Did I ever tell you about the time I rode the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, all by myself, stopping in dozens of cities and towns across Russia on the way?
It’s true: I crossed Russia by train as a solo female traveler on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
And while it’s possible to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok on a non-stop train in as little as seven days, that just isn’t my travel style. (My butt hurts just thinking about sitting for that long!)
I decided to set out in the opposite direction, taking the train from Vladivostok to Moscow the lazy way – spending seven weeks on the road and stopping in different cities all across Russia. I didn’t speak a word of Russian, I didn’t work with a travel agency to plan my journey and I certainly didn’t know what to expect as a solo female on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In the end, my journey on the Tran-Siberian Express became one of my favorite travel memories. Yes, there were some stressful moments (keep reading to hear a real hostel horror story!) but they were vastly outnumbered by new friends, new experiences and new adventures. From Russia’s biggest cities to its smallest villages, my seven-week rail journey gave me unique insight into one of the most diverse and misunderstood countries on the planet.
There’s so much that I could say about my trip to Russia, but I wanted to start with the absolute essentials: where you should get off the train when you’re riding the Trans-Siberian Express. I implore you to leave time in your itinerary for stops in at least five of these spectacular Trans-Siberian Railway destinations. If you can fit in all ten, even better. Together, they give you a true cross-section of life in modern Russia, from the fascinating Asian influence in the east to the opulent European influence in the far west… and everything in between.
Trans-Siberian Express Stop #1 – Vladivostok
Vladivostok was my introduction to Russia, and it was nothing like I expected. A cosmopolitan port city, Vladivostok was a fascinating mix of European and Asian cultures, with a little bit of beach vibes for good measure. The city was pleasantly walkable (if a little hilly) and local businesses seemed accustomed to interacting with foreign visitors.
Things To Do in Vladivostok
It’s easy to spend a few hours wandering around Vladivostok’s city center, where you can explore little shops and cafes, walk along the waterfront or visit one of the city’s small museums. I paid for admission to the S-56 submarine, and enjoyed spending about thirty minutes inside the ship, imagining what life must have been like on board the boat. On my second day in the city I jumped on a bus out to the sprawling Far Eastern Federal University on Russky Island. It appeared to be the university’s orientation day for new students, so my presence wasn’t questioned, but I’ve heard that they don’t typically like foreigners wandering around their (truly stunning) campus… which obviously makes a visit that much more appealing!
In general, outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there aren’t a lot of traditional “things to do” in Russia. However, the lack of tourist attractions doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a boring trip on the Trans-Siberian Express. Actually, it means that the most often you stop, the more you’ll be able to experience typical daily life in Russia. Whether it’s buying fresh milk from a kiosk in the town square or viewing glorious monuments to the days of yore, every day brings new travel adventures in Russia… even if they’re not traditional “things to do”.
Hotels in Vladivostok
When I was in Vladivostok, I stayed at Barbados Hostel. This is a typical Russian-style hostel, which means it is located in a large apartment that has been converted into a hostel, and which also means that it is often occupied by many Russians who are temporarily working in the city. You can expect this of all Russian hostels I will write about, unless I explicitly note otherwise.
Barbados Hostel is a great option for backpackers taking the Trans-Siberian Express, as it’s only about three blocks up the street from the train station (it’s uphill to the hostel, and downhill to the station). Other interesting hostels in Vladivostok include Tiger Hostel, a backpacker hostel situated atop a hill that offers views of the city and ocean below, and Capsule Hotel Zodiac, a capsule hotel with small private sleeping areas and shared bathrooms. If you’d prefer to stay in a hotel, Boutique Hotel One Sea is a comfortable, affordable option that is also located on the hill between the train station and the beach.
Restaurants in Vladivostok
Vladivostok offers diners a very unique restaurant experience: the opportunity to eat at a state-owned North Korean restaurant. Pyongyang Restaurant (sometimes written “Pkhen’yan”) is a thirty-minute walk (or five-minute taxi ride) from the city center. I visited with people from my hostel, and we were seated in a private dining area behind a red curtain. Every time we pushed the red button at our table, our red-dressed waitress, who was from North Korea, would come to provide service (under the watchful eye of her stern male boss). Using my broken Russian I was able to explain that I was a vegetarian, and she had the kitchen prepare a special meatless bowl of bibimbap for me. Of course, choosing whether or not to support a state-owned North Korean restaurant is a personal and ethical choice. Personally, I was hopeful that when our waitress returned to North Korea, she would be well-equipped to dispel some myths about the West.
Trans-Siberian Railway Stop #2 – Khabarovsk
My second stop on the Trans-Siberian Express was Khabarovsk. Most backpackers pass right through this city without stopping, but I enjoyed a pleasant, two-night stay in this riverfront gem. Khabarovsk had one of the prettiest, and most photogenic, train stations along the Trans-Siberian route, and it seemed like every time I passed by the station I was tempted to stop and take another photo of its pink and green facade.
Things To Do in Khabarovsk
I rode the tram from the train station to my hostel, and along the way I noticed some interesting shopping centers (including a perfectly Soviet wig shop!) and a pleasant public park with a typical local market set up around its perimeter. So, after I dropped off my bags I actually backtracked to explore that area a bit more. That’s where I stumbled across the colorful statue of a pipa and balalaika, two typical Russian musical instruments.
The next day, I explored the city center and jumped on board a two-hour Amur river cruise. My afternoon boat was relatively calm (despite the ear-shattering Russian pop music they were playing on board!), but I’ve heard the evening tours can get a little rowdy!
Hotels in Khabarovsk
In Khabarovsk, I stayed at Kakadu Hostel. I was really impressed with this hostel, as it was clean, well-maintained and staffed by super-friendly receptionists. There was a tram stop right in front of the hostel, so you could hop on a tram to the center in about ten minutes, or walk the same route in twenty minutes.
If you’d prefer to stay in a hotel in the very center, Hotel Verba and Boutique Hotel Khabarovsk City are two great mid-range options right downtown, midway between the main square and the riverfront promenade.
Restaurants in Khabarovsk
The culinary scene in Khabarovsk wasn’t amazing, but I was able to find several different vegetarian meals during my time in the city. Stolovaya Lozhka is a cafeteria-style restaurant (“stolovaya”) in the city center that had vegetarian soup and salad options (assuming you’re willing to overlook possible chicken stock).
Trans-Siberian Express Stop #3 – Ulan-Ude
It’s a full two days by train from Khabarovsk to Ulan-Ude, so make sure you’ve got a good book, strong tea (with sugar cubes… trust me on this!) and lots of instant noodles for the next leg of your Trans-Siberian railway trip. All that travel time will be worth it when you arrive in Ulan-Ude, one of my favorite Russian cities and a multicultural mix of Russian and Mongolian ways of life.
Things To Do in Ulan-Ude
Obviously, you can’t visit Ulan-Ude without checking out the world’s largest Lenin head! The huge head statue in the city center weighs forty-two tonnes and towers 7.7 meters over the public square below. Nearby, there is a beautiful Opera & Ballet Theatre building, plus some museums about local Buryat culture and ethnography.
If you’ve got time, take a half-day trip from Ulan-Ude to the nearby Ivolginsky Datsan, which was built with Stalin’s permission after World War II. Here, local Buddhist monks practice their faith, and worshippers come from all over the country to see the miraculously-preserved remains of one of the datsan’s monks, who passed away more than seventy years ago. Although they don’t typically allow foreign tourists to view the monk’s body, you may be able to find a kind local who can advocate on your behalf.
Hotels in Ulan-Ude
Ulan-Ude was the first city I visited in Russia that had a proper backpacker hostel full of foreign travelers. As soon as I stepped off the Trans-Siberian Express (at the ungodly hour of 4:00 am!) I checked into Ulan-Ude Traveler’s House, a converted apartment located just beside the city’s massive Lenin head statue. It was really refreshing to spend time with other backpackers and to hear more about what to see and do as I traveled further west on the train.
There are also lots of hotels and apartment rentals in Ulan-Ude, but I can’t recommend any of them since I had such a positive experience at Ulan-Ude Traveler’s House. Wherever you stay, try to find accommodation that is close to the Lenin head statue.
Restaurants in Ulan-Ude
Appetite is a typical Russian stolovaya right across from the Lenin head. Again, I was able to find vegetarian soup and salad here, although service was notably frosty. I think Ulan-Ude was also the first city where I found a Traveler’s Coffee, a national chain of coffee shops with great wifi and (expensive) espresso-based drinks that rival those of Starbucks.
Trans-Siberian Railway Stop #4 – Irkutsk
Irkutsk looks and feels significantly more European than the cities I’d visited up to this point in my Trans-Siberian Express journey, so I was happy to settle down here for a couple of nights while enjoying the efficient infrastructure and tourist-friendly services (such as the well-marked walking routes through the city center, and the ubiquitous street signs providing actual directions to the city’s top attractions).
Things To Do in Irkutsk
Irkutsk is world-famous for its well-preserved wooden architecture, and I could have happily spent my entire visit walking around the city and photographing doors, windows and walls. If you’d like to imagine the buildings in their original state, check out 130 Kvartal, a small district in the city center featuring renovated, reconstructed and restored wooden buildings that have been converted into trendy shops, cafes and entertainment.
I also visited both of the city’s Decembrist museums, although due to their limited English signage I left both museums as clueless about the Decembrists as I had been when I started (hint: the Decembrists were upper-class Russians and members of the military who revolted against Nicholas I in 1825, and were then exiled to Siberia).
Hotels in Irkutsk
Irkutsk has a decently-sized backpacker scene, and a number of good hoods. I stayed at Baikaler Hostel, which is the original backpacker hostel in Irkutsk. The owner is highly involved in backpacking and promoting Siberia is a tourist destination for budget travelers.
However, if I were to return to Irkutsk today, I would definitely stay at Rolling Stone Hostel. It is operated by the same team as Baikaler, but it is organized into a small dorm and a number of small, budget-friendly private rooms (including an “eco-friendly capsule room” built into the hostel’s common room – could someone please book this and report back?!). Again, it’s got a great central location and the owner can help you organize all of your travel to Olkhon Island.
If you’d rather stay in a hotel in Irktusk, look for something located close to Ulitsa Karla Marxa (Karl Marx Street), the main street through the city.
Restaurants in Irkutsk
I had two great lunches at Govinda, a 100% vegetarian restaurant with a staff-served buffet, and where your food is priced by weight. They had a good selection of curries, grilled vegetables, mock meat products, drinks and desserts. For one dinner, I stopped at Lapsha Bar My Way, a stir-fry and noodle restaurant with a few vegetarian options, and the next night I loaded up on a grilled vegetable salad from Mamochka, another stolovaya. Overall, Irkutsk had a fantastic selection of restaurants and easily catered to both local and tourist tastes.
Trans-Siberian Express Stop #5 – Olkhon Island
Olkhon Island isn’t technically on the Trans-Siberian Express Railway (… it is an island, after all!), but it can be easily visited as a side trip from Irkutsk, and stands out in my memory as my second-favorite stop on the Trans-Siberian Express (after Moscow).
Every hotel and hostel in Irkutsk can organize your transportation to Olkhon Island – their preferred minivan service will pick you up at your door in Irkutsk, drive you to the ferry terminal (where you will walk on board the boat while the driver brings the van behind you) and then drive you all the way to the door of your Olkhon Island hotel or guesthouse. It’s all very efficient and unexciting, although I do suggest trying to make your crossings between Monday afternoon and Friday morning, as weekend ferry traffic can be absolutely crazy and you may get stuck waiting several hours for a boat with space available.
Things To Do on Olkhon Island
My top suggestion for Olkhon Island? Take an hour to sit by the water and do absolutely nothing. I swear, everything is different on Olkhon Island. The air is different. The water is different. The peace and quiet, the sky, the earth, the trees, the light… they are all different. It’s immediately apparent why this is a sacred space to the local Buryat people, whose ribbon-adorned prayer poles have been erected across the island.
Although you could easily spend a day just enjoying Khuzhir (the main town on Olkhon Island) and it’s nearby cliffs and beaches, the true beauty of Olkhon Island is further afield. All reputable hotels and guesthouses can organize excursions around the island and even to the opposite shores of the lake. I spent one full day on the island, traveling to the very north tip of the island for some hiking and sightseeing, and the next day I took a boat tour to the opposite side of the lake, where we did two easy hikes (including one through the “magical forest”) and even spotted an elusive Baikal seal (the only species of freshwater seal on the planet).
Hotels on Olkhon Island
I stayed at Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island. This remains one of my favorite guesthouses ever: it had an absolutely beautiful garden setting, there were excellent vegetarian options available from the upgraded buffet restaurant and they were able to organize excursions all over the island. I also really liked their accommodation model, where you were able to book private rooms and have the option of sharing the second or third beds, dorm-style, rather than sleeping in huge dorms full of bunk beds. Again – highly recommended!
If Nikita’s is full, there is an increasing number of accommodation options available in Khuzhir. Check out the full list of guesthouses, B&Bs and hostels in Khuzhir – I heard very good things about Guest House Natalia from other travelers (it’s a great budget option for backpackers and travelers on a shoestring budget) and Villa Malina is a solid option for travelers who prefer a traditional hotel rather than a guesthouse.
Restaurants on Olkhon Island
I didn’t eat at any restaurants on Olkhon Island because my hotel offered half board, including a delicious breakfast and dinner daily (seriously, I am still reminiscing about the cornmeal-based porridge they served one morning!). My lunches were included in my excursions.
Trans-Siberian Railway Stop #6 – Ekaterinburg
It’s another two-day journey from Irkustk to Yekaterinburg (which I broke up with a stop in Krasnoyarsk, which unfortunately didn’t make the cut for this list – although my hotel there, Hotel Dom Neo – was fantastic and definitely had the best breakfast of any Russian hotel I’ve visited!). Coincidentally, my visit to Ekaterinburg (you can spell it either way in English) fell on one of the city’s biggest holidays, so the streets were packed with friendly revelers, there were boat races on the river and it was almost impossible to get a seat at any of the restaurants in the city center.
Things To Do in Ekaterinburg
Most Russians visit Yekaterinburg to reflect at the Church Upon the Blood, which marks the site where Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and their children in 1918.
Because I visited during a festival, I spent most of my time taking in the special event. However, Yekaterinburg also has lots of museums, including museums highlighting the city’s cultural history, its military past and its natural environment.
Yekaterinburg also has some good day trip opportunities, including summer homestays in Byngi, a nearby village occupied by Russians who follow the traditions of the Old Believers. It’s also possible to organize excursions to the Don River, which is considered the official divide between Europe and Asia (and has several Soviet monuments emphasizing that honor).
Hotels in Ekaterinburg
In Ekaterinburg, I had an awesome stay at the Novotel Ekaterinburg Center. It is very close to the city center and has convenient connections to the train station for the Trans-Siberian Express. My room was very modern and comfortable, and the staff here were very helpful. Highly recommended.
I know that I call myself a “fearless” female traveler, but I also had an experience in a Ekaterinburg hostel was so scary that I literally ran away. I pulled out my travel journal (the relevant page opens with “HOSTEL CATASTROPHE”) and my email records to describe what happened to me:
Basically, I made a reservation at a place called “Art Hostel Gold” that was located at Bankovskij Pereulok, 10, in the city center. They sent me an email that said, “We can’t provide you number in hotel Gold. We will place you in the Loft hotel to the address of Lenin St. 62/3, a code 1.” This new (second) hotel was three kilometers outside the city center, on the opposite side of the river, but I figured that I could just hop on a tram to get into the center… and it’s not easy to search for a new hotel when you’re riding the Trans-Siberian Express through the middle of the Siberian taiga!
Of course, getting to Loft Hotel turned out to be more difficult than I’d imagined – I hailed a taxi who couldn’t find it, and who warned me against staying there due to the isolated location. Nobody could find the building, and some locals had to use their phones to call the hostel, who sent someone out to the street to meet me… and then took me to an entirely different address (yes, the third hostel!) a few blocks away!
When I got inside, they then tried to move me to another hostel! The girl didn’t speak English, so she had someone send me this email: “Sorry that it turned out that you had to go to another hotel. Address per. Universitetsky 11, 1 staircase, 3rd floor, a pink door intercom code # 423.” This fourth hostel was actually three kilometers back in the original direction plus two kilometers further way!
There was something very, very, very wrong with this situation, and since these people seem to operate a large number of hostels and “hotels” in Ekaterinburg, I encourage you to be very careful when booking hostels in Yekaterinburg. I think this group opens, closes and renames “hostels” very quickly, so please be cautious when booking to avoid the hostel names and addresses I’ve noted above.
Restaurants in Ekaterinburg
Once I checked in Novotel Ekaterinburg Center I was in a great location to explore the city’s restaurants. I found a great vegetarian cafeteria and ate all my meals there… but unfortunately it has since closed. If you’re looking for a good mix of vegetarian and meat-based dishes, consider checking out Khmeli Suneli, a popular Georgian restaurant, or Stolle, a cafe that specialized in perogies (and other stuffed dumplings) with all sorts of sweet and savory fillings.
Trans-Siberian Express Stop #7 – Perm
All of my memories of Perm, Russia are… wet. Even though I visited in the middle of summer, it was pouring rain for the entire two days that I spent in the city. The weather, combined some unfortunate tourist attraction closures, put a damper on my time in the city. However, I still recommend Perm as a great stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It hardly sees any tourists, it’s full of stunning Soviet architecture, and there’s a restaurant so crazy that you have to see it to believe it. That being said, you only need one night in Perm.
Things To Do in Perm
You’re looking at the #1 tourist attraction in Perm (according to TripAdvisor at the time of my visit) – a statue of a guy taking a photo. Woo-hoo!
I was actually really excited about visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art PERMM, which my guidebook said was great, but I found it to be closed (and quite… ramshackle…) when I visited Perm. I checked today and the website appears to be updated, with information about current exhibits, so it would be worth a visit if you’re in town.
The other thing that I really wanted to do in Perm was visit Perm-36, which is the only gulag (Soviet work camp) in Russia that wasn’t destroyed after the fall of the USSR. Because it’s about 125 kilometers from Perm, it’s easier to visit as part of an organized tour. For a while, there was a museum at Perm-36, but it was closed when I visited and since it was absolutely pouring rain, I wasn’t interested in a visit that only included the exterior of the site. It’s hard to find accurate information about whether or not the site and/or museum are currently open, but the tourist information office inside the Hotel Ural can connect you with an English-speaking guide.
There are other things to do in Perm, including some art galleries and small regional museums.
Hotels in Perm
In Perm, I stayed at Hostel 7 Rooms. It was a little bit difficult to find at the time, but I provided them with clear English directions that they can share with guests – I hope they’re using them, because this was a lovely hostel. Very clean, cozy and comfortable, and the owners were among the kindest I met along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
If you’re wanting to splurge on an (inexpensive) hotel room, Hotel Ural is a massive landmark in the center of Perm. It feels a bit like City Hall or something, as the lobby is full of the city’s most important business offices, banks and tourist services. The hotel has three restaurants, a (retro) fitness center and a sauna that offers quite possibly my favorite discount of all time:
There is a “Birthday man” offer in the “Stroganovskaya” sauna: All birthday man get a 10% discount on “Stroganovskaya” sauna for a period of 10 days before and 10 days after the date of birth.
Guys, what are you waiting for?
Restaurants in Perm
Stop the presses! Perm, Russia has an entire “Friends”-themed cafe called Central Perk! Designed to look exactly like the interior of the cafe from the American television show, and featuring huge murals of the “friends” themselves on the exterior walls, this cafe is so unexpected and bizarre that it’s almost worth stopping in the city just for a cup of coffee!
Another highly-recommended restaurant is Vkus Stranstvy, a stolovaya in the city center. They had several different vegetarian choices, and I opted for a simple plate of grilled vegetables and fried potatoes.
Trans-Siberian Railway Stop #8 – Suzdal
Much like Olkhon Island, Suzdal is another non-stop on the Trans-Siberian Express: technically, the train doesn’t actually stop here, but it’s easily accessible from the nearby station at Vladimir, which is less than forty kilometers away. Buses from Vladimir to Suzdal “technically” stop at the Suzdal bus station that is five kilometers from the city center, but if a few passengers are willing to pay a gratuity, most drivers will continue to the historic center.
When I think about my journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Suzdal stands out as one of my absolute favorite stops. After several weeks of concrete plazas, block-like buildings and sitting on trains, Suzdal’s quite countryside setting, full of little cottages, wooden footbridges and domed Orthodox churches, was wonderfully refreshing. I spent three full days here and could have stayed longer.
Things To Do in Suzdal
Within an hour of two of arriving in Suzdal I noticed a trend among the Russian women who were also visiting: most arrived in Suzdal in their city clothes, but quickly visited one of the local dress shops and changed into a traditional, floor-length floral dress. Jumping on the bandwagon, the first thing I did in Suzdal was go shopping for a new dress. I found one that suited me perfectly, and while I didn’t wear it around Suzdal, one year later I still love wearing it when I’m back home on a hot summer day. A handmade floral dress made from natural fibers (not polyester!) is my #1 souvenir recommendation for all of Russia, and Suzdal is a great place to buy one.
With shopping complete (and possibly adorned in a brand-new outfit), it’s time to explore the amazing heritage sites that make Suzdal famous. You probably passed the historic trading arcades on your way into town (don’t miss the mead tasting room on the back side of the building, facing the river!) and immediately noticed the many churches that dot the village landscape. On the opposite side of the river, the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life is an open-air ethnographic museum showing the traditional architecture, lifestyle and culture of the region.
When you’re ready to explore the heart of Suzdal by foot, you can start in the north side of town, at the flowery Holy Intercession Convent and Saviour Monastery of St Euthymius (modest dress is required to enter both religious complexes), or you can begin at the south end of town at Suzdal’s riverfront Kremlin (a fortified citadel built in the twelfth century). It’s a comfortable, and picturesque, walk between both sights.
Hotels in Suzdal
When I visited Suzdal, one of Moscow’s most famous backpacker hostels also had a location in Suzdal. I stayed there and enjoyed my stay, but it seems they’ve closed their doors.
Suzdal is an ideal place to choose an intimate guesthouse over a typical hotel. If you’re using Booking’s map view to choose your guesthouse, look for something around the widest, bendiest part of the river – this is the quaint, picturesque village part of Suzdal, away from the busy modern district.
Restaurants in Suzdal
Every time I ate a meal in Suzdal I felt like the waitress had taken my order and then a babushka had gone back into the field behind the restaurant and picked a fresh potato, mushroom or onion for my meal. The flavors of the fruits and vegetables popped in every dish, and every meal had a rustic, homestyle quality that I didn’t find anywhere else in Russia. Unless you’re eating in locals’ homes, Russian food can sometimes feel a bit utilitarian, but in Suzdal, every dish felt like it was cooked with love.
My two most memorable meals in Suzdal were from Chanaya (a homey cafe right beside the Kremlin) and Kvasnaya Izba, on the opposite side of the river, where they brew their own kvass (lightly-fermented rye bread soda) in a historic building. Both restaurants had lots of hearty meat dishes and several delicious vegetarian choices. I can also recommend breakfast at Kharchevnya, where I was served an omelette in a pot! In a pot! My mind was blown!
Trans-Siberian Express Stop #9 – Moscow
I fell in love with Mosow very quickly, and made the spontaneous decision to stay in the city for a full week rather than continue onward to Saint Petersburg. I definitely think that I made the right choice for my travel style and my travel interests, and I have no regrets about ending my Trans-Siberian Railway journey in the Russian capital.
There were so many things that I loved about Moscow. First, the city is absolutely huge, and I loved how I could emerge from a spectacular underground metro station and find myself face-to-face with buildings that seemed bigger than anything I’d ever seen before… how could I not have spotted these monoliths from my earlier vantage points?
Second, as someone who is fascinated by Soviet architecture, Moscow didn’t disappoint. I used Architectuul to plan several walking routes around the city, each leading me to buildings more fantastical than the last. Moscow is very pedestrian-friendly – although it’s huge, you can use the metro system to reach a starting point and then easily walk for hours on clean, wide sidewalks, through picturesque parks and underneath shady trees.
Finally, after spending almost seven weeks crossing Russia by train on the Trans-Siberian Railway, I was more than ready for a little comfort. Moscow is a truly international capital city, with excellent shopping (at all price points), restaurants to satisfy every taste and every budget, and actual tourist attractions (beyond just “statue of man taking photo”!).
Things To Do in Moscow
Check your “good tourist” boxes and start your visit to Moscow in the area around the Red Square. Here, you’ve got the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the GUM Department Store.
If that doesn’t take a full day, I would suggest that you spend your afternoon on one of the luxury river cruises offered by the Radisson Royal Hotel Moscow (which itself is located inside one of the famous Seven Sisters skyscrapers). This gives you a better orientation to the layout of the city, and you’ll get a preview of other attractions that might be of interest, including the Novodevichy Convent, Luzhniki Stadium, Gorky Park and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
I also visited the Sanduny Banya while I was in Moscow. At first, I was slightly put off by the fact that the beautiful front doors were only for male visitors, while women had to enter through a side door that was probably first installed for servants or something, but once I was inside my anger over the sexist door situation quickly melted away. I love spas (and have written about day spas in Baden-Baden and Milan) but had never experienced anything quite as scorching as the Sanduny Banya… I was amazed that my eyebrows didn’t burn off!
On my last day in Moscow I visited the Izmaylovo Market, which you can see in my second photo above. The Izmaylovo Market is sort of half flea market, half crazy, Russian-Disney-esque souvenir shopping center. I picked up a full set of shirtless Vladmir Putin mugs (miraculously they all survived the journey back to Canada, but I feel really uncomfortable every time I try drinking out of them, so they’re mostly decorative today…) along with some Soviet space program memorabilia for my brother. I was even able to order a vegetarian lunch from the guys grilling meat in the middle of the market, and my veggie kebab with pita bread was memorably good.
Hotels in Moscow
I stayed at two hotels and one hostel in Moscow. In my opinion, the most important thing to consider when choosing a Moscow hotel is the location. Ideally, you want to be within two or three blocks of a metro station and relatively close to the attractions that interest you the most.
I can’t personally recommend any Moscow hostels, as I didn’t really like the one I had reserved (I checked out early) and, at the time, it had the best reviews of any hostel in the city. However, I’ve heard that the 2018 World Cup was motivation for local hostels to up their game, so I’m sure that you’ll be able to find a great hostel in Moscow today – that link will take you to an updated list of the city’s highest-rated hostels.
The first hotel that I stayed at in Moscow was Pushkin Hotel. I chose it because of its proximity to three metro stations: Pushkinskaya, Tverskaya and Chekovskaya. It was also pretty easy to navigate from here, as it was a straight walk (downhill!) from Hotel Pushkin to the Red Square and the Kremlin. However, my room didn’t have the advertised air conditioning, which was a disappointment during hot summer nights.
Next, I stayed at the Godunov Hotel. I actually ended up here when I was unhappy at a neighboring hostel (I won’t say the name, but you can easily use Google Maps to find very nearby hostels…). I was very happy with the location of the Godunov Hotel, which is close to the Trubnaya metro station, the world-famous Sanduny Banya Russian baths and some of the city’s luxury shopping districts (in which I looked, but didn’t shop!). However, the wifi didn’t work for my entire stay and the staff were really rude to all of the travelers who asked them to find a solution.
Restaurants in Moscow
My first meal in Moscow was at one of the city’s four Khachapuri resturants. Khachapuri is a type of Georgian flatbread, and its also the name of this local chain of Georgian restaurants. This was my first time trying Georgian food, and it turned into the inspiration for my visit to Georgia shortly thereafter! Khachapuri has amazing food with lots of vegetarian options, including budget-friendly lunch specials. They have a convenient location one block away from the Pushkinskaya metro station, while their restaurant on Ukrainskiy Bul’var has a lovely terrace in the park.
I also visited a few of the city’s vegan and vegetarian restaurants, including the trendy Fresh (where I had a salad with breaded oyster mushrooms that was insanely good… and I think I might have been the only non-supermodel in the restaurant) and Avocado Cafe, which has a convenient location near the end of Tverskaya Street and the Red Square.
If you’ve run out of money at the end of your Trans-Siberian Express journey, you can have a great meal on a low budget at Grabli, a chain of stolovayas with locations across the city. These restaurants are quite large (similar to Lido in Latvia, or Puzata Hata in Kiev) and have excellent meat-based and vegetarian choices such as soup, salad, buckwheat, grilled vegetables and pancakes (both sweet and savory). There’s a large Grabli location beside the Pushkinskaya metro station.
Trans-Siberian Railway Stop #10 – Saint Petersburg
Full Disclosure: I didn’t go to Saint Petersburg!
It was on my itinerary, but I liked Moscow so much that I decided to stay there for a full week rather than continuing all the way northwest to Saint Petersburg. However, it is obviously an iconic travel destination in Russia and a popular addition to the Trans-Siberian Railway journey (since technically it’s not on the formal Trans-Siberian rail line).
Compared to Moscow, Saint Petersburg is known for being more affordable, with more beautiful classic architecture and a warmer attitude towards visitors. So, it’s an ideal multi-day stop for budget travelers who feel overwhelmed in Moscow’s bustling metropolis.
Creative commons photo via Alejandro on Flickr.
Things To Do in Saint Petersburg
Literally every Saint Petersburg travel expert suggests that you devote an entire day to The Hermitage, the massive state-owned museum featuring more than three million works of art, selectively displayed in 360 rooms across five buildings. The permanent exhibits include masterpieces like da Vinci’s Madonna and Child, Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and Caravaggio’s The Lute Player. Book your one- or two-day tickets online at the official Hermitage website to skip the queue – there’s a surcharge, but there’s too much to see to waste your time in line.
Other highlights in Saint Petersburg depend on your interests. There are many beautiful Orthodox churches to visit and stunning palaces to explore, while lots of visitors like to take in a ballet or opera at the opulent Mariinsky Theatre. The Faberge Museum has the world’s largest collection of Russia’s famous decorative eggs, while the Kunstakamera showscases eggs of a very different variety (I’m gonna let you Google that yourself). If you didn’t visit a banya in Moscow, don’t leave Russia without donning a felt hat and sweating it out while receiving a strong (but optional!) birch branch lashing at one of the city’s historic saunas. .
Hotels in Saint Petersburg
Since I haven’t been to Saint Petersburg, I will refer you to Booking’s list of hot deals in the city.
Restaurants in Saint Petersburg
Again, not having visited Saint Petersburg, I can’t speak to its restaurant scene. However, I noticed the city has several Georgian Khachapuri i Vino restaurants, which I tried in Kiev and can confirm have a good selection of vegetarian options.
I generally trust the restaurant listings from In Your Pocket and Like a Local (scroll down a bit as they’re heavily pushing food tours at the top), so click through to see their recommended restaurants in Saint Petersburg.
Russia Guidebooks for the Trans-Siberian Railway
I don’t think I would have survived my Trans-Siberian Express journey without the Lonely Planet Russia guidebook. I loved having a paper copy of the book to read on the train between destinations, and it really helped me decide which cities warranted a stop (and how long to spend in each place). My personal copy is well-worn, with notes on many of the pages, highlighting throughout and even a few pages shoved back inside the book after I cut them out and carried them around in my purse!
Lonely Planet publishes two useful guidebooks for the Trans-Siberian Railway, and both have been updated in the last year. Their classic Lonely Planet Russia Guidebook is 720 pages and covers the entire country, while the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway only covers destinations along the Trans-Siberian route, and is therefore only 416 pages. I used both while planning my trip, but chose to carry the larger book with me on the trip.
Do you have questions about solo travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to reply!
If you want to experience some authentic Eastern European travel without the hassle of obtaining a Russian visa, consider visiting Belarus, which has just opened its borders for up to thirty days of visa free travel (for travelers from many countries), or Ukraine, where you can explore the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone on an overnight excursion.