Ten Ways to Rock Russia’s Biggest Cities
By Bruce Northam
As a longtime travel writer and resident of New York City, I gauge other cities in terms of driver skill and honking as well as the etiquette of people on sidewalks and in restaurants.
Understandably, our media demonizes the Russian government, and it seems that Americans tend to lob innocent Russian citizens under that bus.
My second visit here in eons, this time to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, revealed civil drivers who rarely honk, courteous striders on mobbed sidewalks, and very few people disturbing public spaces via unnecessary volume.
Zero-Drama Russian Urbanites
No bratty kids, either. Zero-drama Russian urbanites are dignified and mellow—and their two iconic cities sport world-class hotels, dining, entertainment, and museums.
Their extensive art-blessed metro rail is the people’s underground palace. Oh, yeah and their Christmases last a month; they celebrate it on January 7 and pad both sides of that day to rock Santa like no other country.
Moscow and the Kremlin
Russia, earth’s largest country, spans 11 time zones that are unified by their capital, Moscow. This storied capital boasts mind-blowing museums, 150 theatres, divine-but-affordable dining experiences, and Stalin’s hammer-and-sickle buildings now mixed with shiny architectural doozies.
The Kremlin is a bewildering walled campus/fortress with museums, offices, and churches.
It’s a very serious governmental and cultural Disneyland where the Armory Museum offers a wild assortment of extravagant ambassadorial gifts through the centuries, like trippy suits of armor, telling Royal-era crowns and thrones, and gold and gemstone-studded horse-drawn carriages dating back to the 1600s. This is ground zero for Russia’s crown jewels and treasures of the Russian Tzars—a gigantic wow.
A Few Moscow Marvels
Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, a massive campus of exhibits, museums, and architectural spectacles is a would-be permanent Soviet World’s Fair lining the equivalent of Washington, D.C.’s mall.
Russians flock to this storytelling walkabout which includes a Ukrainian Pavilion (pic) and the Vostok Rocket and Space Museum.
Across the street from the aforementioned Soviet World’s Fair is the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics (Russians call astronauts cosmonauts), which was born from the 1957 Sputnik satellite being the first in orbit and reveals the Russian version of the Space Race.
This cosmic journey is a must for anyone who occasionally looks up and thinks, hmm? Welcome to 96,000 cosmic items including touchable meteorites.
Highlights include the two stuffed-dog-mummies, Belka and Strekla, who survived 25 hours in orbit (1960); later, their puppies were symbolically gifted to Jaqueline Kennedy.
You also behold the spacesuits of the first human in orbit (1961) and the spacesuit of the first to orbit in open space (1965) who, by the way, lost nearly 30 pounds in three days due to stress.
Father of Astronauts
The museum is a tribute to Sergei Korolev, a groundbreaking Soviet rocket engineer, and spacecraft designer during the Space Race between the U.S. and Soviets in the 1950s and 60s.
The father of practical astronautics worked in a special gulag for valuable scientists as the government didn’t want to defect. He remained anonymous till his death in 1969. Yikes.
The long and winding museum includes space ships, rockets, landing capsules, and docking space-stations like Soyuz 4 and 5 from 1969 and an exhibit celebrating the 1978 space-station docking of Soyuz (the name of their space program) and Apollo that demonstrated rare cold-war cooperation and created a still-popular Russian brand of cigarettes, Soyuz-Apollo.
For the Fashionistas
Nerdy fashionistas will love this evolution of spacesuits. Other exhibits unveil weightless space-station experiments like growing wheat and testing electronics. It showcases cosmonaut bathroom kits, space food in toothpaste tubes, and how cosmonauts are trained to hunt with knives, as the original capsule returning from Mir landed in Siberia.
I loved entering the 1986 Mir space station replica which retired into the ocean in 2000. Plus, the new space station flying overhead unites the USA, Russia, Europe, and Japan.
Apollo 11’s Michael Collins’ space suit a personal gift to this hallowed space. Politics aside, USA’s achievements in space are also openly recognized in this amazing Mecca of all-things galaxy.
Dining in Moscow
You certainly won’t go hungry here in Russia’s sprawling capital. The amazing Georgian-food restaurant, Kazbek, overlooks the Moscow River, a few of the city’s architectural gems, and serves Earth-rattling veggie concoctions that rival their perfectly grilled meats.
Matryoshka Restaurant serves late-19th century pre-soviet cuisine in an eclectic antique setting. Across town, roomy Vbochke is centered around a Russian-style open-pit barbecue and is the place to rediscover how much you love borscht soup.
Cafe Pushkin’s Baroque-style four-level antique-wood library and trinket museum inspire a culinary event where the scallops and salmon are upstaged by a big fish pie.
Singing in Churches
Two other lingering memories from Moscow are the ubiquitous singing in churches that sounds like heavenly rap-opera, and how it has a statue for nearly every hero, including the inventor of the AK-47, Mikhail Kalashnikov, in honor of the 47th model of his infamous machine gun.
The Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow redefines simple modern elegance. Located in the center of Russia’s capital, this perfectly situated 5-star hotel is steps away from landmarks such as the Kremlin, Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and the famous Bolshoi Theatre.
The hotel’s penthouse bar and terrace get it right with swank cocktails and epic views. Try the Miso soup at Ararat’s Breakfast at the Park.
Moscow’s Christmas Burning Man
Moscow’s biggest seasonal festival, Journey to Christmas, takes over the capital with decorations, lights and nearly round-the-clock merriment, and it ain’t just about Santa. The yearly month-long event means the whole city lit up like a, well you get it. Add: jocular Santa’s and other humorous Christmas-Bacchanalia caricatures roaming everywhere.
For a month, the city center is closed to traffic and becomes a massive pedestrian area—block upon long block of fantastical lights, concerts, street shows, and roaming costumed troops, kinda like a Christmas Burning Man.
Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7, so if you need a double dose of Yuletide, Moscow is it.
This annual event runs through mid-January, so consider redoing Christmas after America’s uber-commercialized version has run its course; Firebird Tours can make this happen, in style.
If you’ve never slept on an overnight train, the eight-hour journey from Moscow to Saint Petersburg by rail means either an all-nighter party or a comfy snooze in a tiny dorm-like room with two foldout beds.
Saint Petersburg was built by Europeans and preserved, not de-constructed like Moscow was by Stalin, so its original 18th and 19th-century facades imbue a proud, sexy vibe. A city laid out via canals, stunning churches, and immense palaces, the Venice of the North shares unending architectural eye-candy.
St Petersburg’s Churches
Blue-ish Smolny Church is a great place to behold that Russian Orthodox churches have no seats, pews or pulpits.
The impassioned priests speak from the altar like they’re doing a stand-up routine without jokes. This and most churches in Russia were used as warehouses during Soviet times.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a miracle of mosaics miracle, was built on the site where political nihilists assassinated Emperor Alexander II in 1881.
It was used as a potato warehouse during the Soviet era. St Isaac’s Cathedral, constructed between 1818 and 1858, escaped the Soviet warehouse fate and has been a museum since 1931.
The city’s Governor recently offered to transfer the cathedral back to the Russian Orthodox Church, but widespread protests jettisoned that idea.
Art and Dance in St Petersburg
Saint Petersburg, a multi-hued journey from mystic-healer Rasputin to Putin, has 600 museums and hundreds of art galleries. Several galleries feature Russian micro-realist painter Dmitry Yakovin’s gnomes that quickly lighten the mood.
Ballet may have been invented in France, but it truly thrives in Russia. I saw the Don Quixote ballet at the iconic Mariinsky Theatre. Built in 1860 and celebrating its 237th season, it became the preeminent music theatre of late 19th-century Russia where many of Tchaikovsky’s stage masterpieces premiered.
The City’s Famous Palaces
I mentioned palaces. The Romanov’s (Russian Tsars) Winter Palace, aka the Hermitage Museum, has 460 rooms and includes a permanent collection of Rembrandt’s and Roman statues. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, boast more than three million items (rare coins, paper money, and medals accounts for about one-third of them), including the largest collection of paintings in the world. You will be dazzled.
A short drive away from urbanity is the 55-room and themed Catherine Palace, one of the Tsars 16 summer residences. The centerpiece of the quaint village of Pushkin might be St Pete’s version of the Kremlin but festooned via ultra-gilded Baroque.
It was destroyed by Nazis and faithfully rebuilt. Here, I learned that the final USSR President and semi-reformist Mikhail Gorbachev said that America’s dollar-sign supports the propaganda of being equal to two hammers and two sickles, meaning Americans have to work twice as hard as Soviets.
St Petersburg Dining
The place for Russian fusion is the Kuznya House Restaurant, a repurposed blacksmith shop built in 1744 on throwback New Holland Island. This pleasing pre-soviet era space doubles as a nightclub and includes a tea room, chef’s table, outdoor dining, and an adjacent bakery.
This appetizer—eggplant, sweet miso, Greek yogurt—and this entrée, grilled scallops, carrot puree, roast mushrooms, reproves Russia’s arrival on the international foodie scene. In sync with this trendiness is downtown’s elegant Corinthia Hotel, which delights all the senses with a royal lobby, bars, and restaurants.
As Saint Petersburg is much closer to Europe than Moscow, its people have an easier time letting their hair down. My final night in Saint Petersburg was a treat via an NYC pal who connected me to Seva Gakkel, the legendary cellist for Russia’s #1 rock band, Aquarium.
Seva invited me to his 70s music-museum apartment where 20 people were treated to a live duo, cabbage rolls, and various veteran rockers passing through.
Yes, Russia rocks!
Firebird Tours masters the Russian vacation with off-the-beaten-track options like exploring Stalin’s secret underground nuclear bunker, riding in a Soviet-era tank, enjoying a traditional BBQ “shashlik” dinner with a local family, strolls or jogs through Moscow famed parks (Sparrow Hill, Gorki Park), and night boat rides along Saint Petersburg’s rivers and canals. Unique Image and ALO Magazine also participated in this adventure.
The author’s trip was sponsored by Firebird Tours, but the opinions are his own.
Bruce Northam is the author of The Directions to Happiness, a 135-country quest for life lessons, and a Chicken Soup for the traveler — with balls. He lives in New York City. Bruce’s show, American Detour, reveals the travel writer’s journey. His alternative keynote presentation, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. His other live performance, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit AmericanDetour.com.