Country guide: Russia
By Karl Cushing
As Russia basks in the afterglow of its successful hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, St Petersburg and Moscow, two of its major host cities, are rolling out the red carpet to visitors as never before. Both enjoy direct flights from the UK, and the two cities are linked by rail to each other in under four hours, making them a logical pairing. Trips are offered by everyone from Regent Holidays and Cox & Kings to Intrepid Travel. Factor in the recent strength of the pound against the ruble and it’s a great time to visit.
Peter the Great’s grand and elegant St Petersburg gives many visitors their first taste of Russia. Often this will be on a cruise stopover – the city’s location at the mouth of the Neva River has made it a firm fixture on Baltic cruises. Passengers can stay visa-free for 72 hours if they stick to the line’s group tours or book with an independent company that holds the right licence.
Known for its bridges, rivers and canals, the former capital’s nickname “Venice of the North” hints at its beguiling charms; boat tours offer a great way to gaze upon its Baroque façades. Back on land, the city is replete with major cultural sites such as St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Russian Museum and the spectacular Hermitage State Museum at the Winter Palace, with its daunting range of exhibits. Other attractions are given freely, such as strolling the banks of the Neva or the many landscaped open spaces such as Mikhailovsky Garden, Summer Garden and New Holland Island.
The city truly comes alive with the thawing of the winter snow, the White Nights of late May to mid July triggering a city-wide wave of celebrations; Mariinsky Theatre runs its fabulous Stars of the White Nights programme, while outside under the midsummer skies outdoor concerts and events such as late June’s Scarlet Sails take place.
Towards September end the Golden Autumn sees the turning leaves paint the city with another stunning backdrop. In winter, a snowbound St Petersburg takes on a magical quality, with its frozen canals and snowcapped buildings. There’s much to do, from ballet and classical concerts during the International Winter Festival to outdoors ice skating and Troika rides at Pavlovsk Palace. At Christmastime, experience local traditions with tours such as Insight Vacations’ Easy Pace Russia with Christmas Markets.
Nightlife is centred on the Nevsky Prospekt district, where music plays from lively bars. Elsewhere, ornate old dame hotels such as the Belmond Grand and the State Hermitage Museum Official Hotel doff their caps to the city’s illustrious, imperial past, bolstered by five-star offerings such as the Astoria, Corinthia and Four Seasons.
Don’t leave town without taking in some of the historic imperial summer palaces in their grandiose grounds in nearby centres such as Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, or the oft-combined palaces at Pushkin and nearby Pavlovsk.
Served by the mighty Moskva River, Russia’s powerhouse capital is exemplified by Red Square and the Kremlin, the presidential seat of power and home to attractions such as the Armoury Chamber and Diamond Fund. Other visitor magnets gracing the square include the State Historical Museum, which offers a great insight into the nation’s history, and Lenin’s Mausoleum, its austere pyramidical stylings a marked contrast to the showily technicolour St Basil’s Cathedral with its telltale onion domes. It also houses a museum. Meanwhile, GUM shopping centre and the local street vendors make happy hunting grounds for souvenirs, another being Izmailovsky Market.
Theatre Square on Tverskaya street is home to the famous Bolshoi Theatre (closed from late July to September 12, 2018) along with the Maly and Russian Academic Youth Theatres. Another attraction putting on a big show is the remarkable Moscow Metro, its elaborately designed stations a photogenic exercise in excess.
City tours take many themes, from gastronomy to exploring remnants of the Soviet era, with boat tours on the Moskva popular among visitors. Many also enjoy a riverbank stroll, taking in sights such as the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and spruced up Gorky Park. Or simply savour the various bars and cafés that spill out onto seasonal riverside terraces come the warmer weather. Sunshine also sees locals and visitors alike flock to the city’s green spaces, such as Alexandrovsky Sad.
Over at Zaryadye Park, the “floating bridge” jutting out over the Moskva offers incredible views towards the Kremlin. St Basil’s Sculptures are the main draw at Muzeon Park of Arts, while Patriarch’s Ponds (Patriarshiye Prudy) attracts fans of Russian literature, having enjoyed a central role in Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita.
Families will appreciate the great selection of interactive attractions with a local flavour, such as the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, Obraztsov Puppet Museum or the Cosmonautics Museum, near the equally child-friendly and quirky VDNKh museum. There’s also the Moscow Planetarium, near Moscow Zoo. For those wishing to escape the city for a day trip, Kolomenskoe is a sprawling museum-reserve set in lovely nearby countryside replete with historic buildings and impressive churches.