Russia Visitors Guide [y]

European Russia stretches from the borders of the states of Belarus and Ukraine to the Ural mountains, over 1000km east of Moscow; even without the rest of the Russian Federation, it constitutes by far the largest country in Europe. It was also, for many years, one of the hardest to visit. Today Russia is far more accessible, and although visas are still obligatory and accommodation often has to be booked in advance, independent travel is increasingly an option. Nonetheless, Moscow and St Petersburg remain the easiest places to visit, and these are covered below. For the adventurous, travel further afield can be booked through various agencies in Russia and abroad, and there is an increasing number of Web sites offering advice and travel services for the less standard routes.

Moscow and St Petersburg are mutually complementary. Moscow, the capital, is hugely enthralling. It is not a beautiful city by any means and is a somewhat chaotic place. However, Moscow’s central core reflects Russia’s long and fascinating history at the heart of a vast empire, whether in the relics of the Communist years, the Kremlin with its palaces and churches of the tsars, the wooden buildings still tucked away in backstreets, or in the massive building projects of the mayor, Yuriy Luzhkov, which have radically changed the face of the centre.

By contrast, Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, is Europe at its most gracious, an attempt by the eighteenth-century tsar Peter the Great to re-create the best of Western European elegance in what was then a far-flung outpost. Its position in the delta of the River Neva is unparalleled, full of watery vistas of huge and faded palaces. St Petersburg has not been revamped anywhere near as much as Moscow, which many consider a good thing, and it preserves unity and stability lacking in the capital.

You will not be bothered by the so-called Russian mafia in either city, but, as in any other big city, you should beware of petty crime