Regal Russia

Russia is easily one of the world's most formidable countries. For starters, it's the largest country, spanning 12 time zones. It produces some of the world's most sought-after natural resources, like oil, gas, coal and gold. Though some may find Russia's communist history intimidating, today's nation has a bright future evolving from its rich, varied past. And it's graced with beautiful landscapes. The Grand Hotel Europe, an Orient-Express property in St. Petersburg

The fascinating country is divided into eight regions—Northwestern Russia, Central Russia, Southern Russian, Volga, the Urals, Siberia, Far Eastern Russia and Kaliningrad Oblast. The capital city is Moscow, located on the Moskva River in Central Russia. Moscow is home to Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's mausoleum and the Kremlin, an attraction that is not to be missed. Moscow is also where you'll find the famed Bolshoi Theater, where opera and ballet are performed, plus numerous museums.

You can take an overnight train, departing at midnight, from Moscow north to Russia's other major city and tourist destination, St. Petersburg. This former capital is undergoing a renaissance. Home-Based Travel Agent recently visited St. Petersburg and found it to be a much more Western-style city than expected. Emperor Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, modeling its roads and bridges after two European cities he'd fallen in love with: Amsterdam and Venice. Dancers at the Mariinsky International Ballet Festival in St. Petersburg

Highlights of St. Petersburg include the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, the cathedral inside of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the bridges of Neva. St. Petersburg is particularly popular during the last 10 days of June, the country's longest days of the year, when the city celebrates the White Nights cultural festival. In June or July, St. Petersburg is home to Message to Man, an international documentary, short and animated film festival. Other cultural events take place in the city throughout the year.

Outside the famous cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are many fascinating places to visit in Russia. Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea in the south, is a relatively unknown destination among American tourists, but that is set to change when it hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics. If the trend established by previous Olympic cities continues, Sochi will see a surge of tourists in the years following the Games. So if you want to beat the crowds, now is the time to go.

Although it was chosen to host the Winter Olympics, Sochi is actually a favorite beach vacation spot among locals and in-the-know foreigners. Krasnaya Polyana, a major ski and mountain resort, is nearby.

Most often pictured as a snowy outpost, Siberia is a large region to the east with a variety of climates. The mountainous Altai region is a popular choice for eco-friendly and active travelers, who like to hike through the area's mountains and raft through its rivers.

You can travel to Siberia via the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. This longest rail line in the world harkens back to another era and allows you to see a good portion of not just Europe but also Asia—if you ride the thee-line railway in its entirety, that is.

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