In today’s video chat we are going to travel to a destination that I personally cannot wait to learn all about – as I have not yet had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country. And what beautiful country might that be? It is the largest country in the world – Russia!
Elena Ulko, owner of Ulko Tours – the destination management company for both Russia and Scandinavia – excitedly accepted my invitation to sit down and chat all about her homeland recently. And – I am willing to bet that most of you are going to be as surprised as I was to get a glimpse into what a lot of us envision to be a mysterious, somewhat dark and oh so serious land and its people. (Spoiler alert – that is so not the case!) And you will see right off the bat that Elena is very aware of the misconceptions about her beloved Russia and could not wait to show us why we have it all wrong.
Now let’s clear our minds of any pre-conceived notions and read all about the secrets and treasures that you will find there that Elena promises will entice you to visit and make you fall in love with her country.
Ulko Tours: Elena and Ulko Tours in general are great to work with because they let you decide what you want to see. Elena said their customers usually inquire as to what they should see while visiting but she prefers to give you a list of the everything there is to see and let you decide for yourself what it is on that list that interests you – that speaks to your heart. Whether you want to view the ornate residences or if you’re a museum fanatic or long to visit its churches and cathedrals – or all of these things – they will be more than happy to accommodate you. And of course – I will be curating your personalized experience with her assistance – so you can be assured you are in good hands!
Geography, Currency, Climate and More: Russia is home to 146 million people and occupies 6.6 million square miles or one-eighth of the worlds surface making it twice the size of the US. And it’s not only massive – but it is remarkably diverse as well. And how crazy is this – there are ten different time zones in Russia. So, if for instance you flew from Moscow across the country to the other side and landed in Kamchatka it would be a nine-hour time change!
Like I stated above – Elena mentioned that having lived in the US at one time she realized that most people don’t know much about Russia and that most of what they know they get from tv and movies which as she feels – portrays them as mobsters, very gloomy and perhaps a bit crazy. When in fact visitors are usually shocked when they arrive in Moscow and it’s not like they pictured it. Russians are really very friendly and enjoy meeting new people. Elena attributes a lot of the unfriendly perception to the Soviet times when life was so difficult for them and they just had to concentrate on their work and their everyday life in order to survive – which didn’t leave much space for happiness. But now life is getting better and they have the opportunity to travel and they love to welcome travelers to Russia in return.
The currency used throughout the country is the ruble which just so happened to be quite colorful currency. The exchange rate as of this writing – though it changes all the time, and we will need to check it for you prior to your trip – is 70 rubles to $1.00.
Getting There: There are direct flights available from numerous major cities in the US including New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago to name a few. And of course – if you know me – you know I do recommend flying business class as the trip is lengthy and this way you can lay down and be rested and ready to start your adventure when you arrive! Most visitors will fly into Saint Petersburg or Moscow – as they are the two cities where people usually start their adventure when they come over to visit. But there are also flights into other cities in Russia if you so desire.
It’s important to note that Americans do need to have a Russian visa to visit – along with a valid passport. And you want to make sure your passport is valid for the length of your visa. Elena related that 90 days prior to your trip is the earliest you can apply and though the questionnaire may look daunting it is in fact not difficult – just extensive. In addition to a visa, you will also need a letter of support to get the visa – which Elana said they can quickly and easily get for you. This letter serves as a confirmation that you are traveling with a certain company and that company is acting as a sponsor for the visa.
Length of Stay: In terms of how many days you should give yourself when creating an itinerary, it’s going to depend – of course – on what you want to experience. If you really want to do the whole country, Elena and I certainly suggest at least 15 days plus. This way you are not going to just be jumping from one destination to another but actually being able to do a lot of cultural immersion in each destination as well. Elana actually outlined some sample itineraries and the number of days for each:
- Two to five days for St. Petersburg, Novgorod and Moscow
- Five to ten days for a river cruise, Sochi, Murmansk, Karelia and Kazan
- Ten to 15 plus days for Trans-Siberian, Altai, Baikal and Kamchatka
Elena had a fabulous point – if you are going to fly all the way from the US to Russia it really makes sense to plan a little longer to be able to see as much as possible – because in reality for most of us it is a once in a lifetime trip. (Although Elena noted they do get people who come back over and over because they fall in love with the country.)
Getting Around: Being able to get around is key and there all different modes of transportation available. There are private vehicles, a public transit system, taxis, river and canal boat rentals, helicopters and hydrofoils. Ulko Tours will use more than one mode of transportation on their tours combining those that make the most sense. And of course, if you want to splurge a bit on a helicopter, they will happily do that.
Also on this list are trains. The Sapsan Train is the rail service which connects St. Petersburg to Moscow and Elena mentioned this because she knows that a lot of people think it is much easier to travel by plane when city hopping throughout Russia. And there’s no disagreement there – for instance it is just a one-hour flight between these two cities as opposed to a three-and-a-half-hour train ride. BUT – there is all the time – and hassle – spent prior to wheels up that adds on even more time. You must travel to the airport and be sure to arrive well in advance and go through the often-lengthy security checkpoint which ends up adding a few hours to that one-hour flight time. Now – picture this. You arrive at the train station which is right in the center of the city of Moscow, there is no hassle getting to the station and upon arrival you will board the train, sit down and settle in for the journey. And should you choose business class you get a meal and drinks as well ultimately ending up in the center of St. Petersburg easily, effortless and extremely comfortably. I am convinced!
And of course, we cannot forget about the Trans-Siberian Railway! The beautiful thing about starting out in St. Petersburg or in Moscow is that you actually can create an itinerary that includes the Trans-Siberian and if you chose to do the full route it is an amazing two-week adventure.
Destinations: Based on its size to see all of Russia you really need a lot of time so today we’re going to talk about the major destinations that you should not miss when you come.
- Moscow: People usually start with Moscow, Russia’s business and industrial center as well as the capital and largest city in the country. It takes up 970 square miles and is home to 11.5 million people. Moscow is a mixture of both history and modern life entwined and typically is the number one destination for everybody that goes there. And as stated earlier – when they go to Moscow, they are often shocked that it’s so different from what they had imagined.
Here everything is extreme – large buildings, wide streets, expensive cars, couture shops never-ending traffic jams and big money. And yes, there is plenty to see, do and experience here – including gastronomy, sightseeing, art and culture, wellness and even medical opportunities – so for those of you guys who are maybe looking to travel for a medical procedure this could be an option. Hotel accommodations range from three to five stars and the recommended stay here is three to four days.
In the heart of Moscow, you’ll find the Kremlin which is the oldest fortress in the city. Featured inside are churches – or cathedrals. Part of the Kremlin is open for visitors so you can actually go in inside and explore all the centuries old churches – the history here is amazing and Elena guarantees you will come away in awe.
Another famous place you will find in Moscow is Red Square which is home to St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Tower of Kremlin and the Kremlin Clock all of which are symbols of Moscow that you will often see featured in all brochures.
And attention all my shoppers – Moscow is a great place for shopping! At Manezhnaya Square – which is located on the other side of the Kremlin – you will not only enjoy walking through the park and taking in the beautiful fountains – but they also have a shopping mall underground! This actually reminds me a little bit of Montreal and their underground city and is a great opportunity if you visit in the winter to shop in the warmth of the underground as opposed to outside shopping centers!
Elena shared that a huge chunk of the visitors coming to Russian request to do a Soviet Moscow tour and no wonder why! It is famous for its 1950s architecture that was created during the time of Joseph Stalin and is quite impressive – in fact, everything back then was impressive – even the subway stations! So much so that people request tours of them (which she noted is unlike most places with subway systems – for instance New York City) but in St. Petersburg and Moscow the subway tour is an extremely popular tour! The Moscow Metro or subway is a stunning triumph of Soviet architecture.
You can also have the theater experience in Moscow and Elena shared that a lot of people request seeing ballet at the Bolshoi Theater – in fact, she joked – unless it’s something that puts you to sleep – it is on almost on everyone’s list.
If you want to hobnob with the local’s head to Gorki Park as it is one of the places local residents spend their free time thanks to its plentiful outdoor space. And make sure you sample the local ice cream while you are there as it is one of their specialties!
Another must do is to partake in a Moscow River Cruise one evening. You can choose one with or without dinner – either way it is a marvelous opportunity to catch a glimpse of the beautiful sunset as it illuminates the city.
Ok so there are tons of Soviet artifacts that can be found throughout the city but for my history buffs here is something you are NOT going to want to miss! There is a Soviet secret bunker that you can actually visit – in fact – it is the only one open to the public. As you know – during the Cold War both in the US and in Russia everybody was convinced that something horrible was going to go down – and mainly that fear was of a nuclear war – leading to the beginning of the nuclear shelter craze. How cool is it that you get to descend deep down into one such shelter and explore this underground corridor! Even cooler is that you can actually even have a meal while you are there thanks to the canteen built for the young government employees that is open to visitors.
- Outside of Moscow: Once you venture to the outskirts of the city you will get to check out the suburbs for some of that off the beaten path flavor and a look at history. Kolomenskoye – which used to be a suburb of Moscow – is a former royal estate and is well-known because it is where Peter the Great – the founder of St. Petersburg – spent his childhood and subsequently grew up. Featuring a very colorful palace which Peter’s father Alexey built it is a wonderful peak into 17th century Russian life. And speaking of palaces – another fabulous palace to visit is Tsaritsyno which was built as the residence for Empress Catherine II. This palace features a picturesque area with unique greenhouses, gardens, fountains and a lovely park to enjoy.
- Saint Petersburg: St. Petersburg – the cultural capital of Russia and the most popular destination in the country – is rich with history, famous museums, churches and breathtaking architecture. I love the way Elena described it – “It is incredibly beautiful and the city itself is like an open-air museum. It’s royal Russia in all its beauty and glory.” Here you will find sightseeing, gastronomy, art and culture, wellness and medical opportunities. Hotel accommodations range from three to five stars and the recommended stay here is five days.
The Hermitage is a splendid imperial palace with stunning interiors located on the Neva River that was once the house of a Russian royal family. It contains the world’s largest collection of art with pieces by da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and others and in fact is really all about the art!
Another popular attraction is Peterhoff Park and Palace located just a one-hour drive from the city on the shores of the Baltic Sea. What was once the summer palace of the tsars actually consists of several palaces on the grounds that can be visited, jaw dropping fountains and is an overall amazing place to wander around in.
Catherine’s Palace was another summer residence for Russian tsars – a royal countryside resort named after Peter the great’s wife.
As for which churches and cathedrals you may want to visit, they include Spilled Blood Church – which is richly decorated with mosaics inside and out, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – which is one of the largest churches in the world has an observation spot in it’s done that offers great views, Saint Nicholas Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral just to name a few!
Canal Rides on the Neva River are – according to Elena – one of the greatest experiences in the city and her absolute favorite thing to do there thanks to the great opportunity it gives you to view this amazing city from the water!
Russia’s best – and oldest – ballet school – Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet and its number one theater – Mariinsky Theatre – are located in St. Petersburg – and just as seeing the ballet is on almost everyone’s list who visits Moscow it is also on the lists of those who visit St. Petersburg. You can catch ballet performances year-round in one of ten different theaters and the infamous Swan Lake is performed daily during the summer for everybody to attend. And for my ballerinas out there – we can arrange for you to do a ballet master class – which wow – what a unique experience! And if by chance ballet is not your thing – there are fabulous Russian folk shows – folk and dance and Cossack shows – which are filled with culture and wonderful to see live.
And for some hands-on experiences in the city, you can tour the House of Faberge facility – which is one of the largest jewelry factories in the world – where they will introduce you to the entire process of how they are produced, casted, decorated and certified. And you can also make your own Faberge pendant. If you prefer dolls over jewelry you can take part in a Matryoshka Doll class. This is a great activity for the end of a long day of touring as you meet in a café where you can sit down with a pastry and a cup of coffee, where an artist will join you and tell you all about the history of doll making. Afterwards you get to decorate the dolls with the design of your choosing – be it a traditional Russian design or even as a Minion!
Now, one of the things that your Travel Guru likes about St. Petersburg is that it’s also a very quick way to get to some of the Scandinavian countries – so should you wish to do a combination trip we can make that happen quite easily. For instance – you can start in St. Petersburg and then hop over into Finland. And Elena took it one step further by letting us in on this great tidbit – for those who don’t want to go through the trouble of getting a Russian visa there is a way around it! If you go to Finland first and then travel from Finland to Russia, you can do so for three days or 72 hours! So, granted it will be a quick trip, but you will get to experience some of St. Petersburg! You simply hop a ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, get a hotel, tour for three days and then take the ferry to return to Finland and all with no visa needed!
- Novgorod: Novgorod is a quaint little old town – one of the oldest in the country – that is approximately two hours via car from St. Petersburg. Typically done as a day trip here you will find yourself surrounded by ancient history and religion. It is home to the Novgorod Kremlin – an ancient fortress located on the high bank of the mighty Volkhov River that you can the tour – and also houses a cathedral as well – where you will learn the history of old Russia. The recommended stay is one day but should you choose to stay overnight the accommodations are three- and four-star hotels.
From here you can travel to Vitoslavlitsy which is a wooden architecture museum as well also a small village about a ten-minute drive outside of Novgorod. It features small wooden houses – preserved and moved from all over Russia – set up in one place and assembled into a small town. Here you will be exposed to the different types of architecture from different periods and as you walk into the houses you will get an idea of how they lived in different eras – from livestock to arts and crafts.
- Karelia: This beautiful area is situated to the north of St. Petersburg in the Lake District of Russia. Framed by pine tree forests and hills and grand clearwater lakes the area is beautiful in the summer, but it also offers some great winter activities suitable for all types of travelers. Here you can camp or hike or even participate in a husky ride. And husky rides are not just a winter activity – you can go on one in the summertime on wheel cars instead of sleds. The hotels you will find here will typically be three-to-four-star properties and the recommended stay is three days. The landscape of Karelia resembles Scandinavia, and it is postcard picture perfect in any season.
Now Karelia is not a town – it is an entire district. Elena shared that this is one of her favorite destinations to head to when it’s time to recharge and be one with nature. She absolutely fell in love with it and shares the beauty of it with everybody that visits her. Between the pine tree forests, the clean air that you breathe and the amazing sunsets – it’s really an awesome opportunity to connect with nature and feel the rejuvenation of your mind, body and spirit. Here are some cool activities – pun intended – to take part in while you are there.
- Husky Rides: Husky rides are an easy and exciting activity for all ages, and you will find that the husky dogs are very friendly! Ride durations vary with the shortest being 15 to 30 minutes long – just enough to get a taste of what it is like – and with the longest taking two to three days which allows you to feel like a real polar explorer! Fun Fact: Elena told us that she took one with her kids and it was a pretty intensive one! It took them three days and they covered nearly 90 miles. It was freezing cold – around 10 degrees Fahrenheit but so much fun and highly recommended! This one I may have to think about for a while…
- Hovercrafts: Hovercrafts are extremely popular in this region as the large lakes stay frozen for the better part of the year and to get from one island to another island this is the way to go – as they can traverse over frozen lakes – and they are a lot of fun too!
- Ice Fishing: Another popular activity is winter – or ice fishing – as Russia has numerous lakes that are full of hungry fish! Per Elena it is a very popular sport for Russians and according to her husband it’s a great wellness activity as it is very calming and the perfect opportunity to daydream and really clear your mind as you wait for that fish to bite!
Other Ways to Experience Russia: Should you decide that you want to see Russia via boat or train there are some fabulous options to do both!
- Russian River Cruises: Cruises between Moscow and St. Petersburg are great way to see the country as they combine large city tours with visits to small rural towns – giving you the chance to take in stunning scenery and the great Russian lakes and rivers. Most cruises take from eight to 12 days depending on what you want to do and where you want to go. It is definitely the way to go if you want to partake in numerous experiences without having to pack and unpack more than once. And the best part is that you will visit two major destinations – St. Petersburg and Moscow – and everything in between! It is a great way to get exposure to both modern life and the historical past with panoramic views along the way.
- Trans-Siberian Railway: Guess what – the Trans-Siberian Railway is the world’s longest train ride! Route #1 can take you across the whole country from Moscow to Vladivostok in the Far East – and Route #2 turns South at Lake Baikal, continues through Mongolia and all the way to China! Looking for an amazing journey through off the beaten path destinations? Look no further! This is what an off the beaten path dream trip consists of!
Now of course there are different types of train accommodations ranging in price all the way up to $16,000. And that super expensive train is the luxury train my friends. That means when you board the train it is similar to boarding a cruise ship. You unpack once and then as the train stops during the day, you hop off and spend the day in that city sightseeing. Later you return back to your train for some dinner and shut eye – and as you sleep – the train travels on to the next stop.
Yes – there is a cheaper train which is for you adventurous backpacker types as it’s the regularly scheduled train which means you get to travel with locals and get to know more about them. This unique experience provides you with the chance to travel in 3rd class and according to Elena a lot of her clients choose to do this as they are super curious about life in Russia and want to hear it straight from regular Russian citizens. Now these trains do travel nonstop so if you want to stop and explore a destination you have to leave the train and then get another ticket on the following train to catch up – making it a true backpack-like experience perfect for my adventurers!
Below are some more destinations that you would have the opportunity to explore should you choose to travel via the Trans-Siberian railway.
- Ekaterinburg: This large, modern city is located in the southern part of the Ural region and is the fourth largest city of Russia. Its name was derived from the name Catherine. Unfortunately, it is place of violent history as Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered here in July 1918.
- Novosibirsk: Known as the capital of Siberia, Novosibirsk is the third largest city in the country and the industrial and educational center of the area. If you are one of my lovers of ecotourism this is a great choice for you and there is plenty of wildlife to be seen as well.
- State of Irkutsk: This large city nearest to Lake Baikal is an important Trans-Siberian stop. Here you will have the opportunity to see many things that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. With over 350 years of history you’ll find old churches, wooden houses and large lion statues which is something – though once popular throughout St. Petersburg and Moscow – pretty much disappeared after 1998 or 2000. So right now, to find the one it’s really a challenge. This is also the center of the political exile so when you read that someone was sent to Siberia – Irkutsk is where they ended up.
- Ulan / Ude: This small town on the eastern bank of Lake Baikal is the main Buddhist center of the country. Famous for its 25-foot-tall sculpture of Lenin’s head on the main square as well as the Ivolginsky Dastan Buddhist temple which is the most popular place to visit there.
- Vladivostok: Vladivostok is a large port and transport hub at Russians Far East. Although it is the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway – it isn’t where Russia ends – as there is more to the east of Vladivostok. Here you will have the opportunity to experience different types of seafood at local restaurants, visit numerous war memorials and even connect to some Japanese sea cruises.
Health and Wellness: I found this part of my conversation with Elena remarkably interesting – enlightening if you will! Did you know Russia has become a great destination for medical and wellness tourism? Yup – since 2016 the number of international patients has almost doubled! Dubbed health care resorts you can choose from a one day stay to a week – or more!
And their offerings are plentiful and include detox and destress programs, weight loss programs, plastic surgery, genetics, general therapy, cosmetology and aesthetics. Heck you can even get massages here! So, my thought is if you want to actually add a number of days onto your vacation – whether you’re having some type of surgery or what have you – we can coordinate the wellness part of your journey with the sightseeing part. There are some people who go to Russia to have an entire medical checkup then like to spend a week there resting, recharging and recovering. And Elena tells us – from firsthand knowledge mind you – that the food you will be served here is restaurant quality and that you really don’t feel like you are at a hospital – more like you’re at a spa but are receiving full medical assistance and attention.
Oh, and the cost? Well as she put it – imagine getting several procedures, every for a week in the US? Yeah – we all know that cost would be astronomical to say the least. However – here it’s less than $3000 thousand US dollars – for all that plus full board and all done at a lovely center! I may not leave – just saying!
Gastronomy: Oh gosh the opportunities for gastronomy experiences are abundant in Russia! You can participate in professional cooking classes, you can take part in family dining experiences, you can visit private farms and taste authentic farm to table meals, you can sample art cuisine at gastro bars and gastropubs, you can take food tours, you can visit food markets and you can go bar hopping and experience the nightlife! Whew – told you the opportunities are abundant! And you know I 100% feel that the best way to experience cultural immersion is through food! Elena also let us in on the fact that she herself offers those family experiences and loves being able to personally meet some of her clients and participating in an intercultural exchange over a great meal.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Russia. On the departure to Russia, travelers must show a negative result for a COVID test conducted within 72 hours before arrival. Russian citizens arriving without a test result must submit to this test within 72 hours of arrival. Foreign citizens will not be accepted onboard without this test. There is no quarantine upon arrival.
So yeah – we have obviously covered quite a lot about Russia in just a short time. And since this was just a high-level overview, I would love to hear from you guys which ones you would like to be covered more in depth or what other ones that were not covered would you like to learn about. This way I can invite Elena back to share even more with us! Hopefully, this took the “mystery” out of Russia for you as it certainly did for me! It is an amazing country full of adventure, history, wellness, gastronomy and more. And talk about a living classroom! What a fabulous place to take your children to get an up close and personal history lesson that they are never going to forget!
For more details on things to see and do in Russia, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!