I’ve always wanted to visit Russia. Don’t know why. Just wanted. Maybe because of all the history books I read when I was younger, or perhaps because I grew up in a country strongly impacted by the Russian culture. Possibly because of the first toys I had - a Russian doll (matrioshka) and a stuffed bear from Moscow’s Olympics. Who knows. Well, I finally went there – and now, I want to tell you about it.
There are some convenient flights to Moscow, including the direct one I took from London Heathrow. I did not, however, have all the time in the world to explore. I had only 4 days to spend in Russia, and I wanted to make the most of them. Naturally, I wanted to visit Saint Petersburg too, so this made my schedule even tighter. I split my time evenly between the two megalopolises – 2 days in each one. I now regret this decision, as this time is far not enough. But if you decide to follow my steps, below is my story.
First things first – what you need to pack:
- Warm clothes – even it was still early autumn, the weather was nice and sunny during the days, but mornings and evenings can get quite cold. Also, both cities are on rivers so it could be windy… like a lot…
- A pair of comfy shoes (or a second pair of legs) – the public transport is relatively cheap, but if the weather outside permits a nice long walk is not out of the question. In fact, this ‘nice long walk’ turned out to be ~60 km (40 miles) for the full 4 days as my phone tracker diligently reported.
- A tourist map – mobile data in Russia is quite expensive if you’re a foreigner. My UK provider was charging me 6 GBP per 1 Mb of data. Both Moscow and Saint Petersburg have public free wi-fi, but you need a Russian phone number to be able to access it.
- A basic dictionary or phrasebook – If you don’t speak the language, it can get a bit challenging. Most of the people understand English, but you can always get into a situation where you struggle (e.g. trying to ask for the ‘bill’ in the restaurant and waiters ‘fill’ up your glass of wine).
My journey turned out to be longer than expected. After I passed the airport security and reached Moscow city centre, it was already late in the afternoon. I was a bit stressed I am losing some previous time, but the friend I was visiting assured me I have enough time to see all the ‘must-sees’. So my plan changed a bit – I decided to leave any sightseeing for the second day and enjoy my first evening there with a nice dinner. The hotel I was staying at was in the Business centre, the so-called Moscow city. If you are a fan of the modern architecture, glass skyscrapers and rooftop bars – you would love the area. My friend and I were lucky to be seated at a window table in a 60th floor restaurant which is usually something you need to pay extra for. The food was good, the music was good, and the view was absolutely breathtaking. It wasn’t too expensive though, especially if you compare to similar places in London and New York.
A day around Moscow, Russia's capital
The next day was when the fun started. I woke up early, had a cup of nice coffee, draw my day itinerary which was ending with the infamous ‘Red square’, and went out. It is worth mentioning the Metro (the city’s underground). Each station is unique, and even if it is noticeably old, it has this royal appeal. Lavishly decorated with ornaments, golden chandeliers and art, the stations look more like museum halls rather than underground stops. Don’t believe me – just look it up. But as the weather was apparently a one-off for the season, I decided to walk. It was supposed to be a one-hour straight line walk, half of it next to the river. Also, quite a few checkpoints on the way – the Parliament building, The Radisson Royal Hotel, many monuments, parks, churches, the Russian State Library and Bolshoi Theatre. As the weather was getting better and better, I started feeling braver. I realised ‘brave’ turned into ‘extreme’ when I reached Luzhniki Stadium about 2 hours after I left my room – and I was nowhere near the Red square yet.
The good bit was I saw a lot more of Moscow than I was planning for, the bad bit – once I sat down for a quick bite, I couldn’t stand up again.
The truth is, everything really worth seeing is around the Red Square itself. Few places in the world can accommodate more history at one spot – from the 16th century St Basil’s Cathedral (famous with its candy-coloured domes) through the State History Museum of Lenin’s Mausoleum. Half of the square is surrounded by Kremlin’s wall, and just opposite is the magnificent building of GUM (meaning state universal department store) which looks more like a museum or mansion rather than a shopping centre. It is said, despite the red colour everywhere, the name ‘Red square’ originally comes from the Russian word ‘красная‘ (Krasnaya) which mean which apart from ‘red’ also means ‘beautiful’.
There is something to be seen in all the directions starting from the Red Square, and everything is just a short walk away. There is the Bolshoi Theatre to the North, Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to the south, Zaryadye Park offering stunning panorama to all of the aforementioned - to the East.
The incredible beauty of the city at night fascinates. Even though there is still the mixture of historic and modern styles, the excellent illumination turns the capital into a different and truly majestic place, full of glory. You can easily explore the same spots you did during the day and feel like you are there for the first time.
The Royal Imperial city of Saint Petersburg, where Tsars lived
Going from Moscow to St. Petersburg is a challenge itself. There are some good flights, but considering the time it takes to and from the airports makes half a day gone. The train rates are about the same as the air-fares. It takes about 3 hours, but we were at St Pete’s heart at 9 in the morning allowing us to enjoy a full day there.
Found by Peter the Great in the early years of XVIII century, Saint Petersburg is a real treasury of global culture and history. The city and was in fact Russia's capital prior to the revolution. The first public museum in Russia was opened here too, and nowadays there are no less than 250 museums there. Apart from the history and art related one, including the colossal Hermitage, there are also numerous entertainment-based museums such as the Museum of Emotions, Museum of Illusions, musical Museums, Science Museums and more.
The first place my friend and I decided to visit was Peterhof Palace (or Petrodvorets). Probably one of the most popular attractions around, the palace is often referred to as ‘The Russian Versailles’. France’s Chateau de Versailles was indeed the inspiration for Peter the Great to build the imperial palace. There are several palace buildings, huge gardens, 150 fountains and 4 cascades. The place is full of tourists, obviously, but getting in is quite easy as there are multiple ticket points and entries around the palace. Depending on what you want to see you can spend from 2-3 hours up to whole day exploring there. Bear in mind the palace is not exactly in the city. The bus ride is about an hour (at least), but there is an option for a riverboat ride which as a lot more exciting.
We were back in St Petersburg in the early afternoon and decided to explore on foot. Now, walks can be very different depending what type of holiday you’re on. But there is something for everyone – tourists, lovers, friends, families, pets... River Neva is pretty much all over the place (literally) which add another pinch of fascination for the fairy-tale city – no wonder it is also known as The Russian Amsterdam and the Venice of the North. After walking through various parks from the hotel to Nevsky Prospect (one of the main boulevards), we decided a boat tour through the canals sounds like the perfect thing to do. The city is situated on 42 islands and has more than 300 bridges, and it was sunset time so you can only imagine the view there was. The only downside was the tour-operator was talking in Russian just so we enjoyed the views but not the history.
The tour lasted for about an hour and ended in the same spot it started, so we continued our walk on Nevsky Prospect. It was already getting dark, and all the lights were on. Even not as shiny and modern as Moscow, the street performers on every corner, combined with the baroque-style buildings in the background and the overcrowded restaurants offer spectacular atmosphere and proves the city is full of life. Our walk ended on Palace square which was also the culmination of it. I have no words to describe it – go and see it.
The next day was pleasant and sunny as well. We were delighted as local people say the chances of a warm sunny day this time of the year as the same as seeing a polar bear. The first place we went to was the Smolny Cathedral. It has been designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli as is indeed one of his masterpieces. This stunning blue-and-white baroque style church was initially built to house Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great when she was pushed to become a nun after being denied succession to the throne. The next stop was Saint Isaac’s Cathedral which is the largest orthodox basilica in the city, also the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The church itself is an architectural marvel – the interior adorned with gold trim, mosaics and paintings, while the exterior made almost entirely of marble and gold. Both the cathedrals offer superb views from the top, and like everything else for tourists – its paid. But climbing the 300 steps on any of them is a must.
As the time was passing and was already early in the afternoon. We stopped for a short break in front of The Russian Navy headquarters building (which is such a lovely spot), but we were heading towards our final stop – the Hermitage museum. St. Petersburg's most popular visitor attraction, it is one of the world's largest and most prestigious museums. It is located on the same Palace square we visited the night before, but this time full of colour. And it is truly mind-blowing. Speaking of numbers, its museum collection comprises of over 3,000,000 items, its floor space measured at 183,820 m2, 1786 doors, 1945 windows and 1057 halls and rooms. And most of all these are open to the public. The Winter Palace (yes, palace) is just one of the 7 buildings of the complex. Saying this – half a day is far not enough to explore. Maybe even full day would not be enough. If you decide to go, don’t make our mistake and plan plenty of time ahead of your visit.
With that, our trip sadly came to its end. Moscow and Saint Petersburg, these two extraordinary cities, have a lot more to offer and I am going back for sure. Russia has its pros and cons if you are considering it as a tourist destination, but one thing is for sure – it is massively underestimated. Winston Churchill’s words for largest country in the world are entirely valid today – “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma”.