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Roughly 1,000km from the North Pole lies Franz Josef Land, the world’s northernmost archipelago. Although uninhabited (save for a small troupe of hardy military personnel) and almost entirely covered by ice, the 190 islands in the Franz Josef chain are Russian territory – although some 3,800 polar bears who reside on the islands may disagree.
Only in the last few years has Franz Josef Land opened itself up to tourism, and up until now, a mere handful of pioneering visitors have set eyes on what remains one of the world’s most wild and mysterious polar realms.
These seemingly barren islands may not be your typical cruise ship destination, but therein lies their appeal. For the adventurous soul seeking to leave the trappings of human society behind, the untouched wilderness and extraordinary wildlife of Franz Josef Land await.
Introducing Franz Josef Land
Covering 16,134 square kilometres (6,229 sq. mi) of the Barents Sea, the 191 islands of Franz Josef Land mark the most northerly extent of Russia’s territory. Beyond them, nothing but thousands of kilometres of deep, desolate Arctic Ocean stretch all the way to the North Pole itself.
85% of the islands are completely frozen over by glacial ice, year-round. This uninhabited polar wilderness may seem like a strange place to go on a pleasure cruise, but in fact, these islands are anything but barren and lifeless. Part of the huge Russian Arctic National Park, one of the most important areas for ecotourism in the Arctic region, Franz Josef Land’s remoteness has made it a truly undisturbed paradise for all kinds of incredible wildlife.
Franz Josef Land is a harsh and breathtakingly beautiful kingdom of glacial valleys, wildflower-speckled tundra, moss, lichen and stone covered beaches, magnificent rocky headlands and vast polar deserts. Every year, around five million migratory birds nest on the archipelago. This is a birdwatcher’s paradise, providing shelter to over 41 species in total. The underwater world is similarly pristine – a feeding ground for an amazing abundance of marine mammals, including some of the world’s rarest whale species. The islands are also a sanctuary for the two great Arctic giants, the polar bear and the walrus.
As inhospitable to human life as these islands may seem, the spirit of human endeavour has made its mark on Franz Josef Land. Historical sites and ruins are still scattered around the archipelago to this day, remnants of the various expeditions who attempted to use the islands as a springboard to reach the North Pole. Later, the Soviet Union used Franz Josef’s extreme isolation to its advantage, establishing secret bases on the island. Today however, whilst around 150 hardened military personnel remain on the island of Alexandra Land, most humans visiting Franz Josef Land are researchers, Arctic cruise ship tourists and wildlife photographers.
At a latitude of between 80.0° and 81.9° north, Franz Josef Land is subjected to the peculiar conditions of polar day and night. Here, the polar night lasts an average of 128 days a year. During these completely dark winters, temperatures can plunge to below -30° C. The sea ice is completely frozen over, making passage between the islands all but impossible.
Cruises take place in the peak of summer, between mid-July and end of August, when temperatures occasionally rise just above zero, and visitors can take advantage of the 24-hours of sunlight to make the absolute most of wildlife viewing opportunities.
Franz Josef Fun Fact: On Franz Josef Land you can find a branch of the Post of Russia. Postcode 163100 on Hooker Island is the northernmost post office in the world. Incredibly, it is still in operation, but as the local postie only works an hour a week, you’ll have to be there between 10am and 11am on a Wednesday to send a postcard.
The most northern meteorological station in the world also operates on Franz Josef Land.
Exploration, Espionage and Environmentalism on Franz Josef Land
While there’s no doubt that animals are the dominant species in the unforgiving environs of Franz Josef Land, and despite being more-or-less uninhabited by humankind, this almost unimaginably isolated archipelago is associated with a strange, exciting and occasionally mysterious human history. The human story of Franz Josef Land is based largely around the exploits of the great Arctic Explorers, the secret military ambitions of the Soviets and modern-day initiatives to protect the islands’ fragile Arctic ecosystem and introduce carefully planned ecotourism to the region.
The Age of Explorers
In 1865, sailors on the Norwegian sealing vessel Spidsbergen, captained by Nils Fredrik Rønnbeck may well have been the first humans to lay eyes on the Franz Josef Land archipelago. They named their discovery Nord-Øst Spidsbergen (Northeast Spitsbergen), but their findings were never published, perhaps to keep there whereabouts a secret from other sealing and whaling vessels.
It wasn’t until 1872 that the wider world was made aware of the island chain’s existence, when the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872 named the territory in honour of Franz Joseph I of Austria. This was the beginning of the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, when courageous mariners would set out on daring voyages in the hopes of marking their mark on the world map.
Several more expeditions to the island followed, but among the most ambitious was a series of attempts to use the archipelago as a wintering base before striking out for the North Pole in the summer. Three expeditions between 1898 and 1905 all proved unsuccessful, although they did contribute to further exploration and mapping out of the islands.
The Russians Take Charge
The first Russian forays into the far northern Arctic were rather more coordinated than the gung-ho efforts of the early explorers. Starting with the icebreaker Ymark in 1901, the Russian visits involved both exploration activities and increasing amounts of scientific research. The Russians declared sovereignty over Franz Josef Land in 1914 and the Soviet Union formally annexed the islands in April 1926. Norway and Italy protested, and Norwegian sealers (the folks who supposedly discovered Franz Josef Land in the very first place) defiantly continued to operate in the surrounding waters for several years. In 1929, Norway made a failed attempted to establish a base in the region.
After the failed Norwegian intervention, few expeditions visited Franz Josef Land, until the International Polar Year in 1932 revived interest in researching the polar regions. The Soviets then went about an extensive research program that latest several years. Sixty people spent winters on the islands between 1934 and 1936, and the region also saw its first airstrip constructed.
Human activity dwindled during WWII, which allowed the Nazis to secretly establish a base and weather station on Alexandra Land. However, the Germans evacuated the base in 1994 after the men were struck with trichinosis after eating polar bear meat. Russian scientists discovered the scattered remains of the base in 2016.
The Arctic’s Cold War Years
Franz Josef Land played a significant part in the Cold War. The Soviets regarded the archipelago as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and Alexandra Land the ideal place to construct an aerodrome and a military base. Known as Nagurskoye, it became Russia’s northernmost military base. Because of the islands’ military significance, the Soviet Union all but closed off the area to foreigners, although Soviet researchers carried out various scientific expeditions
The Modern Day Story
The military presence in Franz Josef Land began dwindling gradually from the early 1990s onwards. Russia declared the archipelago and its surrounding waters a nature sanctuary in 1994. It was a move that saw the first inklings of tourism on the islands, and in 2011, in a move to better accommodate ecotourism in the region, the Russian Arctic National Park was expanded to include Franz Josef Land. From 2011 to 2016, about 5,500 tourists from 60 countries visited Franz Josef Land. For now, tourist arrivals per year remain similar, although tourism is slowly expected to grow over the coming years.
As part of a move to reopen several air bases in the Arctic, the Russian Air Force decided to reopen the Graham Belle Island airfield (a former Cold War outpost) in 2012. A new major base named the Arctic Trefoil was constructed at Nagurskoye in Alexandra Land. Here you’ll find almost the entire human population of Franz Josef Land. With an area of 14,000sqm, the base can accommodation 150 soldiers of 18 months at a time.
Plants, Birds and Wildlife of Franz Josef Land
Franz Josef Land’s harsh, freezing climates mean trees and other tall plants are unable to survive. Yet a few hardy types of flora bring a mosaic of colours to the islands of Franz Josef – at least those that aren’t covered by ice year-round. Mosses, and especially lichen are by far the most widespread plant species, as they thrive in the arctic desert environment below 315m. Above that altitude, the environment is largely lifeless snow desert, although occasional lichens and snow algae manage to survive on glacier surfaces.
Amazingly, alpine wildflowers grow abundantly on several of the islands. In spring, the tundra bursts into life with the yellow flowers of Arctic poppy and buttercup as well as tiny white saxifrage blooms. In wet areas, alpine foxtail grass and polar willow, a dwarf shrub, provide cover for Arctic foxes on the hunt for nesting birds.
One of the most spectacular natural phenomena on Franz Josef Land are the enormous numbers of migratory seabirds that come to nest year in the brief but bountiful summer months. The sea cliff rookeries are truly immense, absolutely swarming with Brunnich’s guillemots, black guillemots, little auks, northern fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes.
A little further inland, the scree slopes and flat tundra host enormous nesting colonies of purple sandpiper, Arctic skua, glaucous gull, ivory gull, Arctic tern and snow bunting. While most seabirds only come on shore for breeding, spending most of their life at sea, a few will remain on the islands over winter.
Life in the Arctic seas and skies is far more abundant compared to shore. With little in the way of nutritious vegetation, the islands simply can’t support mammals who depend on land for their survival. There is one exception, however. The Arctic fox, in its silver summer coat, is often seen bounding between dens amid the nesting seabird colonies. Always on the hunt, these agile predators do well in Franz Josef, with an endless supply of fledglings and eggs to feast on.
Two other iconic land mammal species inhabit the archipelago, but unlike the fox, much of their food comes from the sea.
Franz Josef Land is one of the best places in the world to observe the king of the Artic – the polar bear. The bear population on the island is estimated to be around 3,800. Spotting them close to shore is rarely difficult. Wherever there is ice – and seals – a hungry polar bear is bound to be nearby. Polar bears are most commonly seen wandering the frozen coastlines around the island, waiting for seals to pop up from their breathing holes in the ice. Occasionally, a washed up whale carcass can bring large numbers of scavenging bears on to a beach where they will feast until nothing but bones remain.
Franz Josef Land is also famous for its walrus colonies. Dozens of these colossal animals at a time will haul out on a stretch of beach, making for an impressive sight indeed. Since the end of the early seal-hunting days and the conversion of Franz Josef Land to a protected wildlife sanctuary, numbers of walruses and other pinnipeds such as Stellar’s sea lions, northern fur seals and ringed seals have returned up to, or close to, their pre-hunting numbers.
The pristine waters around Franz Josef Land are blessed with plentiful fish and marine invertebrates, making these islands some of the most productive for spotting marine mammals on the planet. Apart from the healthy populations of seals and sea lions, Franz Josef Land harbours an amazing variety of cetacean species. Franz Josef has been declared a marine mammal sanctuary and is a critically important habitat for some of the rarest whales in the world.
Northern minke whales, humpbacks and white beluga whales are commonly spotted, along with the less commonly sighted orca and narwhal. These protected waters are also home to the elusive bowhead whale, which is endangered in much of the Arctic.
Cruising Franz Josef Land – What to Expect
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know that a cruise trip to Franz Josef Land is far from your ordinary pleasure cruise. On a 14-day summer expedition voyage, you’ll be travelling onboard the M/V Sea Spirit, a specially designed polar vessel with an ice-strengthened steel hull – the only feasible means of travelling around and in between the islands of the archipelago. Think of a Franz Josef cruise as more of a remote expedition than a high seas vacation – only this expedition includes the luxurious amenities and polished service of a fine hotel!
Remember though, while the Sea Spirit has been designed for maximum comfort, the Arctic seas are still renowned for their unruly temperament and taking precautions against seasickness is strongly advised.
At the Home Port
All expeditions to this part of the Arctic start at the port of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway. The world’s northernmost settlement is no stranger to tourists, and it’s quite likely you’ll spend a night here before departing on your Arctic adventure. Although home to less than 2,200 permanent inhabitants, the town’s significant role in Arctic research and tourism has left its mark, and Longyearbyen is surprisingly cosmopolitan for a town where reindeer and polar bears regularly roam the streets, and snowmobiles far outnumber cars.
If you find yourself with time to kill in Longyearbyen, be sure to check out the Svalbard Museum and North Pole Expedition Museum. The Global Seed Vault (the world’s only safety net against a catastrophic wipe-out of global food crops) is also located near Longyearbyen, but you can join informative organised tours with guides that take you close to the so-called “doomsday” vault’s entrance.
With vast distances to cover, you’ll be spending a fair amount of time at sea, much of it out on the open ocean on the Barents Sea between Svalsbard, Kamchatka and Franz Josef Land.
While you may wish to take a few days to acclimatise to the movement of the ship and gain your “sea legs”, there’s always plenty happening on the days we won’t be visiting an island or stretch of coastline.
There will be onboard lectures about the Arctic such as talks on the history of Arctic exploration, wildlife conservation, geology and modern-day environmental challenges. The crew will also give you advice on photography to ensure your photos are worthy of the front page of National Geographic! Up on the open top deck, birding enthusiasts will also have the opportunity for to look for cruising seabirds as they scan the open ocean, and occasionally use the Sea Spirit as a welcome place to rest.
While only a small passenger cruise ship (accommodating a maximum of 114 passengers), the Sea Spirit has all the amenities you’d expect from a boutique passenger liner (head over to the “Meet the M/V Sea..
Welcome to the majestic Altai Republic, a land of snow-capped mountains, fascinating nomadic tribes and heart-stopping wilderness adventures. One of the most beautiful and pristine regions in all of Russia, the borders of this wild and untamed domain touch the semi-deserts of Mongolia and the vast Kazakh plains, blessing Altai with one of the most varied climates in Siberia.
Still well off the mainstream travel radar,
Altai supports a growing, community-based eco-tourism industry. A veritable
paradise for hikers, climbers, rafters and nature photography enthusiasts,
Altai’s major drawcard outside of its breathtaking scenery and chance to
encounter rare wildlife, is the remarkably intact ancient culture of its
various indigenous tribes, a few of whom still live a traditional, semi-nomadic
lifestyle and practice shamanic religious beliefs.
The World Heritage listed Golden Mountains of Altai are a refuge for some of the world’s rarest animal species. In rugged beauty of these stunning ranges, one can hike for days on end in complete solitude. Go fishing in the pristine tributaries of the Katun and Chemal Rivers, explore vast underground cave complexes and ancient archaeological sites, or get your fix of winter sports action in one of the region’s burgeoning ski resorts. After decades of obscurity, this tremendous region is finally beginning to open up to a new breed of adventure traveller.
Finding practical information on Altai isn’t always easy, so we’ve put together this Altai republic Travel Guide to help you plan everything from where to go, what to do and when to visit, right down to the practicalities of travelling, trekking and touring in the remote, rarely-visited area.
We’ll also provide you with a brief snapshot of the lifestyles and customs of the ethnic Altaians who call the region home, and what you can expect from the local culture and cuisine.
Why Travel to the Altai Republic?
The Altai Republic spans some 92,500sqm,
straddling the junction of the Russian Siberian taiga, the steppes of
Kazakhstan and the semi-deserts of Mongolia.
A quarter of Altai is covered in
forest, while its rivers, consisting of 20,000 tributaries, wind their way
through mountain valleys and gorges northward to the Arctic Ocean. An immense region
with an incredible amount to offer, seeing even a fraction of the Altai would
take years of hardcore travel! In fact, much of the Altai Republic is still
virtually inaccessible to the ordinary tourist.
Thankfully, we’ve come up with an
authoritative list of Altai’s most extraordinary destinations and must-dos, and
why they should be on any adventure traveller’s bucket list.
Travel Destinations Worth Exploring in the Altai Republic
The Golden Mountains of Altai
Spanning a staggering total of 1,611,457 hectares,
Altai’s mighty mountain range encompasses the Altai and Katun Natural Reserves,
Lake Teletskoye and Belukha Mountain.
The Golden Mountains are is a UNESCO World Heritage
site, forming the major mountain range in Western Siberia and the source of its
greatest rivers – the Ob and the Irtysh. The region harbours the most diverse
vegetation and microclimatic zones in central Siberia, from steppe to dense mixed
forest and high alpine vegetation. The dramatic Altai ranges are home to nearly
700 animal species, including the mountain ram, reindeer and the critically
endangered snow leopard. Stunning Mount Belukha is the highest peak in Siberia
at a cloud-piercing 4,506m.
Lake Teletskoye, Altai
Part of the Golden Mountains
region, stunning Lake Teletskoye is revered by the local people as Altyn Kol
(the Golden Lake). The largest lake in Altai, it is 78km long and 5km wide
where it lies between the mountain ridges of Korbu and Al-tyntu. Many locals
believe no visitor has truly experienced the true beauty of Altai until they
have seen the holy lake with their own eyes.
Watching the sublime scenery pass
by on a boat trip is truly marvellous, but the region has even more to see on
land, with numerous day and overnight hikes to explore. Climbing to the top of
Tilant Tuu observation hill rewards with breathtaking views of almost the
entire lake, while a day trek to the remote meeting place of Teletskoye and the
Tretya River ends in series of cascading miniature waterfalls. The lakeside
village of Belyo is home to friendly indigenous inhabitants and is renowned as
the warmest place in western Siberia.
Katun River, Altai
Fed by the glaciers at the top of Mt Belukha, the Katun River races through a series of valleys and gorges in the Altai mountain range, before meeting the Biya River at Lake Teletskoye. The two rivers join to form the mighty Ob. Flowing all the way to the Arctic Ocean, the 3,650km long Ob is the world’s seventh longest river. The Katun holds an important place in the spirituality and culture of the Altaians.
Katun and its tributaries, like
the Chuya River, are among Russia’s best whitewater rafting destinations, with
heart-pumpingly quick rapids and wave trains plunging into tranquil, glassy
pools, all surrounded by Altai’s tremendous forest and mountain scenery.
The Chuysky Trakt
(also known as the Chuya Highway) is the main highway in the Republic of Altai,
connecting Russia to the Mongolian border. This long, lonely road begins
in Novosibirsk and traverses along almost the entire length of the Altai
mountain range, extending 962km in total. Completely paved, the Chuysky Trakt
is unquestionably the most scenically stunning road in Siberia. Many
experienced overland travellers consider Chuysky to be among the most beautiful
asphalt roads in the world.
This stunning valley is one of
the highlights of the Golden Mountain region. With a glacial river running
through its herb and wildflower covered meadows, stands of spruce and fir trees
sprout from the steep slopes, while snow covered peaks loom large in the
distance. The area is home to a handful of small indigenous villages, and
tourism in the valley, a designated National Park, is carefully managed by the
local people. A small ski base operates in winter, while spring and summer is
prime hiking and camping season. The Karakol is an important archaeological
site, with many ancient burial grounds and shamanic rock paintings having been
found in the valley’s foothills.
The Altai region lays claim to some of the most spectacular high altitude roads in the world. Altai’s main highway, the Chuysky Trakt is the most famous, but unlike the Chuysky, the road to Katu-Yaryk Pass is neither wide or comfortably paved. Zig-zagging its way to 1,188m altitude, Katu-Yaryk is nothing but loose, slippery gravel all the way. Precariously narrow, with steep sections reaching 35% gradients, there are no safety barriers in sight. It’s common for larger vehicles to hang a wheel over the precipice as they navigate a sinuous series of hairpin bends and blind corners. Only for 4WDs and serious off-road motorcycles, the heart-stirring, larger-than-life landscapes are just rewarded for conquering this challenging, occasionally terrifying route. The road passes through the thick taiga forests and alpine lakes of the Ulagan Plateau before the view opens out to reveal breathtaking scenes of the Chulyshman valley’s emerald green meadows and waterfalls.
Saylyugemsky National Park
Situated at a crossroads in the Altai mountains, where the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia meet, Saylyugemsky is where the mountains, the steppe, the forest and the desert converge. Due to its remoteness, Saylyugemsky is a critical habitat for one of the most endangered animals in the world – the snow leopard. The hiking trails within this little-visited are challenging, but the rewards are truly extraordinary – breathtaking views over surreal high altitude desert landscapes, rivers and prairies, ice caps and glacial valleys.
Mysterious and still largely unexplored, this is the most remote and isolated part of the Altai Mountains. The Plateau lies at the heart of the Eurasian continent, almost equidistant to the four oceans of the world. Home to rare animals such as argali sheep, black stork, steppe eagle, and that most elusive of all predators, the snow leopard, while few outsiders have set foot on the Ukok Plateau, others have lived here for generations. Scattered among Ukok’s cosmically silent grasslands are the yurt camps of the Altai Kazakh and Telengit nomads. Even before them, Scythian tribes made their mark here, leaving burial mounds, rock carvings and stone sculptures littered throughout the region. One of the most important archaeological finds in Russia was the 5th-century mummy, the ‘Siberian Ice Maiden’, unearthed here in 1983 and now housed in the Republican National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk.
Chemal, Altai Republic
Chemal (population 4,000) is the
capital of Chemalsky district. The region has the most developed tourist infrastructure
of anywhere in Altai, with health resorts taking up prime spots on the banks of
the Chemal and Katun rivers, a smattering of hotels, hostels and campsites.
Much of the tourism in Chemal revolves around the Varota Sartikpayev Gorge,
home of the old Chemal Hydroelectric Power Station. Bungee jumping is offered
off the bridge above the hydro dam. Rafting and ziplining are also popular in
If you’ve come to Altai for peace
and isolation, escape the tourist crowds of Chemal town and explore Chemalysky’s
outlying villages, bucolic, rural paradises where shamanism is still central to
the people’s beliefs and spiritual practices.
Barnaul, Altai Republic
The administrative capital of the Altai Republic is Gorno-Altaisk in central Altai. Being home to the Republic’s only major airport (handling direct flights from Moscow), many visitors pass through Gorno-Altaisk but few stay for long – it’s serviceable enough but has little to hold the traveller’s interest. More appealing is Barnaul (a larger city than Gorno-Altaisk in fact, with a population of 600,000). Many travellers arriving in Altai by train from Moscow or Novosibirsk jump off in Barnaul. The city is a decent place to acclimatise for a day or two. The 18th-century city has a couple of good museums on Altaian art and culture, and a decent variety of food and accommodation options, making it a pleasant base for a day or two before heading north towards the Altai Mountains.
What to Do in Altai
Hiking and Trekking
The Altai Mountains are sacred ground for passionate hikers, taking trekkers deep into one of the world’s last untouched wilderness regions. The scenery here is some of the most captivating on earth – evergreen forests, creeks and waterfalls, rivers rushing through narrow gorges, mirror-surfaced lakes and snow-capped peaks. To truly appreciate Altai’s incredibly varied landscapes and increase your chances of spotting wildlife such as argali mountain sheep, ibex, musk deer and lynx, you’ll want to trek for several days, camping close to water sources along the way.
Trekking tourism is relatively
new to Altai – trails aren’t always well marked (if at all) and good maps are
hard to come by. Going with a tour or accompanied by a local guide is strongly
The horse is an integral part of the culture of many of Altai’s indigenous people. Nomads learn to ride horses as soon as they learn to walk. Altai’s horsemen are famed far and wide, and Altai breed horses legendary for their strength and reliability, so it’s no surprise that there are many who believe the best way to experience the region’s wilderness is on horseback. A multi-day horse riding trek will pass by crystalline rivers cutting through lush alpine meadows, dense forests, wide open plains, wind-swept high steppe and dramatic mountain passes. Horse riding safaris provide a unique opportunity to interact with local cultures and experience an extraordinarily diverse array of landscapes.
Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking in Altai
The Altai Republic
is Russia’s ultimate whitewater rafting and kayaking wonderland. The Katun
River and its tributaries, like the Chuya River, alternately gush through wide
valleys and squeeze their way through narrow canyons, creating the perfect
conditions for whitewater adventuring. The Katun has rapids of all grades,
allowing amateurs to enjoy short sessions in the gentler sections, as well as offering
challenging, multi-day expeditions for extreme rafting enthusiasts. The annual
Chuya Rally, which first kicked off in 1989, was the world’s first
international rafting competition. Every year around June, the quiet, rural
Chibit region in Altai becomes one of the world’s adventure capitals, as the
competition attracts top rafters from around the globe.
Skiing and Winter Sports
With perfect winter conditions
for skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing, the rapidly expanding settlement of
Belokurikha, practically unknown until the end of the Soviet era, has become
one of Siberia’s premier winter sports destinations. As an added bonus, unlike
gloomy weather you might associate with Siberia throughout most of the year, Belokurikha
enjoys sunshine roughly 260 days a year.
Today there are around 20 resorts
and hotels in the picturesque Belokurikha River Valley, as well as a growing
number of health spa, restaurants and nightlife venues.
A variety of trails are on offer
for beginners through to hardcore enthusiasts. On every visitor’s must-do list
is the climb to the peak of Mount Tserkovka. A 25-minute cable car ride takes
you to the summit, and from the top it’s an adrenaline pumping ski all the way
down the 2,600m long slope – the longest run in the area by far.
The two other main slopes are
Katun, which is split into two parts with two cable lifts in operation. At the
top of Katun is another lift that ferries skiers up to Severny, a narrower,
faster and much more challenging trail.
For generations, the inhabitants
of the Altai Republic lived in almost complete isolation, continuing to
practice their semi-nomadic lifestyles, cultural traditions and religious
customs with little influence from the outside world.
While the republic today is also
home to many people of ethnic Russian ancestry, over a third of the population
are indigenous speakers of the Altaian language.
Altaians have traditionally
practiced native religions based on shamanism, as well as Buddhism and
Burkhanism or Ak Jang (“White Faith”), a newer religious movement that began to
flourish among Altaians communities beginning in the early 1900s.
Burkanists belong to family clans
that revere their own totem plants and animals. The Burkanists pray to a
variety of spirits, including legendary figures from traditional oral epics,
which are recounted to this day in lengthy and complex performances by
masterful throat singers.
Like Burkanism, Altai shamanism
survives largely through oral tradition. Without written prayers and canonical
texts outlining principles, declarations, rules and commandments, religious
practices and beliefs are passed on through oral teachings, visual symbolism,
ritual and ceremony.
Many indigenous Altaian settlements
and nomadic camps can be found in the fertile valleys near the Katun River and
its tributaries. In recent years, certain villages have begun to open their
doors to respectful, responsible tourism on their lands. Tours focusing on
cultural immersion often visit villages, providing foreign guests with an
intimate insight into the lifestyles and customs of today’s Altaians. You may
be given the chance to sample home-cooked Altai cuisine, witness a traditional
throat singing performance and even meet with a village shaman.
At certain times of the year, travellers with an interest in traditional nomadic culture can arrange to spend up to week travelling with the nomadic Telengites. With only 2,400 remaining, they are one of the smallest indigenous groups in Russia.
It’s time to visit Altai in Russia, Siberia, if you’re searching for an untouched, raw paradise of adventure and sublime natural beauty.
Most of Altai is a huge National Park, an enormous yet sparsely-populated area. This picturesque corner of Russia is home to over 7,000 lakes, snow-capped mountains – including Siberia’s highest peak (Mt Belukha, 4,506m), shadowy forests, gurgling rivers, bears, wolves and even the ghost-like snow leopard.
Three countries converge at the frontier of the Altai Republic: Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China, cradling the region in seven climatic zones and an amazing variety of landscapes. The Altai republic spans 92,600 square kilometres, and it is a land where myths and legends are incarnated into reality. It’s one of those rare corners on the Earth where Nature decided to show everything it was capable of. Broad and boundless views of steppes, luxuriant varieties of taiga thickets, modest charm of deserts, severe splendor of snowy peaks, laconic beauty of tundra – the diversity of landscapes here is so rich, it is as if you are turning over pages of a geographical atlas!
When visiting Altai, you’ll witness how the unique topography unfolds into a mecca of adventure tourism where you can ski, raft, climb and hike through some of the most beautiful features of the natural landscape. Altai travel can also be quite relaxing, with charming highland villages, luxurious eco-resorts and mineral hot springs. Sit back and relax while you bath in mineral hot springs, or go for a leisurely ski with friends. Whatever your travel style, there is something for you on the list of 7 reasons you should visit Altai.
1. Visit Altai to hike Mountains and Glaciers
Golden Mountains of Altai
Also called “The Switzerland of Russia” or “open-air museum”, Altai is the home to the UNESCO world heritage site – The Golden Mountains of Altai, which set the scene for some of the most spectacular hikes on the planet, with sweeping valley views, distant snow-capped mountains and lush alpine meadows. There are few places in the world where one can encounter so many landscape combinations in such a small area.
The real beauty of the Altai region is Mount Belukha, the highest peak of Siberia and Russia (4,506 m). It is actually 1,000 m higher than the surrounding mountain ridges, and it is one of the most popular attractions in the region among adherents of active tourism. Glaciers cover some 70 square km of its surface, as the mountain lies in a region of year-round snows. Those that have managed to reach Belukha’s ice-covered crest quickly get a sense of the enigmatic and mystical force of the Altai Mountains.
The climbing season usually begins in May and ends in September. In summer the temperature on the top of the mountains is about 6 C° on average. However, even in summer it can get as cold as −20 C°, whereas in winter it can drop to a frigid −45 C°.
There are nearly 1,500 glaciers in Altai, the result of having survived five different glacial periods. Aktru is the most accessible one. It is one of the most impressive places in the mountains and we highly recommend to visit it if you have more than 5 days at Altai. The heights start from 1,500m and go up to 3,000m high. At the height of 2,500 m the mountains are covered by snow all year round. Among the main attractions are the “Blue Lake” located on the height of 2,840m and “Teacher’s Saddle”, from where you can have a view on Altay mountains hundreds of kilometres ahead. The path to the “Blue Lake” lies along the glacier itself, so it’s quite an interesting experience: the surface of glacier seems to look like a surface of another planet…
2. Visit Altai to Explore its Endless Lakes and Rivers
There are over 60,000 kilometres worth of waterways in Altai, there are about 20,000 rivers and about 7,000 lakes, including the famous Lake Teletskoye. It’s the largest and most beautiful lake in Altai, it’s definitely one of the most popular tourist attractions here. About 70 rivers and 150 temporary streams flow into the lake, the largest of them, Chulyshman River, supplying more than half of the lake’s water.
There are many other fantastic lakes popular among visitors, including Aya lake, Kucherlinskiye, Multinskiye, Shavalinskiye and Karakol Lakes, Manzherok and Darashkol Lakes. If fishing is your fancy, then there is also a plentiful supply of fish at the Ugul and Chulishman lakes, where you can fish until your heart is content. Common fish include trout, taimen, grayling, Peled, Perch and Pike.
The Blue Geyser Lake
The Blue Geyser lake is located in the Ulagansky district, close to the Aktash village. It descends 2 meters deep and it is roughly 30 meters wide. Its enchanting blue hues are a result of the thermal springs which simmer beneath the surface, forcing a sand-clay debris to the top. As their form changes with the geyser, they can often be seen ‘dancing’ as they create new patterns in the lake. The lake itself is almost transparent, and its crystal clear surface is unwavering as it does not freeze even during the winter months. Staring into the heart of the lake, you can observe moss and sea grass swaying in motion with the thermal bubbles, almost as though the lake were breathing.
Seven Lakes Valley
In the shadow of Mount Ak Oyuk (3,670m) lay the impressive Ak Ouk Valley, home of the seven lakes – a picturesque landscape of mountain streams, pooling glacial runoff and mountain lakes. Each lake has its own unique charm and colour, characterised by the stones which line the bottom. Your visit to the seven lakes valley will be marked by wonderful hues of aquamarine, turquoise and piercing clear blue water.
3. Visit Altai to Enjoy White-Water Rafting
Altai rafting is a popular option for adventurers seeking to experience both the beautiful landscape and an adrenaline rush. Brave the currents through a complex system of waterways, giving rise to some outstanding rivers for rafting like the Katun, Charysh and Chuya. When you visit Altai, you’ll be rafting in the steps of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who rafted the Charysh river in 2003.
Extending from its source at the Mt Belukha Glacier, the Katun river carves a path through mountains, meadows and taiga, brining you an Altai white water rafting experience akin to the high water of the American Grand Canyon. The Katun river is one of the most favoured routes of rafting enthusiasts because of its breathtaking views and heart-stopping high water.
4. Visit Altai for Pristine Landscapes and Majestic Wildlife
Kyzyl Chin – The Rainbow Mountains
The Rainbow Mountains of Altai, or Kyzyl- Chin are a range of rolling hills, dowsed in hues of orange, burgundy, mustard and white. Their majestic colour display is a result of different layers of coloured clay which is abundant in the soil of this region, and which gives it a Mars like appearance. This area is also thought to have once been a sea, and so it is common to find fossils and ammonites throughout the terrain.
Stone Mushrooms at Akkurum
Emerging from 2 to 7 meters high from the mountainside like enokitake, these outcrops of stone have been weathered into mushroom-like stone figures. Age is also vary from tens to hundred years. The most amazing thing that it continue to grow. The reason is specific soil consisting clay and gravel. It has strong dry state condition, but it is destroyed by influence of moisture and carried away by torrential streams.
These fascinating natural carvings can be found on the banks of the Chulyshman River. You need to cross the river and climb the trail that runs along a steep slope to reach the two large «spawn». Trip takes 2-3 hours depends on skill level. It should be noted that the best time for photo of stone «mushrooms» is no later than 7.00 am, because mushrooms are in the shadow almost all day.
Katu- Yaryk Pass
There are some outstanding vistas throughout the Altai region, but one of the best views comes from traversing the Katu-Yaryk pass. At 1,188m above sea level, it is one of the scariest high mountain passes in the world due to its loose gravel terrain, narrow roads and lack of barriers. If you’re brave enough to navigate the side of this cliff, you’ll be welcomed by exquisite views from the Chulyshman valley.
There are several stunning waterfalls in the region such as the Korbu, Kamyshlinksy and Tekelyu, but Uchar is one of the most spectacular of them all. The Uchar waterfall is located on the Chulcha river and is the largest waterfall in the Altai region, with a stream fall of 160 meters. The waterfall itself is relatively young, having evolved about 100- 150 years ago.
The name, ‘Uchar’ is roughly translated to mean ‘inaccessible’, and this reflects the slightly difficult trail that one must traverse in order to glimpse its majesty. The path itself follows the valley to the waterfall, hugging the mouth of the Chulcha river. One of the easier ways to reach this monolith is by taking a boat from the top of Lake Teletskoye and across the water at Artybash village before following the road to the mouth of the river. The path requires river crossing and the navigation of boulders, so it is best done with a guide.
5. Take a Scenic Drive Along Chuisky Tract – Siberia’s Silk Road
Historically beginning in the rural town of Biysk, the 6,167km road navigated through the Altai region right through to the frontier of Russia and Mongolia. In modern times, the highway now begins at Novosibirsk and is much shorter at just 962km.
It is Altai’s most famous trail, and in 2014 was nominated by National Geographic as one of the top ten most beautiful roads worldwide. The road is wonderfully scenic, snaking through the unique climatic zones of the region and taking you through taiga, steppe, meadows and fields as you cruise through the Altai republic.
6. Try your luck to spot a snow leopard when visiting Altai
There is a plethora of natural beauty and exotic wildlife sprawling the expanse of the Altai region, varies from big mammals to small birds (230 species) and fishes (20 species). It is home to some of the most beautiful animals on the planet including the eurasian lynx, corsac fox and the wolf. Staring into the peaks of crumbling shale and slate, you might be fortunate enough to spot the luxurious coat of a snow leopard, the ‘ghost of the mountains’, as he crouches in the shadow of boulder, eyeing the sleek contours of an ibex.
Camel and yak are a good Mongolian touch to the picture of the Russian Altai. Golden eagles soar high above the cliffs, casting shadows on the scene below with their 2,5m wing span as they scour the earth in search of foxes and other prey. Brown bears not only grace the terrain of Kamchatka, but their population extends as far east as Altai. Visit Altai to marvel at their hunting prowess, as they emerge from the depths of pine forests in search of hares and reindeer. Wildlife is also abundant in the mountains, and you should keep an eye out for the weasel, chipmunk and squirrel.
Some species of animals, which can still be found today in the Altai mountains, are disappearing. Among them the above-mentioned snow leopard and also the Siberian mountain goat.
Russia’s Altai Republic is home to just over 205,000 people, comprising ethnic Russians (57%), and indigenous Altaians (31%), Kazakhs (6%), Telengits (1%), Tubalars and other groups. For the sake of comparison, the state of Indiana is the same size but has a population of 6.5 million.
The indigenous inhabitants of Altai are a Turkic people, known as Altaians. They are alleged to be descended from the Paleo-Eskimo peoples, who reside in the Altai Republic about 1,5 million years ago. Many Altai people retain their native language and culture (including throat singing), as well as speaking Russian.
There are also a variety of religions including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Tengrism. Many of the traditional peoples remain Shamanists – so your visit to Altai might include meeting an authentic Shaman – while others have converted to Russian Orthodoxy or Burkhanism.
The Altai Republic has long been regarded as an area of spiritual and occult significance, and Russian philosopher and painter Nikolai Rerikh (Nicholas Roerich) visited the region in the early 20th century in an attempt to locate the entrance to Shambala, the mythical enlightened land of Tibetan Buddhism. The secret gateway is alleged to be in the Altai – for the four chosen souls every hundred years permitted to cross to the other side. If you are not chosen, you can still attend other events – like the major Rock/New-Age music and crafts festivals held in Altai.
8. Visit Altai for its Rich History and Archeology
Altai is home to a wealth of historical and archaeological artefacts, including the ancient rock carvings, petroglyphs and drawings that continue to fascinate archaeologists today. Experts have been studying the area for more than a century, with each expedition deep into the heart of the valleys and gorges uncovering more fingerprints of the past.
Strangely some parts of the Altai Mountains have no petroglyphs at all, while others are like alfresco picture galleries from millennia past. One such place is remote Saldyar, on the banks of the Katun River, a place separated from the outside world by the high jagged peaks of the Saldyarskiy pass.
The Karakol valley is traditionally though to be a sacred place to the indigenous groups of the area and is the site various ancient burials. These burial sites, as well as the surrounding rock faces are also adorned with petroglyphs, giving the site a spiritual and cultural significance which persists in the mentality of locals today.
About 5 thousand Petroglyphs can also be seen on 10km of the bank of the Chuya river, depicting images of people and animals on rock face. This sacred location is known as Kalbak-Tash and is presumed to have been an ancient church or ceremonial site.
This is the most remote and isolated part of the Altai mountains, which is located in the heart of the Eurasian continent, at almost equal distance from each of the four oceans of the world. In addition, the Ukok plateau is considered to be the most mysterious region of the Altai, covered with legends. In ancient times, the Ukok was chosen by the Scythian tribes, who left numerous archaeological monuments, rock carvings, stone sculptures, burial mounds.
The Ukok Plateau is stunning and silent grassland which comprises part of the UNESCO heritage site “Golden Mountains of Altai”, and the ancient society who used to inhabit the plateau is known as the Pazyryk people. It is also the site of major historical discoveries in the region, such as Pazyryk artefacts: ‘The Horseman’, and a 5th-century Pazyryk carpet, ancient rock carvings, and the “Ice Maiden” or the Princess of Ukok. Based on her burial site, she was a Scytho-Siberian woman who lived during the 5th century BC and is reflective of Pazyryk culture that survived in the Siberian steppe.
Aside from the ‘Ice Maiden’, the plateau is also the site of over five other tattooed mummies who were found belonging to the same Pazyryk culture, and who were so well preserved because of the permafrost within their tombs. The result of the work of archaeologists has been recognized as the epoch-making discovery of the twentieth century. Findings from the Ukok plateau were exhibited in the best museums of the world.
Where Should I Stay When I Visit Altai?
If you’re looking to visit Altai, there are a variety of accommodation options depending on your travel style. Below are some great options, from hotels to camping grounds.
A decision on when to go to Altai should be made depending on what you want to do there. Altai’s climate is known to be quite harsh. This region is famous for long frosty winters, and hot but short summers. But even in summer, the temperature may go down, so it’s crucial to have some warm clothes with you. Tourist season is in the full swing there usually in summer, and there’s no wonder: it’s the perfect time for people who would like to be involved in many different activities.
Generally, the summer starts at the end of May-June and finishes in September. During that time it’s quite warm during the daytime (about + 20 – 25 Celsius) and cool in the night (about +5-10 Celcius). During June and July there may be quite a few rains, but the August and September are the sunniest months (more than 60% of the time there’s no rain at all). In the Summer the snow is left only on the heights of 2,600m and higher. The winds in the valleys are not very strong. So, to sum everything up, the best months for traveling at Altai in Summer are July, August, and first half of September: warm, sunny in the day, no mosquitoes.
The winter in Altai starts in October-November. That’s when it starts snowing and the mountains are covering by snow from top to bottom. The best months for travelling in winter are November and December. During that time, there’s mostly good weather and not very cold. The coldest months are January and February. The average temperature goes down to minus 15-20 Celcius. The coldest place at Altai is Chuyskaya steppe, which is along the way to Mongolia. After that, in February and March, the weather is quite nice again. There are a lot of activities you may enjoy during this time, like skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, wildlife watching, and even swimming in frozen lakes. And, of course, the main activity: alpinism.
The snow usually starts to disappear in the first half of May, so it is a beautiful Springtime in Altai at this period. During May, the Altai Mountains turn into a huge flowering glade and start blazing purple. This Rhododendron (also known as Maralnik) blooming period is the main event of spring in the Altai mountains; this insanely beautiful sight attracts many travellers from all around the globe. Local people believe that if this shrub has blossomed, then spring has finally entered into its rightful stage. In the Altai, there are a lot of Maralnik in the Maiminsky and Chemalsky districts.
How to get to Altai.
Gorno-Altaysk is the capital of the region and is serviced by Gorno-Altaysk airport. The easiest way to visit Altai is a direct flight from Moscow. You also can fly from Moscow to Barnaul, which is 300 km far from Altai. It is a beautiful nice provincial town, which surprises with the availability of good-quality accommodation,..
For those planning a trip to Russia and wanting an experience that goes beyond the walls of Moscow‘s metropolitan kingdom and St. Petersburg‘s splendid palaces, consider extending your holiday to Karelia! With the help of this Karelia Travel Guide, you won’t have to travel as far as Siberia to be surrounded by the authentic taiga. One night by train and you will find yourself in a land of white nights, boundless forests and crystal-clear lakes.
Bordered by Finland to the west and the White Sea to the east, Karelia is rapidly becoming one of the top destinations for travellers all around the world to visit. With a fantastic mix of untouched nature, outdoor adventure and cultural discovery, every traveller can (and will) find a reason to fall in love with this near-magical frontier country.
Our Karelia Travel Guide will take you through everything you need to know about this spectacular Northwestern region of Russia. Whether you’re searching for the best time of the year to visit, the top attractions or how to travel to Karelia, we have you covered.
Who Should Travel to Karelia
Nature Lovers and Active Adventurers
Densely forested and gloriously remote, Karelia is a paradise on Earth for any nature lover. Be enthralled by the region’s untouched wilderness and diverse wildlife, from picturesque hills and winding rivers to lush green forests and idyllic lakes, such as Europe’s two largest lakes – Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. Jump at the chance to encounter and photograph over 370 species of vertebrates, including bears, wolves, otters, reindeer, lynxes and endangered wolverines.
For those seeking an exciting and action-packed holiday, Karelia has a wide range of summer and winter activities to get the blood pumping. Water tourism is highly sought after during the summer months. Navigate your way around the region’s vast waterways on a canoe, kayak across crystal-clear lakes, go on a whitewater rafting adventure or try your hand at fly fishing. The landscape is also threaded by hiking routes, and its forest roads are ideal for bicycle or quad bike tours during this time of the year. In winter, you will have the opportunity to engage in all types of skiing, embark on a dog or reindeer sledding adventure or speed across the lands on a snowmobile. Other outdoor pursuits include snowshoeing, ice fishing and sledding.
History and Culture Buffs
While a large portion of Karelia’s appeal is its untouched wilderness, it is by no means a simple no-mans land. Instead, Karelia can be considered a living museum of human history. Inhabited by the Scandinavians for 6,000 years, Karelia has been intermittently contested by the Finnish, Swedish, and Russian forces over the centuries. Today, despite having much of its territory ceded to the Soviet Union in 1939, the region still retains a strong cultural connection with eastern Finland. You can still find distinctly Karelian culture living on in the peasant traditions of poetry, music and folk ceremonies that reinforce the people’s bond with the land and sea. Those interested in history and archeology can discover some of the most complex and expressive prehistoric stone carvings on the shores of the White Sea and Lake Onega, which also keep the secrets of the ancient Sami’s labyrinths on the islands.
Karelia houses some of the best-preserved traditional wooden architecture in the country. The intricate beauty and unique architectural framework specific to Northern Russia would make even the most experienced traveller stand in awe. From ancient villages and saunas to collections of 17th and 18th-century churches skillfully crafted entirely out of wood, anyone with even the slightest bit of appreciation for architecture must visit Karelia at least once in their lifetime. Noteworthy architectural jewels include the Church of Transfiguration and the Assumption Cathedral on Kizhi Island.
Petrozavodsk is the capital and the largest city of the Karelia, stretching along the western shore of Lake Odega for around 27km. While travellers mainly use Petrozavodsk as a launching point for Karelia’s main attractions (Kizhi and Valaam Island), it has so much more to offer. Multifaceted and diverse, this modern city draws in tourists with its neoclassical architecture and evolving cultural sphere. Noteworthy museums include the “House of the Doll” Tatyana Kalinina, the house-museum “Karelian Hut”, the Karelian State Museum of Local Lore, and the Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Karelia. Those interested in theatre should also visit the Musical Theatre of the Republic of Karelia, admire its gorgeous architecture and take a stroll through its surrounding square and park. Petrozavodsk is unique in nature due to its location, as it has a blend of Russian, Karelian and Finnish culture. This is expressed through the local cuisine, language and everyday lifestyle. Furthermore, being the capital of Karelia means that it is a local hub for nightlife and shopping, with several new shopping centres popping up around the city over recent years. Petrozavodsk also hosts several festivals, such as the International Contest of Snow and Ice Sculptures “Hyperborea”, Vozdukh live music festival, “White Nights of Karelia” music festival, and the landscape festival “Harmony of White Nights”.
Karelia Travel Destination #2: Kizhi Island
Kizhi Pogost, Karelia
Located on the northern end of Lake Onega, the tiny island of Kizhi is home to one of the largest open-air museums in the world. The museum is a spectacular cultural site comprised of over 80 monuments of wooden architecture collected from the 17th to the 19th centuries and skillfully crafted and restored to form a glimpse of the past. Old chapels, peasant houses, windmills, threshing barns and granaries can be found scattered all around the island. The crown jewel of Kizhi is the Church of Transfiguration, otherwise known as Preobrazhenskaya. This architectural masterpiece features 5 tiers of 22 wooden domes, gables and ingenious decorations designed to prevent rain from ruining the walls. Built in 1714 without the use of a single nail, it has withstood the elements for over 150 years. The Kizhi Pogost, which is a fenced area including the Church of Transfiguration, Church of the Intercession of Holy Mary (9 domed church) and the Bell-Tower, has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as the most prominent monument of ancient northern wooden architecture. Other must-see attractions include the 14th century Church of Ressurection of Lazarus and the Chapels of Archangel Mikhail. With local villagers and artisans still living on the island to this day, they demonstrate rural life in Karelia, its traditional crafts from the 18th and 19th century, such as weaving, woodcarving, and painting, and tasks of peasant life. Rent a bicycle and explore the stunning landscapes and impressive architecture that Kizhi Island has to offer, or join a tour for an insight into the gradual development of a unique Karelian culture that differs greatly from the rest of Russia.
Karelia Travel Destination #3: Valaam Island
Valaam Monastery, Karelia
Valaam, dubbed the ‘Russian Vatican’, is an archipelago located in the northern region of Lake Ladoga. As one of the most popular Orthodox tourist destinations, the main attraction that draws visitors to its shores is the 14th century Transfiguration Monastery on Valaam Island. The central monastery is a monumental structure that sits on top of the high hill, making it visible from many locations on the island. In the past, the monastery had been subjected to numerous accounts of destruction and devastation from fires and invasions. However, despite that, it was revived to live again. Now, nestled in its central part are gardens, a bakery, vegetable patches and a farm, surrounded by pine trees, rolling prairies and granite cliffs with around 200 Orthodox monks living within its walls permanently. While visiting Valaam is mostly a religious kind of tourism, it does not stop non-believers from visiting the island to enjoy its charming wooden architecture and beautiful landscapes. Moreover, if you are looking to avoid large crowds of travellers, you can also explore dozens of other smaller churches and chapels that are scattered around pretty headlands, quiet inland bays or bridged islets.
Karelia Travel Destination #4: Solovetsky Islands
Solovetsky Islands, Karelia
The Solovetsky Islands, otherwise known as Solovki, is a place that many travellers fantasise about visiting when in Russia but few actually ever end up doing so. This is part of the attraction, however, as it means that you won’t encounter hoards of tourists in this largely unspoiled part of Russia, yet you can have an ‘off the beaten track’ experience without having to rough it up too much. Located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea, the archipelago is made up of 6 main islands and many smaller ones. The largest island is the Bolshoy Solovetsky and it is home to the main monastery, which dominates the rural idyll of Solovetsky Village, the islands’ main settlement. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Solovetsky Monastery is a real stronghold for orthodox Christianity and for a while, Solovki was seen to symbolise nothing but asceticism, faith and spirituality. This took a drastic change in the 20th century as Stalin transformed it into one of the USSR’s most notorious prison camps. Even if you’re not a history buff, the island’s main museum is worth a visit as it is dedicated to those who were incarcerated here during the Stalinist era. There’s no English translation but the photos, pictures and artifacts more than speak for themselves. The monastery was rehabilitated after the fall of the Soviet Union, and today the islands’ natural beauty, spiritual significance and solemn history draws travellers from all corners of the Earth to its shores.
Karelia Travel Destination #5: Kinerma – Ancient Village
Kinerma Village, Karelia
The historical village of Kinerma, situated 100 km from Petrozavodsk, is a unique complex of wooden architecture specific to the Karelian-Livviki and a living example of the traditional settlements in Karelia. Said to be the most beautiful village in Russia, no new houses are allowed to be built on the lands. Everything seen today has been erected and restored according to the ancient plan of the village. With 17 houses, 7 baths, and an old cemetery, the main attraction and spiritual centre of Kinerma is its chapel, built in the second half of the 18th century in honour of the icon of Virgin Mary from Smolensk. According to legend, the icon was brought to the village by a passing soldier and has since protected the village from any harm and misfortune. Another noteworthy attraction is the black banyas, typical of Karelian villages. Such banyas are built without a chimney and use the smoke from its primitive stoves made of stones to warm the sauna. We would highly recommend experiencing a session in a black banya, as the temperature inside is not too high, but the humidity is high enough to free yourself from all toxins and stress.
Karelia Travel Destination #6: Ruskeala Mountain Park, Sortavala
Ruskeala Marble Canyon, Karelia
For lovers of active leisure, Ruskeala Mountain Park is the place to be. Formerly a marble quarry, this 109 metre wide canyon is a unique and multidimensional monument to both nature and the history of mining. Mined by the Karelians, Swedes, Finns and Russians for nearly three centuries, the marble has been used in the construction of some of the most significant structures in Russia, such as the floors of the Kazan Cathedral, St. Issac’s Cathedral and the window sills of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Now, tall pines line the top of the steep canyon walls while its sides are riddled with caves and grottoes just waiting to be explored. Over the years, the canyon has also filled up with the purest emerald-green water from underground springs. Karelia travellers can navigate through its system of open and underwater galleries, drifts and shafts, all of which stretch a total of several hundred metres. Apart from hiking along some of the most breathtaking tracks, you will also have the opportunity to ride trolleys (mechanized bungees) over its waters, rent a boat and explore the beauty of Marble Lake, go down into abandoned mine shafts and ice-skate over the icy bottom of its caves. It is also only in Ruskeala that you will be able to find preserved exotic mosses, lichens, orchid plants and shrubs, as well as rare species of reptiles, amphibians and even bats.
Karelia Travel Destination #7: State National Park Paanajärvi
Paanajärvi National Park, Karelia
In contrast to the action-packed Ruskeala, Paanajärvi National Park is all about reconnecting with nature and finding your own zen away from civilization. Located in the north-west region of Karelia, the main purpose of establishing the Park was to preserve the unique nature of the Olanga River and Lake Paanajärvi. The landscapes are exceptionally breathtaking; mountain ridges are split by deep ravines, fast-flowing streams with frothing rapids cut through the terrain, and crystal-clear lakes sparkle under the sun’s gentle rays. Its valleys and hills alike are covered with virgin forests, where giant pines and spruce dominate the lands. You can also find numerous fauna roaming around freely, such as bears, elk, wolverines, foxes, and reindeer. On the rare occasion, you may even be able to spot muskrats or beavers. The pearl of the park is Lake Paanajärvi – the biggest lake in the region. It is situated in a large bedrock rift and extends for about 15 kilometers from the East to West.
Karelia Travel Destination #8: Petroglyphs of the White Sea and Lake Onega
Lake Onega Petroglyphs, Karelia
Created during the Neolithic era, the petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White sea are considered as some of the most complex and expressive samples of Late Stone Age art in northern Europe. The drawings depict elaborate scenes of warfare, seafaring, hunting, religious rituals, skiing and enigmatic figures. With more than 70 different ancient settlements identified in relation to the carvings, they constitute the largest Neolithic site in the region. The Onega petroglyphs are located along the eastern shore of Lake Onega for a distance of about 18.5km, while petroglyphs of the White Sea are found about 6 to 8km from Belomorsk. Carved into stunning locations such as on huge flat boulders on islets in the middle of untouched forests, these petroglyphs are easily accessible to study and photograph.
For the Russian food lovers out there, Karelian cuisine is nutritious and diverse. Karelia is famous for its baked dishes. A must-try appetizer dish of Karelia is Kalitki with potatoes. Served hot, it is an open pie made from rye flour dough with a filling usually made from millet kasha, potatoes, rice, tvorog or meat. Salted and marinated Karelian mushrooms are also very popular as a snack.
For the mains, local freshwater fish such as the delicious Northern salmon are often added into hearty fish soups or are marinated, salted and served as a separate dish. Remember to save room for dessert, as they make sweet northern pies, pastries and pancakes with delectable local wildberries. Finally, wash down the food with freshly squeezed berry juices or robust liquors made from cranberries, red bilberries and cloudberries.
Karelia Travel Tips – Weather in Karelia and When to Visit
Karelia’s climate is transitive from maritime to continental, and typically carries much milder winters in comparison to other northern regions near the Arctic. This is due to the warm, humid air masses from the west, though incursions of Arctic air can cause bitter cold spells. Karelia’s climate has therefore gained a reputation for being unpredictable, so no matter the season, Karelia travel guide readers should be prepared for practically any weather.
Spring in Karelia
April – May
Average temperatures: – 2ºC to 13ºC
Spring is arguably one of the best times to venture outdoors into the beautiful Karelian forests. Tree leaves turn green, flowers start to bloom, rivers flow faster, and the mighty Kivach Waterfall is at its most affluent and picturesque form during this season. Try your hand at fishing in one of the many lakes and rivers, as early May is a time when Northern Pike and Perch spawn by the thousands. As a rule, the first half of May is also the start of hunting season for migratory birds.
Summer in Karelia
June – August
Average temperatures: 11ºC to 21ºC
For the most part, Karelian summers are short but the days are long and cool with a fair amount of rainfall scattered in between. Plenty of outdoor activities are available during this time, such as fishing, quad biking, kayaking, cycling and whitewater rafting. The height of summer is during July, where you’ll be able to go for a swim in the many crystal-clear lakes scattered across the region. The summer heat often rolls over to August, but the nights start getting longer and cooler. This is a perfect time to pick berries as they start to bloom!
Summer is also when you can experience the amazing spectacle of White Nights in Karelia, otherwise known as midsummer night or polar day. This is a time where the sun sets but remains above the horizon, bathing the landscape with a pearlescent all-night glow until the early mornings. Take advantage of this occasion and enjoy a night-time boat tour or a midnight stroll.
Autumn in Karelia
September – November
Average temperatures: -1ºC to 12ºC
The month of September is a fantastic period as temperatures are still relatively warm, but you no longer have to worry about pesky mosquitoes and midges. Lingonberries, cranberries and mushrooms are in full bloom, carpeting the forest and tundra. Trees start to turn yellow and gold, and the ground vegetation a deep red. This is what we like to call ‘Flaming Autumn’. As temperatures start to cool in October and November, dip your toes in a steam bath and enjoy a hot beverage by the fireplace. This is when lakes begin freezing over and snow starts to fall in preparation for a winter fairytale.
Winter in Karelia
December – March
Average temperatures: -10ºC to -4ºC
In December, snow covers the land and forests, turning the region into a winter wonderland. The air is cool and frosty, but it doesn’t feel cold because of the low humidity and lack of wind chill. This makes it one of the most comfortable destinations for experiencing winter in the Arctic zone. Explore the frosty ethereal taiga forests on a snowmobile or try your hand at dog-sledding with the famous Siberian huskies. Later on, settle down around a fire in a local dacha and soothe your muscles in a Russian-style sauna. Its proximity to the Arctic Circle means that the Karelian skies are sometimes graced by the stunning Northern Lights.
Karelia Travel Options
Karelia Travel By Plane
At the moment, the only flights coming in and out of the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk are from Moscow...
The perfect retreat from million-miles-an-hour Moscow, the medieval cities of the Golden Ring are nestled amid green hills and floral meadows, with rambling country roads surrounded by forests, lakes, orchards and wooden farmhouses. The idyllic ‘Mother Russia’ of old still exists, and it’s right here.
Introducing Russia’s Golden Ring
Russia may be one single, colossal nation, but within its borders, there are many Russias. Everyone knows a bit about some of these Russias – the chaotic thrills of megacity Moscow or the frozen wilds of deepest Siberia.
But those who understand a little more about Russia may associate its thousands of years of rich human history with a different Russia. A much older Russia, still largely sheltered the rapid development and industrialisation, it’s generations of inhabitants living much of their lives almost unchanged for centuries.
Incredibly, this bucolic vision of village and rural life in Russia still exists in many ways, particularly in one picturesque region just a few hours northeast of Moscow. The Golden Ring is a string of provincial towns and cities, some dating back to at least the 10th century. The towns of the Golden Ring are living museums – you can feel the history in the air as you explore the ancient forts, gaze up at towering monasteries, and admire the magnificent cathedrals that have helped several historic precincts in this region UNESCO World Heritage status.
A true taste of old Mother Russia, the Golden Ring is a rare destination where tight-knit communities of locals still lead a large traditional Russian lifestyle – where the dacha (country house) is still an integral part of every harmonious rural society, and many of ‘the old ways’ of cooking, craft-making, religion and ritual are still followed and revered.
What and Where is the Golden Ring?
The name ‘Golden Ring’ actually refers to an overland tourist route – a return loop from Moscow that became a popular journey among Muscovite travellers in the 60s. The region is located northeast of Moscow and south-east of Saint Petersburg – both are easy jumping off points for the area, although Moscow is closest to the most popular sites. For years, tourists and locals debated about which cities were “officially” part of the Golden Ring, eventually prompting the Soviet authorities to come up with the following list:
These eight travel hotspots are arguably the region’s most interesting and impressive cities, and you’ll find most tours concentrate on these places, but if time allows, there are many lesser-known villages with their own secrets to offer.
The setting of these towns couldn’t be more picturesque – scattered across a rural landscape of rolling hills, flower blanketed meadows, fast-flowing rivers and crystal clear streams.
Why You Must Visit Russia’s Golden Ring
It’s Full of Incredible History
Whether your approach to history is fanatical, or more along the lines of “I’ll learn about it while I’m on holidays”, Russian history, above most other civilizations, is exceptionally captivating – no, let’s face it, awesome – with more political intrigue, wars, revolutions, heroes, villains, bizarre dynasties and enigmatic characters than the writers of Game of Thrones could ever hope to come close to.
Many Golden Ring cities date back to at least the 10th century. Yaroslavl, the oldest still-existing settlement on the Volga River (and home to several of Russia’s oldest significant buildings) celebrated its thousandth birthday in 2010. Many of these cities were once important trade settlements and played vital roles in both the rise of the Tsars and the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The region came under attack by invading Mongol forces in the 13th century – hence Golden Ring cities like Vladimir sporting impressive fortifications and even a few 700 years old battle scars.
Traditional Russian Culture and Craftsmanship Up-Close
The compact cities enjoy of the Golden Ring enjoy a more relaxed sense of time, making them the perfect antidote to the relentless pace of Moscow. Many of these medieval cities are so well preserved that there’s a palpable sense of entering another, much older time and place – somewhere which stayed remarkably unchanged for centuries. As well as taking great pride and reverence in their status as the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, these cities have carefully preserved time honoured traditions, folk, art, music and cuisine. Sit down at a quaint family-run café to try heart-warming fare cooked from old family recipes.
Some of Russia’s most iconic handicrafts originated here. Visit the colourful flea market and admire matryoshka dolls (wooden nesting dolls) in their home town, Sergiyev Posad, or find the perfect gifts in intricately decorated wooden tableware, lacquer boxes and enamel paintings.
Architecture and Surroundings are Hugely Photogenic
Virtually every town is a living museum, with historic city centres made up of one meticulously preserved architectural masterpiece after another. Several landmarks have been recognised for their artistic merit and culture importance by being granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
These include the monasteries and onion-dome cathedrals of Yaroslavl, the white stone monuments of Vladimir (the Golden Gates, the church of Boris and Gleb, and the medieval wooden houses and windmills in Suzdal.
Full of vibrant colours and incredibly intricate craftsmanship (the astonishing church frescoes in Yaroslavl have few equals in Russia or elsewhere), almost every city on the Golden Ring circuit is a visual feast and a photographer’s paradise
It’s a super easy short escape from Moscow
The closest Golden Ring town to Moscow also happens to be one of the most interesting, Sergiyev Posad. It’s only 70km north of the city, which is close enough to visit as a day trip. There’s also a rail connection between Vladimir and Moscow which takes about two hours. So, it is possible to get a taste of the area in a day but to really understand what has shaped the Golden Ring into such a unique region, a stay of several days is definitely the way to go. If you’re pushed for time, at least try to stay overnight. Consider an organised 2-day tour to make the absolute most out of the time you have.
Travelling to Russia’s Golden Ring – How to Get There
Apart from being incredibly charming and astonishingly beautiful, the Golden Ring also owes some of its popularity to being so accessible from Moscow. As the name suggests, the Golden Ring forms a reasonably circular route that’s easily undertaken by road, starting and finishing in Moscow.
The distance between points of interest is minimal, so you can spend most of your days actually getting out and appreciating the sights rather than sitting in a car.
An organised tour from Moscow is an excellent way to ensure you maximise your sightseeing opportunities in the Golden Ring, preferably with a knowledgeable guide who can fill you in on the people, events and legends behind the places you visit. A small group are reasonably affordable, and you can also opt for a private tour – great if you have a special interest in Russian history or culture.
On a Cruise:
A few of the most stunning cities in the Golden Ring are set along the banks of the majestic Volga River, the longest river in Europe. That means it’s possible to visit some of the most famous sites of the Golden Ring via a river cruise from Moscow.
A typical itinerary, like our 13-day Volga River Cruise, includes day excursions to Uglich and Yaroslavl. You won’t see all the Golden Ring (you will see a lot more of Russia however), but you’ll experience a tantalising slice of it. Travelling on the Volga, you start to learn to appreciate these ancient cities vital connection with the river at the source of so many livelihoods.
Top Things to See and Do while in Russia’s Golden Ring
Suzdal is almost certainly the single most picturesque stop on the circuit, with its cobblestone plazas and peasant farmhouses appearing like a scene from a Russian storybook and has inspired artists and writers for centuries. Wander its quiet laneways passing horse-drawn buggies and medieval churches and try to produce fresh from the local farms where things are still done the old fashioned way.
Yaroslavl was the first Christian city on the Volga River. Many of Russia’s greatest craftsmen, stonemasons, painters and sculptors came together to create this city of magnificent churches and monuments, dating back to the 12th
Rostov is the oldest town in the Golden Ring and the most architecturally impressive, rich in elegantly restored monuments dating from the 12th to the 17th It also has a rather unique local food scene – the Rostov locals seem to have more recipes and ways to cook onion than just about anyone!
Sergiev Posad is one of the most important spiritual centres of the Orthodox Church, sometimes referred to as the ‘Russian Vatican’ for its magnificent white churches with their signature blue and gold cupolas.
While the more modern part of Vladimir looks like a typical, not-so-interesting Soviet-era city, beyond the medieval Golden Gate, the old part of the city is a dense collection of elaborate churches and cathedrals, some of them among the oldest in Russia. Vladimir is a goldmine for lovers of traditional Russian handicrafts. It even has a museum dedicated to crystal and lacquer miniatures and embroidery in the 1913 Old Believers Trinity Church, whose red brick Russian revival style architecture ironically exposes it as one of the youngest religious buildings in the city!
Weather in Russia’s Golden Ring – Best Time to Go
The Golden Ring can be visited all year round, with each season bringing a new and inspiring palette of colour to the surrounding countryside.
Visitor numbers peak in the summer months of June to August, when you’re most likely to get the vivid blue skies that make the iconic backdrop to so many stunning images of the region’s cathedral domes and cupolas.
Spring is when the rural scenery is at its best, with April and May being the wildflower months in the meadows. Days are still usually sunny and pleasant, but you’ll feel the chill at night without a good warm jacket.
In autumn, the woodlands and orchards take on rich hues of red, orange and yellow and day time temps are still reasonably mild. The freezing temperature of the winter (November to March) often cover the parks and meadows with thick blankets of snow. If you don’t mind the cold, this time of year really is a dreamy wonderland, with frozen lakes and rivers perfect for ice skating.
We hope this introduction to Russia’s Golden Ring has encouraged you to put this utterly charming destination on your travel radar. If you’re basing all or part of your Russia trip around Moscow, the Golden Ring is undoubtedly the best place to see, taste and experience authentic old-world Russian culture within such effortless reach of the capital.
Craving a one-of-a-kind, awe-inspiring trip to a place of ancient histories, visually spectacular, and spiritual marvels? The Kazan Travel Guide has everything you need to get just that.
Kazan is the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, also known as Russia’s third capital. Just an hour-and-a-half flight away from Moscow, this beautiful and thriving metropolis has a centuries-old history. Founded in 1005, Kazan is one of Russia’s oldest cities (older than Moscow) with sites and architecture reminiscent of its glorious 12th-century reign by the river Kazanka. The multiethnic region is famous for the harmonious co-existence of many different religions, whose sculpted sacred sites are some of the world’s most beautiful buildings. You’ll find a sublime fusion of Tatar and Russian culture in this city, creating a glorious melting pot of different cultures. Whilst predominantly Muslim, you will find all religious backgrounds within the republic. Discover how easy it is to be entranced by the captivating Kazan – it is even worth making a detour on the Trans-Siberian Railway for.
This Kazan Travel Guide will help you plan everything down to preferred months of travel according to seasonal highlights, main attractions, meals from our pick of Tatar cuisine delicacies, methods of transport, and activities from morning until noon.
Even if you’re just visiting for a day or two, Kazan of hidden quirks and gems, endless festivities, captivating histories and legends to make your visit worthwhile. This Russian city is sure to make a hard case to earn a spot on your travel agenda.
Why travel to Russia’s Kazan?
Destination #1 Kazan Kremlin
Museums, Sacred Sites, History, Architecture
Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia
This UNESCO listed fortified citadel is the most familiar landmark of Kazan. Kazan Kremlin is full of cozy parks, picturesque streets, delectable foods, and beautiful sites. Take a tour through the only surviving Tatar fortress in Russia and lose yourself in its Middle Ages era splendor with this heritage-listed site. Many of the Kremlin’s architectural wonders are sculpted by the famous Postnik Yakovlev and Ivan Shirjay, recruited by the Tzar. Kazan Kremlin is also home to the Söyembikä Tower and museums, where Kazan’s extensive history and legends take centre-stage. Many also flock to the multi-faith place of worship for its glorious sculpted sacred sites such as Kul Sharif Mosque.
Destination #2 Söyembikä Tower
Architecture, Myth and Legend
Kazan Kremlin, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia
Kazan’s tiered tower of Soyembika, also known as the leaning tower or ‘Khan’s Mosque’ is the highlight of Kazan Kremlin. Its construction is recorded by scholars to date back as far as the 16th century, whose age-old history is expressed in some of its majestic colonial architecture. The colours are stunning in summer, and even in winter, the snow creates a fairytale-like scene. Once inside, you should pay attention to the haram carpet and elaborate details on the ceiling. Romantic and mystic legends surround the tower and the only woman to rule the Kazan Khanate for which it’s named after. It is said to be the same tower that led the beautiful Princess Syuyumbike to her death, built for her by Ivan the Terrible who seized Kazan in 1552 and then demanded they wed. Others tell a different history of a Soyembika forcibly detained here by Muscovite forces, before being taken to Kasimov where she died. For those interested in its story, be wary of self-nominated guides- the official Kazan guides are a purchase worth making. Despite its tragic history, many locals believe if you touch the tower and make a wish it will come true.
Destination #3 Kul Sharif Mosque
Kazan Kremlin, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia
The Kul Sharif Mosque is Kazan Kremlin’s main mosque and one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. You will hardly be able to take your eyes off this one-of-a-kind structure. This attraction is not just for Muslims. It is open to all Kazan’s travellers, but it is preferred that women have their hair covered during their visit. The Kul Sharif Mosque takes the place of a former mosque conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1552. From outside, the majestic lotus-flowered dome landmark sits atop a hill overlooking Kazan. Inside, it’s fitted with a modern yet classical interior where you can pray with the names of 99 gods inscribed on ceilings and window glass. On the ground floor is a Museum of Islam, where a tour in English may be available if there’s an English-speaking docent on shift. Otherwise, there are booklets in English that explain the whole exhibit. Whilst everything is free to all visitors, they ask you pay 3 rubles for shoe slip-covers to help keep its floors clean. It is recommended you go in the morning to avoid a queue to visit the Kul Sharif Mosque, boasting a reputation as one of the best mosques in the world.
Destination #4 Temple of All Religions
Staroye Arakchino, 4, Kazan, Russia
For those interested in the spiritual marvels of Russia, it is also recommended you see the Temple of all Religions located along the Volga river of Kazan. This is under construction, so it’s not a must-see, but worth the visit if you have time to kill before taking a train or bus. It boasts 16 towers all for various different religions- a stunning sight to behold from the outside.
Destination #5 National history of Tatarstan Museum
History, Tatarstan Culture
Kazan Kremlin, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia
Travel to Kazan for a museum jam-packed with displays of interest to ages both young and old. Fine rock specimens, interactive baby mammoth and sabre tooth tiger displays, fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs, and artefacts of Tatarstan culture and history list a few of its marvels. For foreign visitors, an English-speaking audio-guide is available. It is recommended when travelling to Kazan’s sites that you download a scanner & translator on your mobile phone. ‘Scan & translate’ text grabber is an app on the iPhone, and ‘iTranslate’ is the android version. Google’s translate app also has a foreign language scan feature. This centre is great for both kids and adults where friendly staff are at the ready to welcome you.
Similar to this: see Hermitage Kazan Centre
For those interested in this main attraction, it is highly recommended you visit the Hermitage Kazan Center which showcases high art, natural history, dinosaur fossils and the Great Patriotic War. Next door is the Fine Arts Museum of Tatarstan– however, English isn’t quite as refined here as in the N.H.T.M.
Destination #6 Baumana street
Markets, Street Food, Outdoor Entertainment
Outside Kazan Kremlin, Kazan, Russia
The Baumana Street is the main tourist and pedestrian zone between the Kremlin and Tokai Square. Tatarstan restaurants, stalls of street painters, boutiques, souvenir shops, fountains that fulfil wishes and kiosks are just a few of its gems that are ready to assure your every need and charm your socks off. Monuments and fountains make for a perfect photo backdrop, with statuary ranging from a bronze carriage of Catherine II to the “thick lazy Cat of Kazan”, a tribute to its feline protectors who fended off mice. Whilst mingling with the locals, the rich chimes of Kazan’s bell tower help bring the vibrant Arbat to life. Baumana street’s historical attractions include houses of the 19th century, a monument to Feodor Chaliapin, and a Russian baroque style Epiphany cathedral. For opportunists seeking for the perfect Russian souvenir, Baumana street is the place to buy everything: Matryoshka dolls, Tatar folk costumes, and one particular favourite of tourists is the Tatar national male headwear “Tubeteika”. This is a street that never sleeps- when the sun sets, it becomes a hub for nightlife.
Destination #7 Volga river cruise
Outdoor Entertainment, Relaxation
Volga River, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia
Kazan’s river station is flocked to by tourists eager to experience the scenic water route along the city’s shores. Travelling through Kazan with a Volga River boat trip is filled with incredible landscapes and jaw-dropping scenes. Gorgeous views of some of the city’s beloved icons include the Kazan Kremlin, whose structure sparkles like a jewel in the sun in all its Russian glory. The comfortable steam-ships on the rivers and lakes of Russia depart a few times a day to make for regular service (12:00, 15:00, and 19:00 on most days). Two-hour boat trips without stops, with a guided tour along Kazan’s coast. A total of 9 dams choke the river and halt its waters to a standstill- a glistening, magical scene that is a magnet for artists, writers and explorers. By its shores, the Volga river is a favourite for camping, relaxing, fishing, and swimming.
Destination #8 Palace of Farmers
10 Minute walk from Kazan Kremlin
The Palace of Farmers is a vast and regal building like something out of a fairytale. Despite being a recent addition to Kazan’s collection of ancient sites, it looks to be built well over a century ago. This eclectic architectural piece boasts elements of Classicism style, the Second Empire, and the Belle Epoque. A magnificent, 65-foot tall bronze tree sculpture grows in the archway of the palace’s façade- a sight that makes for a mesmerizing photo backdrop. This is a governmental building related to agriculture, so the interior is not accessible. However, it’s worthwhile just to see its magnificently sculpted exterior. Located adjacent to the Kremlin and Kazan river embankment, the Farmer’s Palace makes for beguiling scenery for your riverside stroll. Manicured gardens out front create a serene, relaxing space in the summer sunshine, the site’s most popular season. When the sun sets, the Palace of Farmers comes alive with an array of spectacular light displays.
Destination #9 Raifa Monastery
Religion, Tatarstan History, Architecture
Village Raif, 30km from Kazan
Free – Low Budget
Whilst known as one of the largest monasteries in Russia, Raifa Monastery had humble beginnings as a place of solitude where monastic followers could dedicate themselves to God. Found in a serene location by Sumy Lakes in a lush pine forest, this centuries-old site has been rebuilt time and time again. Its history tells of temple destruction, brutal plundering, arson, and has once made a home for juvenile delinquents. The history behind the monastery’s name is no exception to this trail of tragedies. In fact, the hermitage was established and named in memory of holy fathers tortured in Sinai and Raithu. Abandoned for over half a century, the ruins have been given new life with well doted on additions. This includes the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Cathedral of God’s Mother of Georgia, the Church of the Ss Reverend Fathers and bell tower, with beautiful onion-domed architecture and intricate iconography. It’s free to wander monastery grounds, where small shops and cafes populate the area. Arrive at this stunning rural monastery via a 40-minute drive from Kazan (with some free parking available), bus tour, or a scenic boat trip.
Destination #10 Sviyazhsk Island
History & Architecture, Religion, War Heroes
Sviyaga River estuary, 19 Miles from Kazan
Sviyazhsk Island, or “Conqueror City”, began as a fortress for Ivan the Terrible in 1551 when Kazan was an unassailable fortress. Frozen in time, visiting the Island is like going through a time machine with no fewer than 37 cultural-historical monuments. Its religious marvels are a must-see. Trinity Church is the last of its kind in Sviyazhsk- a wooden structure dating back to the time of Ivan the Terrible. Axe marks made by Yaroslavl carpenters can still be seen. The Dormition Cathedral boasts a glorious collection of 16th-century frescos. Its most famed is St Christopher with a horse’s head- a fresco that tells the story of a saint so handsome he pleaded to God for ugliness, to avoid unwanted attention from women. However, these monasteries have seen their fair share of horrors- the Soviet political repression saw them turn into prisons, concentration camps, and psychiatric hospitals. A local museum, Sviyazhsk State Museum of History and Architecture, is no stranger to these horrors. Here, inmates and prisoners were executed and their belongings are still on display in abandoned cells inside. A monument to the victims of political repression forms a two-meter-tall marble slab on the island.
Destination #11 The Ancient City of Bolgar
Religion, History, Museums
Left Bank of the Volga River, 140km from Kazan
Not far from Kazan, Russia’s mysterious Muslim City, Bolgar, dates back to the 7th and 15th centuries. With such a powerful history, this Eurasian metropolis is one of Russia’s first UNESCO listed sites. It’s served as the capital of the Mongol Golden Horde, ruled by the founder of the Timurids Empire, and even the Prince of Moscow. A 1969 excavation for the State Historical and Architectural Museum and Reserve saw the city turned into a huge open-air museum. Stone citadels, mosques, and tombs are some of its jaw-dropping remains from its glory days. Other attractions include the Khan’s palace, White Mosque, the hidden healing well of Gabdrakhman, a 700-year-old burial chamber for Bolgar nobility, and an interactive bread museum. The city of Bolgar has great religious significance, once the center of Islamic civilization in Europe. Here, you can find the largest printed Kora in the world weighing at 500kg. Bolgar remains a sacred pilgrimage destination to Tatar Muslims. The city of Bolgar is a three hours’ drive from Kazan along the scenic route of the river Volga.
Kazan Cuisine Guide: A Foodie’s Haven
Kazan is the central home of Russia’s Tatar cuisine, boasting many restaurants and cafes that have earned its keep in the hearts of foodies across the globe. This Kazan Travel Guide will convince you why this is a haven for Russian and eastern cuisine.
Museum of Chak-Chak:
The Museum of Chak-Chak (Çäkçäk) is named after the mouth-watering honey-baked balls of doughy goodness, a delicacy served at celebrations and festivities. This museum-turned food establishment is dedicated to traditional Tatar foods and drinks, particularly their national sweet foods. Bashkir dishes, chak-chak, bursak, and kak-tosh made from almonds are some of the recipes derived from Tatar enlightener kayum nasyri. These are only some of the most popular must-try dishes that cannot go unsampled. Here, guests drink tea and sample desserts whilst guides tell stories of the ancient Tatar people’s way of life, tradition and customs. If you want to learn the secret to cooking the perfect Tatar dish, this is the place to be.
Dom Tatarskoi Kulinarii (restaurant):
Dom Tatarskoi Kulinarii, or House of Tatar Cuisine, is one of the oldest national restaurants that has earnt its place in the heart of foodies from across the globe. Its dishes are based on Yunus Akhmetzyanov’s time-tested recipes and traditions – a beloved local guardian of traditional Tatar cuisine. Here you can find confectionary like Tatar sweets, and authentic dishes such as echpochmak, kazylyk, gubadiya, talkysh kaleve and tokamach. In the evenings, your wining and dining with this Bauman street food will be accompanied by live music and the opportunity for master classes about preparing national dishes.
Kazan Travel Guide: Summer Highlights
Months & Temperature
June, July, August
24-27 Degrees Celcius (Av.)
Summer is by far the most popular and most frequented time of year to trek to Russia’s glorious Kazan city...
Moscow’s restaurant scene is booming with Russian dishes that are to die for. A city in the midst of a foodie revolution where almost anything goes, there is perhaps no dining scene in Europe as dynamic, exciting and adventurous as Moscow’s.
At long last, Moscow is being recognised as an international culinary destination. New eateries are popping up at an astounding rate, and first-time visitors can expect to feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to places to eat in Moscow.
This guide to eating out in Moscow covers some of the top restaurants in Moscow for any budget, from the top end of town to some of the city’s tastiest cheap eats. There are plenty of excellent options here whether you’re looking for breakfast, lunch or dinner in Moscow. We’ve focused mainly on Moscow restaurants serving Russian food but thrown in some best-in-class representations of other cuisines for some added variety. In this list, you’ll find some of the most famous restaurants in Moscow, a few lesser-known gems and a few totally unique institutions which have become Moscow tourist attractions in their own right.
Moscow food prices vary wildly. It’s easy to spend big in this town, but it’s also easy to find extremely affordable eats if you know where to look. One thing is for sure though – no matter what your tastes or budget, in Moscow, you’ll never go hungry for long.
Fine Dining Restaurants in MoscowCafé Pushkin
A Moscow institute is known for its impeccable haute Russian and French cuisine, the palatial Café Pushkin opened in 1999 and immediately attracted a loyal following among high society folk. Elaborately decorated to recreate the feel of a 19th-century aristocrat’s manor, Pushkin has become equally popular with tourists keen to soak up the stately atmosphere of pre-Revolution Russia.
The menu features sophisticated interpretations of definitive Russian cuisine, with a nod to classical French techniques. The kitchen’s insistence on high-quality ingredients lifts well-known favourites to another level of complexity and refinement. The signature beef stroganoff consistently receives rave reviews, while the roasted rack of lamb is the ultimate in rich, meaty indulgence. Of course, a restaurant of this standing serves several varieties of caviar a selection of top-shelf vodkas fit for an emperor.
Despite its rather formal appearance, the Café Pushkin experience is utterly charming. The waiters dress like 19th-century servants and diners are treated like royalty, but not without a sense of fun and theatrics. Bookings well advance are recommended.
Consistently ranking in Restaurant Magazine’s prestigious annual World 50 Best Restaurants list, White Rabbit is the first restaurant in Russia to receive such international acclaim. Its success (it secured 15th place on the list in 2018) is a sure sign of Moscow’s ascendance as a global gastronomy destination.
White Rabbit’s whimsical and immersive interiors are designed to evoke a sense of fantasy and wonder, with rabbits everywhere and antique rococo furniture straight out of a Wonderland tea party. On the 16th floor of the Smolenskiy Passazh shopping centre, White Rabbit’s glass dome captures mesmerising 360-degree views, showcasing the awe-inspiring scale of the Russian capital.
Chef Vladimir Mukhin has dreamt up an inventive European menu employing seasonal ingredients from across Russia. Standout dishes from this luxury Moscow restaurant include rabbit and cabbage rolls with potato crisps and truffle, roast suckling pig and Black Sea oysters.
Price Range: ‘Russian Evolution’ tasting menu – 10,000 RUB per person
Hours: Monday to Wednesday and Sunday 12pm – 12am, Thursday to Saturday 12pm – 2am
]Arkady Novikov is one of the most successful restaurateurs in Moscow. The celebrity chef owns several joints in Moscow and has recently expanded his empire overseas, but his flagship restaurant remains the Novikov Restaurant & Bar on the first floor of the Ritz-Carlton Moscow. The interiors embrace a sense of minimalist cool, with black marble, stained glass windows and metal chandeliers.
The restaurant specialises in seafood, deftly combining Russian and Asian cooking styles, with renowned Japanese chef Sae Yamaoka overseeing the sushi menu. Diners can watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen and pick from the live seafood bar, stocked with Kamchatka king crabs, lobsters, langoustines and other coveted ocean delicacies. Behind the bar you’ll find over 15 varieties of sake, perfect for pairing with raw and delicately cooked fresh fish and crustaceans.
Price Range: Market prices, expect to pay 3,500+ RUB per person plus drinks
Hours: Monday to Sunday 12pm – 12am
Address: Tverskaya St., 3, Ritz-Carlton Moscow Hotel
Another of Arkady Novikov’s acclaimed Moscow eateries, Bolshoi Restaurant Moscow is named after the nearby Bolshoi Theatre, showing off suitably lavish décor and royal Russian cuisine. The plush dining room features dark wood tables and velvet and leather upholstered chairs. Live jazz accompanies diners in the evening, adding to this Moscow restaurant’s ambience of upmarket romance.
The kitchen presided over by awarded French chef Kamel Benamar, prepares luxurious Russian delicacies such as potato blinis with salmon and caviar, while more French-European influences come through in the gnocchi with lobster, grilled artichokes and truffle vinaigrette.
Price Range: Approx. 3,000 RUB per person (not including drinks). A prix-fix menu (perfect before a show at the Bolshoi Theatre) is approx. 1,500 RUB
Hours: Monday to Friday 8am – 12am, Saturday and Sunday 12pm – 12am
Address: Petrovka St., House 3/6, Structure 2 | Opposite the Bolshoi Theater
Nearest Metro Station: Teatralnaya or Okhotny Ryad
In stark contrast to the old world opulence that defines Moscow’s most famous fine dining restaurants, Soho Room’s own brand of extravagance is sleek, sultry and bathed in seductive mood lighting. Soho Rooms is actually a multi-level entertainment complex – an insanely glamorous (and notoriously exclusive) nightclub, a cocktail lounge, a pool terrace, and, up a grand flight of stairs leading to the second floor, a visually stunning restaurant decked out in warm timbers and a gold onyx bar. Serving expertly plated cuisine to cashed-up celebrity clientele, US chef Tim Freeman and his 13 sous chefs flex their considerable talent with a menu that draws from Asia, Russia and contemporary European cuisine.
The club environment lends itself to share platters – fresh oysters, fresh tuna nachos and xiao long bao dumplings. For something more substantial, there’s wagyu steak served on a hot rock, Japanese style, and Asian-cured duck breast with fig brûlée. Soho also specialises in top-notch sushi and creative desserts and boasts a tome-like menu of wines, sake, vodka and cocktails.
Price Range: Mains from approx. 1,000 – 1,500 RUB
Hours: Monday 12pm – 12am, Tuesday to Sunday open 24 hours
For the last few years, Soviet Retro themed restaurants and bars have been the in-thing in Moscow, serving as cool hangouts for young locals and not (as you might suspect) mere tourist-trap novelties. Varenichnaya No1 1 nails the USSR nostalgia with a non-too-serious sense of charm. Faded photos and tattered books line the walls, B&W films play on vintage TVs and diners sit on cozy retro furniture while tucking into old-school Soviet era comfort food at its homely, filling and remarkably delicious best.
Varenichnaya is reputed to serve up some of the best dumplings in Moscow and is the perfect place to sample both sweet and savoury pelmeni and vareniki. Varenichnaya No 1 has around 15 locations around the city. For visitors, the Arbat Street branch is convenient and always lively.
Georgian food is enormously popular in Moscow. Meaty, starchy and hearty, it’s familiar enough to the Russian palate, while the use of Middle Eastern spices and cooking styles add a unique zing to dishes like charcoal grilled lamb kebab, smoked pork ribs and chikmeruli (garlic chicken) – all available on the extensive menu at Elardji, a beloved Georgian Moscow restaurant. This restaurant’s namesake elardji, is a filling side-dish made from cornmeal and stretchy sulguni cheese.
With lovely, leafy garden courtyard for dining in on a pleasant summer’s day, Elardji’s breezy, elegant interiors feature warm timbers and comfortable sofas reminiscent of a traditional Georgian house.
Small, intimate and almost always full to the brim, the action-packed open kitchen at Uilliam’s is headed by star Italian chef Uilliam Lamberti. Part Italian restaurant, part Parisian bistro and part Russian soul kitchen, his menu is a classy combination of cuisines with an emphasis on top-notch ingredients and sincere, unfussy cooking. Smart yet casual, despite its address on fanciful Malaya Bronnaya Street, Uilliam’s sets itself apart with a friendly, personal brand of service.
Sweet, meaty chunks of Kamchatka king crab lift the crab, tomato and avocado bruschetta to luxurious heights, while other Italian inspired dishes include tuna tartare risotto and lamb, pumpkin and lentil ravioli. There’s a daily-changing selection of rotisserie meats as well as grilled steak and seafood. Uilliam’s house-made gingerbread and raspberry biscuits make for a sweet end to a hearty meal.
Vegetarians might want to give Voronezh a wide berth – this trendy Moscow restaurant specialises in “cuisine of the Russian provinces” for carnivorous tastes. “Voronezh” is actually the name of a city and region south of Moscow, which local meat lovers will know is famed for producing Russia’s finest black Angus beef.
Housed over several floors in an elegant historical mansion, Voronezh is actually two standalone restaurants, plus a casual snack bar, deli and butcher shop on the first floor. Occupying the third floor is the stunningly renovated “Meat Club”, an all-out splurge restaurant serving over 30 extravagant cuts of prime-grade beef and game such as venison and rabbit. The second floor is where you’ll find the more casual, mid-range “Restaurant Voronezh”, serving a wide selection of steaks, ribs and seafood. Voronezh aims to showcase the best produce from across Russia, including oysters, shrimp and sea bass from the Barents and North Seas.
Price Range: Steaks/mains on the 2nd floor “Restaurant Voronezh” range from approx. 650 – 2,000 RUB
Hidden away in the quiet enclave of Kitay-Gorod, Dacha Na Pokrovke is unashamedly nostalgic. On the upper floor of a crumbling mansion, this Moscow restaurant is decked out like a Soviet-era dacha (Russian country house), with kitsch memorabilia adoring the wallpaper-covered walls, antique phones and radios and crockery and tableware straight out of a babushka’s kitchen cabinet
The menu is all about Russian classics, done simply and free of modern twists – think borscht, Oliver salad, meat-stuffed pies and grilled trout. In the summer months, the leafy garden out the front plays host to a barbecue grill. Enjoy succulent skewers of shashlik (shish kebab) alfresco-style, with the added bonus of live music most evenings.
You might not expect to find an economy-priced cafeteria inside the stately walls of GUM, an enormous shopping centre on the Red Square specialising in luxury brands. But it seems no Muscovite (wealthy fashionistas and penny-pinching students alike) can resist cheap, simple and delicious Russian comfort fare, dished out in a quaint, Soviet-style “stolovaya” (a self-service, canteen-style eatery).
Stolovaya No. 57 serves the Russian equivalent of diner food. Salads are super-popular here, including the mayonnaise-heavy Oliver salad and shuba (“Herring in a Fur Coat”) a layered salad of pickled herring, eggs, beets, carrots and potatoes in a creamy dressing. Also on the menu are beef stroganoff, chicken kiev and chebureki (a deep-fried, meat-filled pastry turnover).
The young, hip side of Moscow comes out to look good and eat healthy at Marketplace. Part fresh produce market, part restaurant, Marketplace’s chic, minimalist design, open kitchen and well-priced, vegetarian-friendly international menu keep the atmosphere buzzingly energetic.
You can be sure the ingredients are fresh and everything is cooked in front of you while you wait. Once your meal arrives, retreat to the bright, stylish dining room or kick back with a beer in a courtyard full of potted plants and colourful metal chairs. There are sandwiches and shashlik for a substantial snack or salads for the health-conscious (minus the typical heavy Russian dressing). Also on offer are Asian wok stir-fries and a variety of pasta. For a sweet snack, pastries are baked on-site, ready to pair with a cappuccino or milkshake.
Lepim i Varim is legendary for boasting some of the most incredible pelmeni in town. These beautiful, hand-sculpted parcels of deliciousness consist of an outer pocket of unleavened dough, wrapped around a filling of ground meat, boiled and served piping hot. Lepim i Varim make everything from scratch and you can watch the pelmeni masters at work in the open kitchen while you queue up at the counter.
Traditional Siberian pelmeni are stuffed with mildly spiced pork and beef. In addition to the classics, Lepim’s have invented several original pelmeni creations. There’s an extravagant Kamchatka king crab, an Italian inspired chicken, parmesan and basil, and several vegetarian options including mashed potato and fried onion.
Nearest Metro Station: Teatralnaya or Okhotny Ryad
Contact Details: Reservations online at: http://lepimivarim.ru/ or on +7 499 399-31-23
This humble little café is wildly popular, serving up some of the best street-food style Turkish fare around at exceptionally cheap and cheerful prices. There’s not much in the way of seating, but this 24-hour joint is the perfect place to grab a kebab to go on a Moscow bar-hopping night out.
The classic beef kebabs, pita-wrapped koftas, shawarma and grilled fish sandwiches offer a pretty authentic taste of Turkey, or if you’re in the mood for a little more grease, Meat Point does burgers and chunky French fries as well. If you’re in need of a strong caffeine hit to get you through a day’s sightseeing, you can’t go past Meat Point’s pitch-black Turkish style coffee.
Price Range: Kebabs and burgers approx. 200-250 RUB
Hours: 24 hours Monday to Sunday
Address: Brusov pereulok, 2/14, bld. 10
Nearest Metro Station: Okhotny Ryad
Contact Details: +7 495 940-66-96
Karavaev Brothers Culinary Shop
The concept aspired to by this store’s namesake brothers was to provide hungry, on-the-go Muscovites with affordable, high-quality food – fast. The idea took off, and branches have proliferated across the city. Food is offered buffet style. Choose from a self-serve selection of hot and cold dishes, pay at the counter, sit down, eat. Despite its relatively no-frills appearance, the food is uniformly excellent. Along with the usual Russian classics, roast meats, salads and pies, you’ll find quiches, pastas and slightly more exotic fare such as Sichuan beef and tempura prawns. At breakfast time, options such as oatmeal, toasted sandwiches and eggs are also on offer.
With around 30 outlets across Moscow, you’re never likely to be too far away from a Karavaev Brothers store for an economical snack. The..
Thinking of travelling to or within Russia but undecided on which destination to go?
The world’s largest nation has it all – fast-paced, cosmopolitan cities with eye-popping architecture, quaint historic rural villages, mountain ranges, ancient volcanic landscapes, lakes, rivers and forests. From magnificent stretches of coastline to snow-swept tundra to semi-arid desert, no other country can challenge, surprise, inspire and delight visitors with incredible diversity quite like Russia. If you’re planning for the perfect holiday get-a-way to Russia whether it be independent, a guided trip, as part of a tour or a Russia travel package, this Russia destination guide is for you.
Best way to use this Russia destination guide: Use the Table of Contents to click on a topic most relevant to you.
Why You Should Make This Your Travel Companion
1.Top #9 Travel Destinations: This Russia destination guide will arm you with invaluable traveller’s insights into the most amazing travel destinations in Russia.
2. Practical Tips for Each Region: This guide summarises everything from practical travel advice on sightseeing highlights, what to see and experience, to practical information for your ideal trip like the best time to go and how to go, whether you’re coming from overseas by air or travelling overland within Russia.
3.Personalised Travel Destinationsfor All: Whether you’re a hardcore historian, architecture admirer, nature and wildlife lover, off-the-beaten-track adventurer, extreme sports enthusiast or a traveller seeking authentic connections with local people, this is your go-to Russia destination guide to a one-of-a-kind experience.
Wherever your interests lie, the Russia travel advice and tips within this guide will reveal in vivid detail which regions in Russia will best fulfil your travel aspirations. Read on and start planning the Russian vacation of your dreams!
Destination #1: Moscow
Red Square Plaza Moscow
A modern mega-city of some 13 million souls and bursting at the seams with possibilities, Moscow is a city like no other. It’s exciting, chaotic and constantly on the move. Ugly, beautiful, glamorous, cool and confident, with a surprising warmth and hospitality beneath a stern, business-like façade.
A visit to Moscow is an endlessly surprising journey to sights unseen and tastes unsampled. Whims and indulgences are catered to wholeheartedly, whether your desires lie in the steamy pleasures of a traditional Russian sauna, evenings sipping vodka and champagne in an exclusive nightclub, gourmet feasting in a high-class restaurant or simply taking in the atmosphere of the city’s famous public parks and squares and watching the world go by. Moscow’s architectural splendour is legendary but seeing it for yourself will fill you with a sense of awe and wonder that no picture can recreate.
Born from an imperial past, yet an enduring symbol of Soviet Russia, Moscow is a city between two worlds. Unique to any other city you’d find in this Russia destination guide, Moscow’s art and architecture reflect a crossroad position astride the Eastern and Western worlds and revels in the centuries of comings and goings of great minds that have called this captivating and engrossing metropolis home.
Moscow is full of history and intrigue – a spiritual and political hub and billionaire playground with a youthful, cosmopolitan culture stirring just beneath the surface. Visit Moscow and decide for yourself what this dynamic city means to you.
Why Go to Moscow?
To understand Russia, first, this Russia destination guide will help you understand Moscow. The city dates back at least 900 years, and there’s a real sense of being transported through time as you stroll the ever-changing streets and districts, showcasing mind-bogglingly intricate 18th-century neo-classicalism and Soviet-era concrete monoliths, through to constructivism’s quirky Russian avant-garde and gleaming contemporary glass skyscrapers.
Moscow is all about culture – architecture, history, food, arts, music and nightlife. In a city this size, there’s something to cater to every taste, no matter how eclectic. Keep reading this Russia destination guide to plan for yours.
Dive into the rabbit hole of Moscow’s endlessly engrossing history with visits to the Imperial palaces where mighty rulers rose and fell from power and revolutions were born. Visit magnificent cathedrals, state-of-the-art museums and world-class art galleries.
Moscow shines in the evening, with nightly music, ballet and opera performances in its majestic theatres and concert halls. In recent years, Moscow has become a hub of gastronomy thanks to a new breed of local and international chefs. Yes, Moscow has its fair share of fancy fine dining restaurants and hipster cafes, but you’ll still find street snacks in abundance and homely, traditional Russian fare served in well-loved, hole-in-the-wall eateries.
If you’ve come to Moscow keen to party, you’re in luck. Moscow’s nightlife scene rivals almost any major international city. The label “city that never sleeps” isn’t always warranted, but in Moscow, it’s the truth. There’s after-dark fun to be had every day of the week, with various nightlife districts home to mega dance warehouses, atmospheric underground clubs, friendly local pubs, jazz lounges, rock venues, performance art spaces and the best bar-crawling action this side of London.
Weather in Moscow and When to Go
The peak season to travel to Moscow is in Summer between June and August, where temperatures usually hover around a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius. While summers are slightly rainier than other seasons in Moscow, downfalls tend to be fairly heavy but short-lived.
However, for Russia destination guide readers keen to avoid higher prices that come with booking accommodation in the summer, you might try the shoulder seasons of spring and early autumn. Late spring (April and May) provide more sunshine and less rainfall, while in autumn, the city’s parks are filled with flowering trees and colourful leaves.
The depths of mid-winter are undoubtedly cold, but a winter visit is an adventure that will give you a true insight into Moscow life – both its hardships and its great beauty. Furs and vodka keep the locals warm and the snow-filled streets are postcard picturesque. With layers of shimmering show blanketing the roofs of Moscow’s grand palaces, parts of the city are transformed into a fairy-tale wonderland. The Christmas lights, traditional winter markets and News Years celebrations offer sights and sounds and an atmosphere to be savoured.
No place better represents the triumphs and turmoil of Russia’s past than the Kremlin. Built between the 14th and 17th centuries, it served first as the Imperial Residence of the Tsars and later as the headquarters of the Russian presidents. Within the imposing walls of the Kremlin are a plethora of classic buildings, each as stunning as the next. Wander past the modern glass and concrete Kremlin Palace, the neoclassical Senate Building, the 40-tonne Tsar Cannon and the 200-tonne Tsar Bell, the Armoury Museum, Cathedral Square and dozens of magnificent monuments to the power and wealth of the Russian Tsars.
The Red Square
Along the eastern side of the Kremlin Wall is the vast cobblestoned expanse of the Red Square. Although it’s been the scene of countless displays of military might, parades and protests since the 15th century, it’s traditionally been a place of trade and social gatherings/ Today thousands flock to the square to celebrate official state events, be photographed in front of famous monuments or simply soak up its historic splendour.
St Basil’s Cathedral
Located in Red Square is one of Russia’s most iconic buildings, with its vibrant rainbow-painted, onion-shaped domes. The cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 to mark the capture of Kazan from the Mongol forces. According to legend, Ivan was so enamoured by architect Postnik Yakovlev’s design that he had him blinded so that he would never be able to design anything as fantastical again! If the cathedral is open, it’s possible to visit the interior. Although the interior of maze-like interconnected chapels is surprisingly small, they’re richly decorated and well worth an explore.
In the heart of downtown Moscow, Arbat is Moscow’s oldest pedestrian street. The cobblestone roads and classical statues are reminders of its elegant past, but today the area caters mostly for the tourist crowd, with rows of souvenir shops and restaurants and cafes of varying quality. Still, it’s a must-visit attraction with a lively atmosphere. Street performers and musicians ply the street day and night, and you can often watch traditional Russian craft-makers at work.
The Moscow Metro
Apart from being one of the largest and oldest underground railway systems in the world, and a fantastic, cheap way to get around Moscow, the metro is a tourist attraction in its own right, thanks to its spectacularly decorated underground stations. The stations have been described as underground art museums, home to fantastic sculptures, murals and striking architectural elements from stained glass panels to mosaic marble floors.
How to Get to Moscow
Travel By Plane:
This Russia destination guide walks through the four major airports in Moscow – Domodedovo, Sheremetyevo, Vnukovo and Zhukovsky.
The majority of international flights go in and out of Sheremetyevo (most of the major international airlines and Russian airline Aeroflot). Domodedovo Airport is the main hub for Swiss Airlines, Air Malta, British Airways, Emirates, China Eastern, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and most of the Central Asian airlines.
Most domestic flights also operate out of Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo, with a few departing from Vnukovo (UtAir, Vladivostok Avia, flights to North Caucasus), as well as German Wings flights to and from Germany.
To get to the centre of Moscow from the airports, the Aeroexpress train is the fast and easy, especially during Moscow’s notorious morning and afternoon rush hours. The trip to the city clocks in at around 35 to 40 minutes. Outside of peak times, taxis take an average of 1 hour to reach the city centre, while a private transfer or shuttle is the most comfortable option to arrive directly to your hotel.
Travel By Train:
Russia destination guide overland travellers from Europe can also reach Moscow by train. Train travel is often less cost-effective compared with flying (at least within Europe) but provides a totally unique experience with the ability to stopover in various European cities along the way.
Direct trains to Moscow depart from Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Amsterdam and Kiev.
The Paris-Moscow Express runs once a week all year and is the most glamorous and comfortable option. The train traverses through four countries (France, Germany, Poland and Belarus) before pulling in at Moscow’s long-distance Belrussky train station after a journey of just under 40 hours.
Another classy option popular among tourists is the Berlin-Moscow Swift train. Departing twice a week (Sundays and Mondays) from East Berlin station, it takes a little over 20 hours to cover the 1,896km between the German capital and Moscow.
Destination #2: Saint Petersburg
Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg
The former capital of the Russian Empire, the city that Peter the Great founded in 1703 is today a decidedly more laidback city compared with the frenetic pace of Moscow. Explore the highlights of this living museum of sorts using this Russia destination guide, where the city centre of Saint Petersburg (also known simply as ‘Peter’) consists of one colossal architectural masterpiece after another.
Peter the Great transformed a tract of swampland on the Lena River delta into what would be regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, reflecting the cultural and artistic prowess of Imperial Russia and a sophisticated European influence inspired by the likes of London, Paris and Vienna.
At the same time, St Petersburg is a thriving, modern metropolis with a population of over five million. Just as it originally attracted architects, poets, painters, composers and revolutionaries, today young creatives flock to St Petersburg’s lively streets, artistic hubs, galleries and performance venues, many of them housed in the shells of crumbling old-world mansions and derelict palaces, providing a youthful, edgy and energetic counterpoint to the city’s stately ornamental façade.
Why Go to St Petersburg?
Moscow may be the seat of Russia’s political power, but St Petersburg is the country’s cultural capital. There are many reasons the Russia destination guide has to make visiting St. Petersburg a must. Not just for its numerous palaces, churches and museums, but also its theatres and concert halls, its contemporary art hubs and its flourishing live music and bar scene.
St Petersburg is renowned for its illustrious architecture, home to the magnificent Palace Square and Peterhof Palace, the Russian equivalent of Versailles. It also boasts one of the world’s greatest museums in the imposing State Hermitage complex. The entire historic city centre is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
Known as the “Venice of the North” for its numerous rivers and canals, Russia’s most romantic city is famous for its beautiful drawbridges. The Palace Bridge is drawn every night in front of crowds of tourists and has become one of the most recognisable symbols of the city.
History fans will be enraptured by St Petersburg’s perfectly preserved monuments to Tsarist extravagance, and the many sites and landmarks which played an integral role in the Russian Revolutions and both World Wars.
Assisted by the Russia destination guide, St Petersburg will be surprisingly compact and easy to get around in, with excellent transport (including an extensive metro system) and the best tourist infrastructure of any Russian city. St Petersburg hosts numerous cultural and heritage festivals throughout the year.
The city’s epic White Nights are the intoxicating summer weeks between late May and early June when night never falls and the streets and parks are alive with all-night revellers, open-air concerts and dusky evenings that transform almost unnoticeably into the morning.
Weather in St Petersburg and When to Go
Despite being the northernmost metropolis in the world, St Petersburg’s proximity to the Gulf of Finland blesses the city with a maritime climate, making it far less chilly than much of Russia over winter, with temperatures rarely dipping below -7°C even in the coldest month of January.
The Russia destination guide is here to help you plan the ideal season of choice for travel. Summers are usually pleasantly warm, with the occasional spell of hot, humid weather. Mid-summer (between late May and mid-June) is also the time of the legendary St Petersburg White Nights when the sun never completely sets and the evenings are alive with a festive atmosphere and concerts and performances take place nightly around the city.
A good amount of snow over winter in St Petersburg is always a given. During winter, the city is arguably at its most beautiful. The streets are relaxed and uncrowded, the Neva River becomes a wilderness of ice and shiny white snowflakes cover buildings and monuments set against a backdrop of bare trees covered in crystalline frost. In winter many parks are converted into ice skating rinks and skiing is possible outside of the city. Theatre life is very much alive over the winter months, with performances of the Nutcracker being a special Christmas favourite.
Here’s a Russia destination guide tip: If you find yourself in St Petersburg over New Years, the best way to celebrate in this destination with the locals is to head down to Palace Square. You can join in the countdown for the fireworks display before warming up at one of the many bars, clubs and hotels holding parties.
Here is a Russia destination guide Weather Forecast for St. Petersburg.
Highlights of St Petersburg
The State Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage is undoubtedly the jewel in St Petersburg’s cultural crown. One of the world’s greatest collections of ancient and modern art, only the Louvre in Paris and Prado in Madrid rival the Hermitage in terms of worldwide cultural importance. The museum houses some three million individual artworks and artefacts, from Egyptian antiquities to 19th and 20th-century modern art. An incredible assemblage of paintings includes works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Monet. The Hermitage comprises six individual buildings including Winter Palace, with its stunning mint green, gold and white-columned facade and gallery rooms.
St Issacs Cathedral
St Petersburg is home to countless fine cathedrals, most conceived in the baroque and neoclassical styles which you can discover in this Russia destination guide. St Issacs Cathedral is the largest cathedral in St Petersburg, identifiable by its gold-illuminated dome and twelve statues of angels. The cathedral’s history tells an intriguing story of conflict and dissent. The anti-religious Soviet government denounced the Cathedral and converted its interiors into a museum of atheism. In 1937 it was converted into a museum of art, and religious activities resumed after the fall of the Soviets in 1990.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
One of St Petersburg’s most iconic sights is this extraordinarily decorated church marking the site where Tsar Alexander met his untimely death at the hands of bomb-wielding revolutionaries. Although it bears a resemblance to Moscow’s 16th St Basil’s Cathedral, with its intricate mosaics and multi-coloured onion domes, the church is just over a hundred years old.
Opened in 1860, the regal Mariinsky Theatre continues to deliver an impressive program of ballets, concerts and operas. The lavish interior is the epitome of Imperial grandeur. No matter what performance you take in on this historic stage, the experience is sure to make you feel like royalty, at least for a couple of hours.
This grand Imperial estate is located in the handsome town of Pushkin, 25km south of St Petersburg. Amid exquisite parks and gardens, you’ll find the baroque Catherine Palace, a luxurious summer sanctuary surrounded by acres of gardens where remarkable structures like the Marble Bridge, the Dutch Admiralty and the Creaking Pagoda were constructed for her amusement. The estate is also home to Alexander Palace. A fine example of neoclassic architecture, its tumultuous history paints a fascinating portrait of the Romanov family.
With its exquisitely manicured gardens, magnificent fountains and gold sculptures, Peter the Great modelled his sumptuous summer palace on the Baltic Sea on Versailles. It’s living rooms, bedrooms, ballrooms and ceremonial rooms are all extraordinarily beautiful. Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth later extended the park and ordered the construction of the 22km Grand Cascade, featuring a total of three waterfalls, 64 fountains and 37 gilt statues.
St Petersburg’s high street is a 4.5km long royal avenue lined with stately mansions and palaces as well as countless shops, luxury hotels and Gostiny Dyor, the city’s largest department store. Walking the length of the avenue during the day and again at night is highly recommended by the Russia destination guide to take in the atmosphere of this living piece of history and its captivating mixture of old and new.
Bridges and Canals of St Petersburg
A relaxing canal tour is a must-do activity, allowing you to see the sites of St Petersburg and its surrounding suburbs from an entirely different perceptive. A city made up of 42 islands across the Lena River delta, St Petersburg is crisscrossed by 300km of artificial canals, flowing beneath a network of over 800 bridges.
How to Get to St Petersburg
Travel By Plane:
Your every travel need will be touched on by our Russia destination guide. The distance between Moscow and St Petersburg is approximately 700km, making either flying or train travel excellent for travelling between the cities.
Airfares tend to be very inexpensive. There are numerous flights per day and the flight time is around 1.5 hours. However, you’ll have to factor in the time need to get to and from the airports, which are located on the city outskirts.
Most overseas visitors first touchdown in Moscow and then connect to St Petersburg.
There are also direct flights to St Petersburg’s Pulvoko Airport from many international destinations, mostly in Europe, including Paris, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Zurich, Frankfurt, Prague, Helsinki and Stockholm. Direct flights also operate from Shanghai, Beijing, Doha, Dubai and Istanbul and many other international hubs.
Travel By Train:
From Moscow, overland options include daytime high-speed trains such as the Sapsan, which whisks you from Moscow to St Petersburg in about four hours. Ticket prices vary but at the time of writing this Russia destination guide, expect to pay around 2,000 rubles (about $30USD) for an economy seat. Business class costs around twice as much and first class around twice again.
There are also several overnight train services travelling between the two cities. The journey takes around 8 to 9 hours and offers the benefit of saving you a night’s accommodation. A bunk in a third class sleeper carriage is around 2,000 rubles ($30US), while a first class cabin on the luxury Red Arrow train will set you back around 8,800 rubles ($134US)
Train tickets can be purchased at the station, but to be safe, you can purchase them online up to 90 days in advance from RZD, the official website of Russian Railways.
It is safe to say that a journey along the famous Trans-Siberian Railway would be a dream come true for many travellers. Known as the world’s longest single railway journey, a trip on the Trans-Siberian would take you across 10 different time zones in Russia over the span of one week. Starting from the glamorous city of Moscow and ending at Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, the train passes through quaint rural villages, towering mountains and ancient Siberian forests. There are many Trans Siberian stops that can be made en route, each capturing a different aspect of the mysterious Russian soul. To help you decide where to visit, we’ve put together a list of our travellers’ top 13 favourite stopover destinations along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
1. St Petersburg
Peterhof Palace, St Petersburg
While not technically the first real Trans Siberian stops heading west, St. Petersburg is not a city to be left out as it holds many of Russia’s cultural and historical treasures. Founded by Peter the Great as the country’s “window to the West”, the city was designed and built by Europe’s most renown architects to become the most elegant and enchanting metropolis in the world. Visit the magnificent palaces of Petergof, Pavlovsk or Pushkin, admire stunning works of art in the Hermitage Museum and enjoy a ballet performance in the world famous Mariinsky Theatre. There are daily and overnight trains that run from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where the Trans-Siberian Railway begins.
Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Often called “Russia’s soul”, Moscow has captured the hearts of millions with its many famous cultural sights and attractions. The first Trans Siberian stopover is at the Yaroslavl Station in the centre of Moscow. A haven for any art lover, visit the plethora of galleries and museums such as The State Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, where a large collection of modern and historical artworks are showcased. You could also treat yourself to a play in the Bolshoi Theatre, be amazed by the magnificence of the Red Square and the Kremlin, or simply enjoy Moscow’s glitzy nightlife in the countless artsy bars, thriving clubs or vintage pubs. With an endless amount of things to see and do, you will never have a dull day in this stunning city.
Qolşärif Mosque, Kazan
Established on the shimmering banks of River Kazanka and River Volga, the picturesque city of Kazan is a worthwhile detour from the main Trans-Siberian route. Visit the sole surviving Tatar fortress, the mighty Kazan Kremlin Complex. This centuries-old citadel has been declared a world heritage site and serves as a home of sacred sites, various museums and historical buildings erected between the 16th and 19th century. The seamless blend of Muslim and Christian culture within the city makes the capital of Tatarstan republic unique from the rest of Russia in a very special way. Both Russian Orthodox Cathedrals and Mosques can be found side by side within the snow-white walls. Be amazed the ornate designs of theQolşärif Mosque, get lost in the National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan, and stroll through the Millennium Park of Kazan.
Church of All Saints (Church on the Blood), Yekaterinburg
Synonymous with the Romanovs, Yekaterinburg is most famously known as the place where the rule of the Tsars came to a bloody end when Nicholas II and his family were murdered and their bodies dumped. The Ganina Yama monasteries (7 in total to honour each member of the royal family) and the Church on the Blood were constructed to mark the spot where to Romanovs were executed. Present day Yekaterinburg carries a very different vibe and soul compared to its cosmopolitan counterparts of Moscow and St Petersburg. It is here where you can get a taste of real Russia with its many pre-Soviet monuments, beautiful churches and a number of museums. Don’t forget to visit the official marker of the Europe Asia border at Ekaterinburg while at this Trans Siberian attraction, where you can personally straddle two continents.
5. The city of Perm and the Ural Mountains
Previously a closed city due to its arms industry, the city of Perm is now open to both the public and also foreigners. This may not necessarily be the most common Trans Siberian stopover, but is still definitely worth seeing. You’ll have the options of visiting the ballet, opera or theatre as well as their exquisite open-air military museums. Those with a knack for adventure can use the city as a perfect starting point for hiking and rafting expeditions, as Perm is situated at the foot of the modestly high Ural Mountains. A mountain barrier that separates Europe from Asia, the Urals is a unique geographical treasure that holds many secrets. Hike your way through ancient taiga, fight to cross rapid mountain rivers and explore mysterious ice caves. Depending on the season, you also have the option to ski, cycle, horse ride, observe wildlife, and study wild flora.
Stolby Nature Reserve, Krasnoyarsk
Despite the city itself being fairly bland, Krasnoyarsk is a Trans Siberian stopover surrounded by picturesque mountains and lush, wildlife-rich forests. The mighty Enisey River is a sight to see in and of itself, where you can witness the full power of the Siberian river as it rushes through the lands. For an incredible view over the flatlands and the city itself, head south of Krasnoyarsk to Mount Karulnaya. However, the most captivating highlight in the area is the unique Stolby Nature reserve, where a number of towering volcanic pillars can be found scattered throughout the wooded hills. This natural landmark is a popular destination for rock climbing and bouldering enthusiasts due to the large variety of structures to climb, and its breathtaking views at the top of the rocks. Other experiences in Krasnoyarsk include skiing at Bobrovy Log, visiting the zoo at Royev Ruchey, exploring the Krasnoyarsk Regional Museum of Local Lore, and visiting the Paraskeva Pyatnitsa Chapel.
7. Altai Mountains
Uchar Waterfall, Altai Mountains
The Altai Mountains, regarded as Asia’s geographical heart, are a group of hauntingly beautiful and sparsely populated mountains that connect the countries of China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia together. It is the cleanest region of the Russian Federation, meaning that there are no railways or industrial enterprises in the area. Accessible through the city of Barnaul, the landscape is diverse and varied, ranging from grass steppes, taiga and deserts to glaciers, raging rivers, snow-capped mountains and crystal-clear lakes. Altai offers superb opportunities for activities such as hiking, camping, riding and rafting. You can also visit one of the many hot springs around, or relax in a wooden cabin that overlooks the noble Katun river.
Known as the ‘Pearl of Siberia’, Lake Baikal is the most ancient and deepest freshwater lake in the world, and arguably one of the most favourite Trans Siberian stops. A large variety of neo-classical and wooden buildings can be seen dotted around the shoreline, some of them having been decorated by charming ornate fretwork. The waters of Baikal are populated by hundreds of unique species found nowhere else in the world, such as the omul and the beloved Baikal seals. Depending on the season, there are a variety of activities that can be done on the lake itself. In the warmer months, you can kayak, dive, fish or island hop on a cruise to secluded golden-sand beaches. In winter, try your hand at snowmobiling, dog sledding or ice skating across the crystal-clear frozen lake.
Ivolginsky Datsan Monastery, Ulan-Ude
Founded as an old trading post, Ulan-Ude, one of the most famous Trans Siberian stops, is a unique Siberian town full of playful contradictions with the East and the West. It has the title of the centre of Russian Buddhism and also houses the world’s largest bust of Lenin. Buddhist monks in orange robes roam the same streets as Orthodox priests in perfect harmony, and Orthodox churches neighbour with ornate Buddhist temples. An unspoken symbol of Ulan-Ude that every traveller must experience is the Ivolginsky Datsan, a Buddhist monastery that sits just outside the city centre. Surrounded by picturesque mountains, the Datsan symbolises the re-emergence of Buddhism in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Russky Bridge, Vladivostok
The last Trans Siberian stop following the main line, Vladivostok is a sight to see with its mix of rundown infrastructure imposed on top of the powerful natural seaside terrain. Its unique charm is captured through the hilly streets, numerous bays and oak woods surrounding the city. Most of the attractions in Vladivostok are relatively modern, such as its military fort, a submarine that has been transformed into a museum, botanical gardens and the regional ethnographic museum that is sure to intrigue any history-lover. There are also boat tours to nearby islands, hiking, rafting and a Siberian tiger refuge. For those who want to continue their Trans-Siberian journey from here, there’s also an option to catch a ferry over to Japan or South Korea.
Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, Ulaanbaatar
A journey along the Trans-Mongolian Railway will take you to Ulaanbaatar, the relaxed provincial capital of Mongolia. This is a very popular stopover destination among travellers due to Mongolia’s untouched nature, pristine steppes, vast deserts, peculiar nomadic culture and hospitable locals. Top attractions in the city include Gandan Khiid – Mongolia’s largest Buddhist monastery, the monument to Genghis Khan at the Sukhbaatar Square, and the incredible Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan. The Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia is also another favourite, and is known for its extensive dunes, low mountains and rare wildlife such as snow leopards and Bactrian camels. Visit the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park for breathtaking sceneries of wild and unspoiled Mongolia. It is here where you can also go inside the traditional Ger and meet a nomadic family, or even try your hand at horseriding, an everyday part of Mongolian life.
Great Wall of China, Beijing
Travelling along the Trans-Manchurian Railway will get you to Beijing, the modern capital of China. With its rich history, vibrant contemporary art scene, excellent dining and varied nightlife, this interesting mix of ancient and modern makes Beijing a must-visit destination. There are plenty of attractions to visit, such as Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world that also plays host to chairman Mao’s great mausoleum. Staring out across the square above the Gate of Heavenly Peace is the famous Technicolour portrait of Mao. It is through these gates where you can enter the Forbidden City. Other sights include the UNESCO listed Great Wall of China, the Summer Palace lake and pavilions, the Temple of Heaven – arguably one of China’s most beautiful buildings, and Beijing’s many winding Hutongs which still hold much of the city’s charm.
Harbin Ice and Lantern Festival
Although located in China, Harbin is a testament to Russian influence in Manchuria, with a large majority of the city-centre being built by rich Russian émigrés who fled the Russian Revolution in 1917. The result is a thoroughly Chinese city with a pedestrianised main street similar to one of St Petersburg’s grander boulevards, lined with belle-epoque-style shopping galleries, restaurants, and other Russian-built ventures. The standout architectural feature is the stunning St. Sophia Orthodox church with its green domes and Neo-Byzantine features. However, the biggest reason to visit Harbin is for the annual Ice and Lantern Festival in the winter, when professional ice sculptors gather together to compete and transform the city into a winter wonderland. Monumental sculptures made from blocks of ice and deftly carved snow sculptures take over Harbin and draw visitors from all around the globe.
The Trans Siberian Railway journey is easily one of the most talked-about train journeys in the world, and arguably the best way to experience Russia‘s diverse landscapes. From the classical grandeur of the great cities to rural fairytale villages, the scenery slowly transforms to reveal the pristine wilderness of the Ural Mountains, the forests of Krasnoyarsk and the awe-inspiring Lake Baikal. Here is your very own Trans Siberian Railway guide.
We understand that it can be daunting to plan this journey of mammoth proportions, as there are a lot of factors to take into consideration and plan. That is why we have sourced upon the most up-to-date and relevant information to present you with this ultimate Trans Siberian Guide.
In this Trans Siberian Guide, you will find everything you will need to know about planning the ultimate Trans Siberian Railway experience. We cover the train routes and schedules, recommend travellers favourite stopover destinations, guide you through getting your Russian visas and train tickets, show you what life is like on board the train, share travel tips about money and safety, and many more. Enjoy!
1. What is the Trans Siberian?
The Trans Siberian – A Railway, Not a Train
Once praised as ‘the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars’, the Trans Siberian Railway remains one of life’s greatest travel experiences. With its longest line covering 9,286km from the Russian capital of Moscow to remote Vladivostok in the Far East, it is the world’s longest single railway journey. Taking 7 days to complete and spanning over 10 different time zones, it runs through some of Russia’s most geographically challenging, yet culturally-rich and scenically splendid regions.
The Trans Siberian is not a tourist line – it is a real, working railway that carries huge amounts of freight and passenger traffic. Its classic route runs through Russia from end to end but also connects to Mongolia and China with its Trans Mongolian and Trans Manchurian lines. Many different trains can operate along the Trans-Siberian railway, from regular lines to luxury trains operated by private companies.
With an average speed of around 60km/h, these Trans Siberian services are not for travellers in a hurry. However, with the ever-changing scenery and diverse group of passengers to interact with, your Trans Siberian trip will be anything but dull. Whether you decide to experience the Trans Siberian route nonstop, or – as we’d strongly recommend – hop on and off the train at the many fascinating destinations en route, we can guarantee that it will be a journey to remember for the rest of your life.
Trans Siberian History
In the late 19th century, Japan, Britain and America all managed to gain footholds along the Chinese coast as bases for their trade with China and the Orient. In an attempt to secure their foothold on the East as well as the vast expanses of Siberia, the Emperor of Russia approved a plan for a transcontinental line to link the Russian capital of Moscow with Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, as this was the only year-round ice-free port on Russian territory. Construction began on May 1891 under the supervision of Tsar Alexander III, his son and a handful of personally chosen Russian Government Ministers. However, while construction of the railway started mainly primarily due to economic reasons, it soon turned into a matter of national pride.
The building of the railway was nothing short of challenging. Place yourself back in time and imagine the harsh environments that the Trans Siberian workforce faced. Unforgiving conditions of rugged ground and the Earth’s crumbling state, obstructed areas such as the large rivers and the epic lakes in the Baikal region to navigate, harsh climates to endure and towering mountains to be driven apart for the construction of the railway tunnels, not forgetting the bridges that needed to be constructed with the strength to withstand trains crossing over the gorges of the mountain rivers. The large cost to build the railway was another problem, alongside the limited supply of manpower. Many soldiers and exiled prisoners played the role of common workers during this task.
Despite its many difficulties, the railway was officially finished in 1916, where a complete journey could be made non-stop from Moscow to Vladivostok. The Trans-Siberian significantly influenced Russia’s economic growth and improved their trade, as well as functioned as a turning point for Siberia, making it more accessible. To this day, it continues to affect Russia’s history and plays a vital role in both trade and tourism.
2. Trans Siberian Guide – Routes & Schedules
Before booking your train tickets, you will first have to decide on what route to take.
The Trans-Siberian Railway actually covers three main routes across Siberia: The Trans-Siberian (red line), the Trans-Manchurian (blue line) and the Trans-Mongolian (yellow line). All three of these routes follow the same main-line for the first 4 days from Moscow to Ulan-Ude before splitting off.
Routes can be further extended if the journey is not long enough for you. For example, instead of beginning or ending in Moscow, you can choose to do so from St. Petersburg. You can also travel to Vietnam from Beijing, or catch a ferry to Japan after reaching Vladivostok.
a. Classic Trans-Siberian Railway Route
Considered as the “true” Trans-Siberian, this traditional route is the longest of the Trans-Siberian routes, taking a grand total of seven days to complete without stopovers. It crosses the vast depths of Siberia, passing the mighty Altai Mountains and iconic Lake Baikal before finally arriving at Vladivostok, Russia’s easternmost city. From here, you have the option of extending your journey by catching a ferry over to Japan or South Korea, which leave every week.
The trains following this route are all Russian operated and run every other day with first, second and third-class coaches available. You are only required to have a Russian visa for this journey.
b. Trans-Manchurian Railway Route
Stretching over 8,986 kilometres, this route takes you directly from Moscow to Beijing, China. However, it misses out on the beloved Mongolian landscape, making it a much less popular route to take. The trains only cross one border between Russia and China, passing the steppes and spectacular Da Hinggan Ling Mountains before arriving in Beijing. Without stopovers, this journey can be completed in a little over 6 days and is perfect for those travelling in winter as you will have the opportunity to stop at the spectacular Harbin Ice & Snow Festival.
Trains along this route are generally Russian operated and run weekly using first and second-class coaches. You will be required to have a Russian and Chinese visa for this trip.
c. Trans-Mongolian Railway Route
Travellers rate this as by far the most interesting route to take along the Trans-Siberian. Despite being the shortest of the 3 rail routes (7,621 kilometres) that can be completed in just over 5 days, the Trans-Mongolian route offers the most diverse scenery. The trains cross Siberia and provide a spectacular journey along Mongolia’s grass steppes, through the eastern Gobi Desert and fertile rice-fields of China, with glimpses of the Great Wall, before ending in Beijing.
Trains on this route are Chinese operated and have been known to be of slightly better quality than their Russian counterparts. They run once a week and only offer first and second-class coaches. You will need a Russian, Chinese and Mongolian visa for this journey.
There are hundreds of trains that run across Russia and the Trans-Siberian network all year round, each with varying frequencies and departure times. Consequently, choosing a train that matches up to your itinerary can be a challenge without the right tools.
We highly recommend using our train schedule to plan your Trans-Siberian journey. It is a live tool that provides up-to-date information on train schedules between any two cities within a selected date. Furthermore, it also identifies which train classes travel on a specific date and provides detailed route information for each stop that the train makes.
Note: While the schedule data is read “live” directly from the railway’s database and for planning purposes can be considered to be the published future schedule, they do not confirm train schedules more than 90 days in advance of departure.
3. Trans-Siberian Railway Trains
There are two ways in which you can experience the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway: through private luxury trains or regular (economy) trains.
Due to high levels of tourist attraction along the Trans-Siberian route, there are now a handful of private travel companies that organise trips by private luxury trains. Departing on a limited number of dates in a year, these travel packages offer a unique and memorable exploration of mysterious Russia for travellers all around the world.
Described as a classic ‘cruise on wheels’, travelling the Trans-Siberian on a private luxury train is a fantastic way to experience Russia’s diverse cultures and cinematic landscapes. As one of the safest, most comfortable and enriching form of railway travels, these trains combine first-class customer service with a romantic discovery of the world’s most remarkable destinations with a view that constantly changes.
While prices are on the higher side of the spectrum, you are guaranteed to receive the full 5-star package. A reservation will include a private bedroom and bathroom compartment, excursions that are pre-organised, food service in a luxurious restaurant wagon and many more.
Travelling the Trans-Siberian railway by regular trains operated by the Russian National Railway Company (RZD) is the most common option chosen by tourists each year, mainly due to it being the more economical choice and it allows for more interaction with the locals. However, while some of these trains do offer first-class wagons and good restaurant service, they do not reach the same level of luxury as the private trains.
There are two ways in which you can complete the route by regular trains:
A non-stop route: This gets you from point A to point B in the least amount of time as the stops last no more than a few minutes, and only requires you to buy one train ticket. However, it also means that you will be sleeping every day on the train, which can get tedious, and you won’t be able to explore the major cities en route.
A route with one or more stopovers: The recommended option for those who enjoy sightseeing, plus it is the more comfortable way to travel. You can spend a night or two in a hotel at any one of the many beautiful destinations and continue your journey the next day on another train. Just bear in mind that you will need to buy separate tickets for each journey combining different trains.
Deciding on a Class
There are 3 different classes to choose from, those of which being:
First class “spalny vagon”: These are the most expensive compartments that often sell out the fastest. Each cabin is limited to 2 people, with 9 compartments per coach. The 2 beds turn into seats during the day, and they offer slightly better amenities such as an armchair and access to a shower. The main advantage of a first-class cabin is the extra storage space and the privacy it provides.
Second class “Kupe”: These cabins typically sleep 4 people, with 9 compartments per coach. They have two beds above and two below, and there are 2 washrooms and toilets (but no showers) at each end of the corridor. This is the more economical option, but you will need to share a compartment with strangers if you are not travelling in a group of four (which is not necessarily a bad thing!).
Third class “platskartny vagon” : Unlike first and second class that have closed compartments, the third class is an open-plan dormitory car with 54 bunks per coach. There are no compartments or divider curtains and are usually used by those making a short trip or seeking the most economical ride without caring much for comfort.
First and second class carriages mostly have the same setup, the only difference being the number of berths per carriage. During winter, all the carriages are heated so it is not uncommon to see passengers in t-shirts and trackies during most of the journey. In summer, there is an effective jet air cooling system that operates when the train is moving. Some trains also have air conditioning in first class and at times the second class.
A compartment will typically have 2 or 4 berths depending on your class, with the two lower berths turning into seats during the day. They also lift-up for space to fit 2 large suitcases under each one. At ceiling level, there is an ever larger luggage-bay with enough space to 4-5 large suitcases. There is also a small-fold out shelf big enough for small handbags, some hooks to hang your coats and a small table by the window.
Toilets and Showers
There are two washrooms at the two ends of every carriage with a western-style toilet and a sink. They are not the most glamorous of areas, but are kept clean by your carriage attendant. Keep in mind that showers are only provided for those in first-class carriages, so second and third class ticket holders should bring wet wipes to freshen up from time to time. Washrooms will be closed and locked 30 minutes before the train pulls up to a station and 30 minutes after it departs, so make sure to time your bathroom breaks around this.
4. Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Go
The Trans-Siberian Railway operates all year round, but the experience differs slightly depending on the time of year.
Many foreign tourists tend to travel during spring and summer as this is when the days are the longest, the weather is at its warmest and the trains carry a more bustling, sociable atmosphere. Just be sure to book well in advance if you’re planning a trip around this time as tickets sell out quicker.
On the other hand, travelling between November and April will give you a chance to experience Russia in all its stark, beautiful and enchanting winter splendour. The trains are well heated throughout winter, making it a warm and cozy journey, tickets tend to be less expensive and there won’t be as many foreign tourists around. However, the hours of daylight will be shorter and you’ll need to wrap up well when you get off for a stroll at the station stops.
Deciding Your Departure and Final Destination
You can travel the Trans-Siberian Railway either eastbound or westbound. Most travellers tend to begin their journey west in Moscow and travel east. However, if you are after a more authentic experience and want to interact with locals or improve your Russian skills, we would recommend you consider departing from Vladivostok or Beijing and head west from there. You will be more likely to encounter fewer tourists and instead, share the train with locals on the way home from work.
Places to Stopover
Travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway provides you with a wealth of opportunities to visit some of the most famous, unusual and spectacularly beautiful destinations in Russia. Some of the stations themselves are incredibly impressive, from the imposing Soviet behemoth of Novosibirsk station to Sludyanka station near Lake Baikal – the only railway station in the world to be built entirely of marble. Some of the most popular stopping off points for travellers are Kazan, the city of Yekaterinburg with its fascinating Tsarist history, Irkutsk, the main gateway to Lake Baikal, and Ulan-Ude, Siberia’s frontier bastion of Buddhist Mongol culture. Click here to read about the top 13 Trans-Siberian Railway stops every traveller needs to visit.
Note: Stopovers must be organised in advance. Reservations are required for all trains so you cannot decide to hop off one train and catch another without the necessary ticket.
Transsiberian Dream - 7.923 km from Beijing to Moscow - YouTube
5. How to Book Your Trans-Siberian Tickets
Russian Invitation Documents & Visas
Before applying for a Russian visa, you will need a letter of invitation from your travel agency setting out confirmed travel and accommodation arrangements for your entire stay in Russia or (for independent travellers) an accommodation voucher issued by your hotel(s) showing confirmed accommodation for each and every night you plan to spend in Russia. Alternatively, some travel agencies can sell you the necessary visa support for a small fee, which allows you to get a visa without any genuine hotel bookings, so you can travel around freely just as you would in any other country, buying tickets and finding hotels as you go.
2 most common types of Visas:
Tourist visa – The easiest and least expensive type of visa to get, making it ideal for tourists. It allows for a period up to 30 days in Russia and has single-entry or double-entry only.
Business visa– Can be used for those who require a longer stay, but is more expensive. It can be valid from 1 to 12 months and allows for single-, double- or multiple-entry.
Note: Visas are only issued 3 months or less before your intended date of entry to Russia, but cannot be obtained at the border so an application must be made in advance.
Be very careful with the dates of entry and exit on your visa. Your date of entry into Russia is the date you physically enter Russian territory, in other words, the date your train rolls across the frontier, not the date you reach Moscow, which is irrelevant. Similarly, your date of exit is the date you physically leave Russian territory. Double-check train times to see when it reaches the frontier, and double-check that the embassy has given you the right dates when you get your passport back with the visa.
Applications for a Chinese visa should be done at least 1 month in advance before your departure date, but less than 3 months before entering China. For more information on obtaining a Chinese visa, visit: Visa for China
Nationals from a select few countries have been exempted from requiring a visa to enter Mongolia, just be sure to check the allowed duration of stay. For more information, visit: Mongolia Visa
Booking Trans-Siberian Railway Tickets
There are many ways to go about purchasing your Trans-Siberian Railway train tickets, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Keep in mind that tickets can be purchased no earlier than 90 days in advance.
1. Buy tickets at a train station
This would be for the more adventurous travellers with lots of time and want a flexible itinerary, and/or for those travelling on a tight budget. It is the cheapest option as there are no extra booking fees, but it is also the riskiest because trains or types of compartments that you want to take, especially during high season, might be fully booked.
Getting a ticket for internal journeys within Russia is not usually that difficult, as long as you can be flexible on the exact departure date, time and class of travel. However, demand usually..