What should I see and do in Russia?Good question, and difficult to answer! It really depends on where you will be in Russia, and when, and how long :)
Winter and summer are quite different of course, since much of Russia is very cold and snowy during the winter, but can be very warm or even hot in the summer. Also, depending on how far north you will be, the length of the days might be very different. In St. Petersburg, in the middle of the summer, they have what is called "White Nights" - where the days are so long that the sun hardly sets at all. These weeks are full of celebrations and people stay out very late, even children.
On the other hand, in winter there is a special magic about visiting Russia and seeing the beautiful old churches covered in snow. New Years is also a special time of celebration, and you will see many streets decorated with strings of lights.
Then there is the question of the size of Russia - in a word, it's huge! If you are there for a short time, most people stick to the biggest cities in the European part of Russia - Moscow and St. Petersburg. In Moscow, many of the 'must see' sights are near the Kremlin and Red Square. There you can see the beautiful church St. Basils (and also go inside). You can tour the inside of the Kremlin fortress, which is both the active seat of government and a beautiful historic collection of old churches. They also have a museum there, for an extra ticket price, where you can see famous jewels and crowns of the royalty of the past. Near Red Square you can also see the Bolshoi Theatre, which is a beautiful building and also home to some of the best ballet in the world.
In St. Petersburg, the big 'must see' attraction would probably be the Hermitage Museum. Once the Winter Palace of the last Tsar's family, now it's an enourmous museum full of art. It takes ages to walk through the whole thing, and it's hard to decide which to pay more attention to - the paintings or the rooms themselves. It's also nicely situated right on the Neva River, which in itself is beautiful. In the summer, at night, you can see the bridges go up to let ships through - though make sure you're not caught on the opposite side from where you are staying, or it will be a long night out. You can also see St. Isaac's Cathedral, and take the stairs to the top for a great view of the city. Across the Neva, you can see the Peter and Paul Fortress, the oldest part of the city. There are many great theatres and ballets here too, the most famous being the Mariinsky Theatre. If you're interested in Russian literature, there are many house museums where famous writers lived, including Pushkin and Dostoevsky.
If you have a little bit more time, it's not hard to get to one of the old Golden Ring towns, to see something different from the big cities. Suzdal is often considered the prettiest of these old medieval Russian towns, which many of the churches and monasteries preserved. (Several even have hotels within their walls, where you can take a quiet retreat in a beautiful old setting.) There isn't a lot to do there, besides walk around old churches and quiet streets or rivers, but it's a nice change of pace from the busies cities.
Here's the thing - if you have a LOT more time, there is a lot more you can do or see. Depending on what direction you choose to go (assuming you are starting in Europe)...
North? Check out the spectacular wooden churches on Kizhi Island, or go even further north to Solovetsky Island, just below the arctic circle, with amazing nature to explore as well as beautiful monasteries and a tragic past from Stalin's GULAG era.
South? Check out the colossal statue of Mother Russia in Volgograd, or see the splendid mountains of the Caucuses, or enjoy the summer resorts like Sochi where the recent Olympics were held.
Or East? This is a big one. You could go see Yekaterinburg, which is about 20 hours by train from Moscow (a nice chance to get a taste of rail travel). The town is right on the edge of Europe, and it's easy to arrange a tour to the Europe/Asia border. This is also where the last Tsar and his family were murdered, and there are many monuments to them. If you're going further east, Siberia has insane amounts of phenomenal nature to explore. The true "must see" here isLake Baikal - the oldest and deepest lake in the world - and the region surrounding the lake itself. There are great areas around there to camp or stay in cozy little cottages, and explore the amazing wildness of the terrain. You can also travel easily from there to either China or Mongolia, or continue East to Vladivostok and on to Japan by ferry. Tons of options!
Long answer, but there really is a huge variety of places to check out, depending on where you are and how far afield you want to go, and no matter whether you're there for a short time or long time, there's plenty to see. Whatever the nature of your trip, enjoy! :)
I've been living and travelling in Russia for more than 20 years now, and I look at the question this way - don't just go see the most popular stuff (most of which is great), go see the stuff that makes Russia special.
Russia is special for a lot of reasons, and they're all worth exploring.
I like to start with Russia's ancient character, with places like St. Basil's Cathedral and Kolomenskoye that instantly bring us back to the Middle Ages. Built in the era of Ivan the Terrible, you get a chance to see just how close modern Russia is tied to its ancient past. St. Basil's was built to commemorate Ivan IV's victory at Kazan, Kolomenskoye has a church that was built to celebrate his birth. The walls and towers of the Kremlin were largely as you see them now when Columbus first met Queen Isabella. And inside the Kremlin, the same churches that saw the coronations, marriages and funerals of the Tsars still stand next to the bell tower that rang to warn all of Moscow about invading Tatars, Poles, Frenchmen and Nazis and later rang to celebrate Russia's victories against those foes.
Russia is also very interested in death, and those who have gone before. Lenin's tomb on Red Square (and the dozens of Soviet leaders and heroes buried behind it) is the best known example, but every town has graveyards that people visit today. Moscow's Novodevichy Convent cemetery and St. Petersburg's Alexander Nevsky cemetery have elaborate monuments to Russia's greatest leaders in the military, civil service and the arts and sciences, and nearly every apartment building has a historical marker about someone who once lived there. Even small towns revere their dead - one of the great lines of World War II spoke to the duty of men from small villages to fight for the men buried in the graves there.
Russia's immense collective wealth and power is another interesting thing to look at. The vast majority of Russians over the centuries have been dirt poor, but the broad expanse of the Empire has held such incredible wealth that places like the Kremlin Armory and St. Petersburg were built. There are many great art collections and museums around the world, but none that compete with what the Russians have. The Kremlin Armory has an incredible collection of crown jewels and possessions of the Tsars, along with more German, French and English court riches than those nations possess today. The Hermitage has more pieces by more of history's top artists than any two great galleries in London, Paris or Washington. Cathedrals and monasteries across the Empire are awe-inspiringly beautiful. And these cities themselves have broad avenues, beautiful parks, subway systems, universities, theaters and concert halls that are the envy of the world. Average Russians have never been wealthy, and their leaders frequently mis-managed their strength and resources, but many of the the accomplishments of the state and the church over the last 500 years stand as impressive monuments today.
Russia's national strength is worth exploring. This is different from their wealth and power, I like to describe it as more of a product of what Russia has accomplished when they've had to. The World War II sites and memorials are a great example of this - the Soviet Union was overrun by a far more advanced Nazi army, but eventually everyone came together to transform the nation and win the war. Sites dedicated to beating Napoleon and the incredible development spurred by Peter the Great to build St. Petersburg and beat the Swedes in the Great Northern War are also great to see and all the more powerful when you realize just what had to be done to build them, and how quickly it had to happen. This is an enormous source of pride for Russians today, and constant history lessons drive the point home.
Pyotr Chadaev, a 19th Century Russian philosopher and raconteur, famously said that "in Moscow, every foreigner is taken to look at the great cannon and the great bell - the cannon which cannot be fired and the bell which fell down before it was rung. It is an amazing town in which the objects of interest are distinguished by their absurdity..." This absurdity is frequently the best thing about a visit to Russia. The circuses have acts you'd never see at home, like trained walruses, horses on ice skates and bears that play hockey and ride motorcycles - and you can get a picture taken hugging a live tiger in the hallway (I'm not making that up). Ice cream is MORE popular in the wintertime, and it's great. Central Asian and Caucasian men cook plov and roast meat at the drop of a hat, frequently in times and places that wouldn't seem appropriate for a barbecue, and it's great. If you let go of your expectations and look to what the locals think is good, or important, or fun, you're sure to have a great time.
Go enjoy Russia. It's different.
Generally it has pretty much the same kinds of attractions as most countries.
1. Historic monuments, historic buildings, open air museums and other sightseeing - this is prominent in most historic cities in European Russia. Moscow and St. Petersburg are famous for this, and with a good reason, but cities of the so-called Golden Ring have a lot of historic places to see, and many complex bus tours are availible, some of them extending to several days with hotel stays and visiting all of the most prominent destinations.
2. Cultural sites like museums, theatre and opera are numerous. Moscow and SPB have a lot of high-profile museums like the Hermitage, which is one of the world's most prominent fine arts museums, or State Historic museum in Moscow. There are enough of them for you to spend years inside, and this is not an overstatement.
Many Russian theaters like the Bolshoi theater are also highly renowned, but as far as I have heard booking tickets to the most popular ones is troublesome for foreigners (and for Russians as well - but at least they are able to be physically present at the ticket offices which is still required), so you better plan these way in advance.
3. Many regions have cultural shows and festivals dealing with their local culture, as well as historic reconstruction sites. These are a great way to experience the cultural diversity of Russia, although they are spread thin and you will not likely be able to visit many of them due to sheer distance. Many of these are located around the Golden Ring region, I know of many similar projects in Tatarstan region and so on.
4. Open air tourism/hiking/boating - I'm not sure what the options for planned hikes for foreigners are, but there are several businesses offering such guided trips for Russians. The scenery is nice and it's not hard to find some hidden gems unspoiled by civilization even in European Russia not far from large cities (although like 95% of Russian territory is 'unspoiled by civilization', I would not recommend trying this in Siberia). However, be mindful of the seasons - open air travel is readily availible only in summer, as most of the year is mud season.
5. Extreme tourism - there are plenty of opportunities for this ranging from suitable for children to 'you will not survive this' level. Popular destinations include mountaineering in Caucasus, beach resorts, skiing sites and rafting around Sochi area, rafting and mountaineering in Siberia, theUrals and Far East.
The problem is, the prices on many such attractions are inadequately high, as are the amounts of preparation and paperwork required. Many areas are state-protected natural reserves that require permits to enter, others are only availible by helicopter that you will have to hire for exorbitant prices and so on. This is, as far as I've heard, a huge problem in northern Siberia and Kamchatka regions, and is also hugely constrained by weather and seasons. Although I think that if you can tackle these kinds of extreme sports you will manage the details.
In the end, I'm pretty sure that Russia offers almost every kind of touristic destination outside of some tropical sea adventures like surfing. You should only be wary of the infamous Russian service and Russian prices, both of which are unpredictable.
As the largest country in the world, Russia offers a huge variety of possibilities of travel experiences- from treks up the slopes of glacier to the long strolls along the shoreline of earth's oldest lake. Apart from natural wonders like this, there are historical sites and cultural activities as well that you can be a part of. Whether you are exploring the grounds of Moscow's Kremlin or the steppes of Mongolia- an excursion to Russia will not something you are likely to forget.
Here are some top attractions that you can visit on your vacation to Russia –
St. Basil's Cathedral
Saint Basil's Cathedral was created somewhere between the year 1554 and 1561 and is located in the heart of Moscow. It has been on the number one spot as the most visited tourist attractions in Russia. While the building's interior is just as beautiful, the main attraction of the Cathedral is its unique architecture that attracts most tourists visiting the Saint Basil's Cathedral. The cathedral was designed to resemble the shape of bonfire in a full-flame- this is the reason that the architecture is not only distinctive to the period in which it was built but to any subsequent period. There are no other buildings resembling quite like the famous Saint Basil's Cathedral.
Located in Karelia- the region in the northwestern Russia that shares the border with Finland and the White Sea, Kizhi Island is best known for its incredible open-air museum. The residents here have lived in the region since the 13th century- in a mix between the cultures of the East and the West. The museum has a collection which contains a 120-foot-high Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior- a structure which was made famous by its distinctive feature of 22 domes.
Created in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is a gigantic museum of art and culture presenting the highlights of a collection of over 3 million items spanning the globe. The assortments occupy a huge complex of six historic structures including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors.
One of the must-see attractions while visiting Russia is the Kremlin in Moscow. Not only is it home to the country's top governmental offices, the walled enclosure also contains four cathedrals built in the 15th and 16th century as well as several notable museums. The 250-acre ground also includes the Armoury- which is filled with numerous royal treasures of the history. It also includes the Diamond Fund exhibition-which houses a collection of jewellery. Amongst them is the famous 190-carat diamond given to the Catherine the Great.
Suzdal was once the capital of several of Russian principalities. It is known as the jewel of Russia's "Golden Ring"- which were ancient cities that the country has preserved as living museums of Russia's cultural past. Those who wish to experience the best of what Russia has to offer in architecture – full of onion-dome headed kremlins and cathedrals and monasteries should visit Suzdal. This historic place dates back to 1024, with entire city being like an open-air museum that takes visitors back in time.
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Well, most of all it's because of attractions, which are mainly situated in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. I don't know so much about Moscow attractions and tourist destinations, but here in Saint-Petrsburg, tourists prefer to visit places, such as Hermitage museum, the largest museum in Russia. Have a look, this is one of the most beautiful rooms of Hermitage complex - Pavillion Room in Small Hermitage:
Have you seen a bear on a bike with balalaika in your country?))
Maybe you'll be lucky and see some meteorit in Chelyabinsk?
How about a glass of vodka in early morning?
Can you see tanks in your country on a street?
Well, it's worth visiting Russia just to check such myths!
Secondly, life in Russia is different in some aspects than life in other countries. The same about people. You can try to learn mysterious Russian soul)
As for me, it's interesting to check all the horror stories by West propaganda about Russia. But lets leave policy out of the question scope.
Our girls are the most beautiful in the world!
How about party? There are lots of cheap and divers possibilities for that!
And, finally, Russian culture monuments!