Eight Days in the Heart of Russia
Because of the difficulties of traveling in Russia for those who are not Russian, we recommend that they use the services of a driver and English speaking guide while on this itinerary. Visas are not available for solo travelers unless they have prepaid their entire hotel stay in Russia through a Russian travel agency, which can also arrange the driver and guide.
Have standard travel wear for the season in which you are traveling and very comfortable shoes.
Day 1 (Thursday): Arrive in Moscow - Arriving in Moscow on a Thursday has you staying in Moscow on a weekend when most things are cheaper all open as well. Starting in Red Square, walk across to St. Basil’s Cathedral where you can take in the architecture as well as the ambiance of Red Square, the center of the Russian Empire of old and the Soviet Republics of the recent past. Cross over to the GUM store where you can find that history has reinvented itself as a turn-of-the-century shopping arcade. Feel free to browse then walk 20 to 30 minutes up Tverskaya, Moscow's main street, to the historic gourmet food store Eliseev's Gastronome. Once only the domain of high Communist Party members, now open to all who can afford the bourgeois prices. Head back to the north end of Red Square at 6 p.m. and visit Kazan Cathedral during evening services. You can walk in and out as you please, since Russians don't sit in church; they move around, kneeling and kissing icons. Because the Russian Orthodox Church is at the core of the country's culture, appreciating it is critical. Across from Kazan Cathedral is the State Historical Museum gift shop, where Russian crafts and souvenirs will temp you to buy but hold off since you will be visiting a better location for purchasing this stuff.
Day 2 (Friday): The Kremlin and Novodevichy Convent - What most people remember from school is that the Kremlin is a fourteenth-century walled fort, home to the Russian Government, and filled with Russia's most important museums, churches, and palaces. What they don’t tell you about your visit is that you'll cover at least three miles on foot, it will take a minimum of four hours, and that no chairs, snacks, or bottled water will be available to help you along. While you are there, don’t miss the ancient thrones, costumes, and Fabergé eggs in the Armory or the Orlov diamond (the world's fourth-largest) and other imperial regalia in the Diamond Vault. After you exit the Kremlin and find some lunch, head to the Novodevichy Convent. From Red Square, take the red line from Biblioteka Imeni Lenina four stops to Sportivnaya and you'll be just a ten-minute walk away. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is where czars confined their wives and sisters when they proved inconvenient, forcing them to take the veil and relinquish their worldly goods. The convent’s interior is not very interesting so wander the gardens and view the seventeenth-century Baroque Russian architecture. When you work your way to Smolensk Cathedral (a five-domed white wedding cake of a church), take a look inside and view the wonderful interior, and then head for beautiful, leafy Novodevichy Cemetery, across the street. By the time you return to your hotel via the metro, you will have walked at least six to eight miles.
Day 3 (Saturday): Moscow's Soviet Secrets – Today we return to Red Square where our first stop is Lenin's Tomb, where the chemically preserved body of the Soviet Union's founder has been on public display for 83 years. The mausoleum opens at 10 a.m., but the line grows exponentially starting at 9:30 so be there with your guide at 9:25. Lenin's body itself may strike you as macabre or diminished but the whole bizarre process is a visceral education in Communist culture. Bags, cameras, cell phones, and sharp or glass objects are not allowed inside. If you have no guide to hold them for you while you're in the tomb, you must check them at the State Historical Museum (which means leaving the line you've been standing in, checking your stuff, then waiting all over again). After you've passed through the metal detector, the unspoken rules are: Don't speak or smile inside the mausoleum (these are signs of irreverence); keep your hands out of your pockets (so the guards know you're not grabbing a weapon); stand just a few inches behind the person in front of you (the Russian way to wait); do not stray from the line as you file past Lenin's body. After the tomb, you will pass the burial sites of Stalin and other Communist muckety-mucks. You will end up a 15-minute walk from the place where you checked your cell phone and camera. Sound like too much of a hassle? Remember that Lenin's body won't be around forever: Many powerful Russians object to such idolatry of a mass murderer—not to mention the millions of dollars spent on chemical baths for his body—and want him buried.
For an understanding of Russia's love-hate relationship with communism, take the metro from Teatralnaya to Tverskaya and head for the Museum of Contemporary Russian History. Located in Russia's most prestigious pre-1917 hangout, the English Club, the museum lays out in fine detail the birth and death of the Soviet state from the Russian perspective. You need an English-speaking guide to explain the artifacts, which range from late-nineteenth-century torture instruments to stones thrown by members of the proletariat in the 1905 Revolution. In showing just how severe economic and social conditions were—and how many Russian lives were taken by revolution and war in the first half of the twentieth century (a staggering 55 million)—the museum helps explain why the country is the way it is and why Russians act the way they do.
Grab lunch at one of the coffee shops near Pushkin Square, then take the metro from Tverskaya back to Teatralnaya, switch to the dark blue line, and ride six stops eastward to Partizanskaya. There you'll find Izmailovsky Park, with its huge outdoor bazaar selling Russian crafts, apparel, and other souvenirs—everything from fur hats to Lomonosov porcelain. This is the place to load up on just about everything Russian you could think of and a whole lot more that you can’t think of. Top off your day with the traditional form of entertainment favored by the proletariat: the circus. In one night at the Old Moscow Circus (a two-minute walk from the Tsvetnoy Bulvar metro stop; circusnikulin.ru), you will see more smiling faces, colorful clothing, and exuberant spirits than on all the other days of your trip combined.
Day 4 (Sunday): Building the New Russia – Perhaps the most powerful symbol of the post-Communist reconstruction and spiritual revival shaping Russia today is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. If you can get there by 9 a.m. (from your hotel, take the red line to Kropotkinskaya), the one weekly service should still be going on. This awesome church, Russia's largest, is an exact replica of the original nineteenth-century one that was demolished in 1931 under Stalin and turned into a swimming pool. It was resurrected in the 1990s at a cost of $220 million. At 9:30 a.m., take a quick stroll around the neighborhood, known as Ostozhenka. This is the city's new Golden Mile and is rapidly filling with swank housing for newly affluent Kremlin types. At 10 a.m., hit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, a five-minute walk from the cathedral. There are two reasons to visit, and they should take only an hour. First is the gold treasures from ancient Troy that Russia stole from Germany in 1945 and kept hidden for half a century, until admitting it had them in the late 1990s. (Germany wants the horde back; Russia won't hear of it.) Second is a collection of life-size replicas of the world's best art, as determined by Moscow State University. The university decided a century ago that Russian students who can't afford to travel to see the world's best art ought to be exposed to it anyway, so it replicated, with painstaking exactitude, 750 of what it considers to be the finest sculptural and architectural works from ancient times through the Renaissance. As you stroll past parts of the Athenian Parthenon, Assyrian palaces, and medieval German churches, you'll see everything from an Egyptian statue of the pharaoh Chefren to the British Museum's Babylonian friezes, the Louvre's Venus de Milo, and the Accademia's nine-foot-tall David, by Michelangelo.
Getting from the Pushkin to the Tretyakov Gallery by metro takes too long on a Sunday morning, so hail a gypsy cab (but not without a guide!). The Tretyakov is arguably the world's best collection of Russian art. By the time you have lunch at the museum café, it will be 2 p.m. or so. How you choose to spend your final afternoon in Moscow should depend on your particular interests. Spend your final night in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet, marveling at the perfection of every detail. The historic Bolshoi Theater is under renovation until 2008, so performances are held next door at the New Stage and typically start at 7 p.m.
Day 5 (Monday): Fly to Saint Petersburg - St. Petersburg conceals fewer of its sights than Moscow does, but for optimal sightseeing you still need a well-connected expediter and, on at least two of your four days there, a private car. Meet your guide and driver upon landing around midday at the St. Petersburg airport (the 11:15 a.m. flight from Moscow is a good option). Get out of the car at the Strelka—a spit on an island in the Neva River that is a former port of St. Petersburg—to see the Rostral Columns (twin lighthouses) and to take in the views of the Winter Palace on one side of the river and the Peter and Paul Fortress on the other. After lunch on the Strelka at Restoran—order the pelmeni (dumplings)—continue to the city's birthplace, the Peter and Paul Fortress, built by Peter the Great in 1703. Check out its cathedral, which houses the tombs of every czar since Peter. Continue on to St. Isaac's Cathedral, with room for 14,000 worshippers. Feast your eyes on the 52 smalto mosaics and the iconostasis, with its malachite and lapis lazuli columns. If it's a clear day, climb the 300 steps to the dome's observation deck for great city vistas.
Take the time to check into your hotel and afterwards take a nice early-evening stroll up Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main boulevard, starting from the grand Eliseev Palace Hotel and turn left at the first canal (Griboedova). Stop by the Byzantine-style Church on Spilled Blood. Built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated, it is covered inside and out with mosaics of precious and semi-precious stones. Then stroll down the Moika Canal to the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22, for drinks or Continental cuisine in its modern glass-walled bar and restaurant on the roof.
Day 6 (Tuesday): The Hermitage and the Yusupov Palace – When Catherine the Great bought 225 paintings by Western European masters in 1764, she built a private museum in her home, the Winter Palace. Five years later she had collected 2,500 paintings. She named her expanding museum the Hermitage—or "Place of Solitude"—because it was for her and her alone. The former residence of the world's wealthiest royal family is now the world's largest museum, with three million works of art—so many that only a fifth of the collection can be displayed at one time. The Winter Palace alone—one of the museum's five buildings—has 1,057 rooms. Finding the most interesting rooms on your own would take at least a day (especially since the museum does not open until 10:30 a.m. and certain rooms close as early as 4:45 p.m.). With a guide and a pair of sneakers, however, you can do it in three to four hours. Seek out the "Hidden Treasures Revealed" collection: 87 French Impressionist paintings that the Soviet army stole from Germany in 1945 and that the Hermitage hid in storage for 50 years (they were thought to be lost until Russia admitted to possessing them). Worth finding, too, are the malachite room, the throne hall, the ballroom, Alexander II's gold study, and the Small Hermitage with the giant gold Peacock Clock (ask your guide to deliver you there when the clock chimes so you can see the peacock fan its tail, the rooster turn its head, etc.). And don't miss the Treasure Gallery, which contains hundreds of reminders of the czars' over-the-top lifestyle. If you think you've gotten a feel for the Russian empire's unimaginable wealth, you don’t even have a clue. After lunch at the museum's café, walk 30 minutes to the Yusupov Palace—the best place to immerse yourself in the ostentatious and secretive world of the last czar, Nicholas, and his wife, Alexandra. The Yusupovs, one of Russia's wealthiest families, lived in the palace until they fled in 1917. Royals used to come there to see Rachmaninoff play and Pavlova dance in the palace theater. The palace is filled with visual trickery—faux tapestries, papier-mâché chandeliers, trompe l'oeil ceilings. As is so often the case in Russia, it's hard to know what's real and what's fabricated. Get back to the hotel at around 5:30 p.m. to dress for the Mariinsky Ballet; curtain is usually at 7 p.m. Known as the Imperial Ballet under the czars and then as the Kirov until the fall of communism, the Mariinsky staged the original productions of The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, and Sleeping Beauty and has trained many of the greatest dancers of all time, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. After the ballet, order chicken Kiev or a bowl of borscht at the Mariinsky's Backstage restaurant, next door. It's filled with ballet memorabilia.
Day 7 (Wednesday): Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk - Of all the imperial retreats near St. Petersburg, arguably the most important is Catherine Palace, built not by Catherine the Great but by Peter the Great's second wife, Catherine I, a low-born laundress turned spendthrift. The czars who summered there had a thing for gilded mirrors and floral silk upholstery and clearly believed that more is more. When the Nazis invaded, the splendiferous 56-room residence was turned into a soldiers' barracks. Upon leaving, the army stole everything—even the fabled Amber Room's priceless amber wall panels. (Now you know why Russia took revenge against Germany by stealing those ancient Trojan treasures you saw in Moscow and the French Impressionist paintings you saw at the Hermitage.) The only thing the Nazis didn't take was the antique furniture, which they used as firewood. When they fled, they burned down the palace, but it has been painstakingly reproduced. Try to get through it by 11 a.m. because there is much to see on the grounds, such as the boarding school where the ruling elite studied, including Russia's most beloved writer, Alexander Pushkin; the workshops where the master artisans who reproduced the Amber Room ply their craft (an advance appointment is necessary); and the Art Shop, which sells jewelry and chess sets made by the artisans.
After lunch in nearby Pavlovsk, stop by Pavlovsk Palace, the late-eighteenth-century summer home of Catherine the Great's son Paul I. The neoclassical architecture and free-form English-style gardens make for an understated counterpoint to the Baroque grandiosity and manicured French-style gardens of Catherine Palace. Or, if you've got palace fatigue, head back to town to visit the Hermitage's fascinating and high-tech storage facility, a 25-minute drive from the museum (an advance appointment is necessary for the tour, which is given by the curator). The storerooms contain the four-fifths of the Hermitage's possessions that can't fit into the museum, including imperial carriages (such as Nicholas II's coronation carriage, seen on Fabergé's famous imperial Easter egg); furniture from the Romanov palaces; and a silk tent given to Catherine the Great by the Ottoman sultan in 1770 and left in a box for 230 years. It was recently opened and is so perfectly preserved that it looks like it was made yesterday. Have your guide and driver drop you off at a canal dock so you can enjoy an early-evening boat ride (skip the larger boats that sail only on the river). Ask the captain to deposit you near the Eliseev Palace. For dinner, consider one of three user-friendly restaurants that are very popular among locals: Palkin, for elegant Russian and Continental cuisine and classical music, 1913 Restaurant, for a more low-key Russian meal, or Erivan, for Armenian cuisine and superb cognac.
Day 8 (Thursday): Footloose in Saint Petersburg – Now that you've seen the essentials, your final day should be tailored to your specific interests. Are you a ballet fan? Are you a ship buff? Haven't done enough shopping yet? Or are you a palace junkie? Your guide and driver can assist you in filling your final moments here in St. Petersburg since there is so much to see and do.
Day 9 (Friday): Leaving Saint Petersburg – If you are heading back to the airport then have your guide and driver pick you up since taxis are not very safe in this city. Otherwise, they could take you to any number of train stations within the city limits.
Most tourists should be perfectly safe in the metro and walking alone at night. Of course, staying on well-lit, trafficked streets, carried a photocopy of your passport and Russian visa (in case of being stopped), and keeping your money in a neck pouch under your clothing. As for the water and the food, you can drink tap water in the deluxe hotels, and your guide can point you toward plenty of eateries where the raw vegetables, peeled fruit, and ice are safe.
The Golden Ring: Unless you're on a group tour or have a friend in Russia with a car, it's incredibly expensive to sightsee with any kind of efficiency along this ancient route about a four-hour drive from Moscow. That said, consider an overnight excursion to Suzdal, the prettiest and most pastoral of the Golden Ring's sacred medieval towns. En route to Suzdal, stop in Russia's ancient capital of Vladimir to visit the 12th-century Assumption Cathedral, once a mother church of Russia and home to the country's most famous icon, the Virgin Mary of Vladimir, before it was moved to Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery. After lunch, continue on to Suzdal, stay at the Hot Springs Hotel, and see if your guide can arrange a home-cooked dinner for you in a local farmhouse. The next day, swing through Sergiev Posad to see Russian Orthodoxy's most sacred monastery en route back to Moscow. Be aware that because you are responsible for your guide and drivers expenses and must pay for their night at the hotel, the two-day excursion can be very expensive.