One Week in Russia
Here’s a fact that shocks most people, especially Russians: I never considered making my first trip to Russia in any other time other than the dead of winter. Whether in history or literature or film, my impression of Russia has always been of Russia in the cold, so brave the cold I did when I landed in Moscow a few weeks ago.
The good news, of course, is that it wasn’t particularly cold for a Russian winter, with temperatures right around (and, in some cases, just above) freezing. The better news? Even if you’re not crazy like me, and decide to visit during a more humane time of year, this week in Russia itinerary is just what you need to get started.
When to Visit Russia
As I alluded to in the intro, most Russians thought I was crazy for visiting in winter, and recommended I come back during the summer, when Moscow is steaming hot and St. Petersburg enjoys so-called “White Nights.” On the other hand, since Russia doesn’t have much of a spring or autumn, you’ve really just got two choices, and prices in Russia in winter are as low as the temperatures.
Where to Stay in Russia
I split my week in Russia between two boutique hotels: Hotel Stoleshnikov in Moscow and Majestic Boutique Hotel in St. Petersburg. No matter your budget, of course, Russia’s cities are full of centrally-located and (mostly) very high quality accommodation, although the warmth of reception and service can vary.
Citizens from the vast majority of countries require visas to visit Russia. I’ve created a guide for how to get a Russia visa if you’re a U.S. citizen. Otherwise, contact your nearest Russian embassy or consulate, or an online visa agency in your country.
How to Get Around in Russia
If you spend just one week in Russia as I’m recommending here, your only long-term transport need will be between Moscow and St. Petersburg, which has two options: Train (either the high-speed Sapsan or overnight Red Arrow), or plane. Russia’s two largest cities both have extensive metros, and also have cities centers that are more or less walkable.
Money, Costs and Communication
Russia uses the ruble, which lost a significant portion of its value in 2014. For the time being anyway, this has resulted in Russia being much cheaper than it usually is—I averaged about 150 USD per day during my week in Russia, keeping in mind that I stayed in four-star boutique accommodation. Wi-Fi is everywhere in Russia and SIM cards are readily available, but English can be woefully rare. I recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet and some basic Russian phrases—make some Russian friends, too, if you can!
Moscow and the Golden Ring
Moscow is where the idea of Russia begin almost a millennium ago, and it’s where I think all trips to the country should begin. Specifically, the best way to start your week in Russia is with a stroll through Red Square, basking in the beauty of St. Basil’s Cathedral and The Kremlin, then walking out on one of the bridges over the Moskva River to take in a wide panorama of the city’s waterfront.
As for how you spend the rest of your time in Russia (I recommend spend four days of your week in Russia here), you won’t be shore on options. Its architecture, for example, is totally fascinating, whether you prefer touring the most impressive stations of the Moscow Metro or seeing each of Stalin’s so-called “Soviet Skyscrapers.”
Alternatively, you can eat your way through the highlights of Russian cuisine, from sumptuous borscht beet soup and sweet-and-sour vareniki dumplings, or take a day trip to Moscow’s Golden Ring, where you can find historical cities such as Sergiyev Posad and Suzdal.
St. Petersburg and its Royal Palaces
Most Russians I spoke with seemed to prefer St. Petersburg over Moscow, even those who live in Moscow. This isn’t surprising, of course—St. Petersburg’s city center, which features treasures like the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum and Cathedral of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, is arguably the most picturesque in all of Europe, let alone in Russia.
On the other hand, while Moscow is a dynamic global city that can fulfill any of your desires, St. Petersburg looks like a communist wasteland outside its center, with the exception of day trip destinations like Peterhof Palace or the town of Pushkin, where you’ll find some of the Catherine the Great’s former digs. As a result, I recommend spending just three days of your week in Russia in St. Petersburg.
Other Russia Destinations
If you’ve got just one week in Russia, the bad news is you probably won’t be able to squeeze in more than what I’ve recommended. If you can manage a few more days or weeks, however, the world’s largest country by land area is the travel gift that keeps on giving.
If you can add another few days, for example, you could hop down to Sochi on the Black Sea, or over to the city of Novgorod. Another week and you could ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Beijing. Speaking of Siberia, Lake Baikal is a big Russian bucket list destinations, particularly during the winter when it freezes solid.
The Bottom Line
One week in Russia is a great amount of time to introduce yourself to Russia, even if it doesn’t allow for a comprehensive trip. With several days in both Moscow and St. Petersburg and a day trip to two from each, you’ll get a colorful, interesting briefing in the basics of travel in Russia.