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5 tips for an unforgettable Russia visit

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
  • Take the Trans-Siberian Railway, says Lonely Planet's Robert Reid
  • "It's one of the great journeys in the world," he says
  • Explore the remarkable subway system in Moscow, Reid advises
  • Don't miss Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world

(CNN) -- Soccer fans coming to see the 2018 World Cup in Russia will find lots to see and experience outside the stadium.

Spanning nine time zones, the vast country is home to dynamic cities, majestic mountains, extreme climates and rich cultural traditions.

World Cup matches will be spread among 13 host cities in western Russia, likely attracting many first-time visitors who still remember the country as secretive and menacing during the Communist era.

But tourism has been booming in Russia since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

"I'm very fond of the place," said Robert Reid, U.S. Travel Editor for Lonely Planet.

"It's beautiful and massive. So much of it is really untouched."

Reid, who has traveled extensively in Russia and helped edit Lonely Planet's guides to both the country and the Trans-Siberian Railway, offered these five tips for people who will be visiting Russia for the first time.

1. Take the Trans-Siberian Railway

"The overwhelming thing that I always tell people who are going to Russia is to get on the train. It's one of the great journeys in the world," Reid said.

The Trans-Siberian Railway takes you more than 6,000 miles across the country to a point further east than North Korea. The weeklong journey technically begins in Moscow, but you can start from St. Petersburg, Reid said.

"You're going across Asia and on one level you're in these little towns and most of the people are Russians and there are Lenin statues. Then you notice that there are minority groups of different local cultures there or Chinese immigrants and you realize you're in the heart of Asia. It's really stunning to do," Reid said.

Make sure you get off the train to explore the stops along the way. You can -- with a little work -- make up your itinerary as you go, he said.

"There are no showers -- so that's another reason it's good to not take the full seven-day trip without stopping," Reid said.

2. Explore St. Petersburg

This is the first place Reid visited in Russia and like many visitors, he fell under its spell. Full of baroque and neoclassical architecture, St. Petersburg is also sometimes called the Venice of the North because of the canals that crisscross the city.

"Tsar Nicholas II said that it's Russia, but not Russian, and what he meant is that this is a city that was intentionally built to embrace and look to the West of Europe," Reid said.

A must-see stop is the State Hermitage Museum, which houses one of the world's most famous art collections.

But also take the time to just explore St. Petersburg on your own.

"It's a great walking city," Reid said. "If you go in June during White Nights, [when it barely gets dark], it's a tradition to walk around all night."

3. Take in the sights in Moscow

Red Square, the onion-domed St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin draw lots of tourists to Russia's capital.

But Reid also advised visitors to explore below ground.

"I think my favorite thing in it is simply taking the subway around," Reid said, particularly admiring the posh stations. Many contain elaborate art and sculptures.

"The subway system is remarkable, it's very deep because the [stations] were used as kind of nuclear bunkers. These were bomb shelters -- they dug them deep on purpose during the Cold War."

Another one of Reid's favorite spots in Moscow is the very small Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, which houses old video games from the Soviet era that you can play.

"There is a certain kind of nostalgic look back to the Cold War era that isn't necessarily linked with politics but just the things that people grew up with and this is an example of that," Reid said.

4. Be amazed by Lake Baikal

Estimated to be 25 million years old and more than 5,500 feet deep, Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world.

"It's one of the most unreal things on Earth," Reid said.

Located in Siberia, it draws visitors year-round with its natural beauty. There's an effort under way to build a trail all the way around the massive lake. Reid, who has kayaked on the lake, said he yearns to see it during the colder months.

"One thing I've never done, and I'm just begging to do this some time in my life, is to go in the winter. The have huge ice sculpture contests on the frozen surface, you can hire taxis and go all the way across the lake.

"I would love to treat the Baikal as an ice highway. ... It must be just stunning."

5. Discover international Vladivostok

The city is the last stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway -- a Russian metropolis near China and North Korea that Reid calls both fascinating and striking.

"It is a city that is kind of the San Francisco of Russia in that it's really hilly, there are cable cars and there are trams that go up to mountain tops."

You'll find an eclectic mix of people and architecture, he said. Russians mingle with Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and international business people.

There's even a Hollywood connection: Actor Yul Brynner was born in the city.

"I have a soft spot for Vladivostok," Reid said.