For all the millions of tourists each year, and for all the countless thousands of places they can visit, there really seems to be only two reasons people travel: We seek relaxation, or we seek experiences. People in the first group tend to vacation on beaches and at resorts. Think warm water, massages, lounge chairs and exotic drinks. But the second type of traveler, the one seeking novel experiences, he’s more active. He rides a gondola in Venice, walks along China’s Great Wall, and pays homage to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Whether you seek a passive vacation or an active one, you can meet either goal on a trip to Russia or Ukraine.
The Former Soviet Union is hardly the first place you’d think of when considering a beach vacation. But take out a map and have a look for yourself: Ukraine, for example, has a huge peninsula jutting into the Black Sea. It’s called the Crimea, and its southern coast is nicknamed the Russian Riviera. Resorts abound in the Crimea, in coastal cities like Yalta, Alushta, Sudak and Sevastopol, and the Mediterranean climate brings a steady stream of tourists throughout the summer. Luxurious sandy beaches, though, are few and far between in this area. Instead, pebble-strewn beaches are the norm. But what you lose in comfort, you gain in the beauty of the terrain. Dramatic, rocky cliffs loom over these beach towns like ancient Gods of granite.
Not that Ukraine has a monopoly on Crimean resorts. If you’re intent on visiting Russia, consider one of the resorts in Sochi. The future host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi has been getting its act together in the tourism industry. Like the resort cities of the southern Crimean, Sochi is also dominated by mountains which create an amazing backdrop. Sochi’s beauty is further enhanced by a word-class botanical garden which itself is worth the trip.
For those travelers wanting a more active vacation, the F.S.U. is still an excellent choice, and off the thoroughly beaten path of central Europe. Take St. Petersburg, in the northwest of Russia. This city has as much to offer as any of the European giants, with the bonus of offering a far more interesting story to tell. Does anyone bat an eye anymore when you say you’ve been to Paris or London? But tell them you’ve just returned from Russia, and you’re bound to raise some eyebrows.
In St. Petersburg, you’ll probably start by exploring the water-lined streets which earned St. Petersburg the name “The Venice of the North,” and then make your way along the along the shops of Nevsky Prospect to the city’s grand jewel, The Hermitage. One of the largest museums in the world, The Hermitage is home to countless treasures, all housed in the spectacular Winter Palace. Palaces are everywhere in and around this former Russian capital, another of which is also an absolute must-see. Often called “The Russian Versailles,” the grounds of the Peterhof palace are lined with incredible fountains. The interior is also a staggering display of wealth and design, making the palace as spectacular as any in the world.
An eight-hour train ride almost due south brings you to the current Russian capital, Moscow. With a population of nearly nine million people, Moscow can be overwhelming at first. Stay as close as you can to the Kremlin, the city’s center, and you’ll be fine. From there you can experience walking in Red Square, the staging ground for all those massive cold war demonstrations of Soviet power. Still in Red Square, be sure to have someone take your photo as you stand in front of the colorful, almost childlike St. Basil’s cathedral – perhaps the ultimate icon of Russia. If you’re standing with your back to St. Basil’s cathedral, look to your right and you’ll see a long decorative building which borders Red Square. It looks like yet another palace but is actually a grand shopping mall…though be warned: Its prices are as high as its arched glass ceiling. For a more affordable shopping experience in Moscow, make your way to the walking street of Novi Arbat. It’s a great place to find souvenirs and do plenty of people watching. The truly adventurous should make their way around Moscow by subway, the stops of which themselves are considered a travel destination.