A long-time reader sent me an interesting essay from a travel agency I'd never heard of, which sent their intrepid reporter on a Trans-Siberian cruise from Moscow to Irkutsk.
I had a good laugh at this essay because unlike, say, transatlantic steamer traffic, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a working passenger railroad, with multiple departures each day, and with publicly available prices. That inspired me to put together for my dear readers my suggestions for a Trans-Siberian Railway adventure.
The European Part
Depending on your timeframe and the season, you might want to fly into Saint Petersburg and visit Tsarskoe Selo and Peterhof, and spend as much time as you can in Petersburg itself, a wonderful and vibrant city.
Otherwise, you'll want to arrive in Moscow. There's no reason to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladimir or Suzdal, since those are short day trips from Moscow proper on commuter rail trains that cost just a few bucks each.
Once you've gotten your day trips out of the way, it's time to get on a real train.
Stop in Nizhny Novgorod if you have to, otherwise head straight to Yekaterinburg
Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky) is an important city in the history of Russia but there's no obvious reason for a tourist to stop there if they're not traveling by river. I'd head straight to Yekaterinburg, the gateway to Asian Russia.
Sample Moscow-Yekaterinburg itinerary: depart 12:35 am, arrive 9:18 am the next day, $45.
Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk
The next leg is 19-24 hours, so you'll need to decide whether you want to leave in the morning and arrive in the morning or leave in the evening and arrive in the evening the next day.
Novosibirsk was a "closed city" during the Soviet period, but has an opera house and a prestigious university located in nearby Akademgorodok.
Sample Yekaterinburg-Novosibirsk itinerary: Depart 7:49 pm, arrive 20:09 pm the next day, $40.
Novosibirsk to Irkutsk
Often described as the "capital" of Siberia, Irkutsk is located on Lake Baikal and in the winter features all sorts of antics on the frozen surface of the lake, while in the summer you can stay at lakefront resorts. Most "Trans-Siberian" journeys end here.
Sample Novosibirsk-Irkutsk itinerary: Depart 11:56 pm, arrive 7:04 am the next day, $45.
Irkutsk to Vladivostok
Now we've come to the "Trans-Siberian" part of the "Trans-Siberian Railway." Siberia is big — really big. Khabarovsk, like Nizhny Novgorod, is an important city in Soviet history but there's no obvious reason to stop there or anywhere else between Irkutsk and Vladivostok. But, you're more than free to, and you're very likely to find a local willing to take you in and care for you if you're so inclined.
Sample Irkutsk-Vladivostok itinerary: Depart 4:17 pm, arrive 11:34 pm 3 days later, $93.
I've always planned to ride the whole Trans-Siberian Railway someday, but when I lived in Russia I was too busy and too poor to take the time off to do it. But you can do it any time you like! The itinerary above comes out to $223. If you roughly quadruple that (Russian train compartments have four beds each), and have a little flexibility in dates, you could ride in a private compartment all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok, on your own schedule, taking as much time as you like in each city along the way.
If you call that $1,000 in rail fares, that means you've got a whole lot of money left over compared to a bespoke tour package.
Plus, your humble blogger is always available to serve as interpreter.