- If you can dream it, you can do it. Walt Disney
Russia is at once breathtaking and baffling. Winston Churchill’s much-quoted line that the world’s largest nation represented “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” is as true today as it was back then.
Monumental in every respect, it’s a land where burnished imperial splendour coexists with icy Siberian tundra, where timeworn Soviet-era monuments backdrop uber-hip urban cultures and where everything from the ruling party downwards functions in its own, impenetrably Russian, way.
The west of the country draws the most visitor attention, thanks to the presence of two extraordinary cities. St Petersburg and Moscow serve up sweeping postcard sights by the dozen. Moscow is the rapidly beating heart of the “New Russia,” where Asia and Europe combine to create a boisterous, enigmatic metropolis on a grand scale. St Petersburg, meanwhile, with its living film-set of palaces, cathedrals and waterways, is the grandest and most European of Russia’s cities, yet still retains a deeply complex character.
Exploration beyond these two main hubs, however, is well advised.
Things to see and do when you are Russia
Things to see and do
Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre holds regular performances of opera, as well as being home to the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet Company, among the oldest and most prestigious of its kind anywhere.
Experience "White Nights"
If you’re in St Petersburg at the height of summer, don’t expect too much kip. By dint of its northerly location, the city experiences some three weeks of 24-hour daylight from mid-June, a time at which the streets and riverbanks never sleep.
St Petersburg’s Canals
The size and grandeur of imperial city of St Petersburg has a tendency to amaze first-time visitors, and there are few better ways of appreciating the architecture of the centre than in the comfort of a leisurely canal cruise through its heart.
State Hermitage Museum
Home to more than three million artworks and artefacts, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage is one the planet’s most acclaimed museums. The collection dates back to a number of Western European paintings purchased by Empress Catherine the Great in 1764, and has since gone on to encompass a catalogue of priceless works.
Some visitors are surprised that there’s any access at all to the Kremlin – there’s actually enough to see to warrant more than one visit. Most famous of its attractions is the Armoury Museum, a treasure-trove of Fabergé eggs and imperial bling.
The Trans-Siberian railway is perhaps the single most iconic rail journey in the world. The week-long voyage from Moscow to Beijing is the most popular route, and takes you through some of the planet’s most remote wilderness. The sheer length of the trip gives you an idea of the scale of the area you’re covering – almost 9,000km (5,600 miles).
Mount Elbrus is the tallest mountain in the Caucasus and, indeed, Europe itself. Standing 5,642m (18,510 ft) high, it makes for a strenuous but not overly technical climb. Six-day trekking circuits are available for those who fancy looking down on the rest of the continent.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
An impressive reminder of St Petersburg’s tsarist-era design, St Issac’s Cathedral was 40 years in its construction, eventually being unveiled in 1858. The bright golden dome was actually repainted grey during the war to avoid undue attention – it’s now back to its former glory.
Sitting 25km (16 miles) outside of St Petersburg, the Catherine Palace acted as a summer residence for a succession of different tsars. It’s perhaps best known for being home to the Amber Room – a stunning array of amber panels looted by Nazis and since recreated.