Visit the Red Square, ride the Trans-Mongolian railway, buy more Babushka dolls than you have shelf space for…
Of course you need to do these quintessential things on your trip to Russia. But when you’re craving a break from the crowds and want to do something more intimate and local, embrace some Russian hospitality and try these unique experiences. (And if you’re fighting any homesickness, these are all sure-fire ways to cure it.)
1. Stay with a local family at Lake Baikal
Spending time with a Buryat family is like being reunited with the long lost relatives you never knew you had. Mother Faiya embraces everyone who walks into their home – she gives great hugs, and has even been known to knit sweaters for some Intrepid guests – while her husband Mischa helps carry luggage out to the small guesthouse in their garden. Faiya is a mean cook, whipping up Buuz dumplings and hearty Russian fare for dinner, and is always refilling your plate. Their home is close to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake (by volume) in the world – it’s also said to be the deepest and the oldest. You can walk to the lake and, if you’re feeling game, have a paddle and see how long you can stay in for (warning: it’s very, very cold!).
2. Spend some time in a banya
What’s the best way wash the grit and grime of a multi-day train journey off your skin? In a banya, a traditional Russian sauna. After spending three days on the Trans-Siberian Railway (that’s three days – and nights – in a hot train carriage with no showers), slapping yourself silly with a birch twig in a tiny steamy room is, well, just about unbeatable. Russia’s best banyas are generally in people’s backyards (our favourite is in Faiya and Mischa’s garden), as they’ve been built by hand and are lovingly tended to. After hanging up your clothes and wrapping yourself in a sheet in the banya’s entrance, head into a small room where you can wash, then go further into the steamy sauna, like back on the bench, and relax. You’ll feel really clean afterwards, and a little bit shiny and red too.
3. Make gingerbread with an artist/baker in Kungur
Gingerbread has a long and delicious history. The spicy biscuit has been said to cure depression, summon husbands, and make wishes come true. Russia has its own peppery version – pryanik – and a family in Kungur has been making their living baking the ornate treats for almost thirty years. Galina Vyazova, the mother of the family, studied woodworking in university, and her house/showroom is filled with beautifully carved wooden gingerbread moulds – they line the walls like works of art. She invites travellers into her home to learn the history of gingerbread, how to make it and, of course, the best way to eat it (spoiler: it’s with jam – preferably homemade – and tea). On an Intrepid adventure through Russia, you’ll leave Kungur with a little stash of gingerbread, ready to be devoured on the train to your next destination.
4. Have a pancake party in a communal apartment in St Petersburg
Pancakes are great at the best of times, but in a communal apartment in the middle of St Petersburg? You can’t really top it. Following the 1917 Russian revolution, apartments were divided to house multiple families to cope with the housing crisis – it wasn’t uncommon for up to seven families to live in one apartment. Each family would be given their own room, which served as their living room, dining room AND bedroom; the bathroom and kitchen would be shared by everyone. Not many people live like this in Russia anymore, however communal apartments still exist in St Petersburg.
Our pancake party hosts share their apartment with just one other family. Living communally like this means they can afford to live in the centre of town, send their daughter to a good local school, and have a house in the country where they grow most of their own fruits and vegetables (the jam for the pancakes is homemade using berries grown here!). It’s such a unique experience, sitting around with a family, eating pancakes, drinking tea from the samovar, and learning about Russia’s history.
5. Cook and eat at Helen’s house in Suzdal
Here are some things you need to know about Helen’s house: she grows almost all her own fruit and vegetables. Anything she doesn’t know grow or make herself, she sources locally. And, she’s an incredible cook and teacher. When you arrive at her home in Suzdal, Helen will take you on a tour of her garden (mind the chooks), where she grows gooseberries, herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers. She has a number of fruit trees too, and preserves everything into jams, pickles and chutneys.
Go inside and she’ll show you how to make plushki, a heart-shaped pastry that’s filled with jam and dusted with icing sugar.
Ready to immerse yourself in a quintessentially Russian experience? Or maybe you just want to eat pancakes and gingerbread and stew? Do both on a small group adventure in Russia now – check out our full range here.