A nation as large, varied and complex as Russia can be visited in many different ways: from visits to the two main capitals, Moscow or St. Petersburg, excursions to more rural areas such as the cities of the Golden Ring or Veliky Novgorod or doing the Trans-Siberian route by train. In this post I will explain you the main available options when visiting Russia, depending on the time you have.
In Russia there are 3 established tourist routes that are visited by the majority of tourists and who enjoy a good infrastructure for tourism (hotels, restaurants and other tourist services):
These three routes can be combined. For example, you can visit Moscow and also some of the cities of the Golden Ring or begin doing the Trans-Siberian route from Saint Petersburg.
The rest of tourist destinations are already at a great distance, like Kamchatka or Altai, attractive destinations but for the more adventurous travelers.
Depending on the days you have, your budget and your preferences, you can plan the most diverse itineraries.
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1. The two major capitals: Moscow and St. Petersburg
The most classic itinerary for all those who visit Russia for the first time is the one that combines the two main Russian capitals: Moscow and St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is the most “European” of the two and you can find there one of the most famous museums in the world, the Hermitage, while Moscow is a cosmopolitan city that combines history, culture and a great heritage of the Soviet era, whose visit is always starts from Red Square.
If you have 7-10 days…
The first thing will be to decide the time of the year in which you are going to travel. To visit both capitals with peace of mind, it’s ideal if you have around 7-10 days. For example, you can decide to make a trip to Russia from July 21 to July 30, 2017 (10 days and 9 nights):
- From July 21 to July 25, 2017 (4 nights): stay in Moscow.
- July 25, 2017 (1 night): overnight train transfer from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
- From July 26 to July 30, 2017 (4 nights): stay in St. Petersburg.
To the usual question of how many days can be spent in Moscow and how many in St. Petersburg, I would say that spending half a day in each city is ideal, though this will depend on each one’s preferences.
While Moscow is an immense city with plenty of places to visit, St. Petersburg is a not-so-large city, but it’s worth visiting the nearby cities to visit the Peterhof Gardens or Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin.
In Moscow, it is also well worth to spend one day to make a trip to one of the cities of the Golden Ring of Russia and discover the most rural Russia. Also, on the journey between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is also well worth to visit the old town of Veliky Novgorod. Of course, doing these visits means having more days of travel.
- What to see and do in Moscow in 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 days
- What to see and do in St. Petersburg in 1, 2, 3 or 4 days
- Travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg: which is the best way?
If you have 2-4 days…
If you only have a weekend (around 2 to 4 days), I recommend to visit only one of the two main cities, either Moscow or St. Petersburg. There will be time to visit the other capital on a future trip, since you will lose a lot of time going from one destination to another. However, this is a decision that will depend on each one.
If you are traveling with a cruise that will be two or three days in the port of St. Petersburg, it’s not recommended to visit Moscow since you will lose a lot of time. Take advantage of these days to visit the Hermitage, the Peterhof or Catherine Palace.
If you only have a few hours…
If you are going to take a multi-hour plane stopover in Moscow and want to see Red Square and its surroundings, it is convenient to know that it takes at least 7-8 hours, since the transfer from the airport to the city centre (and return) can take quite a while, depending on the transportation you use and traffic. In this case, you will have to request a transit visa.
2. Trans-Siberian Route
The Trans-Siberian is a railway route (not a train) that runs through Russia from end to end, but it also connects to Mongolia and China. In this route very different trains can circulate, both regular lines and luxury trains operated by private companies.
The main route, opened in 1904, linked Moscow with Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast after traveling 9,288 kilometers (the red line on the map below). The line crosses 8 time zones and it requires 7 days of travel, but it’s usually to do so with stops in major cities.
The Trans-Siberian also has two other branches:
- The Trans-Mongolian (purple line on map). It is the most popular route and goes from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia and its capital.
- The Trans-Manchurian (yellow line). It also makes the journey from Moscow to Beijing but without going through Mongolia.
An example of a route with the Trans Mongolian would mean a trip of 18 days and 17 nights (12 in hotel and 5 in train) visiting the following cities:
- Moscow: 3 nights to visit the city (Red Square, Kremlin, the Mausoleum of Lenin, etc.).
- Yekaterinburg: 1 night (city center, Cathedral of the Spilled Blood or the obelisk that marks the border between Europe and Asia).
- Novosibirsk: 1 night (Lenin square, opera house or railway museum)
- Irkutsk: minimum 2 nights (to visit the surroundings of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world and declared as World Heritage by UNESCO)
- Ulan-Ude: 1 night (Datsan Rinpoche Bagsha, the Lenin monument)
- Ulaanbaatar: minimum 2 nights (City Center, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Genghis Khan Statue Complex, the Naadam Festival from July 11 to July 13)
- Beijing: 2 nights (Great Wall of China, Palace Museum in Forbidden City, Summer Palace, etc.)
These routes can be extended further. For example, instead of beginning (or ending) in Moscow, you can choose to do from St. Petersburg. From Beijing you can also go to Vietnam, or from Vladivostok you can catch a ferry to go to Japan or Korea. The possibilities are varied. Everything depends on the time and budget you have.
Routes can also be shortened. Depending on the time you have can do only the Moscow-Irkutsk route or extend it to Ulan Bator. You can also leave Beijing and end in Irkutsk.
3. The Golden Ring of Russia
The Golden Ring of Russia is an itinerary that runs along a series of cities of tourist interest, located on the northeast of Moscow, in which there are a set of medieval towns with monasteries, churches, cathedrals and kremlins, that collect around a thousand years of Russian Orthodox history.
Some of these cities are located near Moscow and are a good place to make a 1 day getaway to more rural Russia. Other cities are further away and its visit requires more time (spend the night or a weekend).
By visiting the cities of the Golden Ring you will discover the most rural and remote part of Russia, away from the great city that is Moscow, as well as spectacular kremlins, churches and monasteries, some of them declared as World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
But visiting all the cities of the Golden Ring can take a week. If you want to make a route that begins and finishes in Moscow and that travels the main cities of the Golden Ring, then the route that you have to do is about 700 kilometers.
You should take into account that the main tourist attraction of this route are the churches, monasteries, icons and kremlins, so if this is a subject that you like you will enjoy visiting the different cities; however, if this isn’t your topic, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by these monuments with a view of a couple of cities.
Have you done any of these routes? What has been your experience?
I am currently planning a family trip to Russia and was thinking of departing London on 24 Dec 2017 and starting in St Petersburg. Based on your proposed trip itineraries I had thought 4 nights in St Petersburg and then catching the high speed Sapsan train to Moscow on 28 December with another 4 nights. This would include New Year’s Eve in Moscow possibly flying out of Russia from Moscow on the first or second of January. Will the major tourist attractions be open over this period. My daughter particularly wants to goto GUM. Many thanks Mary-Ann (Australia).
Yes, also at this time some attractions are free.