As the world's largest country, the biggest supplier of natural gas and second-largest oil producer, Russia embodies superlatives. It's a big, remarkably varied landscape spanning nine time zones, from the Volga River's bucolic birch forests to the sprawling expanse of the grassy steppes to balmy beach resorts along the Black Sea. Russians make up for the brutally cold winters with warm generosity and jovial hospitality -- and hearty meat stews and bracing shots of icy vodka don't hurt.
Start with a taste of two cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Admire the domes of Moscow's psychedelic St. Basil's Cathedral and the treasures of the Kremlin. Take in the majesty of czarist Russia at St. Petersburg's Alexander Column and Winter Palace. Head to the "Golden Ring" cities (such as Rostov Veliki) for golden-domed cathedrals and the "living museums" that are the heart of ancient Rus. Fly south for rest and relaxation on the beach (or nearby ski slopes) at Sochi.
Eating and Drinking
Tea's the preferred beverage; vodka the social drink of choice -- take yours not sipped but gulped down in shots. Melt-in-your-mouth bliny are Russia's buttery crepe. Dumplings are a staple: Siberia's pelmeni are filled with ground beef, pork, or lamb and spices and boiled in broth, while the larger and flatter vareniki are made with potatoes or berries. Piroshki are small baked pies stuffed with ground meat, cabbage, or fruit.
Find delicate Lomonosov porcelain and Fabergé eggs in St. Petersburg. Hunt down matryoshka dolls, palekh (lacquered) boxes and fine china at the Izmailovsky Market in Moscow. Pick out linen from Ivanovo and Kostroma in the Volga towns, caviar from the Eliseyevsky Gastronoms in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and vodka almost anywhere.
Arts and Culture
Moscow's Tretyakov and St. Petersburg's Hermitage stand among the top museums of Europe. The ballet and symphony are high art in Russia, and today's performers carry on the legacies of the greats -- among them, dancers Baryshnikov, Nureyev, and Nijinsky and composers Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Pay tribute at the hallowed Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters.