When I first told people I was going to Russia in May, I received some pretty random questions which made me realize that I actually don’t know that much about the country; and to be honest, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I remember watching some videos on Youtube of road accidents in Russia, I remember it looking extremely cold and even more chaotic. Hence, my ignorance allowed me to believe that Russia was exactly that… and I’m happy to say I have never been more wrong in my life.
So despite what you might have heard; the weather was actually perfect in May; the sun was out almost every day (I actually came back to Abu Dhabi with a tan) but a light breeze kept us cool as we toured the city. A light jacket was more than enough to keep us comfortable. For those visiting during the World Cup in June and July, the weather will only keep getting better. Onto more pressing concerns though; I was told several times before traveling that Russians are arrogant and a little racist, that is so far from the truth though. So if you were told the same thing, just ignore it trust me. We had absolutely no problems with the people there and they were extremely delightful to deal with… most of the time. You gotta understand though that language barriers are pretty strong and what might come across to you as someone being rude, might just be that they simply do not know how to get their point across to you. So keep a light heart, smile and most importantly… use Google Translate!
So, before getting started with the blog, here are a few things that you need to know. Firstly, I am not paid to advertise any of the tour agencies, restaurants, etc. that are mentioned here. That being said, I booked almost everything through RealRussia and they were a pleasure to deal with. Yana handled all my communication, she was very friendly, professional and got things done quickly. Secondly, it is no secret that it gets cold in Russia, so make sure you check the weather forecast before planning your trip. As I previously mentioned, I was there in May and the weather was literally perfect. I suspect it only gets better from here on. Moreover, visiting during summer means you get extremely long days, which means more time to explore and… grasp the adventure! Thirdly, Russia is a country that loves its food. There are restaurants and bakeries on every corner, so be prepared to gain a couple of pounds during your time there. Lastly, I recommend picking up a sim-card at the airport when you arrive, you get unlimited calls and texts along with 5 gb of data for only 800 rubles. Anyway, I’m done blabbering, let’s get started with the blog.
Day 1: Getting to Know the City
Movies and Youtube videos don’t do Moscow any justice, so I believe you should dedicate your first day to taking in the city’s true beauty and getting to know it’s culture and history. As soon as you’re done checking into your hotel and freshening up, take the metro to St. Basil’s Cathedral. There are two reasons I urge you to take the metro right now:
Familiarize yourself with the metro, you will be purchasing a 3 day pass tomorrow
You will pretty much walk for the rest of the day so give your feet a few extra minutes of freedom
St. Basil’s Cathedral is arguably the most beautiful architectural work and the touristic symbol of Moscow, so what’s a better spot to begin your adventure?
Although it is commonly known as St. Basil’s Cathedral, it actually has a number of different names. It is also called the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed but its official name is Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat… with an official name this long, no wonder it has so many nicknames. Despite every name containing the word cathedral, the building is actually a museum now so make sure you enter and check out the interior too. The cathedral was built from 1555 to 1561 which means it only took 6 years to build, pretty impressive if you ask me. The order to construct this wonder was given by Ivan the Terrible who was commemorating the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It was also the city’s tallest building until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.
When you’re done taking pictures of the cathedral, turn your back to it and head south over the Moskva River to enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of the city. From atop the bridge, you’ll be able to see the cathedral along with the Kremlin, the Bell Tower, Nikolskaya tower and the Armoury Chamber.
Once you’re on the other side, head east and then cross over the river again but via the Bolshoy Ustyinskiy Bridge this time to enjoy a perfect view of the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building. To be completely honest with you, I had no idea what that building was when I first saw it but I knew it looked important. Thanks to Google, I quickly found out that the structure is one of seven Stanlinist skyscrapers laid down in September 1947 and completed in 1952 designed by the Chief Architect of Moscow at the time. The main tower has 32 levels and is 176 meters tall. I thought it was a governmental building at first and was quite surprised to find out it’s actually residential, a few Russian celebrities even live there.
So, you’re probably starving by this point right, I mean how dare I go on this long without suggesting any food?! Unfortunately, I won’t be recommending any restaurants just yet but there will be a good amount of munching coming right up. Head back north towards Red Square via Zaryadye Park and Khram Zhivonachal’noy Troitsy V Nikitnikakh, yet another beautiful church in Moscow.
Behind the church, you will find countless souvenir and food stands. I do not advise you to do your souvenir shopping just yet as you’ll find cheaper destinations down the line; I do however urge you to binge on all the different delicacies available. Once you’re done, continue onwards to GUM mall. I’m not usually one to recommend visiting malls during holidays but this case was different, the place looks more like a historical building than a shopping complex. It is worth mentioning that the center was originally commissioned by Catherine II so it is pretty much part of the city’s history. Unfortunately, the initial structure burned down after the 1812 Fire of Moscow and the existing mall was build as a replacement. Like all other grand building in Moscow, the mall is extremely elegant and radiates a certain sense of richness. The complex shows off isles and isles of high end brands but what’s even more impressive is their VIP toilet. It costs 100 rubles just to use the washroom! Whilst walking around the mall, you’ll notice that almost everyone around you is eating ice cream… literally everyone. In case you haven’t already figured out where they bought them from, there are ice cream stands at the end of every isle, and I strongly recommend you purchase a scoop.
Now that you got some food in your system, continue walking onwards to the renowned Bolshoi Theatre. Ideally speaking, you should be attending a ballet performance in this theater on one of your Moscow nights, but I added this walk to the itinerary anyway just in case the ballet isn’t in your plan. Moreover, if you’re visiting during a season with shorter days, visiting the theater today will give you the opportunity to see it with some sunlight. For those of you who have no idea what the Bolshoi Theatre is… its the theatre Jennifer Lawrence worked for at the beginning of the movie Red Sparrow. Oh, it is also the most iconic ballet theater in Moscow and arguably even Russia.
From the Bolshoy, you can easily turn onto Tverskaya, one of Moscow’s main boulevards. This road is pact with bakeries, restaurants, coffee shops and department stores. You can find everything from Starbucks to Gucci. In my opinion though, the main highlight of this street is a simple supermarket… ok calling it simple is a downright lie. This place is anything but simple. When I say supermarket, you probably imagine white fluorescent lights, endless isles of food and mindless zombies pushing onto trolleys as they check food items off a never-ending list; well my friend, your idea of a supermarket is in for a treat. I just realized I literally used up 6 entire lines just to introduce a store. So anyway, walk down the boulevard and right at the end of it, you’ll find Eliseyevskiy. After checking it out, I think you should run a quick Google search to understand why this supermarket looks the way it does. Also, keep all that information in mind because you’ll visit another branch of this supermarket in St. Petersburg, owned by the same family too.
While you’re at Eliseyevskiy, buy yourself a bar of Belgium chocolate and a cup of coffee, take them over across the street to the Pushkin Monument and enjoy the richness of the chocolate under the Russian sun. When you are well rested and that sugar high starts kicking in, get up and make your way to our last sight of the day, Kazan Cathedral. Now you might have realized that this cathedral is back in Red Square, and you might be wondering why you didn’t just check it out earlier when you were already there, worry not dear friend because I have got the answers for you. Firstly, by the time you’re done with everything, it is probably time for the evening services of the cathedral which means you’ll be able to enter and walk around the place. Second of all, I think it is a good idea to end the day at the Red Square since there are many restaurants there, giving you the opportunity to choose where you would like to have dinner on your first night in Moscow.
Just like that, you have pretty much covered central Moscow on foot in one day. Although we have barely even scratched the surface of what this magnificent city has to offer, we can safely say that you are beginning to understand why Russia should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Day 2: The Kremlin
Today, you’ll be visiting one of Russia’s most iconic destinations, The Kremlin. Keep in mind that touring the entire fortress will not take less than four hours so make sure you have a hefty breakfast at the hotel. Like everything else in Moscow, the Kremlin opens at 10 AM; however, you should still try to get there by 9:30 AM at the latest to meet your guide and queue up as it does get pretty busy. Unfortunately, I was there on the week of Victory day, May 9th, which meant that literally everything in the Red Square was shut. Yes, Russia actually closes down all the museums, cathedrals and even the Kremlin throughout the entire week of Victory day. On the upside, this gives me a pretty good excuse to go back to Moscow again soon. Moreover, it was also a very good lesson learned: always check whether there are public evens and celebrations before planning your trip and make sure they won’t disturb your itinerary.
The Kremlin literally translates to ‘fortress inside a city’ and that is pretty much what it is. Don’t get it mixed up as there is no single building named the Kremlin, this fortified complex includes five palaces, four cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall with Kremlin Towers (hence why it takes a minimum of four hours). It is strongly advised to purchase a guided tour here because you wanna make sure you learn the most from your visit. We were extremely bummed out about missing the opportunity to visit this wonder; however we still managed to come up with our own little adventure and actually had the most random day ever; visited a friend's uncle who ended up marrying off a young couple, my friend and I are actually listed as the witnesses to the marriage!
Four to five hours in the Kremlin ain’t easy and it’s guaranteed you’ll be hungry and tired by the end of it. So once you’re done, stroll down to the opposite side of the Red Square and have lunch in one of the many restaurants in the area. To balance out all the indoor sightseeing that was done, the next destination is all about the outdoors. When you’re done eating, use Google Maps to locate the nearest metro station and make your way to the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. It is worth purchasing a three day metro card too as you will definitely be putting it to good use. Uber is extremely cheap in Russia and you may be tempted to just take that everywhere instead of the hassle of metros but keep in mind that metros are actually part of Moscow’s charm. You will immerse yourself into the local community in addition to seeing some insanely beautiful metro stations.
Anyway, the Novodevichy Convent, also known as Bogoroditse-Smolensky Monastery, is probably the best-known cloister of Moscow. The convent has remained virtually intact since the 17th century and was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Stick to the outdoors here as the actual exhibits aren’t that great. When you’re done with the convent, make sure you visit the cemetery too and walk around the lake for some calming nature and scenery.
It has been a pretty long day already but it ain’t over just yet. Take the metro back to your hotel and relax for an hour or two. Once you have freshened up and feeling rejuvenated, change into some less comfortable, more fashionable clothes because it is dinner time. Arbat street is the main walking boulevard of Moscow and it decorated with countless restaurants, souvenir shops and bakeries. Like all touristic spots, things tend to be significantly more expensive here so save your shopping for tomorrow; don’t worry, you’ll get all the souvenirs you want at Izmailovsky Market. Nevertheless, do walk into the stores and check out the funky collections of Matryoshka dolls. Take pictures of the ones you love and you can try mimic their designs when you take your own master painting class on the last day. Finally, when you hear your stomach begin to rumble, choose the restaurant that best suits your taste and begin your feast. No matter where you decide to eat, food in Russia is relatively cheaper than it is in most other countries so don’t be shy with the menu and order up!
Note: During your stay in Russia, I recommend you watch a ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, A Russian Circus in Moscow and a Ballet at the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. If two ballets is too much for you, then prioritize the one in Moscow. However, this all depends on availability so ask your hotel or tour provider to find some tickets for you and include them in your itinerary accordingly.
Day 3: Museums, Fancy Lunches & Souvenir Shopping
Once again, try to wake up by 8 AM in order to give yourself enough time for a hefty breakfast; you will need it. You don’t really need a guide for this first part of the day but you’ll see why it’ll be useful in a second.
Today’s first activity is visiting Lenin’s Tomb which may seem like an odd way to spend the morning for some, but there are multiple reasons why you should. First of all, you cannot deny that there is something intriguing about the chemically preserved body of the Soviet Union’s founder which has been on public display for 94 years. Moreover, it’s important to note that Lenin’s body won’t be there forever so this could potentially be a ‘back in my days’ moment for you. Many powerful Russians are actually objecting to the idea of idolizing and displaying a mass murderer in addition to the millions of dollars spend on chemical baths for the body each year (only the best from Bath & Body Works). Long story short, they want him buried so it’s now or never folks. Now back to why I recommend a guide for this, the mausoleum opens at 10 AM but the line grows rapidly at 9:30 so try beat the clock on this one. Bags, cameras, cell phones and sharp or glass objects are not allowed inside… here is where the guide comes in handy since he’ll be waiting for you outside. If you don’t have a guide, you can check the items in at the Historical Museum but that means leaving the long line you stood in, so might be a good idea to have one person check in the items while the other stands in line. You’re probably thinking ‘why don’t I just check them in before standing in line?’ well genius, the museum doesn’t open until 10 AM either.
The exit of the tomb will place you at a 15 minute walk from where you checked in your cell phones and cameras, so double back because you’ll definitely be needing them for the rest of the day. The next destination will help you gain an insight on Russia’s twisted relationship with communism. The Museum of Contemporary Russian History is located in Russia’s most prestigious pre-1917 hangout, the English Club, and it tells the story of the birth and death of the Soviet Union… unlike all Hollywood movies though, this museum presents the Russian perspective of things.
The museum will definitely leave you tired and hungry for some good Russian food and I got just what you need! stroll down Nevsky Prospekt once again until you locate a restaurant named Cafe Pushkin. Watch out though because the cafe doesn’t serve lunch, you gotta make sure you’re in the actual restaurant.
With plenty of time left before the Circus, we had the opportunity to visit the Izmailovsky Market and satisfy our longing for souvenirs. Here, you can purchase anything from Matryoshka dolls to deodorants or even passports of former Soviet Union lieutenants in the early 90s. It’s a great place to buy all your gifts from, strongly recommend it since you’ll find the same kind of quality available on Arbat street but for a mere fraction of the price. If you’re looking to buy yourself or your loved ones some Matryoshka dolls from Russia, there is a lady at the market selling them out of a big Matryoshka booth, she cannot be missed; I even added a picture below. The lady is a bit of a grump but you’re guaranteed cheaper prices than anywhere else and the quality is quite impressive. Of course, she has a great variety and the higher-end ones are relatively expensive. Besides shopping, the market is also a picturesque scene and worth visiting for the architecture. I’m not sure whether the buildings served a different purpose in the past or whether it was build to cater as a market, if you have any idea, do let us know in the comments section below.
Take your shopping back to the hotel and get changed for the famous Russian Circus! I attended multiple performances by Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas and Dubai before and was sure the circus here won’t impress me much but boy was I wrong. Yes, the theater doesn’t drown in water, light on fire or lift the performers 10s of meters into the air, but the acts were just as extraordinary if not even more daring. Put all the theatrics aside, this was a downright acrobatic performance. The second half of the show was a bit upsetting though since it included caged up lions and tigers. If you’re an animal rights activist, the circus is not for you so best not attend, or maybe just leave during the intermission. However, once the tiger act was over, everything was back to awesomeness. The staff were extremely strict about photography so I don't have anything to share, instead here is the grump lady's Matryoshka booth as promised!
Day 4: A Little More of Moscow
Today is a little more chilled with not much to do so you can afford a cheeky lie in or a massage to begin your final day in Moscow. If you missed anything from the previous days too, this is when you can cover it.
The first stop of the day is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. You should’ve already seen and taken pictures of this monument during the past three days as it is visible from almost anywhere near the Red Square; however, today is the time to get up-close and personal. The church earns its glory through its magnificent height, standing 103 meters tall, it is not only the tallest Orthodox church in Russia, but the tallest Orthodox church in the entire world. It was built between 1995 and 2000 making it relatively modern, although there was another church before it on the same site, built in the 19th century. The original church took more than 40 years to build and was the scene of the 1882 world premiere of the 1812 Overture. Unfortunately, that church was destroyed in 1931 on the order of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. I’ll let you look into why he destroyed it.
Continue walking onwards past the church to the Ostozhenka Neighborhood, an up-and-coming housing block catering to the Kremlin-type citizens. Although quiet and not bustling with life like Arbat or Tverskaya streets, this neighborhood still has a certain charm and many different bakeries and coffee shops to choose from. In case you are interested, you can also visit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts here, although we skipped it to be honest. Finally, take the metro from Ostozhenka to Sparrow Hills.
The metro won’t take you all the way up the hills but the walk is quite pleasant. If you are not in the mood or incapable of conquering the steps leading up the park, you can either take the bus or call in an Uber. As you make your way through the park, or if you decide to walk along the Moskva River first, you will be approached by multiple people selling boat ride tickets. Don’t worry just yet, the boat ride isn’t a scam, it is a legit company and the tour runs every half an hour or so; however, I strongly, desperately urge you not to fall for this mistake. The ride was arguably the most boring part of our entire trip. The boat doesn’t go through any scenic routes and turns around just as it approached Red Square. To add insult to injury, it stopes every 10 minutes or so for more than 20 minutes in hopes of picking up more passengers. As we got off the boat, we noticed that many of the Russians who took the trip were furious and started fighting with the tour operators… we nodded in agreement even though we had absolutely no idea what they were saying.
Once you get to the top of the hills, walk over to the Moscow State University and bask over its architectural design and glory. Only in Russia will you find a university that looks like the Empire State Building or even fancier.
From here, take an Uber or bus back down the hills and head over the Moscow Olympic Stadium.
Lying right across from the stadium though, and definitely worth visiting is the Moscow Cathedral Mosque. Inaugurated on 23rd September 2015 by Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mahmoud Abbas and local Muslim leaders, the mosque has the capacity of ten thousand worshippers. Like the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, this mosque is also built on the same site of a former one.
Now you’ve got some free time to revisit some of your favorite sites, have dinner at Arbat Street or simply wander the streets of Moscow until it’s time to catch your overnight train to St. Petersburg. It might not be the Orient Express but the night train was still quite impressive. There is no doubt we passed out comfortably, or maybe it was just plain exhaustion. If you have taken the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg before, let me know what you thought of it.
I would be lying if I said four days are enough for Moscow; a city this big with a history that runs so deep would require weeks if not months just to skim the surface of what it has to offer. However, we did the best with what we have and now we move on to The Venice of the North, St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg, appropriately nicknamed ‘The Venice of the North’ due to the countless rivers running through its streets like blood vessels supplying life and infinite beauty. The city is also referred to as ‘White Nights’ due to a beautiful phenomenon which occurs during summers there, you’ll have to visit it to know what I’m talking about.
Whether you’re a foodie, a historian, a philosopher, a shopaholic or simply someone who enjoys long walks through picturesque cities, St. Petersburg caters to all. Not sure whether it was my lack of planning though but I did find that both Moscow and St. Petersburg do not exactly attract the adrenaline junkies. Whilst creating my itinerary, I couldn’t find any adventurous activities although I’m sure they do exist in some of the less touristic cities. If you know of anything, please do share below in the comments section. Equally as fun though, a trip to this city will consist of museums, castles, palaces, cathedrals, ballets and even a chance to paint your very own Matryoshka Doll, so let us begin!
Day 1: Fortresses & Cathedrals
There is no better way of starting to get to know a city than to understand the history around its existence. However, learning the history is merely breaking the ice, it’s only the first step of a long journey. Understanding the culture and the ‘soul’ of a place comes from immersing yourself into its streets, markets and restaurants. Speak to the people, not just on a shallow scale but really seek to understand the hardships they face and what keeps them anchored to the city despite the negatives. As usual, this is exactly what I try to achieve during day 1 of any visit.
Quick note regarding your accommodation, we stayed at the Rossi Boutique Hotel & Spa located right by the Fontanka River. The staff were very welcoming, professional and courteous. The location is pretty good too as it’s a mere 3 minute walk from the famous Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main boulevard, and a 15 minute walk to the Hermitage. Last but not least, their spa was awesome, I definitely recommend you treat yourself to a massage during the end of your stay. All in all, we enjoyed our stay and the hotel lives up to it’s 8.9 rating on booking.com. However, I wouldn’t have minded staying somewhere a little closer to the Hermitage; just because it would mean less walking at the end of a tiring, busy day.
Whether you opt for the Rossi Boutique or anywhere else, begin your day by strolling down Nevsky Prospect towards the Hermitage. On the way, stop at one of the countless bakeries for breakfast as you’ll surely need the energy. As you walk down the bustling boulevard, you should also notice a fairly large, fancy supermarket named Eliseyev Emporium. If you followed my Moscow itinerary, the breathtaking interior of this place will not be unfamiliar to you. It is worth noting that this supermarket is actually owned by the same family as the one you visited in Moscow. Make sure you make a stop here and perhaps pick up some fine, Swiss chocolate or a coffee. When you’re done, continue your walk down towards the Hermitage. We got a bit lucky here as the city was preparing for the Victory Day Parade; therefore, the boulevard was closed off to all vehicles turning it into a huge pedestrian walkway.
Now, I know I told you to walk towards the Hermitage but don’t worry, I’m not about to throw you into the world’s second largest museum after an overnight train ride and only a couple of hours to regain your energy in St. Petersburg. It’s just that the location of the Hermitage is so central to all the sights worth seeing that it acts as the perfect starting point.
Once at the museum’s square, cross over the The Palace Bridge to get to the ‘Spit of Vasilievsky Island’. With the Saint Petersburg State University to your back, enjoy panoramic views of the city along with the famous Rostral Columns acting as frames for that perfect Instagram shot. From where you’re standing, you’ll be able to see the Peter & Paul Fortress across one side of the river and the Hermitage across the other side. This spot is a great introduction to the city as it acts as a mediator between how St. Petersburg first came to be and how it received it’s name; to the way it developed into one of the richest and most artistic cities in the world.
When you’re done basking in the sunlight and enjoying the view (assuming of course you were sensible enough to visit during summer), cross over to the Peter & Paul Fortress. Founded by Peter the Great himself in 1703, this fortress was the original citadel of St. Petersburg. Thus, it is only appropriate to make it your first official destination on this itinerary.
After visiting the fortress, you can either walk back over the bridge towards the Hermitage or take an Uber back if you need to give your feet a little rest. Our next destination was arguable my favorite in the city, St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Besides being the largest Russian Orthodox church in the city, it is the largest orthodox basilica and the forth largest cathedral in the entire world. The exterior is faced with gray and pink stone and features a total of 112 red granite columns while the cathedral’s main dome rises 101.5 meters. The dome is also majestically plated with pure gold. Make sure you climb up to the observation deck too for breathtaking, panoramic views of the city.
There are dozens of reasons to fall in love with this wonder, ranging from its magnificent architecture to the exotic materials used in construction. However, the main reason I fell in love with this spot is so much simpler. Connected directly to the cathedral is a small, yet quaint and cozy park where people enjoy the summer days of St. Petersburg. Here you’ll find children flying kites, adults sketching the wonder in front of them and seniors digging into their picnic baskets. I however, was too busy napping on the green, lush grass to pay much attention to anyone else.
You’re probably starving by now and fortunately, my favorite restaurant, Teplo, is only a 5 minute walk from St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The restaurant does fill up quite often though which is surprising given its size, so it is recommended to call and book a table before heading there. Literally everything on the menu is extremely tasty but I’ll have to urge you to try their Beef Stroganoff… guaranteed to leave you longing for more and more.
With filled tummies and happy hearts, make your back down Nevsky Prospekt until you spot a beautiful, picturesque cathedral on your lefthand side… that ladies and gentlemen, is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Although the name does sound hella cool, it’s not all that creative. The church was in fact built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by political nihilists in March 1881. Now the name might make more sense to you. The construction of this monument began in 1883 but wasn’t completed until 1907; moreover, it is important to note that the project was funded by the imperial family as a memorial to their father.
With the day coming to an end, it is probably a good time to head back to your hotel room for a little bit. Besides being rich with history, St. Petersburg is a city that loves its food. Discover a wide variety of seafood restaurants, steakhouses, Italian Trattorias and so much more. So change into something a little less comfortable and a little more fashionable before leaving for dinner. I would recommend asking your hotel’s concierge for the best nearby options.
Day 2: May 9th, Victory Day
I am not sure how that’s even possible but throughout my entire planning process, I seemed to miss the fact that the 9th of May is Victory Day in Russia. That meant that almost every museum or publicly owned attraction was shut for the day. It also meant that St. Petersburg would host a military parade that really shows off the Soviet Union’s might, a way to show the world… that they’ve still got it. Almost everyone was talking about the parade, so of course, I got super excited about it. We cancelled our plans to visit the Catherine Palace and instead walked down Nevsky Prospekt towards Hermitage Square.
Just in case you’re ever there on this date, heres a little background on Victory Day. It is a holiday that commemorates the surrender of the Nazis in 1945. It was first inaugurated in 16 republics of the Soviet Union, following the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender late in the evening of 8 May 1945, after midnight though. In East Germany for example, 8th of May (due to the time difference) was observed as “liberation Day” from 1950 to 1966. What I didn’t know though was that every single person in St. Petersburg apparently was also planning on attending this parade. Naturally, we followed crowds and crowds of people thinking it would lead us to an open spot from where we’d be able to see the marching bands, soldiers and heavy artillery; to our despair though, all we saw were the crowds of people. There is an Arabic saying that goes like this: ‘Ask a person who experienced it before asking a doctor’. So here is a piece of advice that surprisingly, none of the locals told me: if you’re hoping to catch the parade, make sure you wake up ridiculously early, head down to the square before anyone else gets there, and set up your spot right by the road.
The streets cleared up at around noon and it was time to plan out our next move. Fortunately, we found out that the Peterhof Palace was open today. We rushed down to the Peterhof Express harbor on the Reka Neva right by the Hermitage (I told you it’s a great reference spot for everything you need to do). From there, we took a hydrofoil to the palace. If you’ve never been on one, you’ll definitely find this ride to be quite interesting. A hydrofoil is a lifting surface that operates in water, they are similar in appearance and purpose to aerofoils used by airplanes but installed on a boat instead. As the craft gains speed, the hydrofoils lift the boat’s hull out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing greater speeds. That being said, do not expect to be flying across the river at rapid speeds but the sense of levitating right above the water along with the lack of that usual rocking sensation is pretty cool.
The Peterhof Palace is probably the most photogenic spot we visited in St. Petersburg so get your cameras ready for this one. Besides being a backdrop for our pictures though, the Peterhof Palace actually plays an important role in Russia’s history and tourism. Matter of fact, the grounds of this place are so great that it is often nicknamed the ‘Versailles of Russia’. The dominant natural feature of the palace is a 16 meter high bluff lying less than 100 meters from the shore. Moreover, the so-called Lower Gardens take over an area larger than 1 km2 and are confined between this bluff and the shore, they stretch east and west for roughly 200m in each direction. East of the Lower Gardens lies the Alexandria Park which boats its 19th-century Gothic Revivial structures such as the Kapella. The main highlight of the palace though is the Sea Channel (Morskoi Kanal), one of the most extensive waterworks of the Baroque period, this channel bisects the Lower Gardens. You’re guaranteed to stand in awe over the gold sculptures as sunlight crosses through the fountains splitting into a thousand different rays. You wanna spend around three hours here before catching the next hydrofoil back.
Before retiring to our hotel, we decided to head back to the Church on Spilled Blood. There, you’ll find dozens of souvenir booths that offer slightly better prices than the shops down Nevsky Prospekt. However, there was nothing really there that grabbed our attention; moreover, you’re better off waiting and doing your final souvenir shopping at the Catherine Palace.
Day 3: The Hermitage & Canal Rides
You simply cannot go to St. Petersburg without visiting The State Hermitage Museum; after all, it is the second largest art museum in the entire world. If you’re an art aficionado, you can easily spend an entire week touring this place without merely scratching the surface of what it has to offer. The Hermitage was founded in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great acquired an impressive collection of paintings from the Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky… yes, the museum was basically her personal collection, which she didn’t allow anyone to see by the way. Its collections, of which only a small segment is on permanent display, comprise over three million items including the largest collection of paintings in the world.
It is worth noting that the museum isn’t just one building, its more of a complex comprising of six buildings although only five are open to the public. The five buildings are Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, Hermitage Theatre and Winter Palace. The latter is the most famous of the five and the one I recommend you visit. The entrance tickets for foreign tourists are quite pricy so if you’re traveling on budget, here are a couple of tricks: firstly, entrance is free of charge on the first Thursday of every month. If that does not suit your schedule, students and children can always enter free, although you will need a student ID for that. Besides the entrance fee, I strongly urge you to book a guided tour. The tour guides are extremely passionate about the art and will surely give you a better feel for the museum over the self-guided audio tour.
For an average Joe, a trip to the Hermitage will take something between 3 to 5 hours; which means you’ll probably be pretty hungry by the time you’re done. My recommendation is to pick up a sandwich or snack from Nevsky Prospekt; you can spend time having a proper meal later before the Ballet. When you’re done eating, or if you weren’t that hungry to begin with, catch any of the canal tour providers. You will find loads of these chilling around the Hermitage, or any of the other cathedrals. You can also walk down the Reka Neva where several different companies are available. They all pretty much offer the same prices and tour so try choose the one with a boat that’s already almost full. The reason is that they always wait for the boat to fill up before they commence the tour, so the earlier you are, the longer you wait. Not gonna lie, the canal tour wasn’t amongst my favorite activities in St. Petersburg, although it’s still heaps better than the one in Moscow. It is a pretty chilled out hour or two so get it done since you’re there.
If you weren’t hungry earlier, I bet you’re starving now! Go back to your hotel and change into something fancy because you will be heading to the Ballet after food. I’m not gonna lie to you, we ate at Teplo again, could not resist more of their Stroganoff, so I can’t recommend any other restaurants for dinner. However, I’m sure your hotel will have countless options for you. Now it is finally time to experience the true Russian Ballet. We attended the Sleeping Beauty at the Marinsky Theatre and it was honestly an extraordinary piece. Everything from the decor, the dancing, the live orchestra to the story line was absolutely perfect. I think it’s a good idea to look for a story you’re familiar with too because it just makes it that much easier to keep up with the plot.
Day 4: Painting your own Matryoshka Dolla
Like I said before, we were meant to visit the Catherine Palace on day 2 but that didn’t happen due to Victory day and the parade. No biggie though since we got Peterhof palace done then, we’ve freed up today. Catherine Palace lies a little outside the city, in the Pushkinsky District; walking there will not be an option unless you’re down to spend 6 hours on the road :p You can either take an Uber there, it was surprisingly cheap, or take a bus if you’re traveling on a tight budget.
There are three main things to do at the palace, firstly, the palace itself obviously. Make sure to at least buy a ticket that includes the Amber Room, it is exquisite to say the least, although you will not be allowed to take any pictures in there… time to crack out your sneaky skills!
This place acted as the summer residence for the Russian czars, it was originated in 1717 when Catherine I hired German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein to contract a summer palace for her pleasure, chilling like that you know. In 1733, Empress Elizabeth commissioned Mikhail Zemtsov and Andrei Kvasov to expand the palace for her… simply because she can. However, she then found her mother’s place to be outdated and incommodious so in 1752, she asked her court architect to demolish the entire structure and replace it with a much grander edifice in a flamboyant Rococo style, which it still has until this day. That ladies and gentlemen, is how the finer 1% spend their time and money. More than 100 kilograms of gold were used to guild the sophisticated stucco facade and numerous statues erected on the roof. The Amber Room is another story on it’w own. This priceless piece of art boasts extraordinary architectural features such as gildings, carvings, 450 kg amber panels, gold leaf, gemstones and mirrors… all highlighted with candle light. The room is sometimes dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ and has it’s value estimated at over $500 million.
The second attraction of the palace is it’s marvelous park where you can easily spend a couple of hours walking around it, admiring the sculptures, flowers and elegant layout. Why don’t you try to pack a couple of sandwiches and have a little picnic by the park’s quaint, little lake?
It is only right to complete such a trip with a cultural and traditional ‘bang’. So, for your final activity in this beautiful city, you will be painting your very own Matryoshka doll! For this, ask your hotel to contact a painter to arrange a Masterclass for you. You’ll have the option of painting a single doll, or three; your choice will depend on how much time you have because the process does take a while. Don’t be intimidated if you’re not quite the artist either because the Master painter will be there the entire time to help you out. Keep in mind that this is a private session to although it is a little pricey, you’ll be getting the support required to produce a stunning Matryoshka. Truth is, I can’t paint to save my life, I’m 27 and can barely draw a couple of stick figures; but I’m still really proud of the doll I produced. Let me know what you think of it in the comments section below…. don’t be too harsh on me though!
I know you wanna see the finished products... fine, fine, I can't not share this priceless work of art, it's just too selfish to do so.
That’s it for our eight days in Russia. What did you think of the country though, did you fall in love with it like I did? Will you be planning a second visit?
Do me a huge favor guys, if you followed this itinerary, please comment on what you liked, what you didn’t like, anything you did differently or anything you’d change. Most importantly though, rate this trip out of 10 so that other travelers, explorers and adventurers can also benefit from your experience.