Winning tip: Solovetsky islands, White Sea
This archipelago is in the White Sea in the far north-west. You will find lots of history, including, on Bolshoy Solovetsky, mysterious ancient stone labyrinths, a famous 1920s gulag, and a medieval monastery surrounded by a kremlin. The nature is beautiful here too – some of the islands are tundra-bound; others covered in wildflowers and wild berries. The islands also offer a taste of Russian village life, but with lots more to do (excursions, bikes and boats available to rent, etc) than in most Russian villages. We stayed in Hotel Pryut (doubles from £35, breakfast £3.50, email email@example.com, no website), which has loads of charm and is close to the monastery. Highly recommended for a change from the big cities and accessible by train and boat or plane.
Kizhi Pogost, north west
Take a hydrofoil from the unprepossessing north-west city of Petrozavodsk across lovely Lake Onega (one of the largest lakes in Europe) to Kizhi, a pretty green island of wooden wonders. The trip takes 75 minutes and costs about 3,000 roubles (£38 return). Here you’ll find the remarkable Kizhi Pogost, a compound of two huge and ancient multi-domed cathedrals built entirely of wood, with not a nail to hold them together. Their onion domes are scaled with silvery shingles made of aspen and gleam in the sun. You can wander around the island’s open-air museum with its wooden farmhouses and chapels for glimpses of daily life in pre-revolutionary Russia and admire the painstaking carpentry of the restoration workshop.
Traditional village near Vladimir
If you are lucky enough to be in the countryside near Vladimir, 190km east of Moscow, for a bit, Suzdal is an absolutely beautiful village with traditional wooden house, churches and kremlin. It also has a great market where you can buy yourself a gherkin or two from older lady with a single, giant jar of pickles in front of her, or a blini pancake with sour cream and salmon eggs prepared right in front of you… delicious. And if it gets a bit nippy, you can buy a delicate, hand-dyed mohair shawl as soft as a cuddle.
Mafia graves, Yekaterinburg
For a memorable – if morbid – experience, visit the mafia graves in the southern Urals city of Yekaterinburg. They are in two cemeteries, one for each of the rival gangs that terrorised the area in the 1990s. Shirokorechenskoe cemetery, in the south-west of the city, is where members of the Central gang were laid to rest. Their graves are easy to spot, although you will need a while to wander around and find them all. They feature full-sized portraits of the deceased, many adorned in gold chains, leather jackets or holding Mercedes car keys.
A stop on the Trans-Siberian
Utulik, a traditional Siberian village on the southern shores of Lake Baikal, has rustic architecture, scenic birch forests and a mountainous backdrop. To stay, I recommend Fedor’s House, a cosy wooden guesthouse, built and furnished by the owners. For an additional fee you can relax in its banya (Russian sauna). If you visit in spring you can try fresh birch water, tapped from the surrounding woodland. For local food, there’s smoked omul (fish from the salmon family endemic to Baikal) from the fish market at nearby Baykalsk and low-cost but delicious traditional dishes across the road at Cafe Polina.
For the authentic Siberian summer holiday experience, go for the village of Sarma on the western shore of Lake Baikal. Shaman shrines, Buddhist stupas, Siberian cowboys and stone burial mounds litter the mountainous landscape, and a fishing excursion with resident sailor and former Soviet pilot Captain Andrei is available for just a few thousand rubles. We learned Russian songs, sat outside at night with stars and bonfires and experienced the delights of rural Russian cuisine, with daily meals of salted kasha (buckwheat porridge) with jam and shashlik kebabs. A day trip to the island of Olkhon (the fourth-largest island in a lake in the world), organised by the Sarminskaya holiday park, offers a terrifying but exhilarating ride in a rickety old school bus (manned by a one-eyed driver) and a journey into the heart of the Pribaikalsky national park. Shake off the nerves with a swim in the freezing cold, eerily transparent waters of the lake or by spotting the hordes of seals that gather on the island. Sarminskaya (doubles from £9, viamichelin.com) was not the most luxurious of venues, but at around £5 a night for a traditional wooden hut for two it was the best-value adventure I’ve ever had.
In search of St Petersburg’s authors
St Petersburg is literary heaven. Stroll alongside frozen waterways to Pushkin’s house and see where he died after his duel with D’Anthes. Drop in at Dostoevsky’s apartment and imagine the author rolling a cigarette, lost in thought. Follow with a visit to atmospheric Volkovskoe cemetery, resting place of Leskov and Turgenev. Then, just as the cold starts to deaden your toes, head for Dom Knigi, an art nouveau bookshop gem. In the shop’s cafe, overlooking Kazan Cathedral, order a chilli hot chocolate and raise your cup to the ghosts of Russia’s literary greats. Perhaps next you’ll head to Nabakov’s house, or enjoy a laced coffee at the arty Idiot cafe.
St Petersburg guided walking
The best decision we (four adults and three teenagers) made when visiting St Petersburg was to contact Peter’s Walk (£19 for 4-5 hours) and arrange a custom-built tour. Ours included a trip to Zenit’s football ground, a very moving description of the siege of Leningrad and one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, in a tiny Georgian restaurant. The worst decision we made was not to go on a guided tour of the Hermitage. We thought we would make our own way around and we got completely lost. Our hotel – the Pushka Inn (doubles from £90 B&B) – next to the Hermitage, was comfortable and a bit quirky.
Kazan’s bell tower
The 74-metre bell tower of the Cathedral of the Epiphany in the city of Kazan is spectacular. It is hard to miss with its striking red-brick facade and it was the tallest building in Kazan until recently. Built in the 1890s, it is on the Kremlin side (a world heritage site) of pedestrianised Bauman Street in the city centre. The bell tower has just recently opened to tourists, who can climb to the top for £1.30, and is an interesting contrast to the famous tiered but shorter Söyembikä Tower nearby.
The capital has masses of trendy new places to dance away your nights. For excellent cocktails check out Mendeleev Bar (Petrovka 20/1); for dancing, try Rolling Stone, Gipsy or Jagger. But beware of “face control”. This 1990s throwback is the bizarre system whereby the hugely unattractive bouncer gets to decide whether you are attractive (or wealthy enough) to enter his establishment. While back home, being female is usually enough to get you in, here the situation is reversed. The abundance of beautiful Russian girls, as well as the general idea that only men can pay for drinks, means being female isn’t necessarily enough. My advice? Dress up, go in small mixed-gender groups, smile, have someone try to speak Russian to the bouncer and, in the background, someone else speak English. The foreign card often does the trick.