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As Russia moves forward into the 21st century, it leaves behind a turbulent history of tyranny and a crippled economy - from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great, from the fall of the Tsars to the dictatorship of the Soviet government. Today, Russia is a nation embracing its newfound freedom and future potential, whilst enjoying a renewal of the rich cultural heritage of its past.
Despite the visible effects of hardship and economic disparity, and its previous isolation from the rest of the world, travellers in Russia will encounter a country of enormous diversity and vitality, with cultural treasures and historical monuments, great imperial cities and glittering cathedrals. Visitors will experience the enchantment of Tchaikovsky, the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet, and marvel at priceless Russian icons and the unique style of decorative, onion-domed architecture.
Most westerners associate Russia with the great imperial centres of Moscow and St Petersburg, and although these two cities, the capital and the beautiful 'Venice of the North' are a must-see, they are a mere scratch on the surface of this vast and varied land. Straddling two continents and 11 time zones, the Russian Federation is the largest country on earth, nearly twice the size of the United States of America. Within this impressive expanse lie natural wonders such as Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, and beautiful mountains, rivers and forests abundant with wildlife, as well as traditional villages scattered across the Siberian landscape.
Visitors taking the opportunity to explore Russia will not be disappointed: its impressive museums, overwhelming sense of history, culture and unspoilt wilderness will leave one with a desire to see more, and its relative isolation has ensured that Russia retains its sense of mystery.
Russia holds a wealth of sightseeing opportunities across all nine of its time zones, incorporating the largest forestland and freshwater supply in the world. It's little wonder that Russians refer to their country as the Motherland - it is, undeniably, a bountiful place. Seeing Russia in all her glory would be a mighty, and time-consuming, feat.
In St Petersburg, the State Hermitage Museum captures ancient to modern Russian history in the six buildings which make up the Winter Palace - the former residence of the tsars. The Moscow Kremlin is a wonder to behold; alongside it is Red Square, Moscow's broad and bustling city square flanked by the famous Basil Cathedral. The Bolshoi Ballet Theatre, in neighbouring Theatre Square, is one of the most ornate theatres in the world and is home to the world's oldest and most successful ballet company.
There is, however, more to see by way of both history and natural splendour. Russia is jokingly referred to as the 'lungs of Europe' due to the expansive forestland, which is said to absorb about 15 percent of the world's carbon dioxide. As you progress east, the forest becomes more dense and overwhelming. The best way to take in the Russian countryside is by train, as the Trans-Siberian Railway winds southeast from Moscow on the same route that once transported prisoners of Stalin's purges to labour camps. Those in search of natural beauty should also consider travelling down to Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest lake (by volume) in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Kremlin is a fortress surrounded by a thick red wall interspersed with 20 towers that was built between 1482 and 1495. The complex consists of a number of glittering, golden-domed churches and palaces, museums, residences, offices, assembly halls and monuments. It was home to the royal regime during Tsarist rule and the seat of the Communist government from 1918 onward. Cathedral Square is the religious centre of Moscow and the historic heart of the Kremlin. The attractive Annunciation Cathedral was set aside for the private use of royalty and contains beautifully painted murals and icons on the interior walls. The throne of Ivan the Terrible can be found in the Cathedral of the Assumption, which was used for the coronation of tsars; most of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church are buried here and their tombs line the walls of the spacious, richly coloured interior.
The Belfry of Ivan the Great is the tallest structure within the walls and a visible city landmark. At its foot lies one of the world's biggest bells, broken in a fall from its bell tower in 1701, and nearby is one of the world's largest cannons, the Tsar Cannon. Also within the Kremlin is the Armoury Palace. It is the richest and oldest museum and houses a staggering collection of treasures gathered over the years by the church and Russian state. These include jewel-studded coronation capes, thrones encrusted with diamonds, royal coaches and sleighs and the renowned jewelled Fabergé Easter eggs, each containing an exquisitely detailed miniature object of precious metal inside. The Diamond Fund Exhibition in the same building contains the 180-carat diamond given to Catherine the Great by Count Orlov.
Red Square is a dramatic cobbled square in the centre of Moscow. Originally the city's marketplace, the square also served as a public gathering place to celebrate festivals, listen to government announcements or witness executions, especially common during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The Soviet state turned it into a memorial cemetery, and constructed Lenin's Mausoleum to one side - a crystal casket containing the preserved body of the founder of the Soviet Union that is still open for public viewing today. The communist government destroyed several ancient buildings around Red Square, including the Resurrection Gate and chapel, to make space for and to allow easy tank access to the demonstrations and military parades that were often held in the area. The current Resurrection Gate and chapel are replicas that were built in the 1990s. Red Square's most impressive military parade involved the gathering of thousands of Russian soldiers ready to march to war against the Nazis in 1941; it was also the site of many parades during the Cold War.
The word 'red' doesn't apply to the colour of the brickwork, neither is it a reference to communism. The meaning of the word 'krasny' originally meant 'beautiful' in Old Russian, referring to St Basil's Cathedral at the southern end, but over the centuries the word changed to mean 'red' too, thus the square's present name. St Basil's Cathedral is the city's most well-known building and is crowned by the bulbous multi-coloured domes for which it is so famous.
St Basil's Cathedral stands on the edge of Moscow's Red Square, and is the most famous landmark in Russia. Its striking design was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his victorious military campaign against the Tartar Mongols at Kazan in 1552. Legend has it that Ivan was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he had the architect blinded to prevent him from creating anything to rival it. St Basil's Cathedral includes a central chapel surrounded by eight tower-like chapels, each crowned with a different coloured and uniquely patterned onion-shaped dome. The church escaped demolition many times during the city's turbulent history and with the beginning of the Soviet regime the cathedral was closed and later turned into a museum. The interior is a dimly lit maze of corridors and delicately decorated chapels. One of them houses a priceless, icon-decorated 16th century screen that shields the inner sanctuary. In comparison to the exquisite exterior, the interior can seem disappointing, but there is no question St Basil's is worth exploring.
Moscow's oldest and most famous theatre, the Bolshoi, dates from 1824 and is home to world-renowned opera and ballet companies. Completely rebuilt after a fire in 1856, the grand building is a masterpiece of Russian neoclassicism, including an eight-columned entrance porch topped by the horse-drawn chariot of Apollo, patron of the arts. The glittering five-tiered interior is richly adorned with red velvet furnishings, ornate gold detailing and chandeliers, and the size of the auditorium makes it one of the largest theatres in the world. The Bolshoi Theatre has hosted some of the world's most celebrated premieres, including Swan Lake, Spartacus, and concerts by Richard Wagner. Attending an evening performance at the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre constitutes one of Moscow's best nights out.
The Tretyakov Gallery houses some of the great masterpieces of traditional Russian art from before the Revolution and has the world's finest collection of Russian icons from the 11th to the 17th-centuries. The gallery's collection of paintings, graphics and sculptures covers Russian art from the 18th to the 20th century. The gallery was named after its founder, Pavel Tretyakov, an art collector who donated about 2,000 works of art from his private collection to the city of Moscow, forming the basis of the collection to which state acquisitions were later added. He also donated his own house, which became the original site of the art gallery. Two separate buildings at different locations house the works selected for display.
The magnificent green, white and gold Winter Palace is superbly situated on the banks of the Neva River. At 656 foot-long (200m), the Russian Baroque building is the biggest and most lavishly decorated palace in the city. It was the official residence of the tsars, and Catherine the Great later added the Small and Large Hermitages onto the palace as a sanctuary for herself and her private art collection. The Hermitage Museum comprises a stately complex of buildings strung along the embankment, with the Winter Palace at its heart. The Hermitage Museum is one of the world's greatest art museums, with a collection that has grown from the paintings of Catherine the Great in 1764 to a collection of more than three million pieces. This vast collection is housed within the sumptuous splendour of one of the most luxurious palaces in the world. The three floors cover a full range of world art from ancient times, to Russian works and 20th-century European examples, as well as a fabulous collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, set against the rich interior of white marble staircases, golden ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and elaborate mosaics.
Palace Square is the main square of St Petersburg and one of the world's most magnificent plazas. It contains the picturesque Baroque buildings of the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum on one side and the Classical yellow and white former General Staff buildings of the Russian army on the other. The focal point of the square is the Alexander Column, a tall monolith of red granite topped by the statue of an angel and a cross, dedicated to Russian military victory in the Napoleonic wars. Palace Square has been the site of numerous political protests, most notably the demonstrations of Bloody Sunday in 1905 that started the first Russian Revolution. Today the square, with its beautiful views of the Admiralty's golden spire and the dome of St Isaac's Cathedral across the vast stone paving, is filled with markets, outdoor cafes and the sound of horse-drawn carriages.
Almost three miles (5km) long, Nevsky Prospekt is one of the best-known streets in Russia and is the main thoroughfare of St Petersburg. The Nevsky Prospekt starts at the Admiralty building whose gilded spire is a famous city landmark, passes the Moscow Railway Station and the Alexandr Nevsky Monastery, where some of the country's most celebrated artists are buried. Nevsky Prospekt has been the hub of St Petersburg for centuries and cuts through the most important segment of the city. Intersected by rivers and canals, the most beautiful part of the avenue surrounds the Griboyedov Canal. Here the impressive colonnade of the grand Kazan Cathedral catches the eye, curving around a small grassy square opposite the breathtaking, multi-coloured onion domes of the 'Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood' - which is officially called the Resurrection of Christ Church. Modelled on St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and adorned with exquisite mosaic panels, the church is one of St Petersburg's most striking landmarks. It was built on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881.
As well as many churches, the street boasts St Petersburg's finest shops and restaurants, old manors and impressive buildings, and a beautiful mixture of architectural styles from the different periods of its history. If you walk down only one road in St Petersburg make it the Nevsky Prospekt.
The golden dome of St Isaac's Cathedral dominates the skyline of St Petersburg, with the colonnade around the cupola offering superb panoramic views over the city. It was commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to be a magnificent imperial cathedral, and the ensuing masterpiece was of grandiose proportions, taking more than 40 years to build. It was decorated in the most extravagant manner. The Russian Classic exterior encloses a splendid interior adorned with red granite columns, exquisite mosaics, painted ceilings, sculptures, frescoes, and a beautiful stained-glass window, incorporating many different kinds of stone and marble work into the massive structure. The cathedral can accommodate 14,000 worshippers, but today services are held here only on special occasions. It is worth noting that no photography or filming is allowed in either the Cathedral or the Colonnade.
Situated across the river from The Hermitage Museum, and on a small island on the Neva Delta, the Peter and Paul Fortress is the oldest surviving building in St Petersburg. Planned by Peter the Great as a defence against possible attacks from the Swedes, the fortress never served its original purpose as the Swedish were defeated before its completion, and the six bastions at its corners were turned into high security political prison cells. The notorious dungeons held many famous people, including Alexei (the son of Peter the Great), Trotsky, and Gorky, and is now a museum. Other buildings in the fortress house the City History Museum and the Mint. The midday gun is fired every day from the roof, echoing around the city from across the water. Also enclosed within the imposing walls is the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, its distinctive golden needle-like spire visible throughout the city. The first church in the city to be built from stone, it has a richly decorated interior containing the tombs of every Russian Emperor since Peter the Great.
Poklonnaya Hill means 'bow hill', and lies in the west part of Moscow. Historically, is was a spot for Western visitors to pay homage to the city before entering. Today it is a beacon to Russia's military strength, having withstood invasions by both Napoleon and Hitler. Atop the hill is Victory Park which provides a scenic walk and contains a memorial Mosque and Synagogue for victims of the war, and an open air museum dedicated to the victory over Napoleon. There are many tanks and other wartime vehicles on display in Victory Park, along with several impressive monuments and statues. History buffs will love exploring the many attractions of Poklonnaya Hill and Victory Park, and even those not interested in military history will enjoy the art and the views.
After Napoleon retreated from Russia, Tsar Alexander I declared that a cathedral be built in remembrance of the soldiers who had died defending Mother Russia. The original cathedral took more than 40 years to build. Decades later the cathedral was demolished by Stalin (who found the monument abhorrent) to make way for the colossal Palace of the Soviets, intended to be a symbol of Russian Communism, which was never actually built. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was rebuilt again, on the same site, between 1990 and 2000 as a faithful duplicate of the original. It is currently one of the largest and tallest Orthodox Churches in the world. The contemporary Russian artwork, statues and memorials to the Russian Tsars, as well as a small indoor museum, are well worth a look.
The battle of Borodino is regarded as the bloodiest of the Napoleonic battles, seeing over 70,000 casualties in a single day and leading Napoleon to brand the Russians as 'invincible'. The Borodino Panorama Museum was inaugurated in 1960 and serves as an exhibit of artefacts and displays from the Napoleonic wars, with a collection of wartime memorabilia on one level and the enormous panorama on another. The panorama referred to in the name is, incidentally, not an outdoor view but a 360º painting by Franz Roubaud depicting a crucial moment in the battle itself. The mural is 115 meters long and 15 meters high. The museum will delight military history buffs, but should also impress the uninitiated. Those with smartphones can download the museum's interesting audio guide, helped along by free wifi.
Taken together, Moscow's Metro stations amount to the most beautiful public transport facility in the world. Visitors to Moscow should not miss taking a ride on this glorious underground rail system, and exploring the stations. Each one has its own, distinct aesthetic, variously adorned with Realist artworks, chandeliers, ornate pillars and marble floors. Moscow's Metro caters to something like two and half billion passenger rides per year, making it one of the busiest underground metro systems in the world. Despite this, the stations are more akin to palaces or five-star hotel lobbies rather than functional spaces. The depth of the elevators is also astounding. Most travellers will encounter the Metro system for practical reasons, but many will find that they choose to spend more time than necessary underground! There are nearly 200 stations but some of the most beautiful and ornate are Kiyevskaya, Dostoyevskaya, Prospekt Mira, Mayakovskaya and Ploshchad Revolyutsii.
Also known as Agursky, the Agura Waterfalls are one of the most famous tourist attractions in Sochi. Located just outside the city, these majestic waterfalls cascade from a height of 98 feet (30m) and are a popular stop off along hiking trails that wind through the forest along the Agura Ravine in the Sochi National Park. At the Eagle's Rocks, hikers can enjoy the view of the crystal clear waterfalls crashing down to the oval pool below and admire the panoramic views over the city and Black Sea. Swimming is allowed and a very popular activity in the warmer months. It is possible to organise tours to the waterfalls, but also easy to seek them out independently.
Matsesta is a micro-district in Sochi, on the Black Sea coast, primarily renowned as a health resort. Matsesta, meaning 'fiery water', has harnessed the powers of the hot sulphur springs that have become synonymous with Sochi and become the city's most renowned health spa district. The water from the hot springs naturally contains more than 27 types of minerals and is used to treat people with respiratory and cardiac problems, though it is also perfect for simple relaxation. Featuring a number of different spa facilities which all have bathing rooms, massage tables and inhalation cubicles, Matsesta Spa is a major tourist attraction and a big draw card for travellers to the region.
Located just outside of Sochi, the small village of Dagomys is a popular holiday resort on the Black Sea. The former haunt of Russian nobility in the 19th century, the holiday residence of Tsar Nicholas II is still standing and travellers can play royalty by spending a night there as it is now a large hotel. The scenic village boasts lovely pebble beaches, which are set against the dramatic backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains, and visitors can tour local tea plantations and the mineral springs of Matsesta. Dagomys is also a paradise for outdoor activities, including hiking and bird-watching in the Dendrarium Botanical Gardens. Summers in Dagomys are noticeably cooler than in other coastal areas due to mountain air currents, earning the village its name, which means 'a cool and shady place' in the Adyghe language. While Dagomys is not as lively as nearby Sochi, the resort's quiet and relaxing atmosphere makes for a great weekend getaway.
One of the more popular ski resorts in the Caucasus region, Dombai is a scenic mountain valley located at the confluence of three rivers, 37 miles (60km) from the Black Sea coast. Famous for its pure air, Dombai is frequented mostly by Russian holidaymakers, lending it a unique and lively atmosphere and preserving the town's authentic character. The facilities at Dombai are old and fairly worn, but there is a tourist complex comprising hotels and a recreation and sports centre. Five lifts and three ski trackers operate on a pay-as-you-go riding system serving varied pistes (tracks) that cater for all levels of skiers. The gentle slopes near the top of the mountain are better suited to beginners, as the incline becomes very steep toward the bottom.
The laidback seaside resort of Gelendzhik has been around for several millennia, having been founded as a Greek outpost around 64 BC. The town is set along a curving bay with calm pebble beaches that are ideal for swimming and watersports, and land-based activities like horseback riding, quad biking and hiking. Gelendzhik is best known for its spa and waterparks, and there is a cable car line specially built for tourists to take in the scenic views from the top of the mountain. A new airport opened in 2010, making it easy to get to Gelendzhik from Moscow and St Petersburg.
Set 1,968 feet (600m) above sea level, Krasnaya Polyana, ('red meadow') is fast becoming the most popular ski resort in Russia. Skiers and snowboarders in Krasnaya Polyana can enjoy magnificent panoramic views of the West Caucasus. Located just 25 miles (40km) from Sochi and the Black Sea coast, Krasnaya Polyana is sometimes called the 'Russian Courchevel" for its well-groomed pistes (tracks), good après-ski nightlife, and high prices. The resort owes much of its popularity to its excellent heliskiing opportunities, but there are also good runs for beginners. The resort underwent massive renovations ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Olympic facilities located in Krasnaya Polyana include the Russian National Sliding Centre (luge, bobsleigh, and skeleton), Psekhako Ridge (biathlon, cross-country skiing, and Nordic combined), Roza Khutor Alpine Resort (Alpine skiing and snowboarding), Alpika Service Mountain Resort (freestyle skiing), and Russian National Ski-jumping Centre (ski jumping and Nordic Combined).
The Pavlovsk Palace lies about 19 miles (31km) outside St Petersburg, and is one of the smaller and more restrained of the palaces located in and around St Petersburg. It was built in 1780 by Catherine II's son, Paul (the future Emperor Paul I) and was designed by the Scottish architect Charles Cameron and his assistant, Vincenzo Brenna, and included landscaped gardens in the British style. The palace was turned into a museum after Russia's 1917 revolution, but was almost entirely destroyed during World War II. Following the war, the palace's old furnishings and artwork were tracked down and the palace was beautifully restored. Today the palace is once again a museum open to the public, displaying rooms furnished and decorated exactly as they were when occupied by the Russian royalty. The extensive grounds are beautifully kept and are available to visitors for strolling and picnicking. Visitors can reach the palace by train from St Petersburg, a short journey that showcases a little of the lovely Russian countryside.
Tsarskoe Selo ('Tsar's Village') is a former Romanov summer residence located about 15 miles (25km) outside of St Petersburg. The estate was originally a gift from Peter the Great to his wife Catherine I, and over the course of many years it was developed by different emperors and empresses. The Baroque Catherine Palace and the neoclassical Alexander Palace are the main buildings on the estate. The Catherine Palace has been kept in much better condition than the Alexander Palace, although both palaces are well worth a visit. The Catherine Palace houses the famous Amber Room, which is panelled entirely with pieces of amber and filled with amber artwork. The palaces' grounds are extensive and contain many surprising small buildings added purely for visual effect, notably the so-called Chinese Village in the Alexander Palace's gardens. The Cameron Gallery, a small building designed by the Scottish architect James Cameron in the 1780's, houses widely varied temporary exhibitions.
Tsarskoe Selo is an easy train-ride from St Petersburg's Vitebsk train station followed by a short bus ride to the palace gates, all of which should take no more than 30 minutes if there is no traffic. It is an extremely popular spot in the summer months and queues as well as traffic can get very bad, so it's a good idea to arrive early.
The main holiday season for Russians and foreigners is during the warmest months of July and August, but it also rains a lot at this time. The best times to visit are May and June or September and October, avoiding most of the crowds and the rain. Winters are very cold and bitter, especially in Siberia, but are also beautiful. February usually has the worst weather: windy and extremely cold with very little snow.
Moscow's culinary scene has evolved exponentially in recent years and, as has been typical in other food revolutions, one of the pioneers was the burger. Some of the best burgers in Moscow are to be found in a little hole-in-the-wall at 27/2 Tverskaya Ulitsa, near Metro Mayakovskaya. It has no official name but a sign outside reads, "Burgery/Khotdogi" (Burgers and Hotdogs). Inside, visitors will find Moscow's take on the classic dive bar aesthetic, replete with local hipsters.
Each burger is made to order using high-quality ingredients, but they're also reasonably priced. Be sure to check out the classic burger for RUB 280 (it comes with a slice of orange): gone are the days of poor quality diner-style burgers in Moscow, and travellers are advised to ride the wave.
A favourite seafood hot spot, Filimonova and Yankel serves up seafood cooked in a variety of styles. A large banquet style dining room makes for a festive atmosphere perfect for larger gatherings. A live but mellow jazz band sets the ambiance further with a classy yet casual atmosphere. The seafood is exceptionally fresh.
Mu-Mu operates a string of popular restaurants in Moscow all serving cheap traditional Russian food. Very popular with locals looking for quick eats and tourists wanting to try specialty Russian food without spending a fortune, the restaurants usually sport a pleasantly busy atmosphere. If you need fast food in Moscow on a budget Mu-Mu is a good option.
Café Pushkin is a wondrous example of Old Russian sophistication and elegance. Opened in 1999, Café Pushkin has been designed to resemble a 19th century aristocrat's apartment and is tastefully decked out with heavy gauge fabrics, wooden panels and plenty of antiques. The food is classic Russian cuisine and diners will not be disappointed whether they opt for a pancake breakfast, Tsar's Sturgeon, or the myriad desserts.
Café Pushkin is also open 24 hours a day.
There's a strange paradox at work in this swanky, themed restaurant. While waitresses dress as milkmaids, goats and chickens (live ones) occupy cages near the restaurant centre and the decorative furniture consist of haystacks, the calibre of service and meals are up to the standards of the upper echelons of society. Indeed, most of the restaurant's clientele dress smartly for dinners here. It is a Ukrainian restaurant serving up Ukrainian and Russian specialities, open for breakfast, lunch and supper. Reservations are recommended but may not be necessary.
The official currency is the Rouble (RUB), which is divided into 100 kopeks. Most major international credit cards are accepted in larger establishments. Currency can be changed at banks, bureaux de change, and hotels. ATMs are widely available in major cities. It is hard to get roubles outside Russia and travellers are advised to take good condition US Dollars or Euro notes to change once there.
Russian is the official language. Some people speak English, French or German.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Round two-pin plugs are standard.
US nationals: United States citizens must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is required.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is required.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is required.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport valid on arrival. A visa is required. Those passengers with an APEC Business Travel Card valid for travel to 'RUS' if traveling on business do not require a visa.
ZA nationals: South Africans must have a passport valid on arrival. No visa is required for a maximum of 90 days.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a passport valid on arrival. A visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid on arrival. A visa is required. Those passengers with APEC Business Travel Card for travel to 'RUS' if traveling on business do not require a visa.
Valid visas in expired passports or other expired travel documents are not accepted. Visitors must carry ID at all times whilst in Russia. An Immigrant Card will be issued on board the aircraft or on arrival. All visitors staying for longer than seven working days must register with the Federal Migration Service upon arrival; if staying in a hotel, the hotel will arrange this, otherwise you can find the forms to fill out at a post office and post the forms to the Federal Migration Service. Anyone travelling on a tourist visa must hold vouchers from the hotel or travel agency. Passengers are required to hold return/onward tickets and documents required for the next destination. Exit permits are required on departure. These are usually issued with the visa, or can be obtained at hotels not less than two days before departure. Passports must be valid for period of intended stay. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Travellers to Russia are advised to get vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, to be up to date on vaccinations for tetanus-diphtheria and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), and to consider vaccinations for typhoid, rabies and Japanese encephalitis if they are long-term travellers and/or spending time in rural areas.
Drinking water should be treated; bottled water is readily available. Local state medical facilities are of a low standard, however, and visitors are strongly advised to have full insurance for medical treatment and accidents should they require private care. Blood transfusions should not be performed in Russia, due to uncertainties concerning the blood supply. Essential medications and supplies may be limited.
Hotel bills in the large Russian cities usually include a 10 to 15 percent service charge. If no service charge has been added a tip of at least 10 percent is expected. City Guides and their drivers also expect a small tip and tipping in bars and nightclubs is common.
Though Russia is generally a safe country in which to travel, visitors should be vigilant and watch out for pickpockets and street crime, and should be particularly cautious on the metro and buses. Moreover, travellers must insist on seeing official identification from police officers. Political protests often end in violence and detention and visitors are advised to avoid all street demonstrations and political gatherings.
Photography of anything to do with the military, strategic sites, or the airport, is prohibited. In Russian Orthodox churches, women are advised to wear skirts and cover their heads with a scarf. It is a legal requirement for visitors to carry passports for identification; copies are not sufficient. Russia has a poor LGBT rights record, and same-sex couples should exercise caution.
Russian business is conducted in a fashion similar to Western countries but with some subtle differences. Russians are business-minded so it is not generally necessary to form personal relations with business colleagues; however, developing a good network of resident associates is a good idea. Dress is formal and conservative and on greeting a good firm handshake and direct eye contact indicates strength. Business cards are exchanged and it is advisable to print a Cyrillic translation of your details on the alternate side. Business hours are generally from 9am to 6pm from Monday to Friday.
The international access code for Russia is +7. Hotels, cafes and restaurants offering free wifi are widely available. As international roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option.
The following may be imported into Russia without customs duty: 200 cigarettes, 100 cigarillos, 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco products (over 18 years), 2 litres of alcohol (over 21 years), perfume for personal use, gifts up to the value of US$10,000. Tourists must complete a customs declaration form, to be retained until departure, allowing for the import of articles intended for personal use (including currency and valuables) which must be registered on the declaration form.
Additionally, 250g of caviar per person may be exported, with a receipt proving it was purchased at a store licensed to sell it to foreigners and a licence from the Ministry of Economic Development. Any items or artwork that might have historical value, like icons, maps, coins or paintings, have to be registered with the Ministry of Culture before departure, which usually involves a 100% customs duty fee.
Russian Tourism Authority: +7 495 623 7978 or www.russia-travel.com
Russian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 939 8907.
Russian Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7229 6412.
Russian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 235 4341.
Russian Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6295 9033.
Russian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 362 1337.
Russian Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 492 2048.
Russian Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 476 6113.
United States Embassy, Moscow: +7 495 728 5000.
British Embassy, Moscow: +7 495 956 7200.
Canadian Embassy, Moscow: +7 495 105 6000.
Australian Embassy, Moscow: +7 495 956 6070.
South African Embassy, Moscow: +7 495 540 1177.
Irish Embassy, Moscow: +7 495 937 5911.
New Zealand Embassy, Moscow: +7 495 956 3579.
Located 120 miles (193km) from Moscow, Yasnaya Polyana is the estate where Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828. In 1921, the property became a memorial to the celebrated author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and contains a museum with his personal effects, including an extensive library of nearly 22,000 volumes. Nearly a century later, the museum is still run by Tolstoy's descendants. Tolstoy spent 60 years living at Yasnaya Polyana with his family, and all of his 13 children were born there (although four died young). He founded a working farm and children's school on the estate, and is buried in an area called the Forest of the Old Order (so called because it was forbidden to cut down trees there).
Consisting of a circuit of historic cities northeast of Moscow, the Golden Ring is a popular tourist route for travellers in Russia. The cities are popular for their distinctive architecture (recognizable for the uniquely-Russian onion-shaped domes and colourful ornamentation), and their tradition of handmade craftsmanship, offering tourists a good opportunity to buy beautiful Russian souvenirs. The official list of towns in the Golden Ring includes Ivanovo, Kostroma, Pereslavl-Zalessky, Rostov Veliky, Sergiev Posad, Suzdal, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl. They are all spaced close enough to each other (and to Moscow and St Petersburg) to reach on horseback within 24 hours, making them ideal for a driving tour. The cities are fairly similar, so it is not necessary to visit them all, and most travellers choose to see only four or five. One city that should not be missed, however, is Sergiev Posad, the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church and home to the impressive Sergiev Posad Monastery. Suzdal is another highlight on any Golden Ring tour, home of the St.Euthymius Monastery and the enormous Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery, which houses 10 museums and is nearly as impressive as St Basil's in Moscow.
The Arkhangelskoye Estate, just outside Moscow, is an old aristocratic estate home that has been a museum since the fall of the Russian tsars in 1917. It was built in 1703, featuring classical and neo-classical design elements. The estate is composed of various buildings including the main palace, a smaller palace called Caprice, a church, and a theatre. Beautifully decorated interiors can be found throughout, augmented by a very impressive collection of art. Unlike many other old aristocratic Russian estates, Arkhangelskoye is in very good condition as special, dedicated efforts have been made in recent years to ensure its upkeep. The estate is easily reached by train, a 30-minute journey from the Yaroslavsky train station in the west of Moscow. In the summer and early autumn, all of the buildings are open for viewing. Visitors are welcome to explore the grounds and can bring picnics to enjoy in the gardens. There are also usually several music concerts hosted by the estate throughout the summer months.
While still beautiful and worth a visit during the winter, the gardens are obviously not much of a sight, and some of the buildings are occasionally closed in the winter.
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