Russia’s second-biggest city, Petersburg is famous for its architecture, and rightly so. It is a more beautiful city than Moscow, and draws most of Russia’s tourists (due to the ships coming in on Baltic tours, and Finns arriving by train). Slightly less expensive than Moscow, it has a more cultured, slower feel. Even the people are more relaxed and polite. Everyone who visits sees the Winter Palace and Hermitage art museum, and the Tsar’s old palace at Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland, which is a bit like Versailles-on-Sea. It is worth spending a few days in Petersburg, although the hotel shortage situation is worse here than anywhere else in the country, especially in summer.
The crime situation is also as bad here as anywhere in Russia.
The Black Sea
Russia’s Black Sea coast is home to places like Sochi, Anapa and Gelendzhik, which enjoy an excellent summer climate and have reasonable beaches. It would be pretty pointless to come to Russia just to sit on a beach, when you could do it cheaper (and enjoy better service and accommodation) in Turkey, Egypt or Spain, but if you are in the country, it is worth doing. Again, there aren’t many hotels, but just every other inhabitant of these places rents out rooms for a few dollars a night. A great way to meet Russian girls in small bikinis, which might just be the best thing you see in Russia.
North West Russia
Places like Karelia have huge numbers of rivers and lakes, and chances are you will have them all to yourself if you go there. The fishing, rafting, hunting, camping and hiking opportunities are awesome. Take your mosquito repellent. If you go far enough north in June, you can enjoy the strange sensation of 24 hour daylight! Provincial places like this can offer the best of Russia – happy, relaxed people who don’t care about anything, amazing natural beauty, incredibly fresh air and water, and huge open spaces. Regional tour operators can offer very good value for money deals on trips, slanted to local customers mostly.
Central / Urals
Pretty much off the tourist map, with good reason – full of large, industrial cities like Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg that used to be closed to foreigners because of their huge numbers of tank and missile plants. You might pass through on the way to somewhere else. Many people who go there out of curiosity wonder why they bothered afterwards – most large industrial Russian cities all look pretty much the same, but visiting one to satisfy your curiosity might be worth it.
Far North – Norilsk
A good contender for the title “Hell on Earth City”, this sprawling, polluted mass of factories and tower blocks is now out of bounds to foreigners. There are open places up north, but you’d have to have very good reasons to go there. Most of those who did years ago were serving life sentences.
Far East and Kamchatka
Kamchatka is a unique place – volcanoes, ice and rivers, completely wild. Even a few tigers left. It’s actually quite hard to get to, and very expensive, and you’ll know if you want to go there. Where else can you fly in a helicopter, snow-board down a volcano, and then catch ten salmon in half an hour, with a black bear watching you across the river?
Vladivostok and Primorye are not that much of a tourist destination.
Written about by far too many writers, the world’s longest train trip is something to tell your grandchildren about, and is a cheap way to do Moscow-China or vice-versa. Many people say it’s a bit of an anti-climax – after all, do you really want to spend FIVE DAYS in a train? The scenery does not change much – thousands of miles of birch forest, interrupted by large, industrial towns like Tomsk and Novosibirsk. However, it goes to Baikal, the world’s largest lake, is one way to see a lot of Russia, and quite cheaply. A good option for those heading to China, or back. Only masochists would buy a return ticket.
Altai / Tuva
Russia’s central Asian areas, like the Altai area bordering China, have lovely mountain scenery, and again, there aren’t many people to spoil the view. The Republic of Tuva (or Tyva) is a very way-out place with beautiful mountains and desert scenery reminiscent of Xinjiang in China (which is just across the border). The nearest McDonalds is a very long way away, and you probably won’t meet anyone in your country who’s ever been there.
A tricky one – this used to be a big tourism area, where Russians went to take the spa waters and breath alpine air in towns like Kislovodsk, Pyatigorsk and Mineralnye Vodi. The natural beauty is still there, but so is a very charged political situation, with the war in Chechnya starting to spill over into neighbouring Islamic republics like Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. If you do go, find out the latest situation, and be very careful, as there is a lot of kidnapping going on. It’s probably better to give it a miss altogether while trains and police stations are being blown up.
Russia has a lot of things that are unique, and for that reason there are a lot of specific tours that let you do a lot of things unavailable at home. If you are an aviation buff, there are tours taking in the Moscow Air Show and museums. If you like culture, there are tours focusing on opera, ballet and music. Hunting and fishing tours are very popular, and if you want, you can even go parachuting or fly in a military jet. A lot of these things are done in a way that would be totally impossible at home, or a lot more expensive, and can be a great way to leave with good memories of Russia.