Russia is a country I’d wanted to visit for ages and as I boarded my surprisingly short flight, you’d think it would take longer than four hours to fly from London to Moscow, I was super excited. The country has always been a little mysterious, somewhat vague, and while that “closed-off-we-don’t-want-visitors” attitude has certainly changed, it retains that element of the unknown and not too many people I met travelling had visited.
In addition, I studied modern Russian history throughout school so that no doubt contributed to my desire to visit. Plus I knew some local Moscovites having met Maria almost a year back in Hanoi, Vietnam and it’s always a great reason to visit when you have friends in town.
This excitement only increased as I found myself matching characters trying to navigate the subway system.
While some may find it intimidating, I find it invigorating and it’s one of the reasons I love to travel – that sense of being completely out of your comfort zone knowing you are some place new and totally foreign.
Moscow is a very large and spread-out city so it was fantastic knowing locals who could show me round. St Petersburg, on the other hand, is centered around a small downtown area with a concentration of sights, bars, restaurants and hostels and it’s the type of city you could very easily get “stuck” in as a backpacker.
There is much to see in both cities and I felt like 4 days in each allowed me time to see everything I wanted to. In both cities, I’d highly recommend the free walking tours that take in the main sights – both take around three hours and are a great introduction to the cities.(http://moscowfreetour.com/#free and http://petersburgfreetour.com/).
Don’t forget to pack a student card as many places offer great discounts if you have one. Some places are even free such as the Hermitage, in St Petersburg, the second largest museum in the world.
In Moscow, I’d highly recommend spending a few hours simply riding the metro. The metro was one of the USSR’s most extravagant architectural projects and some of the stations are simply incredible in both size and beauty. A few of my favourites are Komsomolskaya, with its roof panels representing the fight for freedom and independence throughout history, Novoslobodskaya, with its 32 stained glass panels, the stunning Mayakovskaya and Ploshchad Revolyutsii, with its 76 sculptures. One of the sculptures is a frontier guard with a dog whose people rub for good luck.
Also in Moscow, The Hall of Glory at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (aka WW II) is well worth a visit. This room captures the names of over 11,800 recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union award, which are etched on its white marble walls (this was the highest award for heroic feats to the Soviet state & society).
In St Petersburg, I’d recommend a day trip to the former opulent summer residence of Peter the Great in Petershof and be on the look out for a stunning church as you enter the town, the St Peter and Paul Church. Then of course you should also visit the spectacular ‘The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood’ and be sure to not just admire the exterior but to pay to walk around inside as the artwork inside is stunning.
One of the pleasant surprises was the delicious food I tried. Russia to my knowledge is not known as a food country, such as France or Argentina for example. Knowing locals meant I veered off the tourist trail & ate at local restaurants where I tried borsch (beetroot soup), red caviar, poilmeni (dumpings) and of course, heaps of vodka!
Something I’d never been to before, but was keen to see, was the ballet and I was so chuffed that I a managed to get a ticket to see La Bayadere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. It was absolutely phenomenal and I enjoyed it so much that I will very likely go again here in London. The beautiful sets, the fantastic music and the exquisite grace of the dancers makes for a very special evening.
Cost wise, it’s definitely not cheap and it can get very expensive very quickly if you want to eat at fancier restaurants and hit the clubs. Hostels are around $10-15/night while a meal at a local restaurant will set you back $5.Transport is cheap, $1/trip, as is vodka ($5/bottle for decent stuff) while beers average around $3 and sights are expensive.
If you’re looking for a hostel, I can highly recommend MIR in St Petersburg – a can’t-beat location on the main street, super friendly & helpful staff, comfy beds, continental breakfast and a fully stocked kitchen. Many Russians are also keen to improve their English so definitely try couch-surfing: I found hosts in Moscow but in the end was able to stay with Maria.
Finally, Russia has a very fun night life & unlike London, things are open LATE. People tend to head to cafes for their pre-party drinks before heading and if you’re in town, be sure to check this place out for something TOTALLY different … the nightclub Sexton: