From the colourful, onion domes of Red Square in Moscow, the treasures of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to the frozen landscape of Siberia, Russia exerts a strong pull on the imagination.
This vast, vast country bridges two continents (Europe and Asia) and has 11 time zones stretching from Kaliningrad in the West to Ratmanov Island in the Bering Strait in the east.
Moscow is its jewel and capital city, but there are more reasons to visit Russia than to see the Kremlin, Red Square, or experience its hedonistic clubs – even if cheap flights to Russia have become more plentiful in recent years. St Petersburg was capital of the Russian Empire for more than 200 years until the revolution in 1917. Its cityscape is magnificent, its public buildings awe-inspiring, and its treasures straight out of a fairytale.
Away from the man-made wonders, there are more than 30 national parks, skiing and snowboarding at Mount Cheget and Mount Elbrus and the Lapland Biosphere Reserve in Murmansk, which is home to reindeer, elks, brown bears and wolves.
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The largest country in the world, Russia has several different climates. About 65 per cent of it is under permafrost, but in the most populated areas such as Moscow and St Petersburg there is a continental climate – hot summers and very cold winters with lots and lots of snow. Along the Black Sea coast, in Sochi, a humid subtropical climate holds sway – mild winters and hot summers. Northern European Russia and Siberia has a subarctic climate and along the Arctic Ocean shore (and islands) the climate is polar.
Moscow and St Petersburg are two of the most popular tourist destinations and they are “visitable” for much of the year. The early summer (May and June) has the festivals, exhibitions, carnivals and concerts; autumn (September) is a great time to visit for the foliage; and late winter (January and February) is when these cities are covered by thick falls of snow. Moscow’s temperatures can range between -30 to 30 degrees; St Petersburg’s average winter temperature is about -10 degrees and summer highs are about 25 degrees.
St Petersburg (and other northern cities such as Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Aberdeen) enjoys White Nights when the sun does not set until after 10pm – twilight melts into dawn – between late-May and early-July.
Winters are bitterly cold. If you look for cheap flights to Russia in the off-peak season, be sure to bring plenty of warm clothes.
Aeroflot Russian Airlines, the national airline, has a comprehensive domestic flight network. It flies from Moscow to several cities including St Petersburg, Kazan, Samara and Vladivostok
S7 Airlines is based in Novosibirsk and flies to several destinations including Irkutsk, Kazan, Moscow, Nizhni Novgorod and Omsk.
Transaero offers flights around much of the country including to St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kiev, Odessa, Chimkent, Tashkent and Kamchatsky.
Rail: the Trans Siberian railway is the longest railway in the world. It starts in Moscow and chugs through Nizhni Novgorod, Kirov, Ekaterinburg, Omsk and over to Vladivostok.
Russian Railways operates a good range of passenger services throughout Russia, from Archangelsk to Zabaykal’sk. Journeys are inexpensive, if slow, but there are usually three classes of service on long journeys. Travel third class (Platskartny) for a more “Russian” experience. Moscow and St Petersburg have metro systems; good service and really beautiful stations.
Bus travel is also cheap and links cities and towns around Russia, but is not very comfortable. The main bus station in Moscow is called Schyolkovsky Bus Terminal.
For flights to Russia, your easiest option is to fly into Moscow or St Petersburg. There are three main airports serving Moscow: Sheremetyevo A.S. Pushkin International Airport, Domodedovo International Airport and Vnukovo International Airport. You can fly into any of these from Singapore Changi Airport, and the flying time ranges from about 10h 40min to 22h 35min. Sometimes, it’s more economical to use a combination of airlines and to, for example, fly into Domodedovo and out of Sheremetyevo. To St Petersburg, flying times to Pulkovo Airport range from around 14h 30min to 26h 30min.
Singapore Airlines offers Russia flight deals from Singapore direct to Moscow Domodedovo on the outbound leg, but on the inbound leg, there are no direct flights. You would have one stopover, the location of which would depend on which airline you use. Finnair offers cheap flights to Russia with one stopover in Helsinki.
Train is the classic mode of transport to get around Russia and see the countryside. You can get from Moscow to St Petersburg on an overnight train in around 8h or a day train in about 5h. If you want the full experience, you can book the whole or part of the route on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east. You have the options of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class. Otherwise, you can fly easily between Russian cities with the local Aeroflot or S7 Airlines. If you opt to hire a car and don’t understand Cyrillic script, it is advisable to hire a driver too, which doesn’t cost much more. In Moscow and St Petersburg, you can get around the city by metro. The metro stations are tourist attractions in their own right.
In Moscow, visit the Red Square, the Moscow Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral with its colourful onion-shaped domes, the iconic GUM department store and Izmailovsky Market. In St Petersburg, colourful architecture abounds. Take a boat trip on the canals to view it from the water; visit Hermitage Museum, Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof Palace, the ornate Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and the Faberge Museum. Yekaterinburg is Russia’s 4th largest city and houses the Church on the Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, famed for being built on the spot where the Romanov family was executed. It also boasts an obelisk marking the geographical border between Europe and Asia, the Urals Mineralogical Museum and the Sevastyanov's House. Sochi, a city on the Black Sea in the Russian Riviera, has a subtropical climate and is a summer beach resort, but it also offers snowy mountains. Lake Baikal, in Siberia, is the largest, deepest and oldest freshwater lake in the world. If you visit in winter when the lake freezes over, you can take a hovercraft across the ice.
You need to apply for a visa well in advance and have at least six months validity on your passport upon departure. You’ll also need to complete a migration card at passport control on arrival and should keep this safe as you need it to check into hotels and to leave Russia. You must also register with the Russian authorities within seven working days of arrival. Your hotel can do this for you, but confirm that they have or you could be fined. You should register at each destination.
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