If you’re planning a trip to Russia, make sure you allow plenty of time and go well prepared for the weather since it’s pretty much always cold. Visit when the country is under a thick blanket of winter snow, as that’s when the landscape becomes infinitely more captivating. Here is a list of five of the best experiences you should not miss when you go.
St. Petersburg, the old Soviet capital, looks and feels very different from most Russian cities, and it’s the perfect entry point into a country vast in geography and rich in culture. There are countless museums (The Hermitage is well regarded as one of the art world’s finest) and cathedrals (the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is a mosaic-lover’s paradise), but do not miss the stunning view from the Colonnade of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a 19th-century cathedral that’s most famous for its gilded dome. Pay the 150 ruble (HK$15) entrance fee, climb up 43 meters (262 steps, to be precise) and take in magnificent 360-degree views of the city, made even more beautiful in the winter with thick, white smoke emerging from hundreds of smokestacks as far as the eye can see.
The underground system in Moscow is the busiest outside of Asia and it’s also the most convenient way to beat traffic. More than being just transit hubs, however, Metro stations carry out the vision of imposing Stalin-era architecture. Stately statues, extensive wooden escalators, majestic arches and historical mosaics abound — made only more emphatic by the Soviet-style train carriages barreling in ever so punctually.
Architecturally designed to be a showpiece of Soviet glory and dominance, many of the stations are well worth exploring. After coughing up 50 rubles (HK$5) to get underground, you can explore to your heart’s desire. Stops worth visiting are Smolenskaya, Komsomolskaya, Elektrozavodskaya and Prospekt Mira. Take your camera — Russian commuters won’t get frustrated or even bat an eyelid if you stop abruptly to snap photos of the palatial stations.
Only four hours on a fast train from Moscow lies charming Nizhny Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky, after the famous writer. Despite being Russia’s fifth largest city, Nizhny, as it is more commonly known, has a distinctly cozy feel to it. Atop a hill overlooking the Volga River sits the beautiful Kremlin complex, more than 500 years old and still used today as the local political seat.
You can walk around the Kremlin grounds, but make sure you reach the far side toward the river. You’ll be treated to superb views of Nizhny, a visual dichotomy of new and old. The Kremlin’s frosty, tree-lined paths are dotted with Soviet WWII equipment that children (and adults) can climb and play on. To thaw from the sub-zero temperatures, pop into the old arsenal building, now the home of the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Nizhny, and have a cup of cocoa at the Arsenal Cafe.
Travel tip: Stay at the Nikola House — comfortable rooms, friendly staff, tasty food and it’s only a short walk from the Kremlin and Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, a pedestrian street filled with shops and restaurants.
Traditional Russian dishes involve stews, soups, potatoes and lots of sour cream (smetana), but the country is also on the forefront of the farm-to-table movement. Thanks to sanctions banning foreign food imports, chefs are returning to their roots. You can find all sorts of cabbage soups, crunchy Russian pickles, and comfort foods like beef stroganoff and mashed potatoes.
If the city of Irkutsk is on your itinerary, Rassolnik is a homey, friendly restaurant serving traditional fare sourced from local farms. The restaurant takes its name from a barley, beef and pickle soup that it serves in a bread bowl — a warm, hearty respite from winter. Rassolnik also gets creative with a rabbit stew and omul, a local Siberian fish from the world’s largest freshwater lake, Baikal. Omul is traditionally smoked, which preserves it subtle sweetness. Don’t forget piroshkis, a reliable standby found in any cafe or roadside food stall!
Traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway is the ultimate Russian experience; it is how generations of old and new cross more than 5,700 miles. The carriages are warm, comfortable and well looked after; and the trains are punctual. Fellow passengers are friendly, and you won’t encounter as many tourists if you travel in the winter.
You will spend hours just looking out the window, but luckily the landscape does change. Snow-clad forests, frozen lakes and remote Siberian towns pass by in a flash. Taking a break from the view isn’t so bad either — each train has a well-stocked restaurant car complete with a four-course menu and table service. Take plenty to read though, the journey end-to-end takes anywhere from six to nine days!
Travel tip: Bring tea, coffee and instant noodles (a samovar supplies plenty of boiling water), slippers and comfy clothes for the train.