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Home to culture-rich cities and vast wilderness, the downsized—though no less massive—Russian Federation boasts wonder and intrigue. Its main monuments, such as the Kremlin, are grand and unforgettable, while history goes way back. If you’re adventurous, there’s a whole other world outside the mega centres of Moscow and St Petersburg, from the Black Sea beaches of Sochi to ancient Novgorod.
It can be a challenge to drive here, with corrupt police, inconsistent roads and signage, and few service stations. GPS is a must. An alternative is to rent a car with a licensed guide or fly to main centres and explore from there.
Driving licences: an International Driving Permit must accompany your UK driving licence.
Which side does Russia drive on: the right.
Motorways: 68mph (110kph)
Rural areas: 55mph (90kph) or 13mph (20kph)
Built-up areas: 37mph (60kph)
Drivers who have held their licence for less than two years: 43mph (70kph)
Alcohol limits: zero tolerance, with stiff penalties for those with even 0.01 per cent blood alcohol level (compared with UK limit of 0.08 per cent).
Driving age: 17 years, but usually 21 to rent a car.
Seatbelts: compulsory for all passengers, while children under 12 years must be seated in the rear. Ask your rental firm about restraints for children/infants.
Mobile phones and GPS: drivers cannot talk on a mobile while it is held to their ear; a hands-free kit must be used and there are stiff penalties for breaches. Having GPS is a plus as routes can be confusing.
Cost of fuel in Russia: less than half the price of petrol and diesel in the UK.
Car hire and fuel payment: carry cash as not all petrol stations accept credit cards. Advise your card issuer of usage in the Russian Federation before travel if you plan to use a credit card for car hire.
Insurance: check that your car rental comes with fully comprehensive insurance and pay excess for collision damage waiver.
Traffic and parking: both are typically tough in cities, especially Moscow where it is hard to park. Avoid the Sadovoye (Garden) Ring during rush hours as it gets heavily congested.
Direct trains serve Russia from French (Nice and Paris), German, Austrian, Czech and Italian cities, as well as from nearby neighbours, with Russian Railways. Most services run to Moscow, while some terminate in St Petersburg. The Paris to Moscow fare is around £270. Tickets on the domestic express train between Moscow and St Petersburg cost around £50, with the Moscow to Vladivostok route on the Trans-Siberian Railway costing in the region of £400 and Moscow to Beijing about £500. Trains are comfy and well-priced, while domestic inter-city travel is comprehensive and preferable to bus travel since distances are vast. The big cities have metros and tramways, with single fares on Moscow’s metro starting at around £0.50.
Taxis are expensive and hit and miss since many of them are unofficial ‘bombers’, where you negotiate the price and hope for the best. Legitimate taxis charge a flat rate no matter how far you go. New Yellow Taxi is one of the main taxi firms in Moscow, with typically yellow Volgas and Fords. Fares average around £4 for city hops.
Eurolines serves Moscow and Saint Petersburg from Warsaw (Poland), Tallinn (Estonia), Helsinki (Finland) and London (UK), among other cities. Fares from London are around £60. Domestically, most people travel long distance by train as distances are large and state buses only usually serve destinations which are within five or six hours’ drive. Buses are ideal for getting between small towns where trains don’t go and are cheap. In towns, shared marshrutka minibuses run on fixed routes, while most cities have regular buses and trolleybuses with fares of around £0.50.
Ferry travel is not the preferred method of getting in though the most useful service is the overnight service from Helsinki to St Petersburg with St Peter Line. There’s also a service from Trabzon, Turkey, to Sochi in southwestern Russia, while Vladivostok is served from Japanese ports in southeastern Russia. Cruises run in summer, typically linking Moscow and St Petersburg or Kazan and Volgograd.
Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the most common entry points, with airports in both cities served by direct flights from the UK. Moscow is served by three international airports: Domodedovo (south), Sheremetyevo (northwest) and Vnukovo (southwest). Taxis between these airports are expensive at about £30, but all airports are connected with central Moscow by Aeroexpress trains. There are domestic routes from Moscow to all major Russian cities. Domestic flights between Moscow and Saint Petersburg cost around £40.
Moscow, home to Red Square, onion domes and the Kremlin, is the main draw. The throne of Ivan the Terrible is a highlight, while the nearby Golden Ring is a place of monumental forts and ecclesiastical splendour. Nearby Vyborg has a Finnish air.
St Petersburg on the Baltic is a draw for many visitors as it is grand and beautiful at the same time, with its palaces, delta islands and myriad waterways. Major attractions are the Winter Palace and State Hermitage Museum.
To the south is the country’s oldest city, Novgorod, with St Sophia Cathedral and Millennium of Russia Monument both must-sees. Black Sea destinations are also hugely popular, including Sochi, which has fine beaches and a warm climate. The nearby Caucasus Mountains are renowned for their spas and hiking.
If you have time and a good vehicle, Siberia covers much of the interior and is just waiting to be explored, though this is best done in summer with a plan. In the south of the Federation is the world’s deepest lake, Lake Baikal, best visited from Irkutsk.
Russia covers many climatic zones and extremes, from frigid Siberia in the north to scorching summer temperatures in the south and southwest. The Baltic area is mild, with long days in summer and cold winters, while the Black Sea region reaches summer maximums into the 30s (°C) and has more rain. Moscow has summer averages of 20°C (68°F), while most winter days are freezing.