Moscow was built by the power of the people and St. Petersburg by the riches of Imperial coffers, but visitors need to make time for both to properly.
Communism, spies poisoning tea with radiation, and the opulence and grandeur of the Tzars - or more recently Russian oligarchs - are Russia's unavoidable cliches, but they're also tempting stories for many travellers. The huge change in Russia from Imperial age of magnificence, to Soviet austerity and secrecy is best experienced travelling between Moscow and St. Petersburg - Russia's two great cities. Moscow was built by the power of the people and St. Petersburg by the riches of Imperial coffers, and by visiting both, travellers can begin to see the fascinating relationship one has with the other.
Many travel companies offer tours of both cities, and while some say they're able to show you the highlights of both in less than a week, anything less than eight or nine days may leave quite a lot of questions unanswered – The Hermitage alone has more than three million artefacts in its collection.
One of the main problems independent travellers face when trying to visit the highlights of Russia is that it can be tricky to get a ticket into some of the most must-see must-see attractions. Tour groups get priority and sometimes independent travellers can miss out. Once you've made it past the ticket collectors the crowds are thick in season, but out of season the skies are too dark and the opening hours too short to see everything, so it's best to go just inside the season, in late April or early May.
This holiday idea lists most of the highlights in both cities, which you should, if you keep pace, be able to fit in over nine days – though two weeks would be better.
Firstly, arrive in Moscow for the weekend, when you can be sure the highlights will be open. Secondly use the Metro to get around, if only for the marble columns, art and opulence in such an unusual setting. Thirdly plan your route and be on time to avoid spending too much time in the queues.
Traditionally western visitors had to pay their respects at Poklonnaya Hill as Napoleon did before entering Moscow, but these days most people pay their respects in Red Square. Russia's most famous public space, it's also one of the world's most famous squares, lined by the Kremlin, the iconic, candy striped onion domes of St. Basil's - Ivan the Terrible had the designers blinded so they couldn't create another - and Lenin’s Tomb. When visiting Lenin you need to be there at 9:25 for the 10am - don't speak, smile or laugh inside – or put your hands in your pockets – the guards are still jumpy even though he's long dead. The square itself is empty save the statue of Dimitry Pozharsky who was a hero of the war with Poland in the 17th Century. The Kremlin also opens at 10. There's a lot to see here, and you could probably spend days wandering the hallways and not see everything, but don't miss out on the jewels, the Faberge eggs in the Armoury and the HUGE Orlov Diamond in the Diamond Vault. The Kazan Cathedral is best visited in the evening when you can see it in action and be part of a service, after which it's quite civilised to take a stroll down the Arbat. Pushkin used to live on this street and Checkov dined here at the famous Prague Restaurant at number 2. Now there's more tourist traps than haunts of the literaty, but there's still an energy about it.
GUM, one of the swankiest shopping streets in Moscow is just back off Red Square, and you might spot an oligarch there, and if you are into shopping the Izmailovsky Bazaar is the place to get your nesting dolls and Soviet era memorabilia, but it's only open on the weekend.
Assuming day three is a Sunday it's time to call on the golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - get there for nine to attend the service. Afterwards it makes sense to visit the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, which is only five minutes away, for an astounding collection of replicas of some of the world's best known art works and some of the original gold treasures of Troy.
The Tretyakov Gallery, a Treasury of Russian fine art, with more than 130,000 pieces which perfectly chart the progression of Russian art is just south of the Kremlin, but again its many and varied attractions can eat up a lot of time, as can the Museum of Contemporary Russian History. If you're a quick mover the Borodino Panorama Museum is just out of Moscow proper, covers in detail the famous one day battle when Napoleon 'won' Moscow, and is highly recommended – especially if you have trouble getting in to one of the more famous museums.
It's not as impressive as its place in pop culture would suggest, but, Gorky Park is still worth an afternoon stroll, but the Bolshoi will do more than live up to its name - even if you can't afford to attend the ballet or the opera.
And before you know it your time in Moscow is up and it's on to St. Petersburg. Take a plane, or even better, take the Red Arrow Train from Ivan the Terrible's Moscow to Peter the Great's St Petersburg – it leaves at five to midnight and gets in at five to eight in the morning and crosses paths at around 4am. Carriage upon carriage go off into the distance and inside it's all pre-Revolution dilapidated grandeur with dining cars decked out with crystal and bathrooms with barely functional plumbing – as well as travelling across the country it's also a bit of time travel.
St. Petersburg is an ancient and graceful city of elegant, palace lined boulevards, bridges arching over canals and huge squares like great courtyards before beautiful churches. Frequently referred to as the 'Venice of the North', this is as European a city as a Russian city can be.
The Red Arrow gets in at, interestingly named, Moscow station, at the top of the Nevsky Prospekt, which then runs along for another five kilometres to the Admiralty, past a number of the city's main attractions, as well as good places to shop and eat. The Church of our Saviour of Spilled Blood is one of the first on the street. The blood in question belongs to Alexander II – he was grenade-ed – and the church is now a museum for mosaics mimicking some of the great Russian artworks.
If you only see one thing in St. Petersburg it should be The Hermitage and it could very well happen by accident that it's the only thing you have time to see. This museum fills six buildings – the main one used to be Baroque wonder the Winter Palace - and houses over 3 million items, starting with paintings and ending with items belonging to the tzars. Picasso, Faberge, Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Michelangelo are represented in this amazing collection which doesn't open until 10:30, but you should get to by 10. See it on one of the first days in case you're passionately compelled to go back.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral is inside the Peter and Paul Fortress and is where many Russian rulers are interred in their final grand resting places. It's a good one to visit after the Hermitage begins to close its doors far too early starting from 4:45.
The Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered is now a museum to that grizzly event and is definitely worth wandering through for its horrible history. After which it's a good idea to cleanse yourself at St. Isaac's Cathedral, staid from the outside but inside the jewel encrusted golden decorations around the icons aren't out of step with the rest of the grandeur two days in St. Petersburg will expose you to.
But the first few days were just a warm up for the real magnificence of Russian Royalty. Alexander Palace is the ultimate expression of Grandmotherly love and was future Tzar Alexander's lap of luxury from age sixteen, before being the last home of the Imperial family. Pavlovsk Palace looks like the grandest of Italian villas on the outside and inside is decorated with Roman sculptures, Egyptian detailing and a impressively painted ceilings like those of the French court. Peterhof is the Russian Versailles, outside it's all water features, perfect lawns, and classical pillars and statues – some covered in gold leaf * - and inside it's indescribably opulent. *Take the hydrofoil there are arrive like the tzars did. But the Summer Garden is overlooked by the grandest of them all: Catherine Palace, a blue, white and gold monument to the vast wealth of the Russian Tzars – everything is designed for greatest possible grand effect using over 100kgs worth of gold in the statues and roofs alone. This structure most grand came from the imagination of not Catherine the Great, but Catherine I who obviously had a thing for floral silk and big mirrors in golden frames.
Before some kind of grandeur induced blindness sets in visit the Pushkin Museum, in the humble flat where the great poet, author and scholar lived, the museum is still filled with an extensive collection of his rather simple by comparison personal effects.
Clear an afternoon to visit some of St. Petersburg's other famous sons, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky in the Tivkin Cemetery within the Alexander Nevsky Monastery of Russian Orthodox Churches.
And for a final hurrah to St. Petersburg's love of beautiful things spend the final night at the Mariinsky Theatre appreciating the living lineage of this passionate affair with the aesthetic of wealth. Book a table for caviar and vodka afterwards naturally.
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Carefully built over a net of canals, St. Petersburg is a city of aesthetic charms, but historic ones. These are the highlights in four days.
Behind the functioning socialist concrete is the soft focus Moscow, wealthy in art and history. See both on this four day break.
One of the World's classic journeys: a very civilised and historic adventure.