With its remnants of imperial grandeur, Communist monoliths, endless summer nights and bitter winters, post-Soviet Russia is not one nation but many: historically, culturally and geographically. Russia is massive, stretching from Kaliningrad, its westernmost state, which abuts Poland and Lithuania, to Vladivostock, its most important Pacific port. It’s a land of arctic tundra and Black Sea beaches. Russia is so big that it straddles two continents, Europe and Asia; one-fourth of the country is in Europe, the other three-quarters lies west of the Ural Mountains, which divide the two continents.
Russia is a land of great natural resources; it’s the world’s largest producer of natural gas and diamonds (the latter by volume, not value) and the second-biggest producer of oil. It has one of the world’s deepest, biggest and largest lakes, Siberia’s Lake Baikal. Flying into Russia, you’ll see endless forests and lakes. This varied landscape produced literary giants and brutal dictators; it is a land whose dichotomy can be jarring. You’ll see hip, young people in the cities and old women in babushkas in villages. Its two linchpin cities are Moscow, its capital, and the imperial city of St. Petersburg; the two are diametric opposites. Moscow is the capital that grew organically, a vibrant city whose neighborhoods range from architectural treasures tucked along the crooked lanes of the more traditional Ukrainian Quarter to Red Square and the Kremlin, Russia’s power center for both czars and Communist dictators. In elegant contrast is St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s planned city, with its signature neoclassical architectural style, crowned by the great Hermitage Museum.
You can explore Russia regionally, taking in the western-most part of the country by visiting Kaliningrad, the World Heritage–listed national park of Kurshskaya Kosa and the walled city of Smolensk. Travel along the Volga, Russia’s most important river and a popular one for summer cruisin. There you can visit the walled city of Smolensk, the Tatar capital or Kazan and Volgograd, which is held sacred by Russians today as the site of the nation’s bloodiest battle in World War II. Say Russia and think Siberia; one of the most incredible ways to experience this is the Trans-Siberian railway, an engineering marvel. But there is much to offer beyond this: lesser known cities, picturesque villages with traditional architecture as well as mountains to climb and wild rivers for white-water rafting. Eastern Russia is for adventure lovers: the rough-and-tumble seaport of Vladivostock, the World Heritage–listed Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve and the border town of Blagoveshchensk just across the river from China.
Russia’s people are among its greatest attractions: they are hospitable, highly social and curious about those who visit their complicated country. Early summer and autumn are popular times to go to Russia. Early summer is a time of nearly endless days; Russia’s autumn colors are visually stunning in September and early October. July and August are the warmest and busiest months for both Russian and foreign tourists.