Eight Things to Love About Russia

28 May Eight Things to Love About Russia

A trip to Russia can seem daunting to some travelers. The Cyrillic alphabet looks confusing, the complicated language sounds harsh and unsettling memories of the Cold War still remain. Yet for those with an adventurous spirit, Russia has much to offer. Whether you choose to soak up the culture of St. Petersburg or the natural solitude of Siberia, the bustle of Moscow or the daunting Karakum desert, a trip to the world’s largest country provides experiences that you simply can’t find elsewhere.

Russia Cathedrals
© Dmitry Bodrov

If Russia is not already part of your bucket list, here are a few reasons why this country, once unimaginable to visit by Americans, deserves consideration:

1. The Architecture
The onion domes of the Russian Orthodox church are ingrained in our collective consciousness, thanks to the ever-present photos of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. But that fanciful architectural feat ordered by Ivan the Terrible is only one, in a country of many.

Yaroslavl, a city considered part of Russia’s Golden Ring of notable cultural artifacts, has soaring domes in every direction. St. Petersburg, the creation of Peter the Great, has mile after mile of 18th- and 19th-century facades, stained in soft yellows, brilliant blues and powder greens. And the country’s most notable palaces – Catherine I’s Summer Palace in Pushkin, Peterhof and the huge yellow-and-white Kremlin Palace that still serves as the seat of the Russian government, rival Versailles in grandeur and over-the-top luxury. Even the more proletarian wooden homes found in Russia’s smaller villages are stylish in their simplicity.

2. The Art
For an art lover, a visit to the Hermitage represents the ultimate museum experience. Sprawling across five buildings, including Catherine the Great’s ornate Winter Palace, the collection is breathtaking in its vastness. Imagine a room of Rembrandts, priceless gold artifacts, and so many early European masterworks that the museum’s outstanding 19th- and 20th-century pieces by Matisse, Picasso and Gauguin are almost afterthoughts.

But museums are by no means the best places to observe Russian art. Those churches mentioned earlier are masterpieces themselves, filled with walls of icons, colorful frescoes – some of which are over 1,000 years old – and ornate religious paraphernalia. When you enter one, you don’t know where to look first. These hallmarks of the Russian Orthodox religion make the cathedrals of Western Europe seem drab in comparison.

3. The History
Enjoy a good soap opera? Then you’ll love reading about the Romanovs, whose family history has enough mysterious deaths, coup d’etats and open love affairs to make the Medicis look like amateurs (the statue of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg features some of her rumored 21 lovers at its base – and those are only the “official” ones).

Of course, history doesn’t belong only to the powerful. The Russian people themselves endured suffering for centuries, and their troubled tales of pogroms, purges and poverty will leave you empathetic to a country that is still struggling in many ways with its legacy. You’ll never be able to watch a Communist-era spy movie again.

4. The Food
Yes, Russian cuisine has a well-deserved reputation for being heavy. How else can you get through those long, dark winters? But just like any comfort food, the Russian staples make satisfying meals. Pelmenis (filled dumplings), blinis (thin pancakes) and piroshkis (stuffed pies), almost always accompanied by dill and sour cream, are easy snacks that defy the often-stratospheric restaurant prices in the larger cities. If you do go out, look for “Southern” restaurants that serve Georgian or Azerbaijani specialties.

5. The Drink
Russia has a well-deserved reputation for vodka. While people drink straight shots in their home, at restaurants you’re more likely to see the national spirit in cocktails such as the Moscow Mule. Common ritual requires friends to order small plates of pickles, brown bread and other snacks while drinking; if you smell the bread immediately after downing a shot, you won’t get intoxicated, so the story goes. For the record, it did seem to work.

6. The “Look”
In the countryside, you’ll still see women walking around with headscarves, a must for devout Russian Orthodox believers who must cover their hair in church. But in the cities, men and women dress much as you’d see in the States, with one exception: Sky-high heels. In Yaroslavl, we saw women striding confidently down the cobblestone streets in shoes that I wouldn’t be able to wear walking out my door. With that kind of attitude, it doesn’t matter that their hair dye seems a little off.

7. The Landscape and Climate
Russia encompasses an eighth of the world’s surface, an astounding 6,592,800 square miles. So it’s no surprise that virtually every type of climate lies within its borders. On my most recent trip, a May cruise between St. Petersburg and Moscow, we sailed along Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake with fog as thick as any you’d see in Scotland. By the time we came south, however, the endless birch and pine trees had blossomed into lilac bushes, and temperatures already felt like summer. I’m dying to get on a train and head west toward the Urals and the vast forests and plains of Siberia. Next time.

8. The Hospitality
Russians don’t smile much, this is true. But when you get them talking, preferably over a few shots of homemade moonshine, their national sense of humor – sharp in its wit, particularly on political subjects – comes through. For someone like me who grew up in the 1980s, a time when every pop culture villain came with a Russian accent, these personal exchanges provided the best way to bust through stereotypes – and hopefully affect the views that Russians might have of Americans.

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Chris Gray Faust
Chris Gray Faust is the former travel editor at USA Today and the creator of the award-winning blog Chris Around The World. A journalist for 20 years, Chris has worked as a reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in addition to USA Today. She writes for numerous outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Budget Travel, Frommer’s, Gadling, Cruise Critic, the Independent Traveler and USA Today premium publications. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
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