11 Reasons to Visit Russia

The biggest country in the world doesn’t always get a fair shake in terms of travel publications. And “should we visit Russia?” is a question that comes up all the time. Well, yes, yes we should. Watch this video with eleven of our reasons why…along with some beautiful footage of Russia. (And listen to Robert discussing the subject on Rick Steves’ radio show!)

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  1. PEOPLE & COZINESS

English has no word that compares with hygge, that Danish notion of warmth, coziness and contentment. Russians do: уют. Often outsiders have a false notion of what Russians are like, limiting them to sour-faced people in blue filter light queuing in long lines for drab choices of gray foods. In 1985, Sting even noted, “I hope Russians love their children too.”

Well, inside those socialist dorms, you find an explosion of grandmotherly color and warmth. Russian cities have more flower shops than anywhere else in the world. In St Petersburg, we visited a punk rock back-alley bar where local youths brought blankets to sit down – to listen to politicized punk reggae.

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2. ART & ARCHITECTURE

Russia definitely has a “look.” You find it with the onion-domed cathedrals. It’s unknown when these started. St Basil’s, the famed anchor of Red Square, as its since the 1500s. Some scholars say they started following the Mongol invasion two centuries before. Wood cathedrals, such as Kizhy on Lake Onega, have 22 domes.

Art-wise, St Petersburg’s Hermitage is one of the world’s great art museums; though we preferred seeing Russian art at the nearby State Russian Museum or Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Or just the constant array of social-realist murals, mosaics and statues.

3. SOVIET NOSTALGIA

Speaking of social realism, you’ll find artful nods to the past (including Lenin statues on public squares) and less artful ones like housing blocks and factories. The best way to experience the past is at the Soviet Arcade Machines Museum (in Moscow and St Petersburg), where you get old 15-kopeck coins to play a few dozen games from the ‘70s and ‘80s. WATCH our video above! (Or read more about the museum here.)

While there, you can buy colorful Dva Myacha Soviet-era sneakers, newly made from historic equipment. The name means “Two Balls” because they’re to be used for basketball and soccer.

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4. TRAINS & SUBWAYS

The Trans-Siberian Railway is the world’s longest train journey, connecting Moscow to Vladivostok in seven days. It’s as much about what happens on the train as what passes by the window. This is where it’s easiest to befriend locals, who’ll hand over fresh produce from their gardens and pour their vodka as if you’re a long-lost cousin.

The metro systems of St Petersburg and (particularly) Moscow are epic creations too – built deep to double as bomb shelters. Moscow’s are thematic. In stations like Revolution Square, bronze figures of armed Red Army figures lurk ominously in the shadows.

5. RUSSIAN FOOD

Nothing is more surprising about Russian dining as how seasonal, fresh, varied and flavorful it can be. In other words, it’s not just borscht (which isn’t Russian anyway). Pelmeni dumplings, coated in smetyana sour cream, are unreal. Soups are a delight. The schi is a cabbage soup, while the ukha is a tasty fresh soup. In Siberia, you’ll find locals selling fresh smoked fish on train platforms of the Trans-Siberian and Central Asian-style skewered meats on menus. At old-school stolovaya (cafeterias), ask for kasha, a buckwheat porridge soup.

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6. SWEATERS & SOUVENIR KITSCH

The stacking matryoshka dolls are found across seven timezones, made in folk style or with political or sports of rock figures. Many souvenirs play off the CCCP era, with t-shirts, caps and Red Army hats. You’ll also find Putin mugs of a topless leader “riding a bear.” The fur hats are legendary (but also expensive). There are alternative winter souvenirs. The Volga River town of Uglich is known for wool sweaters. We picked up ones that offer serious Russian warmth for much less.

7. LITERARY CULTURE

The land of Tolstoy and Dostoesvky is very very fond of books and reading, and talking about books and reading. Subway stores in New York sell overpriced water bottles and tabloids with Trump on the cover. In a St Petersburg metro stall, we found a hand-carved wood pin devoted to the early 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin. A common gift for a new friend is a book. (Robert has literally been given books with bookmakers in place, as a sign of friendship). While in St Petersburg, go to Dom Knigi (World of Books), an Art Nouveau masterpiece on Nevsky Prospekt.

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8. MUSHROOMS, FORAGING, FORESTS & LONG WALKS

Russians love mushrooms. Really really love mushrooms (gribi). Russians don’t “pick” mushrooms, but “collect” (sobirat’) them, as if their our lost children rounded up to their rightful place. Robert once gave his Russian teacher in New York some fresh mushrooms, and got an unexpected equal in praise. Part of the fun is foraging for them in Russia’s great forests. The country is not often mountainous, but the rural bucolic is often found in wild birch forests, taking long walks. When you meet a local, they won’t choose to go sit in a bar to talk. They’ll invite you on a long walk. Take it as a compliment. You’re “in” with them.

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9. RIVER LIFE

People think of the ultimate transport in Russia as the train. But rivers across its girth offer myriad alternatives. The Volga (Europe’s longest and largest river) is the obvious choice, passing Moscow and 10 other cities – we rode it, passing medieval monasteries and historic towns, on a Viking Cruise in 2017. Out east, the Lena River is where Lenin got his name.

You can take cruises from Yakutsk, the coldest city of the world, to the Leninski Stolbi (Lenin Pillars), a triumphant rise of jagged peaks far distant from the nearest roads.

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10. RUSSIAN BALLET

Didn’t think we forgot, did you? The Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St Petersburg are world champs of ballet. And it feels like being in a Tolstoy novel to just attend a performance. We got box seats for a Marinksy ballet for $25 each (not including opera glasses), and watched a witch win the day in a French romance ballet. Fun.

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11. BECAUSE IT’S DIFFICULT

The visa process for Russia is notoriously expensive and complicated. So what? The added filter adds a layer of adventure, and means – mostly likely – fewer people will be there. Services like GenVisa eased the difficulty (the questionnaire for a visa is hilariously detailed). The point is, don’t let a little bureaucracy get between you and seeing Russia.

BONUS: ITS REMOTE BEAUTY!

Siberia’s Laike Baikal holds 22% of the world’s fresh water, including more than all of the Great Lakes combined. The key is depth. It’s about four or five times deeper than any Great Lake. The 25-million-year-old lake is rimmed by mountains and forest, and has hundreds of endemic fish, aquatic worms and crustaceans. Weird guys. It freezes in winter. If you go in late spring, you can hear the surface “groan” as the ice starts to crack open and reveal some of the world’s clearest water once again.

Northwest runs the Lena River, where you can go by cruise to the Leninski Stolbi (Lenin Pillars, below). Muddy roads get to this area in summer, but if you insist on driving, go in winter when the frozen rivers become the most reliable road system in this corner of the Russian Far East. Farther east, in that peninsula dangling in the face of Alaska, Kachatka brims with snow-capped volcanoes and valleys of geysers, or nomadic reindeer herders you must track down by old Soviet helicopters. Russia is gorgeous.

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More Russia …

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7 Reasons We're Becoming Location-Independent

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The Tinkertowners are going local — as in, becoming locals wherever we are! Some call this lifestyle ‘digital nomads,’ or ‘borderless living,’ but we’re going with ‘location-independence.’ We’ve both lived overseas before (Robert in Vietnam, Australia and the UK; Kim in Norway), and have both also traveled extensively over the past 20 years. This leads some of our friends and family to ask if we’ll ever come back to the USA and our answer is: We’re not sure yet.

Leaving lovely Portland to explore life in other parts of the globe, as a location-independent family.

Leaving lovely Portland to explore life in other parts of the globe, as a location-independent family.

Some of our reasons for ditching the idea of one specific location being called “home”:

  1. It’s now easier than ever to register and manage a business entirely online, especially with programs like the country of Estonia’s e-Residency. The middle class is on the rise seemingly everywhere but in America, and we’re eager to find opportunity wherever it may be on this sphere of ours.

  2. By setting up a home and staying as long as we feel inspired by a given location, we’ll have the time to make friends with locals and interesting expats from around the world. We’ll be bringing our little pal Disco the Doggo, so might even make some nice new canine friends.

  3. Cost of living is dramatically lower in some other parts of the world — that are often more beautiful, more full of arts & culture, and safer than the USA. We’ll be living in Vietnam (first up: Saigon, then perhaps Da Nang and Hanoi) for the foreseeable future, until we decide to move on. Other locations under consideration down the road are Estonia, Bulgaria, India, Laos, Mexico, Russia (yes, Russia), and the Rep. of Georgia — but, nah, not Chang Mai, Thailand.

  4. Online high school (for Kim’s teenage daughter) has 100% fewer school shootings than schools in the USA do. Not only will she have more time and creative flexibility (she’s a night owl like us), she’ll be much more safe in this era of epic American gun violence.

  5. Our kids will develop a much more well-rounded worldview and will be taking art and language classes wherever we are.

  6. Living outside the US, specifically, diversifies gut bacteria — which can lead to overall better health and well-being.

  7. All the caramelized bacon and delicious IPAs have led to a bump in, ahem, girth. We’re looking forward to eating healthier - with some of the world’s freshest, tastiest street food awaiting — AND feeling healthier by distancing ourselves from the constant barrage of social media angst in these prickly times in the States.

We’ll be writing and posting videos — and would love to know what you’d find most interesting. So leave us a comment on what you’d like to see most along the way as we have new adventures.

International house tours? Street food? Recipes and cooking lessons? How to make money while living abroad? How to be an e-Resident? How to travel internationally with a dog? Local music? Local comedy scenes? Cost of living comparisons? Just let us know…

We’ll post a limited amount of things on social media (for obvious reasons), and most of our content will be hosted exclusively here on our own website and in our monthly email zine called <CONTENT> … subscribe below!

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We have a strict commenting policy: Any comments even coming close to harassment, haranguing, trolling or spamming will be deleted and the user’s IP address permanently banned. This is our online home and we won’t tolerate that kind of stuff. That said, if you’re one of the good guys—comment away—you’re in a safe space!

Do U.S. Travel Publishers Have a Russia Blindspot?

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I'm a bit of a Slavophile. Growing up in Cold War Tulsa, we were told the Soviets were bad. So I immediately became interested. I did a school report on "Life in the Soviet Union," studied Russian in college, spent the summer of '92 studying in Moscow and St. Petersburg, got followed by a KGB guy when I was interning at Echo Moscow, rode the Trans-Siberian Railway (twice) while updating Lonely Planet guides, and went back last year with Kim for a fun Viking river cruise down the Volga, and to shop for Soviet records.

I know Russia's never been an easy place to visit. But I also know it's easier than it used to be. And that it's worth the effort. I've never seen any place, for example, with more flower shops. And if Russians love flowers that much, they have to be a people worth spending some time with.

I've noticed, though, that no matter how many headlines Putin makes, travel media seems to turn a relative blind eye to the world's biggest country. At least in those year-end "best of" travel lists, I mean.

In the past four years, Russia's hosted the world's biggest two sporting events: the Olympics and the World Cup. And yet Russia made those "best of" lists only 12.5% of the time. Yet when those same events are held in places like Brazil (also home to an expensive, time-consuming visa process) or South Korea (near that feisty North Korea border), the host nation makes the list 67% of the time.

That's 12.5% vs 67%. Feels like a "blindspot bias" to me. 

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Anyway, that's too much of an imbalance for me to stay mum. So I wrote about it for Skift and talked about it with some of the most enduring and endearing travel podcasters out there on This Week in Travel.

Have a listen! (The Russia talk begins at the 19:00 mark.) 

Robert Reid, co-founder of AA Jaggers, has worked in travel publishing for over two decades. Follow him on Twitter at @reidontravel.