Russia is a fascinating country. Ruled by one of Europe’s leading monarchies for hundreds of years until 1917 when the Russian Revolution to led Lenin seizing power on behalf of the Bolsheviks. After a period of civil war, the USSR was formed and lasted until 1990. This mixture of history – from the indulgence of the royal family to the totalitarianism of Stalin – has left a country that is full of contradictions, but one that has lots of stories to tell through its museums and architecture.
Cities and Cultural Sites in Russia
Russia’s most visited cities are in European Russia to the east of the country. These cities have a mixture of grand royal palaces, orthodox churches, museums and art galleries, and less grand remnants of communist rule. Fortunately, the city centres are relatively well preserved and full of shops, bars and restaurants.
Moscow is a large city with a population of over 13 million people, however, the majority of the main sites are within walking distance of each other in the centre, whilst the outskirts have the brutalist architecture of the Soviet period.
The city is centred on Red Square – the location of military parades and Lenin’s Mausoleum. The city’s most important buildings are located around the square including the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral. One side is lined by GUM Department Store, which has a number of cafes and restaurants on the ground floor where you can sit outside in the square.
The Kremlin is a large 15th Century fortress that is the current home of the President of Russia. Within its high walls there are palaces, churches, an armoury, squares and gardens that can all be explored. At midday in summer there is the Mounting Parade of the Kremlin’s Guard, which is a must see.
St Basil’s Cathedral was built in 16th century by Ivan the Terrible. The Cathedral is famous for its colourful design and bulb-like domes on the top of each of its 9 towers. These towers each contain a chapel and are connected on the inside by maze-like passages. It is now a museum but occasionally religious ceremonies are still held there.
Just outside of Red Square is the beautiful building of the Bolshoi Theatre. The theatre is still the home to the Russian Ballet and Opera, and there are frequent performances.
Despite most of the sites being very close to each other, many tourists still use the Moscow Metro due to its unique design. The grand stations have beautifully ornate carvings, statues, and mosaics, as well as large paintings of famous battles. The metro – which carries millions of people a day – feels much more like a museum than a transport system.
Moscow has a lot of bars and restaurants – there are a number around the Red Square, and the area just to the south of the river from the Red Square has a large selection of restaurants as well as lively bars.
The construction of St Petersburg was started by Peter the Great who wanted a capital to rival the other great cities of Europe, something he definitely achieved. St Petersburg has wide streets, a canal network to rival Venice’s, and grand buildings of pastel greens and blues decorated with white and gold.
St Petersburg was the imperial capital of Russia until the Revolution and this imperial legacy is evident in the palaces located around the city. The most famous is the Winter Palace – where the main event of the 1917 revolution took place. The Palace is now home to the State Hermitage Museum, which contains over 1000 rooms and millions of pieces of art – including paintings by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The collection was started by Catherine the Great and increased when the Bolsheviks confiscated artwork from rich Russians.
Peter and Paul Fortress is the original site of St Petersburg and sits just across the Neva River from the Winter Palace. The fort initially served as a garrison but quickly became a prison and held many famous prisoners including Trotsky, Tito, Dostoevsky, and Bakunin. Today the fort is primarily a history museum and is beautifully located on an island in the river. On the east end of the small island there is an open space with a few bars and restaurants, that provide great views over the river to the main part of the city.
Another palace worth visiting in St Petersburg is Yusopov Palace. It is extravagantly decorated but its main claim to fame is as the site of Rasputin’s supposedly long and drawn out assassination in 1916.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is a large church with a colourful design and façade similar to that of St Basil’s in Moscow. The unusual names comes from a shrine within the church that marks the spot of an assassination attempt on Emperor Alexander II. St Isaac’s Cathedral is another church in the city and provides great views over the city from the top.
The best way to see the city and its main sites is by the canal network. There are frequent boats that take you on a tour around the city.
At night there is a lot to do in St Peterburg. The city has lots of good quality restaurants, and lively bars often with live music – jazz is particularly popular. There is also the Mariinsky Theatre that can seat 2000 people and hosts the famous Mariinsky Ballet as well as operas.
25km south of St Petersburg is Pushkin Village – the site of the summer residences of the Russian Royal Family. The Catherine Palace and the Alexander Palace are the main sites in the area and have changed little since they were built in the 18th Century.
To the west of the city is the palace of Peterhof. The Palace was constructed for Peter the Great and is surrounded by gardens reminiscent of those at the Palace of Versailles. In summer you can reach the Peterhof Palace by hydrofoil from St Petersburg.
The Golden Ring and Suzdal
North East of Moscow is the Golden Ring – a group of several medieval towns filled with churches, monasteries and forts. The churches have onion-shaped domes similar to St Basil’s. If you only have time to visit one of the towns then we suggest visiting Suzdal. The riverside town was built in 1066 and was once the capital of Russia. The medieval churches and monasteries are very well preserved.
Suzdal and the Golden Ring can be visited as a day trip from Moscow, but to see the area properly it’s worth staying overnight.
To see the best of European Russia, we suggest flying to Moscow and staying there for a couple of nights, before heading to the Golden Ring and spending a night in Suzdal. After heading back to Moscow, catch the high-speed Sapsan train to St Petersburg and spend a few nights there before catching an onward flight from St Petersburg airport.
Where to Stay in Russia
Moscow and St Petersburg have a good selection of upmarket and luxury hotels. Outside of these cities there is much less choice.
When to Go to Russia
You can visit Russia any time of year, however from October to April it gets very cold. From May to September the days are longer and the weather warmer, with July and August the warmest months. Although visiting in winter is very cold, seeing the cities in the snow is a great experience.
Getting Around Russia
The best way to get from Moscow to St Petersburg is by train. Getting to the Golden Ring and Suzdal is best done by private tour or a car and driver.
Getting to Russia
There are frequent flights from the UK to both Moscow and St Petersburg.