Russia – It’s about time

Photo credit: Flickr user yeowatzup

Since opening its doors to foreign visitors more than 20 years ago, Russia has evolved as a premier ‘must see’ destination.

With a rich and at times tumultuous history stretching back centuries, the land of the tsars is a fascinating country to visit. There is so much to see and do, one should plan a trip carefully …

Whether your interests may be cultural, historical, romance, adventure or simply curiosity, your trip should be researched and well planned.

The Russia we know today is now a well-developed, almost mature travel destination, and there are many ways to best see the highlights and travel the country.

But first, here are some fun facts …

• Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Храм Христа Спасителя) can accommodate some 5,000-6,000 worshipers at one time, is the tallest Eastern Orthodox church in the world and currently the largest operating Orthodox Church in the world. It was blown up by Stalin during his drive to drive religion out of Soviet life and re-built in the 1990s.

• Red Square isn’t red, nor is that its name. While the Kremlin walls nearby have been painted red (originally they were white), the area we know as “Red Square” is neither red or square for that matter. Красная площадь would have normally been translated as “Beautiful Plaza” from the Russian language as it was used in the 17th Century and the word for red today derives from the word for “beautiful.” The square is rectangular and the Kremlin is formed in a triangle. The word we use for “Square” is more properly translated as “plaza.”

• Moscow has the world’s most utilized subway system. Every day some 9 million passengers ride the Metro, Moscow’s vast underground subway system.

• Chess is a national obsession. Other pastimes include the card game Durak Fool and the computer game Tetris, which was invented in Russia.

• In Russia, grandmothers – Babushkas – are famous for the strong role they play in families, public life and fairy tales.

• Borscht, a beet soup served hot or cold, topped with sour cream and sprinkled with dill or chopped green scallions is a signature dish, as is Pelmeni, which are small, moist dumplings filled with chopped meat. They are often served with butter, sour cream and vinegar.

• Oymyakon is purportedly the coldest city on Earth. Nickname: “Pole of Cold”. The town is known in meteorological circles because it boasts of the coldest recorded temperature on the planet: minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Sounds like a cool place to visit …

• Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet contains 33 letters, 2 of which have no sound, but the 2 with no sound do have names and are important for grammar.

Russia, officially known as the Russian Federation, is the world’s largest country, spanning Eastern Europe and northern Asia. The country shares borders with numerous countries including Norway, Finland, Poland and the Ukraine to the west, and Georgia, China and North Korea to the east and much of the south.

This intriguing, and sometimes mystifying country has one of the world’s most diverse societies – as many as 160 ethnic groups live here. The population of about 142 million may look like a lot but its density is low because of the country’s vast size. It’s also very unevenly spread, with most people clustered in European Russia, near the Ural Mountains and in southwest Siberia. Most Russians live in urban areas.

If you are planning to visit, you need to become familiar with the many primary cities situated across the country …

Moscow (Москва)

Photo credit: Moscow Tourism

Moscow is the capital of Russia and the largest city in Europe. Having played a central role in the development of the Russian state and its history, Moscow was the capital of the former Soviet Union and continues to pave the way as Muscovites move into the 21st century. A city that is some 860 years-old, Moscow has many reminders of its imperial and Soviet past. It is a sprawling city with numerous museums, Soviet-era monoliths and post-Soviet kitsch.

Moscow is the financial and political centre of Russia and the former Soviet Union, with a population of around 13 million.

Situated on the Moskva River, most of the main sites are on the northern bank of the river. Central Moscow is best to be explored on foot, but as the distances are long, it’s easiest to use the famous Metro system. It is comprehensive, boasts some great architecture, and is relatively inexpensive.

Some highlights, many well known, others not are:

Red Square is the heart of Moscow and the first destination for most visitors. The square is surrounded by St. Basil’s Cathedral, the State History Museum, Lenin’s Mausoleum and one of the Kremlin’s long brick walls.

Lenin Mausoleum is in the centre of the Red Square. Walk past the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin (who actually did not want any monuments to be built for him) and join the debate if it is still him.

St Basil Cathedral is in the south part of Red Square was built in 1555-1561.

The Kremlin This gigantic site cannot be missed. The Diamond collection in the Armoury is worth a visit on its own. There are several stunning churches that warrant a visit. Choose one or two to go inside, then enjoy the rest from the gardens. If you get a chance, the ballet in the Conference Centre is often a performance worth seeing …

Bolshoi Theatre Sit in front of the famed theatre near the fountain, or catch a performance if you can.

Be sure to walk down Old Arbat Street, which is a kitschy street full of souvenir vendors, tourist cafes, restaurants, artists, etc. The prices of the souvenirs vary from reasonable to be careful.

One of the world’s greatest museums, the Tretyakov Gallery, is probably the one to choose if you only want to visit one museum in Moscow. In contrast to the worldwide collection of the Pushkin Museum, the Tretyakov exhibits a collection of Russian art. It has the best collection of Russian icons and many of the most famous pieces of modern Russian artists like Ilya Repin.

The Pushkin Museum is dedicated to Western art and has one of the world’s most significant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections, along with some Old Masters.

Both a convent and a fortress, the Novodevichy Convent was built in the early 1500s and has remained nearly intact since the 17th century, making it one of the best preserved historical complexes in Moscow. The adjacent Novodevichy Cemetery is one of Russia’s most famous cemeteries. Famous people buried there include Anton Chekhov, Nickolai Gogol, Konstantine Stanislavski, Nikita Khrushchev, Raisa Gorbachev (the former President’s wife) and Boris Yeltsin.

Saint Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург)

Photo credit: Toni Kaarttinen

Russia’s cultural and former political capital is home to the Hermitage, one of the world’s great museums, while the city centre is a living open air museum in its own right, making this city one of the world’s top travel destinations

Saint Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city, with a population of 4.7 million souls perched at the eastern tip of of the Baltic Sea and the Neva River. The city was formerly known as Petrograd, and later Leningrad. This is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth, and virtually any building in the large historic centre, threaded with canals dotted with baroque bridges, can be considered an attraction. Saint Petersburg is, in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a magical city, with a long list of major attractions. Its Hermitage Museum, housed in the Winter Palace of the Romanov Dynasty, features one of the world’s greatest and oldest collections of art, treasures and antiquities, all in one of many beautiful buildings.

Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, the former home of the tsars and the centre of imperial Russian culture, Saint Petersburg was known as “The Venice of the North” in its heyday. Re-christened Petrograd during the first World War, the city was renamed Leningrad in 1924 in honour of the communist revolutionary and founder of the Soviet Union, Vladmir I. Lenin.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city has rapidly been making up for lost time and is by far the most cosmopolitan and Western of Russia’s cities. Renamed once more in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, most Russians know it as Piter (Питер), a familiar diminutive of Saint Petersburg.

Nizhny Novgorod (Нижний Новгород)

Novgorod, colloquially shortened to Nizhny, is Russia’s fifth largest city, ranking after Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg. It is the economic and cultural centre.

From 1932 to 1990 the city was known as Gorky (Го́рький), after the writer Maxim Gorky. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the old name was restored.

The city was founded by Grand Duke George II of Russia in 1221 at the confluence of two most important rivers of his principality, the Volga and the Oka. Its name literally means Newtown the Lower, to distinguish it from the older Novgorod. A major stronghold for border protection, Nizhny Novgorod fortress took advantage of a natural moat formed by the two rivers.

Often overlooked despite being one of the largest cities in Russia, Nizhny Novgorod is well worth a visit for its Kremlin, Sakharov Museum and nearby Makaryev Monastery.

Vladivostok (Владивосток)

Vladivostok is often referred to as “Russia’s San Francisco,” full of hilly streets and battleships, and is Russia’s principal Pacific city. Vladivostok serves as the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Some travellers arrive here at the end or the beginning of a trip on the Trans-Siberian. But it has enough attractions and atmosphere to support a couple of days.

Surrounded by the Amursky Gulf from the west, the Ussuriysky Gulf from the east and Golden Horn Bay, along the south of the city centre, Vladivostok is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet. For that reason, Vladivostok was off-limits to foreigners during most of the Soviet era until 1992, when it was re-opened for tourism. The city centre, at the edge of the water, has sweeping boulevards of ornate, century-old buildings; many magnificent but decaying and in need of cleaning.

Volgograd (Волгоград)

Photo credit: Rob Atherton

Volgograd used to be called Stalingrad. It lies along the west bank of the Volga River in Southern Russia. It was the scene of one of the most important and bloodiest battles of the Second World War.

While you are here, you can visit Mamayev Kurgan, the site of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the twentieth century’s most important battles. There is a large memorial located on top of a hill overlooking Volgograd and the Volga River. The name derives from the hill’s supposed status as the grave of Mamai, a famous Tatar Khan and general (kurgan is a Tatar word meaning burial mound).

You can also visit The Panorama Museum, which is located alongside the Volga river and which exhibits artefacts from World War II.

Sochi (Сочи)

Russia’s favourite Black Sea beach resort has been largely unknown to foreigners, but that is set to change when the city hosts the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Located along the Black Sea coast, about 1,600 km south of Moscow, Sochi is one of the southernmost cities in Russia.

Sochi is often called the unofficial ‘Summer Capital’ of the country, or the Black Sea Pearl. This is the country’s largest and busiest summer sea resort, attracting more than 4 million visitors annually with its mountainous coastline, endless beaches, warm sunny days, and bustling nightlife. From May to September, Sochi’s population at least doubles, when visitors, celebrities and the political elite of the country seek the warm climes. Yet, only 3 percent of visitors’ are international travellers. This Black Sea gem is still waiting to be discovered.

Rich cultural heritage … Spectacular natural settings

Tourism in Russia has seen rapid growth since Soviet times; first intra-country tourism and then international visitors.

And to this day, Russia is still a vast and intriguing country to explore.

Travel around Russia includes the Golden Ring of ancient cities – a circle of picturesque medieval towns northeast of Moscow. Rich in history and beautiful architecture, these picturesque medieval towns offer a real window on Russian provincial life and its breathtaking countryside, cruises on the rivers like the Volga, and long journeys on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway.

Because of its size, Russia presents a drastically different environment depending on your location. Most of the country has a continental climate with distinct periods of warm and cold weather. Temperatures for Moscow and St. Petersburg range from highs of 32 C in the summer to lows of -25 C in the winter.

Russia produces a very diverse culinary repertoire. Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of Russia. Restaurants, cafes and other eating establishments have made vast inroads since the fall of communism.

Caviar, smoked sausage, pickles, field mushrooms, cheese and soured cream are the basis of zakuski (hors d’oeuvres or appetisers). Be sure to try savoury piroshki (a stuffed pastry) and blini (savoury stuffed pancakes). The Russians excel at hearty meat and vegetable-based soups. The most popular of all soups is Borsch.

Well-loved classics include Beef Stroganoff (invented in Russia, as was chicken Kiev), pelmeny (Siberian-style dumplings) and spicy Georgian cuisine such as shashlyk. Russian rye bread is flavoursome and most often eaten without butter. Fish varieties include omul (similar to salmon and from Lake Baikal) and sturgeon, which is often poached and served with a sauce or mushrooms.

Spanning 9 time zones and twice the size of the United States, Russia offers visitors an unforgettable glimpse of history, culture and nature. Today’s Russia is more accessible than ever, yet the mystery remains and attracts visitors from across the world and from every walk of life.

Visiting Russia can be summed up in four words …

The possibilities are endless.

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