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Winston Churchill once proclaimed Russia a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The country’s intrigue remains to this day, with a rich history and culture that’s fascinated travelers, including those who’ve explored it since the fall of Communism in the ’90s.

Recent political headlines and travel magazine accolades have inspired renewed curiosity in Russia as a travel destination, with numerous travel companies reporting a jump in bookings. Further adding to its appeal: a strong dollar against a weakened ruble and continued hotel development in Russia’s two grand cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, which was recently named the World’s Leading Cultural City Destination by the World’s Travel Awards.

If you’re curious to explore the largest country in the world—Russia spans nine time zones—here are some tips to help demystify the planning process and get you excited for the adventure.

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Get your visa
You need a Russian visa to enter the country as a tourist. Traveler forums make it sound way more complex and scary that it really is; but if you follow directions and apply several weeks ahead of your departure, it’s a straightforward (albeit bureaucratic) process. The biggest thing is to make sure to have your travel pre-booked and a “visa invitation” document from your tour company or hotel(s) before applying via the Electronic Visa Application Form. If this still feels overwhelming, or you need to expedite your visa, apply through a trusted visa or travel agency such as Russian Visa Center or Passport Visas Express. They’ll hand-hold you through the process and address any ambiguity. Just expect to pony up about $300 if you go this route.

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White Nights in St. Petersburg

The best time to go: White Nights
The sweet spot is May through September, when temperature highs reach the 70s to 90s and the days are longer. In fact, it’s worth timing a trip with the “White Nights” celebrations across St. Petersburg (May to early July). This is when round-the-clock daylight inspires residents and visitors to meander the streets all night long in this city nicknamed “The Venice of the North.” However, if you romanticize about wearing the country’s famous fur hat, also known as an ushanka, you might find winter a cozier (and less crowded and cheaper) alternative.

Consider a cruise
A river cruise stringing together Moscow and St. Petersburg is a popular choice for first-timers to Russia. Lines such as Viking River Cruises and Uniworld offer cruises in spring and summer months. In fact, Viking now has four ships operating in Russia—an increase from last year that speaks to renewed popularity in the destination. Most major cruise lines also offer Balkan cruises which port at enchanting cities like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm and, yes, St. Petersburg. Bonus: These cruise lines will assist you with the visa process.

Learn the Cyrillic alphabet
While it might seem intimidating at first—like hieroglyphics even—spending a little time learning the Russian alphabet will serve you well. It will help you decipher street signs and maps, which aren’t always in English. Download an app such as Russian Alphabet or Russian Alphabet Mastery, or invest in a pocket guide or flashcards. You can then spend part of your flight brushing up on your A-Б-Bs.

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The Trans-Siberian Railway

Join one of the world’s most epic train journeys
The Trans-Siberian Railway begins in Moscow and extends 6,000 miles to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. It’s a weeklong journey that requires pre-planning—or you could make it easier by joining an organized tour. The train odyssey gets high praise from intrepid souls, as you’ll encounter remote parts of Russia most travelers never experience.

Oh, the churches!
There are a lot of them in Russia, and they are all utterly beautiful and ornate. The wildly colorful kaleidoscope of onion-like domes atop St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square are iconic. But don’t just stare at this masterpiece from the outside. Pay the entrance fee to go inside this 16th-century cathedral.

Oh, the palaces!
The Russian Tsars loved their palatial homes, and some are now open to public. The most famous among them is in St. Petersburg: the Winter Palace (which resides within the sprawling Hermitage Museum). This lavishly decorated Baroque building on the bank of the Neva River wows with its 1,945 windows and 1,057 decorated halls and rooms.

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The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg

Oh, the museums!
The Moscow Kremlin and The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg are “musts” for first-time visitors. Both are so massive and overwhelming that it’s worth hiring a guide, just so you can avoid aimlessly wandering without context amidst the crowds. (You’ll thank us later.)

Don’t forget the smaller museums
Seek out museums that might not make it into the “traditional” Russian itinerary. A few to consider include the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, where you can learn about space exploration from the Russian perspective, and the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games (there’s one in Moscow and St. Petersburg), where you can indulge your inner geek with an old-school collection of arcade games.

Check out the ballet
Seeing a ballet in Russia is akin to seeing a soccer (a.k.a., football) match in Brazil: It’s part of the cultural experience. Even if you’re not a ballet fan, you’ll likely find the novelty of the experience enchanting. The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and the Mariinsky Theatre and Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, feature regular performances. Book in advance, as performances routinely sell out.

Take the subway, it’s insanely gorgeous—and cheap!
Riding the Moscow Metro is likely the fanciest you’ll ever feel taking public transit. Built under Stalin, it’s palace-like in its architectural grandeur, with many stations boasting marble walls, high ceilings, stained glass, mosaics and chandeliers. In both Moscow and St Petersburg, the subway is the most convenient and inexpensive way to travel. Just avoid using either metro system during rush hour.

Go skating, sky-high
From October to early April, ice skating takes place in public spots like Red Square and VDNKh (Europe’s biggest skate rink). But a new attraction tops them all. Moscow’s 85-floor OKO Tower—one of Europe’s tallest buildings—boasts a skating rink on its roof, with sweeping views of the city skyline.

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Eat, drink and be merry
Indulge in vodka, borsch and caviar. You are in Russia, after all. Tip: Vodka is a religion in Russia, and locals drink it differently. Gulp it in one go, rather than sipping it, and avoid mixing it into cocktails—as that is considered a waste. Beyond the stereotypical cuisine, be prepared for other adventurous dishes from this diverse country, such as pelmeni (meat dumplings) and shashlik (Russian kebab) from Caucasus.

Try on Russian style
Dress to impress when going out at night. You’ll fit in better if you’re overdressed, as this is a culture that takes looking good seriously when it comes to a night on the town. For fashion inspiration, do some shopping at GUM, a Moscow institution. During the Soviet Union days, the top floor was home to a secret clothing store only open to the most important members of the party. Now anyone with a credit card can shop its boutiques and enjoy the architectural opulence of this Communist relic.

Careful where you snap photos
Do not take photos of railway stations or any government buildings with official military infrastructure—unless you want to be questioned by Russian officials. In this era of cell phone selfies, it’s easy to get swept up in click-click-clicking away with a carefree attitude. That’s not a great idea in Russia. When in doubt about photographing something, ask first.

Keep an open mind
Russia has made a lot of headlines for its politics, for better or worse. But just like most other countries in the world, the government of Russia doesn’t always reflect the feelings of its people. Stay curious and respectful while making friends with locals and learning about Russia. You may dispel some of the myths and stereotypes through your own experience.

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Tagged: Destinations