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In 1939, Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” And in that sense, not much has changed in the world’s largest country. Occupying one-tenth of all land on Earth, Russia spans 11 time zones across two continents (Europe and Asia), with coasts on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans. Approximately 120 ethnic groups reside in Russia, speaking more than a hundred languages.
About 80 percent of Russia’s population can trace their ancestry to the Slavs who settled here some 1,500 years ago. The Mongol invasion of Kiev in the 13th century brought about the emergence of Moscow, which until then had been a small trading post. In the 1550s, Ivan IV (known as “the Terrible”) became the first in a long succession of “Tsar of All the Russias.” The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the Tsarist monarchy to an end. The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was formed in 1920, and lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 when the Soviet flag with its hammer and sickle was taken down from the Kremlin flagpole and the Russian Federation was born.
From its spectacular cities and vast landscapes to its world-class art treasures and mighty fortresses, Russia is truly a land of superlatives. No less enigmatic now than in Churchill’s day, Russia remains one of the most exciting destinations for the serious adventure traveler.
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The Kremlin and Red Square
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
From the red-brick towers of the Kremlin to the Tsarist icons and monuments to fallen heroes and battle victories, Moscow is a living museum to Russia’s turbulent past. The Russian capital was founded in 1147 by Russian prince Yury Dolgoruky. Today, in massive Red Square just outside the Kremlin walls, you can witness the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the ultimate symbol of Russia, or pay your respects to the embalmed body of Lenin. From the Bolshoi ballet to the bears and acrobats of the Great Moscow Circus, Moscow holds a wealth of historic, cultural, and architectural treasures. Even a descent deep under the city has rewards for travelers—the Moscow Metro, which opened in 1935, features several stations resembling ornate underground palaces.
Peter the Great may have moved his capital to St. Petersburg, but Moscow’s Kremlin has been the seat of Russian power for centuries. With roots stretching back to the middle of the 12th century, the Kremlin is Russia’s oldest and largest fortress. Two thirds of the Kremlin is closed to the public, but the remaining third features enough palaces, cathedrals, museums, squares, and bell towers to leave visitors in awe. Just outside the Kremlin’s east wall sits cobbled Red Square (Krasnaya Ploshchad), which has been the heart of Moscow for more than 500 years—and has borne witness to everything from executions and coronations to massive Cold-War era military parades. Home to Lenin’s tomb and the swirling onion domes of the 16th-century St. Basil’s Cathedral, and flanked by the sprawling GUM department store and the State History Museum, Red Square links the modern city to its legendary past. The Kremlin and Red Square are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Legend has it that when Tsar Peter the Great was galloping across the swampy marshlands that lie beneath present-day St. Petersburg in 1703, he suddenly jumped off his horse, stuck his saber into the ground, and proclaimed “Here shall be a city.” Built as a monument to the might of Imperial Russia, Peter’s vision resulted in a magnificent city of golden spires and pastel palaces. The countless treasures of this former Imperial capital include the golden-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter & Paul Fortress (whose notable “residents” included Peter’s son, Dostoyevsky, and Trotsky), and the magnificent Winter Palace. The completion of the Winter Palace was overseen by Catherine the Great and is now home to the iconic Hermitage art museum and its more than 3 million exhibits. Few places can claim greater artistic, architectural, and Russian cultural treasures than this city on the Neva River known in various eras as Petrograd, Leningrad, and St. Petersburg—and called Piter by the locals.
Often called the gateway to Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is a city in eastern Siberia that was founded in 1661 as a Cossack garrison. It eventually developed into a haven for Russian artists, nobles, and intellectuals exiled to Siberia for their part in the December 1825 revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. The story of one of the leaders of the ill-fated uprising, Prince Sergei Volkonsky, is immortalized in the Decembrists Museum, the former home of exiled prince and his wife Maria. Other Irkutsk attractions include many surviving 19th-century wooden houses and the Exaltation of the Cross Church. Constructed between 1747 and 1760, the brightly-decorated church offers a vivid example of an architectural style known as Siberian baroque.
Lake Baikal comes crowned with superlatives: Plunging more than a mile, it is the deepest body of fresh water on Earth—and it may also be the most ancient, with geologists dating it at some 30 million years old. This one lake is home to one-fifth of the world’s fresh water—5,700 cubic miles of water in one place. More than 1,000 of the 1,500 species of plants and animals found here are endemic to this pristine setting. Completely ringed by mountains and studded with 27 islands, Lake Baikal is also one of the most scenic places on Earth, a beauty largely undiscovered by the west until the 17th century. Vast as it may be, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is still growing: the lake floor is widening by a few centimeters every year. Many visitors to the lake stay in Listvyanka, a picturesque village located on the western shore of the Baikal Lake at the source of the Angara River. Listvyanka is also home to the Baikal Limnological Museum, which is devoted to the history of Lake Baikal and its remarkable flora and fauna.
Today's Russians have an eye to the future while recalling the proud past of a city that's gone through too many name changes
Enjoy a local’s perspective of St. Petersburg—our pre-trip extension—a city that is still establishing its identity.
Journey through Mongolia and its surrounding countries on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.
Produced by Stanislas Giroux
100 Wonders: Star City
Enter Star City to see Soviet Russia’s advanced space program, hidden from the world for decades.
Produced by Dylan Thuras
Immerse yourself in Russia with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Venture off the beaten path of dumplings and try a new recipe for Russia’s pelmeni, or meat dumplings.
from Harriet's Corner
Every culture has its own version of dumplings. China claims pot stickers, pierogies can call Poland home, and Italy boasts its famous gnocchi. Russia’s are pelmeni, meat dumplings found easily across the country—although most Russians believe they originate from Siberia because they are most often purchased frozen. Lore has it that Siberians made them by the hundreds and froze and stored them outside throughout harsh winters, but they are tasty no matter what the season. Pelmeni can have any number of fillings. This recipe uses pork and beef, but you can make them with chicken or turkey if you’d like. Serve alone or with dipping sauces, such as sour cream or balsamic vinegar.
1 1/2 cups flour2 eggs1/2 cup water1 1/2 tsp salt1/2 lb ground beef1/2 lb ground pork2 medium onions, finely chopped1/2 tsp black pepperGarlic to taste
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Russia is spectacular anytime of year with its whimsical buildings and vast landscapes, but it is particularly charming covered in a fresh coat of snow. The snow-covered cities, cozy winter apparel (most notably shapkas, the quintessential Russian fur hats), and warm and hearty food and drinks may be what draw small groups of tourists to the country, but for the most part, Russia is clear of large crowds in the winter.
November through February bring numbingly cold temperatures, which can plummet to as low as -15 degrees. The coldest temperatures are in January, signifying the peak of winter. Big western cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg typically remain above 0 degrees, but farther east, in cities like Irkutsk, you'll feel the bone-tingling cold.
The cold weather isn't all bad though. February is the best time to visit Lake Baikal where you can skate or walk on the frozen lake. Winter is also the best time to track tigers in Russia. Multiple wildlife reserves offer guided tiger tracking tours where you may see the elusive Siberian Tiger in its natural habitat.
To get an authentic glimpse into how Russia celebrates the holidays, visit any local winter festival. Revel in the holiday cheer when you ice skate around an open-air rink, witness extremely elaborate ice sculptures, sample traditional holiday cuisine, and take a troika ride, a horse-drawn carriage ride, through the city. These festivals typically run from December to January.
As you explore Moscow, you may find more than winter festivals. If you wander down Arabat Street, you'll be met by a large crowd of snowmen. The snowmen parade is a cute tradition where anybody can build a snowman, or a group of snowmen, and others will add their own snowmen, resulting in the creation of a parade of snowmen. While these "parades" happen all over the city, Arabat Street is the most popular spot.
Watch this film to discover more about Russia:
Trip Extension: Moscow, Russia
Museums, cathedrals, monuments, and more bring Russia’s alluring capital to life on this trip extension.
A slight warm up occurs in March and April, but spring weather doesn't quite arrive until May. Between night and day, the temperature varies greatly. Sometimes the day's high is 10-30 degrees warmer than the low. Expect cold weather to stick around in March—this includes a snow shower or two. While the weather is still cold in April, leftover snow on the ground begins to melt, specifically in cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow where it is slightly warmer than in more rural areas. The melted snow reveals lush grass and you may even see flowers start to bloom.
While spring awakens in parts of Russia, other parts of the country are still experiencing cooler temperatures—Russia spans eleven time zones after all. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how the weather is going to act in Russia because of the incredible size of the country. In May and June, temperatures remain in the 60s in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, while in eastern cities like Irkutsk, temperatures can still dip into the 30s.
May is an ideal month to visit Russia as it is still relatively quiet before tourist season begins in June when you can expect larger crowds in Russia's major cities. Get a glimpse of the blooming landscape without the crowds. Moscow has some of the most magnificent floral displays—from the Alexandrovsky Garden outside of the Kremlin to the Hermitage Garden located in the federal district of Tverskoy.
Turning on the fountains at Peterhof isn't just a quick flick of a switch, it's a full-day festival. Over 100 fountains accentuate the grandeur of Peterfhof and are on full display on the opening day as the fountains are celebrated with classical music and fireworks.
The main event of the season is the arrival of the White Nights. White Nights occur when the sun doesn't completely set in the far northern and southern hemispheres for a period of two months. May marks the beginning of the White Nights. A notable event that occurs in June during the White Night's Festival is the Scarlet Sails Festival. The romantic story behind this festival begins when a young girl has a strange encounter with a psychic who predicts that a prince will whisk her away on a ship with scarlet sails. While she doesn't fall for a prince years later, she does fall in love with a wealthy man who happens to own a ship with scarlet sails, and the two sail away together.
The White Nights are the perfect time of year for reenactments of this fairy tale story as the striking scarlet sails of the ship contrast the soft hues of the sky. The festival includes musical and theatrical performances, and ends with a magnificent fireworks show.
July and August are pleasantly warm throughout the country, with highs in the 70s. You can enjoy the summer with longer daytime hours. Witness the flowers in full bloom and with over four million miles of forest throughout the country, there are plenty of opportunities to hike and catch glimpses of Russia's diverse wildlife.
While Russia has finally emerged from its cold slumber, summer brings rainfall and unpredictable changes to the weather. Try to plan accordingly and pack clothes for warmer and cooler weather as temperatures can slip into the 50s in July and August. Summer is also a time of year when a slew of bugs arrive, so make sure to keep bug spray on hand.
The White Nights continue into July, sometimes ending the first week and sometimes lasting through the end of the month. This natural phenomenon also happens in other countries like Finland, Canada, and even America (Alaska is far enough north that it experiences White Nights). Locals take advantage of the longer daylight hours by continuing their celebrations mainly in St. Petersburg where the White Night's Festival is held. During this annual festival, public concerts, nightly theater performances, and carnivals fill the air with an exciting energy.
Travelogue: St. Petersburg, Russia 1959
See St. Petersburg in the 1950s in this vintage 16mm film footage—from its grand monuments to the city’s multi-cultural residents.
Produced by David Conover & Paul Villanova
If you blink, you may miss autumn. The short season lasts a few weeks and is marked by bright foliage and few crowds. Take in views of red and orange during an exploration of the forested area surrounding Lake Baikal. Or, stroll through the streets of St. Petersburg where tree-lined streets come to life with colors of gold and red. Autumn is also when the Peterhof fountains close, and similar to when they open in May, a festival marks their closing.
When autumn comes to an end, wintry cold weather arrives, and with it comes the chance of snow showers. In cities like Irkutsk, temperatures sometimes reach a low of 21 degrees in October, so you may want to pack winter essentials this season.
Click 'Select to Compare' to see a side-by-side comparison of up to adventures below—includingactivity level, pricing, traveler excellence rating, trip highlights, and more
See a detailed overview of the types of experiences you'll have on our trip through Eastern Europe.
Small Group Adventure
Days in Russia
5 nights from only $1595
5 nights from only $1995
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Small Ship Adventure
Days in Russia
3 nights from only $1295
6 NIGHTS FROM FROM $2,895
Days in Russia
19 Days from only $6,195
Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
*This information is not available for our trip extensions. You must reserve the main trip to participate on this extension.
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