The ultimate guide to backpacking Russia
Sipping sour beetroot soup in a canteen that’s barely changed since Soviet times. Watching the sun rise over the vast emptiness of the Siberian plains. Plunging into a crystalline mountain lake before warming up in a rickety sauna….
Backpacking in Russia is an epic adventure that will challenge, excite and amaze you in equal measure. The biggest country on earth is a bewildering, breathtaking mass of dense taiga forests, arctic tundra, snow-capped mountains, empty desert and austere Soviet cities defined by identical concrete tower blocks. It’s a place where babushkas prepare tea in traditional samovars as snow falls outside, while several thousand miles away Moscow’s bright young things head out for a night out on the town. Where Buryat shaman carry out secret rites in the sacred caves of Olkhon Island, and villages that were decimated by plague in the 18th century stand untouched, almost as if their occupants were sleeping.
The past and the future overlap here, with eye-wateringly elaborate palaces stamped with the hammer and sickle of Communism and enormous statues of Lenin towering over commuters on Moscow’s metro. And of course, anyone who loves nature will be humbled and wowed by the wilds of Siberia, where the only sound at night is the howling of grey wolves and villages are so remote that their residents are cut off from the outside world for six months every year.
So what are you waiting for? Time to set out on your very own Russian adventure. Get inspired and make the most of your trip with our complete guide to backpacking Russia.
Jump straight to:
- The best time to visit Russia
- Russia visa
- Travelling around Russia
- Accommodation in Russia
- Russia itinerary
- Cost of backpacking Russia
- Best places to visit in Russia
- What to eat and drink in Russia
- Russian culture and people
- Travel advice for Russia
Best time to visit Russia
The best time to visit Russia depends on what sort of holiday you’re looking for.
Fancy zooming down the Alpine slopes of Rosa Khutor, the best ski resort in the country? Opt for November to March, when the snow is at its best and the weather is generally sunny with light winds.
If the idea of partying until dawn in Sochi’s gleaming night clubs before relieving the hangover with a swim in the Black Sea sounds appealing, Russia’s summer is the time to go. This season typically lasts from June to August.
As the biggest country on earth, it’s no surprise that Russia’s seasons vary significantly depending on where you go.
In general, the high season for travelling in Russia is May to October. The snow has melted to reveal manicured gardens outside the palaces, and forests filled with lumbering bears become a mecca for hiking. The sandy shores of lakes such as Turgoyak come into their own in this season, with locals sunning themselves and gathering at waterfront cafes to feast on locally-caught fish and potato salad drenched in mayonnaise.
However, in certain parts of Siberia temperatures can still hover around freezing even in the summer months. If you want to guarantee warmer weather here, it’s best to stick to August. There’s no denying that Siberia has a certain charm in winter though, when snow covers its rolling plains in a thick mantle and locals seek shelter in steamy banyas (saunas).
Best time to visit St Petersburg
The weather in St Petersburg can be freezing, so June to October are the most comfortable for sightseeing. During these months, the sun barely sets at all due to the city’s location near the Arctic Circle. The annual White Nights Festival (generally held around mid-July) sees many of the city’s key attractions open 24 hours, as well as a special programme of ballets and classical concerts at the magnificent Mariinsky theatre. The winter months of November to March are when prices and crowds plummet… just remember your winter coat!
Best time to visit Moscow
It’s no secret that Moscow is expensive, so to combine fewer crowds with decent weather and lower prices, it’s generally best to visit in spring (April and May) and early Autumn (September). During these months the temperature hovers in double figures, the city’s many fountains spurt back to life and outdoor celebrations such as May Day (1 May) and Victory Day (9 May) draw colourful parades to the streets.
We’re not gonna lie… Russian visas are not the easiest or simplest things to get hold of. But persevere and you’ll find it is well worth the effort. Think of it as a little initiation ceremony…
There are two types of tourist visa available. Single entry, valid up to 30 days, and double entry, also valid for 30 days, and necessary if you’re planning on hopping over any borders during your trip.
For a tourist visa to Russia, you must have confirmed accommodation for every night of your stay in the country and provide evidence of booking when you apply. This is generally in the form of a visa support letter (also known as a letter of invitation), which you can request directly from your hotel and costs around £20-£40. This can also be issued by a friend or family member who is a Russian citizen and will be hosting you for your stay.
However, once you’re actually there you’re not bound by this information and can easily cancel the accommodation if you end up changing your plans. You can also apply for a visa support letter through Russia Support, who can turn them around within a few hours.
A new ruling in 2014 declared that every applicant who is a UK citizen must visit the Russian Consulate in London to have their fingerprints scanned before a visa can be granted. Given that they keep opening hours like a small shop in a country village (9 – 1pm Monday to Friday), this is not the easiest thing to accomplish. However, you can now book an appointment for between 8.30-9am for an extra fee.
In terms of the paperwork, you’ll need:
- Your original passport with at least 2 blank visa-designated pages (passport must be valid for at least 6 months after intended departure date from Russia).
- Two copies of your Russian visa application form, completed and signed.
- One passport-size photo signed on the back.
- Confirmation of your hotel arrangements from an authorised Russian travel company, or directly from the Russian hotel, showing a reference number and confirmation number for the visa.
To find out more about Russia visa requirements, and to apply, check out Visit Russia.
Travelling around Russia
Russia’s landscape varies from still-smouldering volcanoes in the Kamchatka to the vast taiga forests that cover the Siberian plains and the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. With a total area of 17.1 million kilometres squared to explore and very little infrastructure, you’ll begin to understand why careful planning is key to making the most of your trip.
Russia by car
If you’re the adventurous type and keen to strike out of the major cities, seeing Russia by car is a great way to explore at your own pace and in comfort (heating and cushioned seats are luxuries many local buses don’t have.). Most car rental agencies require you to be 21 years old and have at least one year of driving experience. Reliable companies with lots of offices throughout the country include Avis, Sixt, and Europcar.
When the distances are this big you don’t want to be hitting the open road without a GPS, and it’s also worth remembering that most of the signs will be in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is completely cryptic to the uninitiated, so you’ll need to print out the name of cities and key landmarks so you can recognise their names in case there’s no internet in the area. Alternatively, load routes before you go on apps such as Yandex Maps.
Transport in cities in Russia
If you’re just planning on visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, it isn’t really worth hiring a car. Both cities have excellent public transport which is very cheap. In fact, the Russian metro’s nickname is ‘the people’s palace’, because it was designed to show off the wealth of the Soviet Empire. Many stations have huge communist statues, marble arcades and glittering chandeliers. Be sure to check out Komsomolskaya and Novoslobodskaya, which has 32 stained glass panels designed by famous Soviet artist Pavel Korin.
The best way to get around Moscow is with a Troika card, which you can rent in any metro kiosk. The card is free, but you have to leave 50 rubles (£0.60) as a deposit. After this, the city is your oyster; it works for the metro, as well as Moscow’s Central Ring, buses, trams and trolley buses.
The St.Petersburg metro is the deepest in the world, so if you’re scared of heights hold on tight and close your eyes when you board the escalator! It still uses a token system, meaning you buy tokens (“zheton”) from the cashier in every station and use these to open the barriers.
Russia by train
Russia has one of the biggest rail networks in the world, with almost every town in the country connected. Although more time consuming, discovering Russia by train is far more interesting than catching an internal flight, allowing you to see snatches of rural life in tiny villages and stunning landscapes flash by. Many locals use trains to get around and it’s a great way to have some authentic interactions, whether that be sharing snacks like flavoured croutons or playing cards with the other passengers in your carriage.
Russian trains are often slow but tend to have comfortable sleeping berths and are incredibly prompt. Arrive even a minute late and you’ll be left on the platform. Generally speaking, the higher the homep (number) of a train, the slower it is. High-speed trains are numbered 151 through 198.
Like aeroplanes, Russian trains have classes and it’s not always obvious which is best. SV is short for spalny vagon, or sleeping wagon. These compartments are the same size as 2nd class but have only two berths rather than four, and are typically double the price. If you’re not short on cash and are travelling in a couple this might be the most romantic option, but you will miss out on meeting fellow passengers.
Second class is called kupeyny – commonly shortened to kupe – and this is the standard accommodation for a long distance journey. Each compartment has four bunks and a fold down table, making it great for groups. However, if you’re travelling solo or with one other person, bear in mind that you’ll be sharing very intimate conditions with strangers, sometimes for days at a time. The sorts of people who travel in second class are often Russian men on business trips, who are unfailingly keen to crack open the vodka along the way. This could be a bonus – or the opposite – depending on your point of view!
A platskartny carriage, or third class, is a dorm carriage sleeping 54. Despite the lack of privacy, platskart can be a great way to go, particularly in summer when the lack of compartment walls means they don’t become as stuffy as a kupe. They’re great for meeting ordinary Russians and can feel safer than second class, as there are always plenty of people around to keep an eye on your stuff and intervene if you have any problems. Another bonus is that tickets cost half to two-thirds the price of a 2nd-class berth.
For more information, check out the Russian Railway website.
Accommodation in Russia
From checking into a former Soviet-era hotel given a luxurious makeover, to bedding down in a simple wooden cabin on an island in a lake, accommodation in Russia is as varied as the country’s landscape. Take your pick with our handy guide on where to stay in Russia.
Hostels in Russia
Russia may not be the most popular stop on the backpacker trail, but it has great value youth hostels in all major cities. Most of them are quirky and are typically lived in by long-staying guests, so have a warm, community feel.
Godzillas is one of the best-known in Moscow and boasts an enviable location a short stroll from both Tsvetnoi Bulvar (three minutes away) and Tverskaya/Pushkinskaya (ten minutes away) metro stations. It sits in a pre-revolution historic building and will set you back no more than around £8 per night. Sold! Grant Hostel is just a few minutes’ walk from Red Square and spotlessly clean, while Netizen Moscow Rimskaya has its own sushi bar!
Much like the city itself, hostels in St. Petersburg tend to be full of character. With its mismatched vintage furniture, original fireplaces and colourful bunting, St. Petersburg’s Soul Kitchen has more in common with a boutique hotel than a standard youth hostel. It’s located in the centre of the city in a gorgeous 150-year-old building overlooking the Moika river embankment. Nearby Admiralty Hostel is as cosy as they come, with walls painted dandelion yellow and plenty of squishy armchairs in the common areas. Travelling in a couple or with your bestie? Whose Suitcase offers single or double bedrooms rather than dorms. Common spaces painted pretty pastel colours and an airy, modern kitchen you’ll want to cook in make this hideaway feel like a real home from home.
Now for the best of the rest… If sweeping views over the city of Vladivostok sounds like a bit of you, check in to Tiger Hostel and enjoy a welcoming, family feel and sun-trapping terrace. Plenty of desk space and a creative atmosphere make Irkutsk’s Rolling Stones Hostel a great base for digital nomads, while Sky Hostel in Yekaterinburg is popular with a slightly more mature crowd.
Need more inspiration? Check out our full list of hostels in Russia.
Whether you dream of strolling in the shadow of onion-shaped cathedral domes, sunning yourself on a sandy shore or trekking through the taiga forests on the wild Mongolian border, Russia really does have a holiday to suit every traveller. Whet your appetite with our ultimate Russia itineraries.
Two weeks in Russia itinerary
Days 1- 3 – St Petersburg: Watch the elaborate columns of the Hermitage slide past from a canal cruise, see the ballet beneath a canopy of crystal chandeliers at the Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky Theatres and stroll through the Catherine Palace and Park, the decadent home of Catherine the Great.
Day 4 – Veliky Novgorod: Founded in 859, this sleepy town is scattered with interesting churches and monasteries. Check out Yuriev Monastery, St. Sophia Cathedral, and Novgorod Kremlin, which is the oldest in Russia.
Days 5-7 – Moscow: Don your best outfit to visit the fashion capital of the country, where designer boutiques jostle for space with iconic sites such as the Red Square, St.Basil’s Cathedral and Moscow Kremlin.
Days 8-9 – Kazan: Follow the sound of the call to prayer to Kazan, home to the largest Muslim population in Russia and a fascinating blend of Asian and European cultures. Don’t forget to check out the Millennium Park stadium, which hosted several games in the FIFA World Cup 2018.
Days 10-12 – Sochi: – A glitterball city caught between the twinkling blue of the Black Sea and the subtropical greenery of the Agura Valley, Sochi pulses to the bass of hundreds of waterfront clubs and bars in summer. The botanical garden is a calm haven scented with magnolia trees.
Day 13 – Sochi – St. Petersburg (train or flight): To travel the 2339km between the cities you can either take an overnight train or a three-hour flight. The Severnaya Palmira train has showers, air conditioning and Wi-Fi, as well as the usual sleeping bunks.
Day 14 – St. Petersburg: See the sun sink below the historic skyline with a rooftop tour of the city. Panoramic Roof use an anti-aircraft defense tower on Ligovsky Avenue as their base.
Day 1: Spend your first day in Moscow marvelling at its most iconic sites. Red Square is the heart of the city, while St Basil’s cathedral looks like a clutch of brightly-coloured ice cream cones. Lenin’s Mausoleum is a must-visit and GUM department store is a wonderland of designer labels and shops that look like they’ve barely changed since it opened in 1893. Don’t forget to check out the historic toilets! Spend the rest of your day discovering The Kremlin’s many treasures, including an exquisite collection of Faberge eggs.
Day 2: Catch the Moscow metro, which is so magnificent it feels like an underground art gallery, to Gorky Park, an enormous swathe of green complete with communal bean bags, fountains and even a city beach. Check out the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art before strolling along the river to the Central House of Artists. A little further along, Red October Factory on Bolotny Island is a creative hub that’s loved by local freelancers and filled with cool cafe spaces, as well as bars after dark.
Day 3: Start your day with a backstage tour of the Bolshoi Theatre, home to arguably the most famous ballet company in the world. Go shopping in the Old Arbat quarter, before visiting the homes of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, two of Russia’s greatest writers. In the evening, stroll through Patriarch’s Ponds, an atmospheric quarter made famous in Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal novel The Master and Margarita. Slurp borshch and listen to live fiddle music in Cafe Margarita, an intimate eatery lined with books.
St Petersburg itinerary
Day 1: Hit the ground running with a visit to the Winter Palace and the area around it. Start at the Peter and Paul Cathedral (the final resting place of the Russian tsars), before heading to Palace Square and the Hermitage Museum. Stroll through the Summer Garden, stopping off to marvel at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood and Kazan Cathedral on the way, before ending up at one of Nevsky Prospekt’s many restaurants.
Day 2: You’ll need a few hours to explore St. Isaac’s Cathedral (closed on Wednesdays), a lavish structure with a viewing platform hidden in its enormous golden dome which offers 360-degree views of the city centre. Nearby, the whimsical Museum of Emotions is a new immersive art experience and you can’t miss a picture with the Bronze Horseman. This monument was a gift to Peter I from Catherine II and legend has it that as long as it is unharmed, an enemy can’t conquer the city. Finish with a stroll along the Neva river, watching the bridges open and close and soaking up the cosmopolitan vibe.
Day 3: Catch a boat to Peterhof, a romantic palace famed for its fountains and verdant gardens in summer. Equally lavish and perhaps better suited to winter is the Catherine Palace, located in the historic town of Pushkin, which can be reached easily by train from Vitebsky Railway Station. This was Catherine the Great’s love nest and famously has a reconstructed ballroom made entirely of amber. (The original amber was looted by the Nazis and has mysteriously vanished.)
Russia backpacking itinerary
This three-week Russia backpacking itinerary includes Russia’s most famous cities, the remote wilds of the Kola Peninsula, the historic towns of the Golden Ring and plenty of overnight trains which will sweep you through tiny villages that look like they’ve sprung from a Chekhov novel.
Days 1-4 – St. Petersburg: Tread lightly around the tombs of the last Russian tsars, picture the magnificence of the imperial court at The Hermitage and reach for your camera every five minutes in one of the prettiest European cities.
Day 5 – St Petersburg/overnight train: Board the train from Ladozhskiy Vokzal and travel 15 hours towards the arctic circle and the gateway to the Solovki Islands.
Days 6-9 – Solovetsky Islands: From Kem, take a ferry to the Solovetsky Islands (or Solovki as they’re known to locals), an archipelago in the White Sea. These haunting isles are scattered with 15th century monasteries and the remains of gulags, prisons built during the Soviet era to house political prisoners. Spot beluga whales from the shore, hike in the forests and ponder over remains such as the mysterious labyrinths which have unfurled on Bolshoy Zayatsky Island for more than 2,500 years.
Day 10 – Solovetsky Islands/overnight train: Catch the train 12 hours to Murmansk, the world’s largest Arctic city.
Day 11 – Murmansk: If you’re there in winter, head to the ice bather’s hut to see hardy locals plunging into Lake Semyonovskoe through a hole in the ice. Between late November and mid-January, the northern lights regularly cast their flow over the snow-covered landscape, while between May and July the Midnight Sun transforms it with a peachy glow.
Day 12 – Teriberka/Lovozero: Drive through the tundra to Teriberka (2.5 hours). This largely abandoned Soviet fishing town on the Barents Sea Coast was where Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Golden Globe winning film Leviathan was shot in 2014. Picnic amid the rusting hulls of abandoned boats and dip your toe in the world’s most northern ocean. Drive on to Lovozero, the last stronghold of the Russian Sami people, and spend the night at a humble home stay.
Day 13 – Lovozero/Lake Seydozero: Drive to Revda (about 1 hour) and from there take the spectacular hike over the Lovozyorskiye Tundry Mountains (8 hours) until you reach Lake Seydozero, which the Sami people believe to be holy. Wild camp overnight.
Day 14 – Lake Seydozero: Spend the day exploring the breathtaking forests around Lake Seydozero. Camp overnight.
Day 15 – Lake Seydozero/Lovozero: Trek back to Revda and spend the night in Lovozero.
Days 16-17 – Lovozero/Murmansk/overnight train: Drive two hours back to Murmansk. Catch the Arktika Train to Moscow (36 hours). The journey takes you through the Republic of Karelia with its 60,000 lakes, as well as on to the shores of Lake Ladoga, the largest in Europe.
Days 18 -19 – Moscow: Take yourself on a cultural tour of Moscow, including magnificent imperial-era buildings such as the Kremlin and St.Basil’s cathedral, and fascinating Soviet history.
Day 20 – Yaroslavl: Take the train from Moscow to Yaroslavl, one of Russia’s famed “Golden Ring” of former ancient capitals. This historic gem crouches on the banks of the Volga River and boasts buildings that date back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Spend the night.
Day 21 – Moscow: Chill in one of Moscow’s many buzzing parks and take in a gallery or two along the river.
Trans-Siberia railway itinerary
An epic journey spanning 9,259km and eight time zones, the Trans-Siberian railway is a unique experience that belongs on every adventurer’s bucket list. Although it is known as the longest train journey in the world, it’s actually a network of localised railways which connect together to form a single route from Moscow to Vladivostok. There’s no single ticket that allows you to hop on and off – each stop must be planned in advance and booked with separate tickets. Not the easiest thing to accomplish for a non-Russian speaker! Agencies such as Real Russia are a good option, and they can also help with sourcing the letter of invitation you need for your visa.
You can do the whole thing door to door in six days, although realistically I’d only recommend this if you have a high boredom threshold or are really, really passionate about train travel. Trust me, there are only so many pot noodles and shots of vodka you can do before both lose their novelty. The other option is to break up the journey by hopping on and off along the way.
There are a dozen stops to choose from. Get inspired with this ultimate Trans-Siberia railway itinerary. Remember, this is a guide only and you’ll need to check train schedules and times yourself when you plan your trip as they change regularly:
Days 1-3 – Moscow: Spend three days exploring the Russian capital and stocking up on key supplies. Fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy snacks such as nuts and your own supply of vodka and beer are all key items. The food on the trains is often overpriced and stodgy (grey meat and potatoes anyone?), while alcohol is significantly more expensive than in standard supermarkets.
Day 4 – Moscow/Kazan: Make the 12-hour journey to Kazan.
Days 5-6 – Kazan: Derived from the Tatar word for cooking pot, Kazan is a fascinating stew of Tatar and Slavic culture. Its skyline is pierced by church spires and minarets of mosques, and it’s this blend of Asian and European culture that gives the city its distinctive atmosphere. A formidable fortress on the banks of the Volga River, the Kazan Kremlin is utterly fascinating. Parts of the building date back to the 16th century. Other must-sees include the Kul Sharif Mosque, which is crowned in sky-blue towers, and the Central Market. With its narrow lanes lined by locals selling produce from their own garden, this bustling spot has more than a whiff of a Turkish bazaar about it.
Day 7 – Kazan/Yekaterinburg: Make the 13-hour journey to Yekaterinburg.
Days 8-9 – Yekaterinburg: Art and assassination are the twin threads running through this liberal city in the Ural Mountains. Its historical (if gruesome) claim to fame is that the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in the Ipatyev house basement. A sombre cathedral called Church Upon the Blood now stands on the site and makes for an interesting hour or so. There are plenty of cool creative spaces springing up in old warehouses and independent galleries to discover, while national parks such as Olenyi Ruchyi are great for a day trip if you have time.
Day 10 – Yekaterinburg/Novosibirsk: Make the 21-hour journey to Novosibirsk.
Days 11-13 – Novosibirsk: The unofficial capital of Siberia is a young, dynamic place with more than 50 higher education institutions and a host of quirky museums. Spend a morbid but fascinating afternoon at the World Funeral Culture Museum, browse beautiful, bizarre and even a few erotic items carved from birch wood at the Museum of Siberian Birch Bark and travel back in time to the USSR Museum, which is packed with Soviet treasures. Be sure to set aside at least half a day to explore Akademgorodok, a suburb which was built as a centre for academic research and nicknamed ‘the last Soviet Utopia.’ It’s a bizarre town surrounded by rolling pine forests and on the sandy shores of a reservoir known as the Ob Sea.
Days 14 -15 – Novosibirsk/Irkutsk: Make the 31-hour journey to Irkutsk.
Day 16 – Irkutsk: Spend a day recovering from the journey and exploring Irkutsk’s historic old town, with its distinctive wooden houses.
Days 17-19 – Irkutsk/Olkhon Island: Most hostels organise daily minibuses to Lake Baikal, a drive of around six hours. In summer, you take a ferry to Olkhon Island, which is the largest in the lake and a place of electrifying beauty. There are several homestay options in the main village, Khuzir, and from there you can go hiking, fishing and exploring. Be warned, there is no running water. You’ll wash in the village bathhouse with water from the lake heated over a fire, before sweating it all out in the sauna.
Days 20-22 – Irkutsk/Vladivostok: Make the 79-hour journey to Vladivostok.
Days 23-24 – Vladivostok: The gateway to Russia’s Far East, Vladivostok flows over several hills and bays, many connected by striking bridges. Get a sense of the city’s unique Chinese-influenced food culture at Sportivnaya Market, explore the Zarya Centre for Contemporary Art housed in an old clothing factory, and enjoy a vibrant nightlife which centres around electronic music.
Cost of backpacking Russia
Moscow and St. Petersburg are both famously expensive to visit, with the cost of dining out on a par with London and a dual price system whereby foreigners pay much more than Russian citizens for attractions such as The Mariinsky Theatre and the Hermitage. If you’re being very careful, you should be able to get by on around £55 per day including your hostel bed. Outside the cities it’s a different story, with meals often costing as little as £1.80.
Russia’s currency is the ruble and it’s denoted as RUB. Coin denominations are 1, 5, 10 and 50 kopeks and 1, 2, 5 and 10 rubles. Some 10 ruble notes are still in circulation, but rarely seen in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Banknote values include 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000. At the time of writing, 800RUB is equal to around £10 or $12.50 USD, but always check the latest exchange rates.
It’s always worth carrying plenty of cash with you in Russia, particularly when visiting remote villages. While most communities will have an ATM, they are often out of order and many places don’t accept credit card. Stock up in the bigger towns when you can.
It’s also worth letting your bank know the dates you’ll be in Russia. Because of the high level of fraud in the country, it’s fairly common for cards to be blocked.
Budget for backpacking Russia
If you’re outside the major cities, you’ll need to budget around £14 per day for backpacking in Russia. This includes accommodation in a hostel dorm, two one course meals, entrance to a museum or other attraction and a city centre taxi ride.
Public transport within the cities is very cheap (a ride on the Moscow metro costs £0.50) and trains rarely cost more than £60, even for very long distances. Remember to pack your own food and drinks, as those on the restaurant car are often poor quality and very expensive. The only cooking facilities you will have access to is a samovar of boiling water, so noodles, couscous, porridge and herbal teas are all your new best friends. Yummy.
Best places to visit in Russia
From husky sledding through the Arctic tundra to exploring tiny islands, there are enough incredible things to see and do in Russia to last a lifetime. Get inspired with our ultimate guide to the best places to visit in Russia.
Top things to see and do in Russia
St. Petersburg has to be at the top of any visitors’ wish list. This is the city of colourful domes and canals lined by pastel mansions, of Baroque palaces and the famous White Nights festival (generally in the first half of July). Despite all the might of the revolution, history is this city’s main attraction and your visit will inevitably revolve around legends such as The Hermitage, Catherine’s Palace, Isaac’s Cathedral and Peter and Paul Cathedral. Architecture geeks should check out the ‘House with Owls’ on Bolshoi Prospect 44, as well as the Andrey Mironov Theater on Leo Tolstoy Square, which looks like a fairytale castle.
Moscow, Russia’s enigmatic capital, is a feast for the senses. Follow the smell of incense to 600 churches which hide ancient icons and glitter with golden spires. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture just a few blocks away from where it premiered more than a century ago. Feel as if you’ve travelled back in time at the Bunker-42 Cold War Museum and feel the full historic significance of Red Square, the beating heart of modern Russia.
The highlight of Eastern Siberia, Lake Baikal is one of the top things to see in Russia. It was formed more than 25 to 30 million years ago and contains nearly one fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, making it the deepest lake in the world. In winter, it’s a frozen wonderland criss-crossed with ice roads padded by dog-sleds and fringed by snow-covered mountains. Exploring it on a full day’s hovercraft tour is an experience not to be missed. In summer, you can spot endemic species such as wide-eyed nerpa seals and pungent Golomyanka fish, which appear to glow because they have such a high oil content. Catching a boat to Olkhon Island for a few day’s hiking through the pine forests and along the sandy shore is guaranteed to be a highlight of your trip to Russia. Look out for wild horses and saunas, where locals heat lake water over pine-wood fires.
The gateway to Baikal is Irkutsk, a pleasant city with unique architecture and a large river precinct where locals chill in summer. In the 130th city district, you’ll find distinctive wooden houses with painted shutters and wooden carvings so delicate they look as if they’re made of lace cut by elfin scissors. The central market is well worth a wander to try local specialties such as pinecones preserved in syrup.
No less than 4,000 miles from Moscow, Vladivostok is a picturesque port city that looks a little like San Francisco. Just 15 years ago, the eastern most point of the Trans-Siberian railway was a ‘closed city’, but it’s now a cosmopolitan hub that centres around Ploschad Bortsov Revolutsy – the city’s main square. Visit the Arseniev Regional History Museum and the Primorsky State Art Gallery and spend plenty of time by the waterfront enjoying interesting Asian and European fusion food.
What to eat and drink in Russia
Because of the harsh climate, Russians traditionally had a limited variety of ingredients and the cuisine has evolved to be incredibly creative as a result. Preserving techniques such as smoking, salting, drying and pickling are all popular and lead to unusual combinations you’ll never have tried before.
Unsurprisingly in a country this vast, the food varies hugely from region to region. In the wild north, meats such as reindeer, squirrel and bear can all be found on menus. Towards Mongolia, the Buryat people are known for delicious buuzy – palm sized dumplings filled with diced lamb, plenty of fat and onions. The verdant Altai mountains are famed for fragrant honey as well as milk fermented in a keg fumed with fallen leaves and bird cherry. And in Lake Baikal, you can try specialties such as smoked cisco, an ancient fish that is endemic to the area.
Until recently very few Russians could afford to eat out at restaurants and the culture was generally to gather in extended family groups at home. However, in recent years the food scene has come on in leaps and bounds, particularly in major cities. In Moscow, traditional rynok (Soviet built farmer’s markets) are being turned into funky food courts such as Danilovsky market.
Stolovaya are self-service canteens also built during the Soviet era, and they offer great value for money as well as characterful interiors that look as if they’re frozen in time. Stolovaya 57 is tucked away on the top floor of GUM department store in Moscow’s Red Square, and it’s a fantastic place for a memorable lunch, particularly in a city where dining out is generally very expensive.
Whether you’re slurping steaming soup or downing dumplings, you certainly won’t be going hungry in Russia. So, what exactly should you be ordering? Find out with this handy guide on what to eat and drink in Russia:
Traditional Russian foods
The Godfather of Russian food is borscht, a thick, sour beetroot, cabbage and meat soup served with a generous dollop of sour cream. This is what little Ruskies grew up gobbling at their parent’s knee and it can be found on every restaurant menu, from Restaurant Oblomov, which recreates the world of well-heeled merchants in 19th century Moscow, to Novisibirsk’s Beerman and Pelmini.
Speaking of pelmini, these tiny, ear-shaped dumplings are another must-try. They are defined by silky, thin pastry and generally a mix of lamb, pork and beef mince. Sometimes they’re served in a hearty broth and sometimes dry, but always generously accompanied by our old friend sour cream. Locals tend to make them at home on special occasions as they’re pretty time consuming to prep, but you can try excellent ones at Pervaya Pelmennaya in St. Petersburg. Shared tables and tiled floors give this slither of a cafe the atmosphere of a Soviet canteen.
The French have their crepes, Americans have pancakes and Russians do blinis. Blinis have their roots in Slavic pagan traditions when they represented the sun. Today they are an everyday favourite and come in all shapes and sizes: sweet, fluffy scones served with honey, tiny bite-sized ones topped with caviar, savoury versions stuffed with meat, vegetables and grain-based fillings… Uh Ty Blin in Vladivostok does a great selection of breakfast blinis.
Derived from the word ‘kholod’ (meaning cold), kholodetc, or aspic as it is also known, is made by letting cooked meat with garlic sit in a refrigerator until the broth hardens into a gel. This is enjoyed cold with horseradish mustard sauce, generally as a chaser in between shots of vodka. Weird? Yes. But tasty if you can get past the idea of savoury jell-o.
Although Russians have a reputation for being a nation of meat lovers, the Orthodox church actually bans consuming animal products for around 40 fast days a year, so there are plenty of traditional dishes that can easily be made vegetarian. Oliver salad was invented in the 1860s by Lucien Olivier, head chef of the famous Moscow restaurant ‘Hermitage’. It is a mayonnaise-y combo of boiled potatoes, gherkins, peas, eggs and carrots, with chunks of chicken as an optional extra. Dacha Na Pokrovke, tucked away in a crumbling Moscow mansion, does a good one.
Food safety in Russia
Like most cliches about Russia, the idea that the food is bad is a thing of the past that ties back to the days of shortages under the Soviet Union. However, a few basic safety measures are wise to avoid a bad belly. Nobody needs an upset stomach on a 72-hour train journey…
The first is not using tap water, even just to brush your teeth. This one is a pain because bottled water isn’t subsidised and does add up, especially if you’re on a longer trip. Although the Russian consumer-rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor regularly tests tap water throughout the country and says it’s safe to drink, the truth is that in many areas the filtration systems don’t appear to be working. For example, in central Russia there’s a high concentration of ferrum in the water and in Siberia there’s too much silicon and manganese. It’s best to follow the locals in buying bottled water, boiling tap water for at least 10 minutes or using water purification tablets. Make sure that the bottled water has its seal intact – there have been cases of ‘fakes’ being sold to travellers at train stations.
Similarly, there is a real issue with counterfeit spirits in Russia. Tragically, in 2016 72 people in Siberia died from drinking ‘vodka’ that actually turned out to be tainted bath oils. While this is a one-off incident, you do want to be careful about where you stock up on booze, even just to avoid killer hangovers! Stick to chain supermarkets and well-known bars, or if you’re heading somewhere remote, opt for sealed bottled beer such as Tolstiak or Nevskoe Imperial.
Fast food has a long and proud tradition in Russia. A chain called Teremok can be found in pretty much every city and does a mean line in cheap, tasty blini, soup and mains. Meat and mushroom pies are normally on sale around churches and monasteries, which the monks prepare fresh using ancient recipes that have been passed down through generations. Consider it an edible history lesson. However, meaty bites near the metro, passages or stations are best avoided, as they’ve often been sat around for a while.
It’s illegal to drink vodka or beer on the streets or on public transport, and you should be wary of strangers wanting to drink with you. This could be part of a scam.
Russian eating and drinking culture
The fact that Russians love vodka is one of those clichés that’s actually true. They drink it very differently from how we do back home, sharing out an entire bottle in a single sitting. Most Russians know that foreigners can’t drink like them and there’s no shame in leaving some vodka in your cup to show that you’ve had your fill for the time being.
The best description of how to drink vodka like a Russian comes from Anton Chekhov, one of the most famous Russian writers out there:
“First, you take a deep breath, wipe your hands and glance up at the ceiling to demonstrate your indifference. Only then you raise your vodka slowly to your lips and suddenly: Sparks! They fly from your stomach to the furthest reaches of your body!”
You shouldn’t drink without toasting and should always start your toast with the words ‘na zdorovie’, or ‘za zdorovie’, which literally translates into English as ‘for good health’. Remember to pour your own vodka last, as it’s impolite for the toaster to drink first. It’s also considered impolite to drink without a snack to chase each shot with. These are known as zakuska and can take the form of bread with a pinch of salt, pickles or salads.
Given that it shares a border with China, it’s no surprise that Russians love their tea. Most locals drink loose leaf black tea, which they make very strong in a pot and then dilute with water in each cup to suit everyone’s individual tastes. Talking about problems or catching up on the news over a cup of tea is something of a national pastime, and if you’re invited to join a local in their home it’s polite to pick up something sweet from a bakery to take as a gift.
Russian culture and people
Given that Russia is more like a series of territories than a single country, it’s no surprise that the culture varies hugely from place to place, or that the people themselves look visibly different depending on where you go. Moscovites tend to have European features, while the Buryat people of Lake Baikal have the high cheekbones and glossy black hair of Mongolians. In fact, there are 120 distinct ethnic groups within Russia. In order to decide where best to focus your trip, it’s helpful to have a grip on the geography of this vast nation.
Russia crouches at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and has been hugely influenced by both. European Russia, the most densely populated region with most of the major cities, lies between the Ukraine-Belarus border and the jagged peaks of the Ural Mountains. This is the land of books, ballet and bars that only welcome patrons who look wealthy. You have been warned! Anything to the east of this line is Asian Russia, and it’s here that you’ll find the remains of tribal culture and the untamed wilderness of the steppe and the Arctic desert. This is the area to go to for hiking, horse riding and haunting Soviet ghost towns.
Russia has made a colossal contribution to the world’s culture, particularly in the field of classical arts. We’re talking about the country that gave us the likes of Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy and Trotsky, after all.
Russian ballet is considered the best in the world, and Russian theatres are as dazzling as Faberge eggs. Traditional ones such as The Bolshoi and the Mariinsky drip in gold leaf and acres of velvet, while others are in striking Soviet buildings, such as the Omsk State Music Theatre, which looks a little like a ski jump.
Characterised by moody protagonists and enormous roll calls of characters who confusingly have several names each, Russian literature is the perfect thing to get your teeth into on board an overnight train. If you’re the ‘go big or go home’ type, diving into Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a must. This epic focuses on a noble family during the Napoleonic War, although at 587,287 words it might be wise to get this one on your kindle. For something shorter, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is an utterly gripping exploration of right and wrong. Bookbridge, on Moscow’s Bol’shaya Tatarskaya Ulitsa, has a great selection of English books, which can be hard to find outside major cities.
Russians love a holiday and celebrate a mixture of Christian and ancient pagan traditions dating back to the Slavic tribes. After the revolution, Christian holidays were banned but many people celebrated in secret, which has given rise to some fascinating traditions.
Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7th and includes mystical practices such as tarot readings and tea leaf and coffee ground divination. New Year’s Eve is the biggest night of the year, when presents are exchanged and the Russian equivalent of Santa comes to town. Maslenitsa has its roots in the sun-worshipping traditions of the ancient Rus. Although the date changes every year it is generally around mid-March and takes the form of a massive party to welcome the spring, with a particular focus on pancakes to represent the sun. There are seven days of celebrations culminating with bonfires and parades on the Sunday.
For an eye-opening cultural experience, time your visit to coincide with Victory Day on May 9th. This celebrates Russian dominance over the Nazis and every town and city hosts a parade where locals pass through the streets holding pictures of loved ones who died in the war. Some towns such as Novisibirsk also use the occasion to display their military prowess by parading tanks and other weapons through the streets to huge cheers from the crowd.
Russia’s history is a complex tapestry of royalty and revolutions that can be felt today in everything from the statue of Ivan the Terrible in Oryol to the khrushchyovka (five-story Soviet tower blocks) that dominate almost every city’s skyline.
The Eastern Slavic tribes known as the Rus, the ancestors of modern Russians, are thought to have originally migrated from Poland in 800CE. After several hundred years under Mongolian rule, Ivan the Terrible became the first tsar of Russia. The Romanov dynasty ruled decadently for 300 bejeweled, blood-spattered years before coming to an abrupt end with the assassination that wiped out the entire family (except possibly, as romantics like to believe, Anastasia). The magnificence of the court, ruled over by emperors and empresses dressed in ermine and decked with diamonds, is the stuff of legends. You can get a real sense of it at the Belosselsky-Belozersky Palace in St. Petersburg, and the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
Russia’s more recent history is a sombre (and far less glitzy) affair. In 1917, the communist Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin overthrew the last of the Tsars, ushering in a period of famine, persecution and fear. Between 1946 and 1989, the country essentially vanished from the world stage behind a wall of travel and contact restrictions known as the iron curtain. This is the period most people imagine when they picture Russia: babushkas queuing hours for bread in the driving snow and squads of civilians marching in unison under a banner bearing the hammer and sickle. This continued until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and modern-day Russia was born.
Today, Russian history is very much being made, as controversial leader Vladimir Putin continues to rule, developing something of a personality cult in Russia. In part this is down to a series of tough-guy press shots that depict him as the country’s modern saviour. Horse riding, arm wrestling and martial arts – you name it, Putin’s done it in the name of cultivating this image. It’s best to avoid discussing him with locals as he is a very divisive figure, and this could lead to some awkward conversations if you don’t know their political leaning.
Tall, slender women with cheekbones to die for. Elderly men swigging vodka in fur hats. Youths with shaved heads decked out in camo gear. Grandmothers with a demure piece of flowered cloth covering their hair. You’ll be amazed by how many of your preconceptions of Russian people turn out to be truer than you ever thought possible.
Their manner can come as a bit of a shock to first timers. This is a country where men try to be as macho as possible and women casually wear bodycon dresses and heels for a trip to the shops. Smiles are seen as unnecessary or sometimes even a sign of weakness and are rarely exchanged with strangers. This can make locals seem unfriendly and even rude, but it is purely a cultural norm rather than anything personal. Once you get used to it, it’s also kind of refreshing – if a Russian smiles or laughs at you, you know they really mean it.
Outside of the big cities, men can be keen to show foreigners ‘exactly what Russians are made of’. This can take the form of staring to assert dominance, refusing to move out of the way on pavements and occasionally even deliberately swerving the car to cover you in dust. However, be respectful and persevere. Below their gruff exteriors, Russians are warm, generous people who value family above anything else and know a good time when they see one.
The largest ethnic groups are the Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians. Ethnic Russians originated in Eastern Europe, while the Tatars hail from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
Travel advice for Russia
While Russia is generally considered a safe destination, like anywhere it’s wise to keep your wits about you. There are certain areas best avoided, including the border with Ukraine, the North Caucasus and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, all of which are currently experiencing political instability. Check out the foreign office’s travel advice for up to date information.
The big cities and Trans-Siberian route are well trodden and therefore very safe. In fact, Moscow has a dedicated force of tourist police who speak decent English and are specifically in charge of supporting visitors to the capital. It’s still a good idea to guard against pickpockets by keeping your belongings close.
Tick-borne encephalitis, a viral infection carried by ticks, is on the rise in Russia. Between March and November in particular, take care in forested areas. If hiking or camping be sure to stick to marked trails to avoid brushing against long grasses and regularly apply a good, DEET-based insect repellent. Usually symptoms appear 7 to 14 days after being bitten by an infected tick and include fever, headache, fatigue, muscle pain, nausea and loss of appetite. If experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s vital you go to the doctor to prevent the disease developing into meningitis or encephalitis.
Beware of photographing military establishments or places of strategic importance (including airports), as it’s illegal. You could be arrested and interrogated. There was a well-known case of a journalist being fined – if in doubt, don’t snap.
Sadly, Russia is undeniably very regressive in some ways. While homosexuality is technically legal, it is generally regarded badly among some sectors of the people. The LGBQTI community should be careful, as public displays of affection could attract unwanted attention.
Racism is still a major issue, particularly in rural communities. Visitors of African, Middle Eastern and Asian descent should be vigilant on the streets, particularly around Hitler’s birthday on April 20th, when Neo-Nazi thugs have been known to attack people who don’t look Russian. Unbelievably, anti-Semitism was state-sponsored during Soviet times and it still rears its ugly head from time to time with the help of right-wing political parties.
Be very careful when using dating apps. Petty criminals regularly use the famously attractive local women to ensnare travellers into fraud. Don’t buy presents for anyone you haven’t met in person. Even if they do look like Russia’s next top supermodel…
Tips for backpacking Russia
Russia is not the easiest country to travel. It’s vast, lacks infrastructure and can appear culturally baffling. However, this also makes it one of the most rewarding destinations out there – its enigma is definitely part of its charm and guarantees you’ll be having challenging experiences that will make a real impression on you for years to come. Ensure you come back from Russia with love with these top tips for backpacking Russia:
- You’ll need your passport details when buying train tickets and your passport will be checked at the train station. Keep it handy, and when you’re on the train never leave it unattended.
- Never wear sandals in major cities. No matter how high the mercury soars, they are seen as the epitome of bad taste. Wear sandals in modish Moscow and you can expect sniggering, strange looks and even for people to take the odd sneaky picture. You have been warned!
- Always dress to impress on a night out. Most clubs and many bars have a ‘face control’ policy on the door and anyone who doesn’t match the venue’s aesthetic will be turned away. Women always wear dresses and heels and men generally go for all black.
- Be respectful in churches. Women should cover their heads and shoulders and men shouldn’t try and enter in shorts. Often there’ll be wraps by the door which you can use to shield your modesty.
- It’s a good idea to carry your passport, visa and registration with you at all times. Police are entitled to stop you and demand your documents, although this is rare nowadays. Sometimes they’ll ask for an unofficial fee for the service and you should always ask for an official receipt to scare off fraudsters.
- Some restaurants offer ‘business lunches’ between certain hours which are well-priced set menus.
- If you’re on a tight budget, do your research as many key sites have free admission days. At the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, the first Thursday of each month is a free day, while at the New Tretyakov Gallery in the Russian capital it’s every Wednesday.
- Identify which attractions are highest on your priority list and do careful research on when they’re open, as there are no standardised opening and closing times for museums, cathedrals and other key sites. For example, Lenin’s mausoleum is only open from 10am until 1pm and is closed on Mondays and Fridays.
- It’s always worth buying a local sim card from companies such as MTS, Beeline or Megafon. Not only will this save you money on calls and texts to local numbers, lots of Russian Wi-Fi networks require a Russian phone number in order to log on.
- Make sure there are no torn parts or marks on your bank notes, and don’t fold them. A lot of banks in Russia charge a commission to exchange US dollars or Euros into Rubles if the banknotes are not picture-perfect.
What to bring backpacking Russia
- Eye mask: Your new best friend for overnight trains and vital if your visit falls during the white nights when the sun rarely sets for longer than a few hours.
- Kindle/books/cards: Train journeys that often last several days – enough said.
- iTranslate app: Outside major cities, few people speak English and a good translation app is key. iTranslate works with both voice and text and can also speak your translations, which is great for practicing your skills or communicating with native Russian speakers.
- Serious winter gear: If travelling in winter, do not underestimate the cold. As the local saying goes: “A Siberian is not the one who isn’t afraid of cold, but the one who dresses up properly.” That includes thermals, gloves, scarves, hats, boots and a ski coat.
- Stylish clothes: There is no denying that Russians love to dress up, particularly in the cities. If you’re planning on partying in Russia make sure you have a few outfits you feel good in (and ladies, that does mean heels if you want to go clubbing). You’ll stick out like a sore thumb rocking up somewhere in well-loved Nikes and jeans and locals will not be shy with disparaging glances…
Thanks for reading our ultimate guide to backpacking Russia! We hope you’ve found out everything you need to know to embrace the world’s biggest country. If you have any questions, or any of your own insider tips, let us know in the comments below. Enjoy your Russian adventure!
About the author:
Imogen Lepere is a travel writer with a soft spot for anything quirky, surprising and incongruous. Her adventures include teaching in Kathmandu, riding the Trans-Mongolian railway and living with a nudist colony in Greece. She currently splits her time between London and Melbourne, where she can normally be found with a glass of wine in one hand and a pen in the other. Read more of her work on her blog or follow her on Instagram.