off the tourist trail. Philosophers may know Kaliningrad as Immanuel Kant’s birthplace, geologists as one of the richest amber strikes in the world. Visitors can enjoy boat tours along the Pegolya River as they ponder the unique mix of Russian and German culture.
An intellectual’s dream vacation, Yekaterinburg is peppered with libraries, theaters, and museums. While there are plenty of historic sites and monuments to keep travelers busy, those wanting to exercise their bodies as well as their minds can take advantage of Yekaterinburg’s location near the Ural Mountains and the plethora of trails for skiing or hiking.
Wherever vacationers choose to spend their time in Russia, they will experience a unique and fascinating culture of contradictions. They will likely catch glimpses of Russia’s absorbing history as well as its vast and abundant natural beauty. And hopefully they return home just as intrigued but a little less mystified by this remarkable country.