Let’s make a tour of Russian souvenirs.
Even if we’re travelling on a budget, we try to grab something precious to us. It’s difficult to say no to a nice souvenir which will remind of happy travelling days. As for me, I like a lot going through all my memorable stuff. Thinking about where and how I found nice souvenirs always turns me into a cheerful mood.
I must admit that sometimes we don’t know what exactly souvenirs to pick. Which of them have real value? Do they reflect the country’s atmosphere?
So this is my version of what to buy when you travel to Russia. These are souvenirs I would choose for me. I also included souvenirs I buy for me when I visit other Russian regions.
Traditional Russian Souvenirs
First of all, come traditional Russian souvenirs. They are easily recognizable. Moreover, every traditional Russian souvenir has a long story. The best craftsmen have been manufacturing them for centuries.
Traditional Russian souvenirs are usually hand-made items which have artistic value.
Russian nesting dolls (matryoshka) is one of the most famous and beloved Russian souvenirs. This is a kit of painted wooden dolls. Every doll is detachable and hides a smaller figure inside. As usual, all these dolls have different design.
Originally, Matryoshka is a good-looking maiden. However, nowadays we can find diverse versions: matryoshkas-animals, matryoshkas-political leaders or matryoshkas-football players. Some of them are funny but I’d recommend opting for a traditional one: maidens or families.
Prices vary a lot and depend on the number of dolls in the nest. One matryoshka can contain up to 30 dolls!
While choosing a matryoshka, pay attention to the quality of the painting. High-quality dolls have pretty faces, bright colours and detailed outfits.
Khokhloma is a traditional Russian hand-painting which appeared almost 400 years ago. The most popular souvenirs are spoons, trays, plates, samovars, etc.
Khokhloma style is easily recognizable by flower, berry and leaf patterns and – most of all – by bright red, green and black colours on a golden background.
The souvenirs are made of wood. Surely, the real khokhloma souvenirs are hand-painted. And if you’re not ready to buy a tray or a bowl as a souvenir, choose a tiny spoon or a box.
Gzhel porcelain with deep-blue paintings is a well-recognizable Russian souvenir.
Gzhel craftsmen have always been famous for their ability to make an intricate painting. They use all tints of blue to paint marvellous birds, flowers and patterns.
Some say that Gzhel is a reflection of Russian mentality: blue sky, white churches and golden domes (gilding is often used in modern Gzhel painting).
Gzhel products are diverse. These could be purely decorative figurines. Besides, there are teacups and plates which you can use in everyday life. Yes, Gzhel porcelain can be washed in a dishwasher machine without being damaged!
When I wander in souvenir shops, I feel that shapka-ushanka is the most popular Russian souvenir. Not only these hats are sold everywhere but their variety is striking. Traditional grey or dark-green ushankas coexist with red, pink and orange hats. Moreover, I’ve also spotted ushankas this white, blue & red stripes (colours of the Russian flag). And the weirdest one was a zebra-style ushanka… Ok, just for fun, let it be.
First of all, I have to say that Russians divide caviar into 2 types: red and black.
Red caviar is relatively common and can be effortlessly found in grocery shops. It’s made of the roe of salmon. Good red caviar has a slightly salty taste and is served only cold.
Actually, it’s not true that Russians like to eat caviar with blini (pancakes). Russians consider blini as dessert and eat them with something sweet like berry jams or honey.
As for the red caviar, it’s more common to make caviar sandwiches (bread + butter + caviar).
But the real treasure is black caviar. It’s made of roe of sturgeon and often called “black gold”. The price of 0.5 kg of black caviar is about 500USD. Better buy black caviar in special shops selling seafood.
Uncommon Russian Souvenirs
Secondly, let’s discover uncommon Russian souvenirs. No secret tastes differ. Sometimes we want just something not so widely known.
In that case, pay attention to uncommon Russian souvenirs. They also represent Russian culture.
Russian Chocolate & Sweets
If you are a sweet tooth, Russia is the right country for you. Russians lust love sweet treats: everything from honey to delicious desserts.
I’d recommend, for instance, trying cranberries in sugar powder and “bird’s milk” (kind of marshmallows covered with fine chocolate).
The most known Russian chocolate bar is “Alyonka”. Alyonka is a Russian maiden name. And we see a little blue-eyed girl on the chocolate’s wrapper. By the way, the choice of Russian chocolate bars is wide: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, chocolate with nuts and raisins, caramel, etc.
Same with Russian sweets: they have all kinds of fillings including waffles, sunflower seeds brittle or berries in liquor.
Tea in Russian trains is always served in a glass with a tea-glass holder. So if you travelled by Russian trains, a tea-glass holder could be a nice souvenir. Surely, you don’t need to buy it right on the train. They are on sale in most souvenir shops.
Russian name of the tea-glass holder is podstakannik.
The holders are usually nicely decorated. For example, these could be glass holders with Russian double-head eagle or local landmarks.
Some people mistakenly believe that these holders are a clumsy relic of the Soviet past. However, contemporary manufactures took podstakannik’s design to a new level. Thus, nowadays the tea-glass holder is not only functional but also a high-quality Russian souvenir.
Fabergé Eggs (replicas)
Here I have to begin with a little bit of history.
Authentic Fabergé Eggs are treasures of the cultural and historical heritage of Russia. These eggs were made by a brilliant jeweller Karl Fabergé and named after him.
The story of famous jewellery eggs begins in 1885 when Russian Emperor Alexander III ordered Karl Fabergé a gift for Empress. Fabergé made an unusual detachable pure gold Easter egg with a “surprise” inside. The Emperor gifted the precious jewellery egg to his wife on Easter. It was such a success that the royal family subsequently made similar orders every year. So the famous collection of Fabergé eggs was born.
If you come to St. Petersburg, I highly recommend visiting the Fabergé Museum. Even though the Fabergé Eggs can be seen on many photographs across the Internet, in reality, they are even more magnificent. I swear the exposition will blow out your mind!
Authentic Fabergé Eggs are made of gold, platinum and precious stones with admirable accuracy of detail. For this reason, it’s impossible to buy them unless you are a billionaire.
But we can afford replicas of those eggs. For women, I’d opt for colourful pendants or earrings. There are also decorative eggs with clocks or music boxes inside.
The price for Faberge is 20-200 USD and depends on the size of the egg.
Soviet-Style New-Years Tree Decorations
I must confess that Russians themselves have warm feelings for vintage New Year tree decorations. Probably, because the New Year is the most loved and widely celebrated Russian holiday. Despite the abundance of cool contemporary decorations, we prefer vintage balls, pine cones, stars and figurines.
For original soviet-style New-Years tree decorations you’d better head to flea markets. For instance, Udelnaya Flea Market in St. Petersburg is a good market for vintage stuff.
Pay attention: the best NY decorations are made of finest glass and thus are fragile. If you know you can’t pack them safely, opt for decorations made of papier-mâché or pressed cotton. They are not worse — just rarer.
Many of us dream of touching something related to space. I’m sure you’ll surprise your friends if you offer them lunch of a cosmonaut.
Space food comes in tubes and cans. What kind of food is inside? Soups, meat and vegetables, desserts, cottage cheese with fruit… Isn’t it fascinating to discover how all those delicious things are packed in tubes (and can be eaten from tubes)? Surely, it is!
Space food in tubes is often sold in vending machines in malls (especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg). It’s also possible to buy it in the souvenir shops near the museums of cosmonautics.
Remember that space food is real food though. Better keep it in cool/cold display places. Don’t buy space food in damaged tubes and cans.
Surely, many Russian regions and cities have their local souvenirs. They represent local history and cultural heritage. That is to say, these Russian gifts have been manufactured for so long that they became legendary.
I give you some examples:
- Tula — pryanik. “Pryanik” means gingerbread. Tula pryanik is an imprinted Russian gingerbread from the city of Tula. Bakers cook pryanik of special spicy dough. Besides, it often has a sweet filling: condensed milk or fruit jam. Add to this raisins, honey and nuts, and you’ll realise how delicious it is!
Every Tula pryanik has an imprinted pattern reflecting Russian culture. Pryanik can be small like a chocolate bar or big as a pie. Small pryaniks are on sale in grocery shops all across Russia. For big ones, you have to head to Tula.
- Veliky Novgorod — birch bark boxes. You can find souvenirs made of birch bark in every souvenir shop of Veliky Novgorod. They are handmade and nicely decorated. For instance, the most beautiful souvenirs have carved churches and local sights on them. It’s really hard to choose but I would buy charming birch bark boxes & baskets for candies or bread.
- Vologda — pastilla. Pastilla is an ancient Russian sweet treat. On the outside, it looks like a pie. But the “dough” for pastilla consists of apples and eggs. No sugar, no flour, no food dye, no preservative. Unbelievable in our times of semi-artificial food, isn’t it?
Sometimes manufacturers add to pastilla berries: raspberries, cherries, black currants… But it’s still 100% natural.
- St. Petersburg — porcelain from the Imperial Porcelain Factory. The Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg produces high-quality hand-painted ceramics. It was established in 1744 and during long years made ware for Russian Emperors Family of Romanov. If you visit royal palaces in St. Petersburg, you’ll certainly see the finest tableware from the Imperial Porcelain Factory.
Nowadays you can make you a gorgeous gift and buy a tea service. This would be something you could proudly bequeath to future generations 🙂
If a full tea service is too much, opt for a cup and a little dish. As for me, I also like porcelain animal figurines.
Books, Guides, Postcards
The best way to find a variety of books is to go to a big bookstore. For instance, Moscow House of Books (in Russian — Dom Knigi) or Singer House in St. Petersburg.
There you’ll come across with a great assortment of books. Photo albums with photos of landmarks and museums, books about Russian history. Also, pay attention to collections of Russian fairy-tales with marvellous illustrations.
To tell the truth, Russians say that a book is the best gift. Considering this, I can also say that a book from Russia is the best Russian gift 🙂
By the way, not so long ago I have even spotted funny guides to Russian culture.
Same for postcards — diversity in everything. Other than traditional cards with landmarks, you can discover photos of Russian tsars or funny memes.
In conclusion, one more tip about what to buy in Russia. In case you’re looking for unique souvenirs and gifts, visit local hand-made markets. Here’s a guide to markets in St. Petersburg, for instance. Local designers sell their ceramics, jewellery, home decor, etc.
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Best wishes from Russia,