On the European side, Moscow and cultural capital St. Petersburg are magnets for first-timers. Beyond, Europe’s largest river, the Volga, meanders 2,300 miles to the Caspian Sea, passing through the Second World War ‘hero city’ of Volgograd. South-west lie the sun-soaked beaches and snow-topped peaks of Winter Olympics city Sochi on the Black Sea. The great north-south spine of the Urals mountains divides European from Asian Russia. On the Asian side are the decaying elegance of Irkutsk and the rugged shores of Lake Baikal, deep in the enormous taiga pine forest of Siberia. South are the Altai mountains and eastwards the volcanoes of Kamchatka.
Start a historic city break in Russia at the Winter Palace, former home of the tsars and now the repository of world-class art as the Hermitage, in the old capital, St. Petersburg. A night train will take you to Moscow, Russia’s cosmopolitan hub. Feel the heart of Ancient Rus in the early Orthodox cathedrals of the Golden Ring cities Novgorod and Suzdal. The ‘hero’ cities of Volgograd, Smolensk and Murmansk pay tribute those who fell in the Revolution and after. Cold War neurosis is almost tangible in former closed city Vladivostok.
It’s said to be one of the world’s most expensive destinations but a holiday in Russia can be cheap for the clever traveller. World-class art is on display in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage for a reasonable entry fee. Tout prices can be avoided by booking online for the Bolshoi or Mariinsky (Kirov) ballets. Visit the famous dead for next to nothing in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery and St. Petersburg’s Alexander Nevsky monastery. Book at the train station and Russia’s railways offer bargain routes to the country’s most exotic corners: Lenin’s birthplace of Ulyanovsk, the northern lights over Murmansk and the ancient Kremlin in Tatarstan capital Kazan.
Twenty years after the fall of communism, some parts of Russia are still closed to foreigners. Other once-secret sites are gradually coming in from the cold. Space fans should head east for the astronaut training centre of Zvezdny Gorodok, and history buffs can find the truth behind the last days of the Romanovs in Ekaterinburg. A visit to Perm-36 gives a sombre insight into the realities of the Gulag work-camp system. It was still a functioning prison as late as 1988.
Turn a Russia city break into a skiing holiday at Bitsevsky Park or the Kant sports centre, Moscow, or hit the slopes at Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi. The rugged peaks of the Altai mountains lure hikers and climbers, while sailors and swimmers venture east to the world’s largest freshwater lake, Baikal. The less energetic might prefer a cruise along the majestic waterways of the Volga.