Moscow and St. Petersburg have survived revolutions, world wars, and economic changes, but their appeal is enduring. On a Russia vacation, both cities are outstanding treasure troves to be opened and enjoyed.
I first visited what was then the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and although many aspects of both cities were drab and colourless, the history and culture were ever present. I found it fascinating and enthralling at the time. The old Soviet regime could not and did not prevent visitors from enjoying all the historical sites and attractions which were, and still are, abundant in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Actually, the biggest problem at that time was making sure you didn’t go hungry. The only places for foreign visitors to eat were in the hotels and only at restricted times. Today, both cities offer the finest selection of restaurants comparable with most major European capitals. Accommodation, which was fairly basic then, has changed and you can now experience the ultimate in luxury. So, for those readers who are contemplating a Russia vacation to both or either Moscow or St. Petersburg, here are my suggestions of places which have not particularly changed since my first visit all those years ago.
In Moscow, you should start by heading to Red Square on your Russia vacation, as this is not only the heart of the city but contains many of the important highlights in Moscow. All the buildings here surrounding the square are significant. The square is for pedestrian traffic only, except for when it acts as the venue for many massed parades, such as the important one on May Day. What will immediately catch your eye will be the fairy-tale multi-coloured onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral, which was first erected in 1560. The Cathedral is no longer an active religious building; it is now a museum. Another site which you can’t miss is Lenin’s Tomb (or Lenin’s Mausoleum) where Vladmir Lenin, one of the founders of the communist doctrine, lies in state. The interior of his mausoleum can be visited for a short period of time if of interest. What is fascinating in Red Square are the tombs and epitaphs for more than 100 people who are interred here. These include Stalin, Gorky, the writer, and Gagarin, the astronaut.
The Kremlin in Red Square is actually a complex of buildings which includes 4 churches and the Armoury, originally a storehouse for weaponry and which now contains all kinds of treasures including the famed Faberge Eggs and the 190-carat Orlov Diamond. Opposite Lenin’s Mausoleum is the GUM Store which is Moscow’s major consumer store. Although it has been modified in recent times, this traditional building itself is exceptional. Before the 1917 Revolution, it contained 1,200 stores. A beautiful sight at night is the Kremlin’s towers and St. Basil’s Cathedral which are both illuminated.
A Cruise or a Stroll along the Moscow River
You can have a very interesting walk along the banks of the Moscow River which dissects the city, time and energy permitting, or you can take one of the river cruises available. Some of the sites to view on a Russia vacation include the Christ the Savior Cathedral, one of the famous churches in all of Moscow. The original church was built in the 19th century and took 40 years to complete. Then there is the monument to Peter the Great, Russia’s most famous Czar. After passing under or next to a number of attractive bridges, you will view the Russian Federation House of Government, known as Russia’s “White House,” and have panoramic views of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance. You will see Moscow’s biggest green space, Gorky Park and the Novospassky Monastery dating back to the 15th century. Watch out for some of the seven buildings nicknamed the “wedding cake buildings,” ordered built by Stalin after World War II. You will also see the Moscow State University and the now Moscow Hilton which was originally the Leningradskaya Hotel.
The Moscow Metro
The Moscow subway has been called the most beautiful subway in the world. This is because 44 of the nearly 200 stations are listed as cultural heritage sites due to the architecture and works of art that are on view on the platforms and lobbies. In some respects, this is an underground museum as well as a transit system. The first station to become artistically endowed was in 1934. It is well worth either going for a ride or, at least, visiting one station on your trip to Russia to admire the platforms where the majority of the art is located.
The Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery
The convent, founded in 1524, is a strategically arranged complex of churches in a variety of architectural styles. The fortress-like walls surrounding the convent were originally built to imprison daughters, sisters, and wives of the nobility. The cemetery was one of the most prestigious burial sites in the 18th and 19th centuries and contains the gravestones of many of Russia’s literary, musical, and scientific heroes such as Chekhov, Shostakovich, Eisenstein (the movie director), Gogol and Bulgakov (both writers). Boris Yeltsin is also buried here.
The Bolshoi Theatre
Everyone is aware of the Bolshoi Ballet which gives performances around the world. Its home in Moscow is the Bolshoi Theatre, a historic landmark where concerts of ballet and opera are performed. The Bolshoi Ballet is the oldest and largest ballet company in the world with more than 200 dancers, and the Bolshoi Opera is also one of the oldest. Performances include 3 or 4 new ballets or operas every season. Tickets can be purchased online or at the theatre. You can also view the performance schedule online when planning your Russia vacation.
Arbat is a pedestrian street about one kilometre/half a mile long in the historical centre of Moscow, and one of the oldest surviving streets in the Russian capital. Originally it was part of an important trade route and home to a large number of craftsmen. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it became known as the place where nobility, artists, and academics lived. During the Soviet period, it housed many high-ranking government officials. In recent times, it has been gentrified and is now a popular street to visit with its numerous restaurants and cafes.
Museums and Art Galleries in Moscow
The Pushkin Museum is Moscow’s major art gallery featuring foreign paintings – mainly from European painters – including works from the Italian Renaissance as well as Dutch masterpieces. It also has an excellent collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. The Museum of Private Collections has collections donated by private individuals. There are additionally collections of ancient Egyptian jewellery, weapons, and tombstones. The Tretyakov Gallery is known for its Russian fine art. A Moscow merchant, Tretyakov acquired works by Russian artists in the mid-1800s, eventually creating a collection of around 2000 works of paintings, drawings and sculptures. Today the collection numbers more than 130,000 exhibits.
If you want to do something different and unusual in Moscow on a Russia vacation, head to Izmailovsky Park. It is a street market set in a 16th-century royal estate. It is open every weekend and has a great variety of decent souvenirs and the perfect place to pick up a bust of Lenin or a set of those ubiquitous-but-must-have matryoshka dolls.
The Peter and Paul Fortress
This is the original citadel of St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. In the early 1920s, it was used as a prison and execution ground by the then Bolshevik government. In 1924, it was converted into a museum and today, it is the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg. The fortress contains several buildings clustered around the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which has the tallest bell tower in the city. One major attraction on a Russia tour is that the cathedral is the burial place of all the Russian Czars, from Peter the Great (1672-1725) to Alexander III (1845-1894). Other structures inside the fortress include a functioning mint, the Trubetskoy Bastion with its prison cells, and the city museum previously mentioned.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
This is a most beautiful building which, with its golden dome, dominates St. Petersburg’s skyline. The cathedral is the second tallest building in St. Petersburg after the Peter and Paul Cathedral and was built between 1818 and 1858. Today, it is a museum although church services are held throughout the year in one of the cathedral’s chapels. If you feel so inclined, you can climb the 262 steps to the colonnade around the dome and enjoy wonderful views of the city. More than 100 kilograms of gold leaf was used to cover the dome. The cathedral’s interior is decorated with masses of gold, malachite, lapis lazuli, and bronze.
The Aurora Battleship
This is a 1900 Russian ship, currently preserved as a museum ship. The Aurora played an important role in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when it fired a blank shot at the Winter Palace, then the residence of the Provisional Government, giving the signal to the workers, soldiers and sailors to storm the palace. This incident was the beginning of years of Communist leadership. The Aurora is now maintained by cadets and admission is free, but for a small fee, you can tour the engine room.
The Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage Museum is one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and opened in 1852. There are over 3 million works in this vast building. Be warned that to see the whole museum on a Russia vacation would take days on end. Every type of art from every possible era is included in the museum. The State Rooms, with their period furniture and decorations are just as important and impressive as the art. In the Treasure Galleries, there are priceless items including Sarmatia gold work and the renowned Faberge Eggs. Some of the rooms are used to display art, while others, period furniture. There is everything here from ancient Egyptian artifacts to modern art.
This is a property formerly owned by the affluent Yusupov family until the palace was confiscated in 1917 by the Bolsheviks. It is best known as the site where Rasputin, a confidant of Nicholas II, was assassinated. Today the murder has been recreated with wax models, documents, and photographs in a special assassination exhibition. Many of the original architectural and decorative features of the palace have been preserved and you can visit the reception rooms, living quarters, White Column Hall and the Rococo Palace Theatre. There are more than 40,000 works of art in the palace including works by Rembrandt and sculptures.
This is St. Petersburg’s equivalent of the Bolshoi in Moscow. For over 200 years, this theatre has been home to one of Russia’s best opera and ballet companies. The building is a huge neo-classical structure which amazes with its size and decor. It contains Byzantine motifs, gilding, and a ceiling fresco by Enrico Franciolli, plus there is an exceptional chandelier designed by Albert Cavos. There are, unfortunately, no tours of the theatre so you would need to attend a performance to see inside its beautiful interior.
The Russian Museum
The Russian Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Russian art with over 400,000 exhibits from the 10th to the 21st century consisting of all types and schools. There is contemporary photography, contemporary art, folk art, decorative art, applied art, drawings, water colours, prints, numismatics, sculptures, and paintings. There is a lot to see here as the museum complex includes the Mikhailovsky Palace, Marble Palace, Stroganov Palace, Mikhailovsky Castle, Summer Garden, Peter I’s Summer Palace, Peter the Great’s Cabin, and the Mikhailovsky Garden.
Located just outside the city, Peterhof Palace and its gardens are the Russian equivalent of Versailles in Paris. The palace estate is made up of more than one palace but the Grand Palace is the main attraction on a Russia vacation. The palace estate was commissioned by Peter the Great – who wanted it to be more impressive than all other European palaces – and was completed in 1721. More than 20 museums exist in the complex. The Grand Palace and other palaces within the estate are lavishly decorated with priceless works of art and exquisite craftsmanship including antique authentic period furniture. The gardens are dominated by huge and intricate fountains. The Lower Garden fountains are particularly spectacular. The Upper Garden also has many fountains including the Grand Cascade with 64 fountains.
Also just outside the city is Catherine Palace, which was originally a small palace given as a gift to Catherine I from her husband Peter the Great. The palace was enlarged under the architect, Rastrelli, and was completed in 1756 with a palace complex covering 1 kilometre/half a mile in circumference. More than 100 kilograms/220 lbs of gold were used in the decoration. Until 1910, the palace was called Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin). Today the palace houses a museum which presents the 300 years of the structure’s history. The decor, mosaics, murals, and stucco work are outstanding. Especially remarkable are the state rooms designed by Rastrelli. In front of the palace are the former palace gardens which now make up Catherine Park.
These are just a few of the delights that would await you on a visit to these two splendid cities on a Russia vacation.