Trans-Siberian Railway: The Ultimate Guide
There’s no better way to explore Russia than the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Politically and historically one of the most interesting places in the world, Russia’s natural beauty often goes overlooked. The country is vast; it spans the Ural mountains. Culturally, it’s European, Siberian, Central and East Asian, and the landscape varies accordingly. When it comes to exploring this amazing country, most tourists concentrate their efforts on St. Petersburg and Moscow, but there is so much more to see, and do, and eat.
Luckily there’s a transportation legend designed to show off the breadth of this country at its finest. The Trans-Siberian Railway reaches nearly every major city and spans over 6,000 miles. Traveling the route cross-country, one can imagine living in a Tolstoy novel. It’s thrilling, accessible, and even a little romantic.
Currency: Russian ruble
Population: 144.5 million
Size: 17.1 million km²
There are several trains that travel along the Trans-Siberian rails. One mistake you do not want to make, is to take the regular passenger train from one end of Russia to the other instead of the Trans-Siberian Railway. This is a multi-car train utilized by locals to commute, and is really only tolerable for shorter trips; it only stops for a few minutes at each station, so unless you’re willing to hop on and off and juggle multiple tickets, this isn’t the best way to see the country. Savvy explorers, though, might appreciate the autonomy and economy of doing it this way.
For those who prefer a more streamlined version, there are several train lines that operate with tourism in mind. These are the ones with the private sleeper cars, velvet dining booths, and other premium amenities that will make you feel like you’re on a trip straight out of a movie. With names like The Tsar’s Gold, The Imperial Russia, and The Golden Eagle, these luxury trains stop at each of the starring destinations on the route, giving you enough time to have an immersive cultural experience. Prices for these tours run from the affordable to the extravagant, but no matter what price you settle on, it’s worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
How to get there
Most people begin their Trans-Siberian Railway trip from Moscow. Being a major city with an airport as busy as any other in Europe, Moscow is easy to get to by air, road, and, of course, rail. We suggest showing up a few days or longer before your train journey starts so you can recover from jet lag, adjust to the new time zone, and see some of this amazing city that’s worthy of a guide of its own (we’re working on it!). Trans-Siberian trains leave from the Yaroslavsky Terminal Station.
Where to Stay
If you booked a package tour, the company will have pre-booked you a hotel room in each of the major cities you stop in. It’s also possible to sleep on the train for the whole journey, however if you decide you miss the comfort of a full-sized bed, all of the cities listed below have excellent options for hotel, hostel, and short-term rentals.
What to See and Do
There are 17 stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway’s 6,152-mile track, and every one of them are worth seeing — however, that’s a lot for just one trip. We’ve narrowed it down to the major highlights, the cities that have the most to offer in terms of culture, entertainment, and mouth-watering food.
Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Kremlin are the top sights you can’t leave Moscow before seeing. But don’t get sucked into the tourist trap souvenir stalls, and skip the two-hour lineup to see the embalmed body of Lenin in his mausoleum. Snap a photo and then head off to explore the rest of the city. Stroll through Gorky Park and drop some coins at the feet of the plentiful buskers that make their living folk dancing and playing the balalaika. Head to GUM, the regally-appointed shopping center, and sniff a bottle of Krasnaya Moskva — Red Moscow — to find out what every woman of the Soviet Era smelled like.
In the evening, nab a seat at the Bolshoi Theatre and experience the famous Russian ballet or opera; there are shows every night of the year. Get off the beaten track and see the fluffy artists of the famous Moscow Cat Theatre. And whatever you do, make sure to stop in at a Russian banya, or bathhouse, and get steamed, beaten with twigs, and rubbed down vigorously. It’s the perfect constitutional to take before heading to the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal for your journey.
Most of the Trans-Siberian Railway tours favor the Southern Line, which features Kazan, versus the regular route that features Nizhny Novgorod, and with good reason.
Though Nizhny Novgorod is a must-visit for history buffs who want to see where the Russian nation was born, Kazan is a unique region of Russia because of its Tatar heritage. Its mix of Muslim and Orthodox culture has made for some stunning architecture and amazing food (See below), and it’s said to be one of the friendliest places in Russia, where people tend to be more reserved.
Named for Catherine the Great, daughter of Peter I and Russia’s authoritarian Empress extraordinaire (who was actually German, go figure), Yekaterinburg is Russia’s fourth-largest city and birth place of its first president, Boris Yeltsin. East of here, European influences lose their hold on the country, so this is a good stop to gorge on borscht before dancing the night away in the city’s lively nightclub scene.
A cultural must-see is the Church Upon the Blood, a gorgeous Byzantine-style chapel. Built on the execution site of the last Tsar of Russia and his family, the church is an architecturally beautiful, if chilling, of Russia’s violent history.
Novosibirsk is unique for being one of the cities in Russia that was forbidden to foreigners during the Soviet Era; thanks to its isolation, many of the signs of that historic period have been preserved.
For a real deep dive into Soviet paraphernalia and history, visit the USSR Museum. A preserved family home, the museum is an interactive snapshot into Russia’s attempt at Communism, and a society that struggled along without outside influence, for decades.
Other historic sites of note include the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a stellar example of Orthodox church architecture and one of the first buildings in Siberia built out of stone; due to the abundance of timber, most structures you see East of Moscow are built from wood. A trip to the zoo is an opportunity to see the wildlife distinctive of the area, including the eponymous, and rare, white Siberian tiger.
Old Irkutsk is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s here that you’ll see the colorfully painted wooden buildings so distinctive of historic Russian architecture. The city is also decorated with elaborate Orthodox churches, like the Prince Vladimir Monastery, built to honor the first Prince of the empire. The foremost reason to plan a stop in Irkutsk is its proximity to Lake Baikal.
One of Russia’s most beautiful natural landmarks, the lake is protected by a conservation area and is both visually stunning and ecologically diverse. If you’re a hiker, take advantage of the Great Baikal Trail, which circles the lake with pitstops in towns distinguished by different cultures—Russian, Mongolian, Buryat, and Buddhist people have all called the area home at one point or another. In summer, you can laze on the beaches on the lakeshore; in the cooler months, you’ll probably want to detour to the local Arshan hot springs, instead.
Because Vladivostok is usually overlooked by tourists, it’s the perfect city to visit on the Trans-Siberian Railway and experience Russian food and culture the way the people who live there do. The buildings are a fascinating mix of old world and ultra-modern, with streets lined with ornate early-19th-century walk-ups to the glass and steel magnificence of the new Russian Opera House. For a panoramic view f the city and the surrounding mountains, hike up to the Eagle’s Nest—this lookout point atop a dormant volcano makes for a great photo op.
The city is a little weathered and a little oddball, and seems to have a high concentration of artists and poets—though the same could be said for most Russian cities. Where it really shines, though, is in the food department. A melting pot for Chinese, Korean, Russian and Uzbek cuisine, every street offers a culinary joy to be discovered, making the city a great place to end your journey. After all, in Russian, the verbs “to be” and “to eat” are the same.
What to eat
With a wonderful folk cuisine heritage and a dumpling for every region, Russia has a lot to offer the traveling foodie. Here’s what to sample while you’re riding the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Moscow has a thriving restaurant scene where you can get any food from around the world. Only in recent years have local chefs started to champion Russia’s culinary heritage, with its roots in hearty folk recipes meant to weather the cold climate. Borscht, blini, pelmeni—Russia is heaven for people whose tastes lean toward comfort foods. High end or low end, duck into any eatery and it’s hard to go wrong as long as pirogis are on the menu.
While in Kazan, locals and tourists alike recommend Dom Chaya. It’s a cafeteria-style eatery where you can try a variety of Tatar foods affordably, and everything’s delicious. Additionally, the kitschy decorations make for a terrific photo op. If you only have room for one Tatar dish, go for the Manti dumplings. These are bitesize pastries stuffed with spiced meat and smothered with sour cream and sambal olek, which hints at its Turkish influence. Scrumptious.
Buryatian cuisine is unique to the region around Lake Baikal, and one of its specialties is buuza dumplings. These savory morsels will be familiar to anyone who’s had their Mongolian counterpart, momo dumplings. Usually served with a bit of salad and spicy chili topping, these dumplings make for the perfect comfort food.
Buhler and Omul
Near Irkutsk, you’ll want to sample another regional dumpling, called poza, along with a hearty bowl of buhler, a meat stew. Omul is a soft-fleshed fish straight out of lake Baikal, a truly local staple that’s best tried pan-fried.
Vladivostok is a seafood-lover’s paradise. The city dishes up king crab like it’s going out of style, and there’s barely a restaurant that doesn’t have this local delicacy on the menu boiled, fried, or steamed. Scallops are popular also, and were once considered a sacred food in the area.
Because of it’s proximity to East Asia, Vladivostok is also a treasure trove of fusion cuisine, like Pyanse. A combination of the Russian piroshki and Korean steamed buns, the fluffy pastries usually come filled with meat or seafood.
It wouldn’t be a guide to Russia if we didn’t include the vodka. Russia is famous for its love of the distilled liquor, making brands that are recognized worldwide. Our suggestion is to go to a vodka bar where you can try the beverage the way it’s meant to be imbibed—ice cold, with a side of caviar—and don’t, under any circumstances, try to out-drink a Russian.
Black tea served in traditional podstakannik glasses in Moscow. Herbal tea foraged from the wilds in Siberia. Green tea following Chinese tradition in Vladivostok. You could learn a lot about Russian history and culture just from drinking the tea here, traveling from the Western influence of Europe to the Eastern flavors of China one cup at a time.
3 Travel Tips
Now that you know where to go, where to stay, and what to eat, here are a few insider tips to make this train trek through Russia your best trip ever.
Learn the lingo
Bring a phrasebook. Russia is not one of those countries where everyone speaks English, though many do speak French or German as a second language. It will teach you the basics like “Thank you,” and “Where’s the bathroom?” But how about a few keywords that won’t make you stick out like a touristy sore thumb? Real Russians don’t say goodbye, they say пока́ (pokа́), similar to “see ya later.” Think something’s cool? Use круто (crutó). Missed the train? The appropriate curse word is чёрт (chyort). Try not to miss the train.
The visa requirements are stricter in Russia than in other countries you may be used to traveling to. Unless you’re booking your Trans-Siberian Railway trip with a tour company, in which case they’ll take care of all the details for you, it’s best to start this process in advance by visiting your local embassy. Once you have your papers, keep them on you. Not only will you need them to get on and off the train, but police can stop you in the street and ask to see them at any time. If you haven’t got them, you’ll be exiled to Siberia. (Not really, but it will be a hassle.)
… and pack light. People hear the word “Siberia” and immediately think cold. In fact, Moscow is so notoriously hot in the summer that the locals flee the city in droves during the warmer months to stay at their family’s dachas further north, in the country.
As much of the Trans-Siberian Railway hugs the southern half of the country, you can get away with a light jacket unless you’re going in January. Keep in mind there won’t be a lot of room on the train for luggage. As long as you remember to pack slippers for shuffling to the dining cart and back, you’ll be all set.
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