Russia in summers is an amazing country with long days, white light, great food and unique architecture and I am not sure why you would ever want to go there in winters. The country also is so huge that saying you are visiting the country when you just go to two cities, sounds wrong in its own way. I was mostly targeting Moscow and St Petersburg so this blog is mostly focused there.
Russian history evolved very differently from the rest of the world and till the early twentieth century they were kind of isolated form the developments in rest of Europe, Asia and even central Asia. While the rest of Europe was going through the Industrial revolution and creating their colonies, Russian kings and queens were enjoying luxurious lives and producing many children. While China and India extended their influence along the silk route, Russian influence was limited to eastern Europe and even that in a more limited fashion. In this period of isolation and relative external peace, they created some amazing architecture which was not overly influenced by the baroque and gothic movements in Europe or the Islamic and Mughal styles from Asia. They developed their own unique style with golden domes, colorful facades, paintings more that sculptures dominating the interiors and more complex building design.
In the twentieth century, Russia went its own way with the communist revolution and its paths truly crossed with the rest of the world only around WW2. Post that they have always been in the thick of things globally, but this period did see the destruction of lot of the old buildings and art driven by the communist desire to not have completing religious or cultural icons or during WW2. Since the USSR fell, a lot of these structures have been reconstructed in their old glory and are now majestic.
Russia somehow ranks among the hardest place to get a visa for. My experience was actually quite different, it was tricky but not entirely hard. You need to get invite letters from the hotels and both the places I was staying at were happy to send out the invites. The hotels did not charge us, but took a credit card approval to be used in case we don’t end up staying with them. Other than these invites, I just needed travel insurance and the filled form to be deposited at a relatively empty office in central Delhi. The office has since moved but then only issue I had in the process was that the form needed to be filled very precisely and even the smallest mistake would mean a new form. The visa was done in 5 days – I think the process is harder for US citizens.
We stayed 4 nights in Moscow and then took a Sapsan Train to St Petersburg. A very comfortable and luxurious train which actually helped us recover from all the walking we had done in Moscow. We could stretch our legs and relax as scenic rural Russia breezed past us.
St Petersburg is known to be the most depressing place in winters with only a couple of hours of sunlight, below freezing temperatures and lot of snow. To keep the residents sane, a lot of entertainment options are needed. In summer months and especially the 10 days of white nights (never gets fully dark), the city comes alive with awesome weather, all those forms of entertainment and most locals staying out to enjoy the short summers. We spent 4 nights there including the summer solstice. I would have stayed another couple of days and there easily was enough to do. It was all made better by our boutique hotel (Domina Prestige) turning out to be far better than expected. We took a day trip to Peterhof and spent another half a day in the Hermitage – which probably deserved a lot more time.
Food in Russia was almost always memorable – I fell in love with the Borsch almost instantly. Moscow had a lot more true Russian flavors while St Petersburg was mostly good European food. There were a lot of vegetables to supplement the meat heavy cuisine. It might be a little hard if you are vegetarian, but you will definitely not starve. The one surprise was the lack of vodka. We expected vodka to be flowing like beer does in the US, but most liquor menus were largely like the ones you would find in any other country – full of beer, cocktails, wine and whiskey. It took a while to realize that while local vodka is commonly consumed in rural Russia, the big city folks have become fairly cosmopolitan. We did find enough vodka in duty free on the way back…
Transport within the city was a little tricky. While we did walk a lot and the cities are very walkable, getting Ubers was hard as the drivers would call and want to coordinate on the phone in Russian. We did use Hop-on Hop-off busses a lot and the hotels helped us get some taxis. The metro system in both cities is quite good and it in itself is a tourist attraction with some immaculate and ornate stations to enjoy. Overall, I think walking worked well for us as it also allowed us to get good flavors of the city.
My three big takeaways from the trip –
- A train ride is far more comfortable than a flight and can actually refresh you in the middle of a tiring trip
- Summer solstice is a great time to be in Europe as the place comes alive in a the most amazing fashion. There are some cities that have special festivals and those are the ones to seek. St Petersburg is near the top of the list. In most cities these celebrations are often not very touristy and local – which makes them even more fun.
- A Hop-on Hop-off is a great way to orient yourself to the city. Usually its slow and should not be used as a mode of transport, but on day one you can use it to prioritize what to do the rest of the time.