Discover how tours open up the beauty of this stunning country. Joanna Booth reports
Size does matter. From the world’s largest art gallery – the Hermitage in St Petersburg, to its longest railway line – the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia stuns visitors with its scale.
It’s hardly surprising. This is the world’s largest country in area, so there is a bewildering amount for tourists to see – including Europe’s largest lake and biggest city.
Increasing numbers of British tourists are venturing to Russia. The country is one of Insight Vacations’ top five destinations in terms of passenger numbers, and Cox & Kings reports significant growth. Shearings Holidays has seen sales increases of 147% for Russian river cruises and 75% for coach trips year on year.
With new easyJet flights to Moscow from Gatwick and Manchester pushing the area even further into the spotlight, its popularity is only likely to increase.
Russia is particularly fertile ground for escorted touring. “Travelling through Russia can be intimidating for some people,” says Paul Melinis, sales director at One Stop Touring Shop. “The language and culture are so different to ours it can make it difficult to explore independently.”
With an escorted tour, clients can travel with the reassurance that they will constantly be accompanied by experts who will not only be able to illuminate their sightseeing but also take care of any logistics, from reading signs in Cyrillic on the Moscow metro to ensuring all visas and necessary paperwork are in order.
Many itineraries also include activities it would be difficult to organise independently. Trafalgar Tours’ Be My Guest experience allows travellers to watch students practise ballet on stage at the Theatre of Youth in St Petersburg; Intrepid Travel’s tours include Russian doll painting and a cooking class with a local family; and Collette Worldwide Holidays’ Russian River Cruise itinerary includes a vodka-tasting session and a tea party serving traditional Piroshki buns.
HIGHLIGHTS AND ITINERARIES
Russia’s capital city embodies the spirit of the nation: Moscow is steeped in history but is a swiftly developing hive of energy.
Its famous Red Square is home to Lenin’s Mausoleum and St Basil’s Cathedral – legend has it that Ivan the Terrible had the architects of the latter blinded so they’d never again design a building so beautiful. The most popular sights are the Kremlin citadel and its Armoury Museum.
Built on a network of canals in a grand baroque style, St Petersburg has a European look. Visitors come for the flamboyant palaces of the tsars and world-class museums, including the Hermitage, which houses a vast collection of art in the former imperial Winter Palace.
The two cities are linked by rail – Travelsphere has altered its eight-day Moscow & St Petersburg itinerary (from £1,189 including flights) to feature a daytime rather than overnight journey – but cruising between the two is an increasingly popular option.
Regent Holidays, which says its itineraries on the good-value, three-star Litvinov are selling particularly well, also name-checks the luxury Volga Dream for the superlative quality of service and food on board.
These cruises make it easy for visitors to enjoy another of the country’s highlights, the ancient Golden Ring towns and cities to the north of Moscow, where they’ll find golden-spired, onion-domed monasteries and wooden churches and cottages. It’s possible to visit this area by road too, with an itinerary such as Explore’s 10-day Treasures of the Tsars tour (from £1,515 including flights).
Riding on the iconic Trans Siberian Railway will take travellers on an epic journey from Moscow to Vladivostock, on the Sea of Japan, through steppes and forests, past rural villages and industrial cities, and by Lake Baikal, the 25 million-year-old lake so large it contains 20% of the planet’s running fresh water. Great Rail Journeys offers the trip in the lap of luxury on the Golden Eagle Train (from £10,295 for an 18-day tour including flights).
Longer tours sometimes combine Russia with its neighbours, the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Highlights of Insight Vacations’ 14-day Russia, Warsaw and the Baltic States (from £2,745 with flights) include Lithuania’s fortified island castle of Trakai and Riga’s art nouveau architecture, alongside Russian sights. Cosmos Tours & Cruises’ 16-day Baltic States, Russia and Scandinavia (from £1,595 including flights) visits an encyclopaedic range of cities including Copenhagen, Berlin, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm.
Those who don’t like to fly can still get a taste of the region by taking a ex-UK ocean cruise. Titan Travel offers a range of options, including a 14-day St Petersburg & Baltic Capitals cruise on Braemar (from £1,595), and a 16-day Cities of the Inland Sea sailing on the small ship Quest for Adventure, which features an array of expert guest speakers (from £2,361). Or clients could take up the rail-return option on Great Rail Journeys’ Baltic Explorer rail tour.
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