The Land of Billionaires, The Old Babushkas And The New Dress Code.
Russia has always been a magnet for adventure seekers. This enormous in size, rich in culture and mysterious in character country attracts travelers from all corners of the world. It is the land of contrasts where poverty coexists with luxury, where glamorous boutiques filled with the most expensive designer items neighbor with run-down old-fashioned Soviet style stores selling every day basic items. Russia is the home country of world-class authors, composers, dancers, and artists such as Fedor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bulgakov, Petr Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Anna Pavlova. Behind the Russians' gloomy and, at the first glance, unfriendly faces, one finds the most hospitable and warm-hearted souls. If you make friends in Russia, they will become your friends for life.
“While Russia has always seemed a 'difficult' destination, its mostly just an old stereotype left from the 'iron curtain' times, “ said Alex Khodorkovsky, president of Go To Russia Travel, one of the oldest US-based travel agencies specializing on Russia.
“Internal politics and economic hurdles aside, travelers to Russia will be amazed by the contrast found nowhere else. It's where more world's billionaires enjoy their unimaginable riches and the corruption is a part of daily life. But the sights and the people and their history is definitely not like something you would see anywhere else. One needs to approach travel here with a certain sense of humor and an easygoing attitude: things may not always go as planned, but the trip will certainly be a time to remember.”
Covering an immense territory of 5600 miles from west to east and 3100 from north to south, Russia encompasses more than 100 different ethnic groups speaking just as many languages. Therefore, Russia is often called a "bridge" between Europe and Asia. It is impossible to cover it in one trip, and therefore we suggest that you start exploring it by visiting its two most famous and biggest cities.
Moscow is the Russian version of New York city: it never sleeps, its residents seem to be always on the run, traffic stands still until very late hours, and the rich and famous line up at a packed McDonald's next to college kids. Back in the USSR it was considered a life’s goal for the non-Moscovites to travel here, bring kids to the Red Square, walk into the Mausoleum (but first having to wait for 7-8 hours in line with other visitors from remote provincial towns). Times have changed but not Moscow’s popularity: it still attracts just about everyone from outside this bustling city. Nowadays, however, only a small number of tourist buses loaded with foreigners park here for a tour of the Kremlin and what used to be the most sacred of all Soviet attractions – Lenin’s Tomb.
Today it’s the abundance of goods, pursuit of a job, or getting into good schools or even personally meeting and befriending one of Moscow’s dollar billionaires (their number is between 25 and 30, second only to New York City). Definitely a city of contrasts, Moscow will shock even the most sophisticated traveler with its sky-high prices. For three years in a row the Russian capital has been topping the charts of the most expensive cities in the world. It is also the city with the highest concentration of Bentleys you would ever see parked in one street, and the most expensive real estate with some properties going as high as $2000 per sq. ft. It is the place where, with the right amount of funds, one can experience the most luxurious treatment. Only in recent months, due to a financial crisis did Moscow begin seeing its rental rates drop. Still, a nice two bedroom apartment in the city center could easily push your monthly budget back $3000-$6000.
Moscow is home to over 10 million people representing over 120 ethnic groups and nationalities. Its ancient traditional architectural landmarks cohabit with the Soviet style sullen grey boxes of buildings and Western glassy office plazas. With the abundance of places to see, Moscow is surprisingly inconvenient for tourists. Just recently it started adding signs and maps in English. Traffic jams is the city's plague, navigating downtown Moscow can be a nerve-wrecking experience, but the Moscow subway system is superb. The Moscow Metro carries up to 3 million passengers a day and its trains run every few minutes. The downtown stations' marble covered interiors could easily rival any art museum, and even if you do not plan to use subway for transportation, it is worth going to the Metro just for a tour. And as an alternative to a subway or getting stuck in traffic, you can catch a ride with the legendary MiG-29 or Russia's newest and most advanced high-altitude interceptor, the MiG-31 Foxhound. The helicopter tours offer breath-taking views of the Russian capital and its metro area.
The best way to see the city, though, is on foot with a professional guide who in addition to all standard attractions (the Kremlin, the Red Square with St. Basil Cathedral, the Bolshoi Theatre and Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin Art Museum, the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent, Christ the Savior Cathedral, Vorobyevy Hills, Ismailovo Flea Market, to name a few), can take you to places favored by locals and representing the true Moscow - hidden from tourists, with its old buildings, beat up sidewalks and old Moscow courtyards.
Moscow boasts a large number of high-end hotels where rooms can easily run from $700 per night. Balchug Kempinski, Metropol, Savoi, Ararat Park Hyatt, Ritz Carlton Moscow offer exquisite service along with the fantastic views of the historic city center. Each square meter is worth so much here that just a handful of three-star budget hotels are left in downtown area, and even their rates are far from what we are used to consider ‘budget.’ A great alternative to expensive hotels in Moscow is a concept that is not very common in the United States, but very familiar to travelers in Europe: furnished serviced apartments. Ranging from luxurious penthouses with sky-views, packed with everything from whirlpools to expensive sound systems, wireless Internet, such accommodations are usually a bargain at a fraction of a cost of what a room in a four or five-star Moscow hotel costs. Of course, if you are looking for a memorable and authentic Russian experience (no luxury here!), there are websites, set up by entrepreneurial babushkas offering you to stay in the spare room of their run-down Soviet-style apartment. Home cooked meals, Russian language TV, and some friendly patronizing is guaranteed. And be prepared for cold showers: a typical Soviet-built apartment in a Russian city gets its hot water shut off for 2-4 weeks in the summer for water system maintenance. If you are renting an apartment, be sure to ask if it has an independent water-heater.
The city has a huge selection of restaurants representing cuisine from all over the world. The most popular is Japanese with sushi places at every corner. However, don’t expect to find the actual Japanese chefs inside, as absolute majority of oriental restaurants hire Japanese”look-alikes” or, simply said, anyone who resembles oriental facial features: natives of Kazakhstan, Korea or China. The authentic Japanese chefs are very expensive and only the most respectable places boast them. But if you came all the way to Russia you might as well taste its traditional cuisine: borsch, pelmeni (Russian meat dumplings), pirozhki, chicken-Kiev, okroshka (a refreshing cool summer soup) and, of course, bliny with the red or black caviar. Don’t forget the Russian staple: vodka. Its everywhere, and the selection is wide enough to fit in every budget. It’s not unusual to find a bottle of Russia’s #1 drink sold for less than a bottle of drinking water.
Being a multi-million city, Moscow has an amazing array of nightlife options and a scene for everyone - be you a jazz aficionado or a hardcore clubber. One thing that newcomers to the city will quickly notice is that a bar or nightclub is rarely just that. Nearly every drinking hole in Moscow also serves as a restaurant, a bowling alley, billiards club, casino, concert venue or even a book store! Gamblers will be upset with a recent law, making it illegal for casinos and gambling joints to operate anywhere outside the four newly created economic zones, all located far away from Russia’s key cities. Hundreds of flashing neon-illuminated casinos that comprise a fair part of Moscow’s nightlife are getting closed as of July 1st. It is good news for clubs, however, which will get packed with more Gucci and Dolce&Cabbana dressed high society or ‘golden youth’ – young Russians whose parents are part of the new Russian elite. Going out here is taken very seriously: most respectable places boast a ‘face control’ and ‘dress code’ policy, meaning you have to match the place’s character to fit in and be let in. Not surprisingly, those deciding the fates of who gets in and who doesn’t are some of the most powerful and popular people here with Moscow’s socialites.
An old rivalry exists between the two Russia’s main cities: Moscovites consider themselves more modern and in tune with the times and ridicule residents of the northern capital as too old-fashioned. The two cities have effectively divided spheres of influence: Moscow is considered the official and business capital and St. Petersburg natives proudly call their city the country’s cultural capital.
Unlike Moscow’s red bricks and onion domes, St Petersburg’s network of canals and baroque architecture give the city a European flavor. It was built by most prominent European architects and is often called the Venice of the North. St. Petersburg is not as crazy and life bursting as Moscow. It is the place to relax and take in the magnitude and beauty of its architecture. Here one can walk in the footsteps of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, admire city's fantastic palaces and ride one of the world's deepest subways. The best way to see St. Petersburg is to walk along its main street Nevsky Prospekt, which is 4.5 km long. You really need at least a few days to see the attractions St. Petersburg offers: Peter and Paul Fortress, The Palace Square, Admiralty, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, Church of the Savior, the Summer gardens, Alexander Nevsky Monastery and Necropolis, etc. The most famous Russian museum – Hermitage, located inside the Winter Palace is not to be missed. Its been said that to see all showpieces there, one would need to spend at least 15 years, that’s spending 8 hours daily!
Like Moscow, Saint Petersburg offers a huge variety of places to eat for every taste and every budget. As an alternative to hugely popular Italian, Asian and European eateries and an addition to the Russian traditional food, we recommend trying dishes from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which offers a mix of Slavic, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors. Enjoy a filling meal of shashlik (lamb skewers), eggplant with walnuts and a khachapuri (a dish that's akin to a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich).
St. Petersburg was the first city in Russia to adapt club culture in the late 80’s. The club movement started with underground rock clubs and art centers and expanded later, in the beginning of 90s, to rave and house clubs. Today, St. Petersburg is the place to go for live alternative and rock music concerts, as well as for jazz and "artsy" clubs.
The best time to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg is from April to October.
Things to remember when travelling to Russia:
Get to Moscow from the US on one of the direct flights (about 10 hours) from New York, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. This summer’s airfares have been surprisingly low: starting at $650 including taxes. Check consolidators (agencies with special contract rates) like www.eufares.com for best fares.
Travel in Russia has become easier than ever. Remember, however, that visas are required. Apply through an experienced specialized agency like Go To Russia Travel (www.GoToRussia.com or 1-888-263-0023) to avoid any problems and get your visa in as fast as one week.
Hotels have recently come down with their rates due to world financial crisis and some good deals may be out there. Beware of sites that offer good rates ‘upon request’: usually the actual price is higher. For instant confirmation rates bookable online with your credit card we recommend www.AllRussianHotels.com.
As a great alternative to staying at a hotel, try serviced apartments. You will have more privacy, space and versatility at a fraction of hotel room’s price. One of the oldest companies to offer this service in Moscow is Apartment Reservation Service: www.ApartmentRes.com.
TRAVELING BY TRAIN IN RUSSIA:
Getting between Moscow and other cities is usually easiest by train. It’s a fun way to travel, too! Special fast trains operate between Moscow and St. Petersburg: it now takes only about 5 hours time. The only English-language resource with real-time schedule and fares: www.TrainsRussia.com. Tickets can be picked up at any Russian airport or mailed to your home.
Electricity throughout Russia is 220 volt/50 Hz. The plug is the two-round-pin thin European standard. Be sure to bring your own converter, as most places in Russia do not carry them.
All prices are generally quoted in rubles. Currency can be freely converted at banks, hotels or numerous exchange points that operate around the clock. Traveler's checks are hard to cash. Credit cards are accepted in most places that work with foreign tourists. ATM machines are widely available everywhere.
Tipping is increasingly expected at restaurants. Tip 10-15% depending on service, and unlike in the United States, left in cash rather than added to a credit card check.