From the blog

A Tale of Two Russian Cities

Russia has held my fascination since I was a young girl singing along to Anastasia, but I find it is often overlooked by many travellers. The world’s largest country is rich in fascinating culture and history, brimming with magnificent art and architecture, and boasts an excellent – and well-priced – restaurant scene, and till today still has a sense of the mysterious about it.

A 10-day stay was perfect for a taste of what its current and old capital, the two largest and most well-known of Russia’s cities, have to offer. Bullet trains permit visitors to conveniently zoom between Moscow and Saint Petersburg in around 4 hours, allowing you to save time should you be able to fly in of one city and out of the other. The language barrier, gruffness of many locals (sorry!) and controversial civil and political issues should not deter you from visiting the Russian Federation – go well-prepared and you are sure to have an interesting and enriching time in a country pervaded with a happy (at least for visitors) tension between nostalgia for the past and a drive for modernity.


  • Uber and Yandex Taxi are super cheap in Russia, to the extent that if you’re travelling in a small group it would make no financial sense to make use of public transport (although the beautiful Moscow metro stations are an attraction in themselves).
  • Buy a local sim card and top up for a constant supply of internet for ordering your taxis and using GPS to find your way around – public wifi is rarely strong.
  • If your accommodation is very close to the Red Square, be warned – if you’re a light sleeper like myself you will almost definitely be woken up to the sound of chiming bells which go on in a frenzied musical tune for 15 minutes every hour or so in the early morning. It’s a great place to be located, but if you find soundproofing, take it.
  • If you’re not a dill lover, ask for it to be omitted from your dishes – the Russians seem to have a serious obsession with it and it is often overkill.
  • Don’t get upset if you’re not treated as favourably as the locals in restaurants, especially when it comes to seating, even when you’ve placed a reservation many weeks in advance; it seems to be common practice.


The country’s cosmopolitan capital, the financial and political center of Russia, is a majestic and thrilling experience with plenty to offer its visitors. To my everlasting surprise, it might just be my favourite between the two cities I visited, with its wide, clean streets and boulevards, and bustling and colourful Red Square, immediately capturing my heart. The legacy of the Soviet Union mixed with an embrace of Western culture can be strongly felt here, and lends a very unique character.

At the historic centre Iies the Kremlin, a complex of palaces, churches (accessible in Cathedral Square) and tsarist treasures in the Armoury (which includes the jaw-droppingly sumptuous crown jewels), which is today the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. Outside its walls is the Red Square, home to Lenin’s Mausoleum, the State Historical Museum and the world-famous St. Basil’s Cathedral. All are must-visits. Armoury tickets are limited in number and should be booked in advance online.

Cafe Pushkin is a Moscow institution and a must-visit when in the capital; not only for the magnificent setting that is the Library Hall but the first rate traditional fare and service. Make sure you have a reservation.

The Metropol Restaurant is a long-standing and lavish dining hall at the Metropol Hotel. Non-guests and guests alike can enjoy breakfast – à la carte or buffet – to live harp music in the Russian art nouveau space which reminds of the splendour of pre-revolutionary Russia.

No visit to Moscow is complete without attending a ballet performance at the Bolshoi. Arguably the most well-renowed ballet (and opera) theatre in the world, the experience is sure to be enjoyed by all and is worth the hefty price. We were lucky enough to be in Moscow when Swan Lake was on and it was a truly magical experience. Make sure to keep your eye on ticket issues on the official website well in advance – seats to the best shows will sell out fast.

For the ultimate in comfort, traditional, fast food, look no further than Lepim i Varim. This small, casual and inexpensive eatery serves up a variety of fresh pelmeni (Russian dumplings) that hit all the right spots, especially on a cold and wet day.

For an up-scale and special lunch or dinner, head over to the world-popular White Rabbit. The gorgeous setting should be enough to make you visit, but the food – albeit not the best we had in Russia – was also very good despite recent mixed reviews. For a baking lover who is rarely blown away by restaurant desserts, the green sponge-looking block on my plate which melts into silky ice cream in your mouth, accompanying a perfectly executed caramel fondant, was very impressive indeed.

A walk along the river is the perfect way to while away some time on a nice day. Take a shot of the padlock trees on Luzkhov Bridge, have a stroll through the sprawling Gorky park and ponder the 98 metre-high Peter the Great Statue which often lands a spot on ugliest-statues/monuments-in-the-world lists.

You can’t go to Moscow without sipping on a Moscow Mule, and the ones we tried at Wine & Crab Restaurant were the best we had. Enjoy a drink and a shared bite in their inviting outside setting or go for a full meal.

One evening, head out for a stroll to the lively Zaryadye Park and grab something to eat in the Gastronomic Centre there. This food hall is popular and, therefore, loud and hectic – not the place to be if you’re looking for a quite meal – but consider it if you’re looking to change things up and sample a variety of different food. We really enjoyed our selection of fresh seafood.

For excellent Eastern-European cuisine head over to 5642 Visota and share a number of their delicious dishes. The eggplant with hummus and bone marrow were especially noteworthy.

Izmailovo Kremlin is one of those places which looks great in pictures but doesn’t quite translate to real life. The complex, which is modelled after old Russia, includes small single-subject museums (one is dedicated to bread, another to vodka and so on) and the tallest wooden church in the country, with an adjacent flea and craft market. Perhaps it was the fact that we visited on a gloomy day, but the complex was mostly deserted and looked bizarre and a little run-down more than anything else. The market only consisted of a few stalls selling fur and matryoshka dolls and the odd rat running around – again, it seemed that there were plenty more stalls which were not set up on the day, perhaps due to the weather forecast. All in all, while it is a unique-looking place, I wouldn’t say it merits the drive from central Moscow, unless you’re visiting in peak season and it’s a beautiful day.

Grand Cafe Dr. Zhivago with its Soviet-style-chic trendy decor just a few metres from the Red Square, and the homely Mari Vanna which is modelled to look like you’re eating at someone’s home, are two popular restaurants where you can enjoy traditional Russian cuisine. The borscht and honey cake at Mari Vanna are excellent.

Don’t skip a visit to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest Orthodox cathedral in the world, standing at 103 metres tall and with a capacity of 10,000 standing worshipers. The interior is stunning, but no pictures are allowed. Have a stroll through the nearby Old Arbat street for some souvenir shopping, or splurge on designer at the popular department store GUM in the Red Square.

Saint Petersburg

The Imperial Capital for 2 centuries, St. Petersburg was built by Tsar Peter the Great as a monument to the might of Imperial Russia. The second largest city after Moscow, St. Petersburg remains the cultural centre of Russia, with a wealth of palaces, cathedrals and museums, including the second largest art museum in the world. While the the main sights in themselves are unparalleled, some might find St. Petersburg’s grittiness and hecticness a bit of a shock after Moscow (we felt a bit let down after the tales we heard of its great beauty), especially when staying (as we did) on Nevsky Prospekt, the main street, but it definitely has bucket-loads of character.

One of the definite musts of St. Petersburg is the State Hermitage Museum, founded by Catherine the Great. The collection comprises over 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world, which are housed in six historic buildings on Palace Square and the Palace Embankment, which include the magnificent Winter Palace, the old official residence of Russian monarchs. Due to this, it is not just the items housed in the museum which capture the attention; the building itself is art, with room after room of over-the-top decor displaying the great wealth of the monarchy at the time. It is said that if you spend a minute looking at every piece displayed in the Hermitage, it would take you 11 years to look at everything the museum has to offer. Unless you have that kind of time on your hands, make sure you plan ahead using the official website to list down the rooms which most interest you, and stick to those. Modern art enthusiasts cannot miss the excellent collection on the fourth floor of the General Staff Building, for which you will need a separate ticket.



Our best meal in Russia was at Birch, which effortlessly bridges the line between casual and fine dining in a simple and clean but beautifully-decorated modern setting. The service was also second to none, and it was the only place in Russia where we were not treated less favourably for being tourists when it came to seating – perhaps because we had booked many weeks in advance we were lucky enough to be seated in a separate ‘secret’ area by the kitchen (one of three small tables I believe) behind a door reading ‘Staff Only’, allowing us to see the many artists at work and speak with the head chef more than once, so it was a very VIP experience. We went for the exquisite tasting menu which was much cheaper than what you would pay for a similar high-quality menu in most western European countries. Do not miss this when in St. Petersburg.

The Peterhof Palace is one of the main attractions of St. Petersburg, consisting of a series of palaces and sprawling gardens built by Peter the Great to rival Versailles. The best way to get there is on one of the hydrofoils which leave from the Palace Embankment. Unfortunately, the visit didn’t entirely live up to our expectations. Firstly, the main attraction – the main fountain in front of the main Palace building – was surrounded by red drapery for some upcoming masquerade special event which really lessened from the grandeur of the place, and to make things worse most of the fountain spouts were not working. Secondly, after half an hour of waiting to get into the Palace in a line which started at a closed door which was never opened to let anyone in, and after trying to ask for information on whether the Palace was open more than once to no avail, we decided to simply enjoy the gardens. These were indeed beautiful, and you can spend the better part of a day wandering about the enormous grounds.

Bushe and Cake & Breakfast are good breakfast options in the city center. The first has 3 outlets where you can choose from a variety of fresh pastries, bread and other bakes in the display – the almond croissant is great. The latter includes a cute garden where you can enjoy a variety of à la carte options including lovely pancakes.

As four girls who spent our younger years in love with the animated movie Anastasia, we were so looking forward to visiting the Catherine Palace, who’s exterior and hall of mirrors were recreated in the movie. Our arrival was very promising; we admired the stunning palace exterior in perfect peace and quiet – it seemed like there was no one around. Then we stepped inside. Never in my life have I seen so many tourists packed into one space. It was absolute chaos. After a very long queue, we made it to the first rooms, but the situation never got better. There were so many groups which you had to wait after before passing on from one room to the other that it really took away from the whole experience, and we found ourselves pushing our way through to get out to the gardens for some air. It is unfortunate that there is no system of spreading out ticket purchases with different time slots as I have often seen done at other popular attractions. Perhaps your best bet is visiting later in the day when the crowds would have hopefully withered out. The gardens were, once again, very large, allowing you to stroll around for hours and hours. All in all, unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the magical experience we had in mind.

Jungle – a westernised Japanese eatery – was just a few steps away from our apartment, so we ended up grabbing two quick meals there; once in their roofed ground floor garden and another time on their al fresco rooftop garden – both places have hip, simple decor (centered, as you might have guessed, on plenty of plants) and serve different, well-priced menus.

Nevsky Prospekt is the main thoroughfare of St. Petersburg, leading eventually to Palace Square, so it is a good idea to stay on, or close to, it. It traverses a number of canals, contains the famous Eliseevsky Store and Gostiny Dvor for those who want to do some shopping, as well as the dominating Kazan Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church modelled on the Vatican. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, one of St. Petersburg’s most famous landmarks, is also just a stone’s throw away; unfortunately part of the facade was being restored when we were there.

Banshiki is another great restaurant option in the city for traditional cuisine with a modern edge. The warm and inviting modern setting serves up generous portions of well-executed food, including a variety of pelmeni.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral is arguably the most sumptuous and magnificent church in the city. A short but steep climb to the top of the dome will award you with views over St. Petersburg.

48 chairs is an inviting spot for live jazz accompanying simple but satisfying European cuisine.

Meatarea Chuck is a highly popular spot for a steak or burger washed down with a cocktail, although it falls short of wining a spot on my best burgers list.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Russia’s two largest cities and would recommend a visit. The largest country in the world would probably take a lifetime to explore, but as always, time is short, so on we move unto the next adventure. Until next time!

K x

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