I’ve been trying to go to Russia for many years, but never made that many attempts. Once Icelandair had a sale to St. Petersburg for a little over €100 each way and I spontaneously bought a one way ticket there. Of course I found out soon after I needed to apply for a visa with an invitation letter and a return ticket, so that didn’t work out. I once had a 16 hour layover in Moscow on my way from Iceland to South Korea, but I didn’t manage to talk any of the immigration officers into letting me thru border control, even if just for a day. But I did manage to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet, which was helpful when I finally made it.
There’s a food festival which started not so long ago called Foodiez of Moscow, and Thrainn the chef participated last year. So he’d been through the visa process and knew a lot of good chefs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We each got an invitation letter from an Icelandic meat importer in St. Petersburg and then the visa was set. So now that I was finally going to visa, what did I want to do?
For starters, I wanted to go everywhere and see everything, but being the largest country in the world, that covers 11 time zones and isn’t exactly tourist loving (and speaks a language I don’t understand), I was a little restricted. And with only 2 weeks, I had to focus on the small area between Moscow and St. Petersburg, or, the ‘European’ part of Russia.
Most guidebooks will tell you to do the same thing, and I don’t have much to add except the order which we did them. Moscow, you have to see the old fortress, called the Kremlin, which is full of exhibits, museums and orthodox churches, and the Red Square where you’ll find St. Basil’s Cathedral, a church that looks like its made of candycanes and came from Disneyland. The Golden Ring is a chain of cities northeast of Moscow, which we visited counter clockwise and skipped the more industrial cities. Vladimir was nice, Suzdal and Rostov were nicer, and Sergiev Posad wasn’t necessarily the nicest, but by far the busiest and most touristic.
The only other travelers we shared our kremlins, parks, museums and churches with were people from Russian speaking/former Soviet countries, and a thousand Chinese tourists. The latter always traveled together in large groups, usually touring by bus and magically managing not to mix up with the other dozen or so Chinese groups wandering the same sites.
The timing couldn’t have been better, since summer had just started but many trees were still filled with colourful spring blossoms; the sun was shining and the weather hit nearly 20°c every day. Even the big cities still had tons of parks and green spaces, and rivers and water fountains, so everything seemed lush and alive. Some gardens were to die for, and even charged entrance, but it was worth every ruble to see Catherine´s Palace garden and Peterhof Palace garden.
Both those palaces are day trips from St. Petersburg, and can be taken with a boat, ferry, train or bus, and it was always fun to try a little of every transport form. After renting a car for the Golden Ring and backpacking the rest of the way, we had managed to ride the speed train, the local trains, long-haul buses, ferries, trams, local buses and the subway. Stops and stations usually had Roman letters, but it was definitely helpful to be able to read Cyrillic and try to phonetically sound out the words we saw to the words we heard. We stopped half way between Moscow and St. Petersburg, lengthening our trip from only 4 hours on the fast train to 7.5 hours of half fast-train and half local train or bus, but it was worth it to visit the medieval town whose kremlin was on the beach!
Some other stereotypes I had to fulfill were to drink vodka, trying as many types as humanly possible (you could probably stay in Russia for a year without trying the same vodka twice). I also wanted to see a Russian ballet and some Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff symphonies. We watched Chopiniana in St. Petersburg, and just the Mariinsky theatre itself was worth the visit (think of something like Teatro alla Scala in Milan). We saw a Prokofiev piano concert and the opera La Sonnambula in Moscow, at different theatres and only two of over a dozen available.
If you also want to go to Russia for a foodiez trip, these are the must taste spots in Moscow, many of which turn into nightlife places on the weekends: Pinch, Twins, Uilliams, Ugolek and Severyane. If you want to try one of the top 50 restaurants in the world (#23 on the San Pellegrino list), try to get into White Rabbit, at the top of a city tower with great views of the city. In St. Petersburg, try Hamlet & Jacks or ‘Morojka for Pushkin’. With your meals, try some Russian wines, especially sparkling wine, which was much better than I expected. And for all of the above, its fun to try to sit on the ‘chefs table,’ where you are basically given settings and served on the kitchens service board.