There are certain themes and words that start recurring when you start exploring Russian culture and history.
It’s all very imposing and daunting – much like the rapidly changing skyline of Moscow. But in spite of some of the dark times Russians have faced – numerous revolutions and oppressions – there is a richness and a pride that I have not felt or seen in a lot of the places to which I have traveled. People here seem willing to embrace foreign culture, as evidenced by their purchases of fancy cars, jewelry, and clothing, but they do not sacrifice their nationalistic pride to acquire it.
Day 0: Pre-Trip
How to Prep
- Guidebooks: While guidebooks are sometimes frowned upon, I find having one is always helpful because it provides much needed context for a country, city or attraction, and also provides some handy local dining recommendations when your iPhone data plan is inoperative. I used Fodor’s Moscow/St. Petersburg guide, and I think it will be a handy reference for you.
- Apps/Data: Thankfully my data plan works abroad so I was able to plot directions and Google search at will, but I imagine most of you will not want to fork over more than $30 for a 120 MB plan (which is outrageous), so I would download the CityMaps2Go app. With this, you can download maps of the cities you intend to visit, bookmark certain locations and sights, and it works without the cell service or data being active (the fact that your phone still gets tracked in spite of being deactivated is a bit of a concern…).
- UPDATE (4/4/2018): See my post on free international data from T-Mobile. Since switching to T-Mobile, traveling abroad has been incredibly easy. Just check to make sure the country you’re visiting is covered. As of 4/4/18, Russia is covered with unlimited texts and data!
- Movies: If you’re a visual person like me, some Hollywood cinema will nicely prepare you for this trip. I recommend:
- The Hunt for Red October: There’s nothing like non-Russian actors horribly playing Russian naval officers. That said, it does give you a glamourized version of some post-Cold War tension.
- Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: If nothing else, watching Tom Cruise pretend to be a Russian general to get into the Kremlin and then watching it blow up was worth the price of admission.
- Air Force One: Harrison Ford gets his Presidential one-liner with “Get off my plane” before he kicks Gary Oldman’s terrorist character off the plane. Very loose connection to Russia but again, this list is not meant to be a thorough re-telling of Russian history.
If you’re flying to Moscow, there’s a good chance you’ll be flying Aeroflot Airlines, the national airline of Russia. And if that’s the case, prepare yourself for the flight – cause this won’t be like the classy Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines flights you’ve been on before. It was very much a no-frills flight, with no air vents above our seats and a meal service that I would describe as one step above a gulag.
Thankfully I had deprived myself of sleep the night before I departed, so even after our Delta flight from SFO to JFK, I was able to sleep most of the way to Moscow.
Day 1: Moscow
We departed JFK on the evening of May 13 and arrived on the morning of May 14, a bit bleary eyed and disoriented. To our surprise, getting through customs was an easy experience. The surly Russian customs agent spent about five minutes typing and re-scanning my visa and Passport photo page, all the while resembling that woman in Meet the Fockers who seems to keep typing until the flight leaves. But despite this, we were at the baggage claim in less than 20 minutes! Upon passing into the terminal, we found our driver (whom we had arranged in advance), and he took us to our hotel near the city center.
It’s worth noting that Moscow has a particularly shady taxi system that apparently is known for gouging (and in some cases threatening) foreign taxi passengers. So we set up a taxi ride through Moscow Private Tours, which links to a site called WelcomeTaxi. Our taxi ride cost about $20 a person and considering it was over an hour from SVO to our hotel (due to bad traffic), I’d say the peace of mind is well worth it.
Something to note regarding time in country: My friend Vicki and I spent three and a half days in Moscow. In retrospect, we felt this was more time than was needed. You may consider spending more of your time in St. Petersburg or reducing the overall length of your trip, unless you like to move slowly and delve deeply into museums and sites.
If you’re looking for an affordable, comfortable hotel, I recommend the Courtyard Moscow City Center. I chose this place because I have status at Marriott and Starwood, but beyond travel loyalties, it is convenient to Red Square and most of the tourist sites, far enough removed from the heavy foot traffic to be calm, and a safe and comfortable hotel. There’s a great breakfast included for Platinum members with lots of Western options and the staff was helpful at every turn (except for the gruff banker who appeared to be the only holdover from Soviet times). We intentionally left our first day open so we went for a walk to Red Square, and the moment you see the State Museum with its deep red hues and the yellow walls of the Kremlin, you know you’re about to see something great.
Walking past the State Museum, you begin to get glimpses of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the famed domes – and let me be completely clear – this is one of those “take-your-breath-away” kind of views that are incredibly rare in the world of travel. Like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Once you’ve caught you breath and walked onto Red Square itself, the GUM (pronounced “goom”) Department Store beckons off to the left and the Kremlin to the right – with both channeling you towards St. Basil’s.
After getting our fill of photos, we continued walking around the Kropotinsky district, the area southwest of the Kremlin, along the Moscow River. It’s an easy stroll but you may pass a lot of construction – so prepare yourself for some non-idyllic views. Our evening unfortunately ended early by passing out due to jet lag. It would unfortunately be the first of several dinner-less nights due to our adjustments to Russian time.
Day 2: Moscow
Knowing this was our first full day in Moscow, Vicki and I decided to hire a tour guide and selected Moscow Private Tours based on their strong TripAdvisor reviews. Our guide, Svetlana, was super engaging and came to our hotel to pick us up in the morning. The tour took us to most of the big sites that one should visit if they have only one day – Bolshoi Theater, Revolution Square metro station (with its statues memorializing war), Red Square, GUM Department Store, KGP Headquaters, Arbat Street, and a traditional Russian lunch.
We concluded the day with a tour of the Kremlin, and this was sadly the most underwhelming experience of the trip. The tickets cost 3250 rubles each (around $65) and taking a tour with our tour guide Alex was like walking with an android – and I don’t mean the cool kinds in movies that have adapted to interacting with humans. He had really good English and command of slang and even referenced the Seahawks’ super bowl loss and his displeasure for Tom Brady, so I will give him credit for trying to make us feel at home. But he just seemed so disengaged. I also suppose most of our displeasure came from the fact that it was rainy, windy, and surprisingly cold – a drastic change from the previous day – but I will suggest people to skip the Kremlin tour. This consisted of visiting the cathedrals inside the Kremlin wall and despite the perception of having some Cold War history or government edge, it contains neither. We did not see the Armory, which might have been worthwhile – but based on this tour, I can’t imagine how much more interesting it would have been.
Day 3: Moscow
Our third day saw the rain return again, but thankfully we opted for a tour by car, again through Moscow Private Tours. The first stop was the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, a beautiful church built on the spot where Stalin had originally intended to build a “Palace of the Soviets,” a 1,378 foot tall tower with a 300 foot statue of Lenin on top. Thankfully, the land was not suited for such a mammoth construction and after demolishing the Moscow Pool (which sat in its place from 1958 to 1994), this cathedral was erected on this site.
From there we went to New Maidens Convent, where several of Russia’s leaders are buried, including Nikita Khrushchev. A quick drive to Sparrow Hills provided us a splendid view of the Olympic Stadium and the Moscow State University building, one of the famed Seven Sisters – buildings constructed by Stalin following World War II to display the power of the Soviet Union. The Palace of the Soviets would have been the eighth of such buildings.
Accordingly, Victory Park, a monument to Russia’s triumph, was our next step. Providing both a solemn memorial to the fallen and a reminder of the past, Victory Park reminded me a lot of the American memorials to commemorate Korean War, Vietnam War, and World War II veterans. In a rather fortuitous stroke of luck, we happened to arrive a week after the 70th celebration of Victory Day – the day that Russians celebrate their victory over the Nazis. This meant that banners were everywhere commemorating this historic day and it also meant that we missed utter gridlock which paralyzed the city center only one week prior.
The last two stops on our tour were the Hotel Ukraine (now a Radisson) and Arbat Street (the main shopping street). The Hotel Ukraine is also one of the seven sisters and its interior is a lavish sea of marble and beautiful furniture as far as the eye can see. There’s also a gorgeous lit model of Red Square to see.
Arbat Street threw me for a bit of a loop. It was empty because of the rain and then we came upon this:
I knew Shake Shack had gone public but seriously they have one in Moscow before San Francisco? Boo-urns.
Upon completion of our tour, we decided to have a late lunch/early dinner and went to Khachipuri – a chain of Georgian restaurants known for their namesake dish. Khachipuri is a cheesy bread that delights and fill you up like a flatbread, and when served alongside Georgian dumplings with potatoes and cheese, pumpkin soup, some lamb kebabs and beef, and a mandarin lemonade, you’ve got one fantastic (and affordable) meal.
Our day ended with a walk through the GUM so we could peruse what Russian shopping life is like. A sign of how much foreign imports cost was the bottle of Rogue ale. Rogue is an Oregon brewery and there’s a Rogue Alehouse in my neighborhood in San Francisco. That bottle of beer cost over $22. Think about that the next time you’re living abroad and craving an American microbrew.
Day 4: Moscow
Our final full day is Moscow was spent wandering the city. I took the morning to ride the Metro and see the famed Circle Line – one line of the Moscow Metro that rings the city center and also provides a glimpse into the ornate Metro stations that doubled as bomb shelters during World War II. Located deep below ground, each station has a different look with statues, frescoes, and other art to commemorate Russian soldiers, citizens, and heroes.
We decided to visit the Pushkin Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of art in all Russia. Several of Rembrandts and a few pieces by Michelangelo are also here. But there’s one piece worth highlighting:
This is Nicholas Poussin’s “The Empire of Flora.” Following World War II, Russia took possession of a many German items – including pictures from the Dresden Gallery (one would assume these were the pieces that survived the massive firebombing that befell the city during the war). This collection was returned to Germany ten years after the end of WWII, and in honor of the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, the Dresden State Art Collection lent this piece to the Pushkin “as a gesture of good will and in memory of what went before.” Perhaps we all can take a lesson from this act of reconciliation and peace.
After a morning of culture, we stepped into a café across the street from the Pushkin where I decided to continue my Russian dining quest with cold herring and potatoes, and another round of chicken (there was supposed to be caviar on it…I found none). We then returned to Arbat where I bought some Matryoshka dolls as souvenirs for my family and a small piece of art for me. Our night concluded with drinks at the O2 Lounge, on the 12th floor of the Ritz Carlton. This is without a doubt one of the best rooftop bar views I’ve ever seen – and it was on a cold, blustery and gray May evening.
The cocktails were spot on – I recommend the “To Russia With Love.” There’s an entertaining story behind it and the cachaça will bring a smile to your face (that or the cherry compote/pineapple garnish that comes with it). We finished the evening with dinner at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant near Red Square – and I’ll be concise: skip this one.