Russia had been on my visit-list forever, so when I was invited to join a small group of friends on their whirlwind eight-day tour, I said YES, fast. The goal was to experience as many of Russia’s greatest cultural hits as possible, so we utilized guides in both cities and plotted out our dense itinerary in advance. This was not a “wander around and soak in the sights” kind of trip (although certainly some wandering and soaking did occur)! Upon arrival at Sheremetyevo Airport, we hit the ground running and kept up the pace for eight glorious days.
Moscow was a revelation. Founded in 1147, the city has more than 800 years of Slavs, Vikings, Mongols, Tsars named Ivan or Peter, Orthodox Christianity, Napoleonic invasion, Bolsheviks, Communists, the Cold War and now Putin under it’s belt. This complex history is on display everywhere you turn, and it’s worth hiring a guide just to keep the timeline straight.
The Kremlin, which is an enormous walled complex, contains half a days’ worth of dazzling sights if you are walking VERY fast and not asking too many questions. Fun fact: Krem means “fortress” in Russian. Do not miss the State Armory Museum (containing Catherine the Great’s gold-threaded coronation dress as well as carriages, swords, crowns and thrones collected by the Tsars, and of course stunning Fabergé eggs). The State Diamond Fund is in the basement of this building, but has a separate entrance, so be sure not to miss it. The Cathedral of the Assumption is where Russian rulers were crowned and is the most important church in Moscow. The icons in the interior are beautiful: moody and dark. I also loved the frescoes in the Cathedral of the Archangel. There is an enormous bell with a chunk broken off of it (The Tsar Bell – the largest in the world), which is fun to see as well as the Communist-Era State Kremlin Palace, built in 1961.
The Moscow Metro Stations (below) live up to their touristy hype and offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of Communism in Russia. Construction began in 1931 during the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans, and with the help of workers from all over the country (including women and children) the first 22 stations were completed in just eight years. Because each station is very different, my advice is to actually ride the trains (so fun!) and stop at least three. My favorites were Mayakovskaya with stainless steel columns; ombre-patterned marble tiles and incredibly fine mosaic “portholes” on the ceiling, and the impossibly baroque Komsomolskaya. Novoslobodskaya, Belorusskaya, Elektrozavodskaya and Kievskaya are also worth seeing.
The Bolshoi Theater tour was fascinating (“behind the scenes” arranged by our guide) and we saw a beautiful performance of La Traviata the next night. You can book the tickets in advance, online.
The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, founded by Dasha Zhukova and Roman Abramovich, offers a café and a fun bookstore along with a satisfying dose of contemporary art. Because it is located in Gorky Park, plan to wander a bit if the weather is nice.
Red Square was closed throughout our entire visit because of security surrounding the Victory Day (May 9th) military parade. The absence of the requisite group shot in front of St. Basil’s may have left a gaping hole in my Instagram feed, but being in Moscow for such an important holiday was the highlight of my trip. Over 12,000 troops and more than 200 vehicles including tanks & missiles rolled right by our hotel and into Red Square. The tight security meant that we were confined to the lobby of the Four Seasons, where we watched through the windows and on enormous TVs.
We were able to get in to St. Basil’s Cathedral from the back of Red Square, which is fascinating inside and out.
GUM Department Store is beautiful with its glass-roofed shopping arcades.
Where to Stay
The Four Seasons Moscow. Although modern hotels don’t usually excite me, the Four Seasons’ location at the entrance to Red Square is truly special and worth the upgrade. The rooms are beautiful and large, and the extensive spa is fantastic – we all had blissful, post-flight massages.
Where to Eat
BOSCO at GUM department store - sit outside on the terrace. We ate dinner here our first night and were treated to the sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral lit up at the far end of a completely empty Red Square.
Café Pushkin for old-world Russian ambiance. We sat on the 2nd floor (the paneled “Library”), which looked more appealing to me than the 1st floor.
In warm weather, have lunch outside at Twins. The food was inventive, fresh and a welcome respite from heavier Russian fare.
What I’d Go Back For
We travelled from Moscow to St. Petersburg via train (3½ hours), which was far more interesting than flying. I’m really a sucker for train-travel and watching the scenery streak past your window. They sell cheap wine and caviar on-board, but bring your own sandwich or ask your hotel to pack a lunch for you.
St. Petersburg has a completely different feel from Moscow, both visually and in terms of things to do/see. Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 (over 500 years later than Moscow) as a warm-weather port with access to the Baltic Sea. Peter studied shipbuilding in Europe, and incorporated his vision of modern European ideas and a strong navy into his plans for St. Petersburg. Elegant palaces line the canals, and vestiges of Russia’s naval history are everywhere. Because there are so many “spectacular” sights in St. Petersburg, it feels more touristy and less lived-in than Moscow.
Definitely take advantage of the fact that St. Petersburg is built on a network of canals, and hire a water-taxi to give you an orientation to the city. It is helpful to have a guide with you who is knowledgeable about the city’s rich architectural history.
The Hermitage Museum houses a vast collection of paintings, drawings, decorative treasures and gemstones. You really need to pace yourself and wear sensible shoes. What began as Catherine the Great’s private collection in 1764 was greatly expanded over the years. Particularly after the Revolution, many individual collections were nationalized and displayed here. The museum complex includes the massive, baroque Winter Palace, which would be overwhelmingly impressive even without all of the art! We toured the “greatest hits” of the palace with our guide (don’t miss the Gold Drawing room, the Raphael Loggias and the dreamy Peacock Clock).
Because the Hermitage is too much to absorb in one day, we decided to save our visit of the famed Impressionist Galleries until late in the afternoon, after a lot of coffee and without our guide (check the museum hours – it is open late some nights and when we went it was nearly empty.) This collection blew my mind. First of all, it has a controversial back-story: at the end of WWII, the victorious Russian army advanced through a collapsing Nazi Germany, snapping up anything of value that had been left behind. Among their finds was the private art collection of Otto Krebs, a German industrialist. Krebs had an eye for French Impressionist painting, which was considered “degenerate art” by the Nazi regime so his collection had never been shown to the public. The Russian army took all 56 paintings back to Russia for “safekeeping” and secretly stored them in the basement of the Hermitage for 50 years. You can read more about it here… http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/04/arts/hermitage-reveals-it-hid-trove-of-impressionist-art.html
I loved seeing Van Goghs, Monets, Cezannes etc. that I had never seen in person, in books or in slides in Art History class.
The Peter-and-Paul Fortress, on an island in the Neva River, was built in 1703 and marked the founding of St. Petersburg. I loved the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, with its mad-Baroque interior and Romanov sarcophagi. A fascinating but grim part of the fortress complex is the Trubetskoy Bastion, which held political prisoners including Trotsky, Gorky and Dostoevsky (again, get out your timeline!)
The crazily-but-accurately-named Church on the Spilled Blood was built on the exact spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The unbelievable mosaics inside took more than 20 years to restore. I am completely obsessed with mosaics and these did not disappoint – my neck hurt from looking up!
St. Isaac’s Cathedral is next door to The Four Seasons, so it’s easy to go there on your own. Climb to the top of the dome for an amazing view of the city. There are some interesting wood architectural models on display, which explain how the cathedral was built. The enormous red granite columns (112 in total) were each carved from a single stone.
If you have time and it’s your thing, stop by the Faberge Museum. I am a Gemologist, so I could look at enameled eggs and cigarette cases all day long.
Yusupov Palace This is where Rasputin was killed, and there is a fabulous “tableau-vivant” complete with wax figures to help set the scene. The rest of the house is magnificent as well, including the elegant family theater.
The Kunstkammer was Russia’s first museum and houses Peter the Great’s collection of scientific “oddities”. He bought over two thousand anatomical specimens from a Dutch scientist in 1717, and built a museum to display them to the public, with the promise of free vodka. If you’re squeamish skip the room with pickled and deformed baby skeletons, and check out the beautiful rotunda with an enormous globe that you can sit inside. There is also an impressive collection of Native American artifacts, housed in old-fashioned museum cases.
Peterhof & Catherine Palace are located outside the city and can be visited on the same day. We took the ferry to Peterhof with our guide, who then arranged a coach to Catherine Palace in the afternoon, then back to St. Petersburg. Check the weather and visit on a nice day, because the gardens are lovely. Peterhof was built from 1714-1723 and many aspects were modeled after Versailles (which Peter the Great visited in 1717). The grand scale and Baroque style of the official rooms are what you would expect. The surprise for me was the gardens surrounding the palace, complete with whimsical fountains and water “tricks”. Especially if you are visiting with kids, move right along through the rooms in the palace and then spend your time outside.
In contrast, I absolutely loved the interiors of the Catherine Palace. It was built in 1752 in the Baroque style for Empress Elizabeth (Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli designed the Winter Palace as well). When Catherine the Great moved in almost thirty years later, she decided to replace the “outmoded” interiors with a more current, neoclassical style. Evidence of both decorating approaches can still be seen and there are some really lovely small-scale rooms (“small-scale” being a relative term in Tsarist Russia!) My absolute favorite was the Amber Room, covered entirely in carved amber panels. The current panels are a reconstruction, because the originals were taken by the German army in WWII and never recovered. There is an amber workshop on the grounds of the palace that you can visit by special arrangement, to see how the panels were replicated – mostly from old photos - and reproduced.
Where to Stay
The Four Seasons Lion Palace is in a grand old building near the Admiralty and the Hermitage, and right next door to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. If you don’t like money, ask for a terrace room with an Admiralty view. Our group had room service dinner in our bathrobes at sunset one night and it was a highlight of our trip. Unlike in Moscow, the cheapest rooms in the Lion Palace can be small with airshaft views, so it is worth the upgrade here. The spa is not nearly as photogenic, but the crazy indoor swimming pool is worth a visit so pack a bathing suit. I loved the grand Tea Room where breakfast was served under a glass-domed ceiling.
Where to Eat
Ask for a table near the window at Mansarda, which has modern décor and incredible top-floor views overlooking St. Isaac’s. PMI-Bar also has a gorgeous terrace on the roof. We had a rosé-dominated lunch there one day and then came back for dinner in the main dining room the following night. Also worth mentioning are two restaurants in the Four Seasons: Percoso (Italian) and Sintoho (Japanese). We did not eat at Percoso because it was booked every night that we were there, but Sintoho was delicious and fun. Do not order the frozen sashimi – it just makes no sense – but everything else we tried was excellent.
What I’d Go Back For