Russia was one the places I enjoyed the most this year. We went without many expectations and were pleasantly surprised at every turn by this incredible country. Also read our practical information about visas.
1. The Architecture
Almost everywhere you look in Russia there are buildings on a grand scale, beautifully designed and often unused. Of course there are the well-known ones such as St Basil’s Cathedral, The Kremlin and the Winter Palace which are all spectacular. But walking around the cities you will constantly come across incredible buildings and monuments that may look like they could house a king but are of very little significance. For some interesting buildings head to the parks surrounding the Space Museum in Moscow, the Izmailovsky market or the Moskovsky district of St Petersburg. And the best part about it is buildings are almost always free to look at!
2. The Moscow Metro
Worth a day trip in itself the Moscow Metro is extremely efficient, cheap, always busy and spectacular to look at. Every station is designed like the entrance to a museum or the lobby of grand hotel. From stunning mosaics and stained glass windows to Lenin monuments and rows of statues, there is something different to see at every stop. We spent an enjoyable day hopping between stations and being wowed by each one. A ticket for the metro costs about 50c and if you don’t go out of the station you can ride around all day on one ticket. This makes for a pretty affordable day out and a very different activity to most other cities.
3. The Price
Having heard Russia was reasonably expensive we were pleasantly surprised with how much we were able to stick to a budget. Our top savings were on transport and accommodation. As mentioned before the metro is only 50c and with huge distances between stations you will need to use it. We booked our accommodation through booking.com and paid less than €20 a night for a private double in a basic but clean hostel-style place with easy transport access to Moscow city centre.
We also couch-surfed for a few nights which saved some money and our hosts showed us some less touristed parts of St Petersburg. Food could be found for very decent prices and often the chains provided cheap, authentic Russian food. We loved the buffet on the top floor of the G.U.M shopping centre. We also took a free walking tour which was a great way to get to know the city! One of our biggest expenses was the visa which you can read about here.
4. The Culture Difference
Something I particularly enjoyed about Russia was the way it felt both familiar and foreign at the same time. Moscow had the safety and convenience of a modern European city. However, hardly anyone spoke English and all the signs (including the Metro) and menus were all in Russian which made it feel much more adventurous and exciting.
The cities looked very different to what you would see elsewhere in Europe but it was always easy to find shops and restaurants. The people were very friendly and despite it being winter there were lots of people out and about. I didn’t know a lot about Russian culture before going there so really enjoyed staying with some local people and getting a feel for this immense and interesting country.
If you're looking to experience some Russian culture at home here is a great guide to making Russian pelmeni.
5. The Hermitage Museum
Yes, I’m putting a major tourist attraction on my list and trust me, I was hesitant about even going there but all the reviews raved about it and it was one of my parents’ highlights of their Russian trip 27 years ago. And boy am I glad we went! We chose to go a bit later on a Wednesday as it is open until 9pm and it is supposedly a bit quieter. We went at 5pm expecting to be out an hour or so later, not being big museum people. But we rolled out with the last visitors at closing time feeling utterly awestruck and exhausted.
This incredible museum is one of the world’s oldest and largest. Housed in a stunning building known as ‘The Winter Palace’ we were often more amazed by the rooms things were kept in than the things themselves. The museum houses everything from fossils and mummies to the largest collection of paintings in the world. Go on the first Thursday of the month for free entrance!