If you are thinking of heading over to Russia and have a couple of concerns, let me just tell you that you shouldn’t be worried. After a week in Russia with stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I would recommend making the journey and taking on the task of getting the visa. Let’s start with the visa process. I think this is more in place to try and limit the people that come in, but don’t be deterred. I used CBIT Visa service and had no issues with getting the application and the visa approved, yes it’s a pretty high cost but worth it. The only weird thing that was needed was an invitation from the Russian company inviting you in. This can be obtained through the hotel that is booked or even the tour company. Josh and I went ahead and paid the $10 to get it through the tour company.
So let’s start with the journey over there. My friend Josh and I took United out of Cleveland to Heathrow with a lay over in Chicago. Be prepared, Cleveland-Hopkins is going through some renovations in preparation for the 2016 Republican National Convention. Get there super early! After getting into London-Heathrow at 8 am, we were through passport control and customs in less than 45 minutes.
We spent the day in London getting used to the time difference. Then it was off to Gatwick for the 6 am flight to Moscow on EasyJet. They are sticklers for their baggage policy and if you try to take on more than one bag they will make you combine them right there at the gate or you have to pay the fee to get them checked. After an uneventful flight we landed to snow in Moscow. We had arranged an English speaking taxi to pick us up at the airport. It was worth the money because all the metros in Moscow are in Russian and there are no English signs.
We arrived to the hotel, Sheraton Palace Center in city center which was walking distance from everything. The hotel had a great front desk reception that spoke English and made some amazing dining recommendations. There is also a transportation desk that will arrange taxis for you to make sure you are getting the best value as well as legit taxis. This I highly recommended so you do not get taken advantage of due to your tourist status.
After a little nap, it was off for dinner before heading out for a night tour of the city. The cost of everything in Russia is extremely reasonable. We then met Zhanna from Moscow Private Tours at the hotel for the 2 hour driving tour. We started with a stop at the Red Square to see the Kremlin, St Basil, and Gum Shopping Center. She was an amazing guide with great patience for when you are taking pictures and ask weird questions. After learning a brief history, we were off to the warmth of the car and headed over to see some additional churches and other amazing buildings that lit up the sky.
What I liked was that it was more of an introduction to this amazing city but didn’t go too much into detail to overwhelm you the first day that you are in town. That would be the next couple of days where we would revisit the sites during the day and actually be able to go inside. After the tour, we were dropped off at the hotel, where we crashed for the night. I made sure to wake up extra early and hit the hotel gym before going to breakfast. The gym was pretty standard with cardio and weight machines and was open 24 hours. After getting ready, we had breakfast at the hotel. I strongly recommended including this with your booking. It was delicious and filling. The best part was the omelet station.
Again, Zhanna met us at the hotel. Then it was off to see the superb metro system. Let me tell you that I never thought I would need to tour a metro station before, but do it. They are more of a museum then public transport. You may even be lucky enough to catch the train that is an actual art gallery; we missed it by one train! After learning the history and the superstitions, we were presented with the before and after pictures of when Stalin was removed from the art work.
After taking the metro to Red Square, we were able to get some amazing pictures of all the buildings in the area, history, and the reason behind the name. She then took us to a local café to try some of the honey tea, which was the best tea I have had since China and warmed you to the core on yet another snowy day. Word of advice: wear sneakers, not ballet flats or heeled boots like I did. After the quick snack we were off to see the inside of St Basil’s.
Do it and pay for the guide to come in with you. Its 350 rubles which converts to about $5.00 and the history that they give you is better than anything that you can get from the audio guide. They’ll be able to take you to the best places and make sure that you make it in time to hear the men’s group sing in the church. Then we whisked off to visit the GUM shopping center and taken to the local food area to be able to try some local drinks and sweet treats. I didn’t very much care for the beer with honey but did rather enjoy the soda made with tarragon.
We went ahead and booked the Russian lunch with vodka tasting so we headed over to a local restaurant where we had he chance to try Borscht which is a beet soup, a Russian salad with chicken, and the main dish was a chicken patty. Along with the food journey came 4 shots of flavored vodka. Don’t sip; just throw them back to be like a local. I will say that I did not like 2 out of the four but I’ll let you decided if you like it spicy.
After being taken back to the hotel, we went ahead and got ready for the ballet at the historic Bolshoi hall. For the best pricing and seats, you need to book months in advance. The performance is everything you should expect from the Russian ballet and then some. We had learned the history during the day but to actually sit down and see a performance in such a historic setting takes your breath away.
The next day was some more touring of the metro system, the world fair site, flea market and visit to the mansion. I would recommend skipping the vodka museum because it seemed like just a museum of bottles. However, take a couple of moments to wheel and deal at the flea market. You can get some amazingly warm handmade socks out or even some Russian nesting dolls.
After saying goodbye to our new friend, we headed for a tourist walk down Arbat St and saw some interesting people while hitting some of the shops for last minute gifts. Then it was back to the hotel and off to bed for the early meeting with the guide for the Kremlin. With an early morning work out, breakfast and check out, we met Nadya in the hotel lobby to take the metro back into town for a tour of the Kremlin. Everything for the Kremlin is done with their own guides, needs to be booked in advance, and should include the Armory.
We toured the many churches on the grounds, visited the gardens, saw the president’s helicopter pad. Then it was off to see the sparkly things on the inside. From clothes, to carriages, to crowns; it was an extraordinary experience to take in. If only we had more time to take in every little piece but we had a train to catch to St. Petersburg.
With a quick journey through the country side on Russia Rail, I was able to use the time to edit some of the pictures from Moscow and enjoy the hot tea and drink that came with our tickets. Even the bathrooms on board were pretty decent. We arrived in St. Petersburg where we met our transfer right at the rail line and was able to beat some of the traffic to get into town.
We headed over to the Official Hermitage Hotel and was greeted with drinks of either water or apple juice. We were surprised to learn that we were upgraded, provided tickets to the Hermitage and even transportation to and from the museum. We headed up to the room and settled in for the night. Now the gym here was a little bit smaller. The spa services take up the basement floor, and you have to ask the front desk to open the doors if the spa is closed. However, I was able to get a run in and headed back up to the room to try out the heated upgraded toilet. Something I think should come standard in the homes in the North.
We met Olga from St. Pete Private Tours in the lobby and then headed out for the driving portion of seeing St. Petersburg. Make sure to bring along a scarf or something to cover your hair. With some stops in churches, ladies will need to cover their hair. We even had the great experience of heading over to the fortress and seeing the noon salute of firing the cannon. It is super loud so cover your ears. It was then time to head over to Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood. Go inside. The mosaics there are jaw-dropping and you will not stop taking pictures of the details that have been restored back to all their glory. The church is not open on Wednesday so make sure that you book it any other day of the week.
With the little extra time that we had the driver, we choose to be dropped off at St Isaac’s Cathedral which is also closed on Wednesday. Again another beautiful church with amazing details to the mosaics. We even took the 200 steps up to walk around the top and get an amazing view of the city.
Afterwards, we went on the recommendation of Olga to this little restaurant that does home style cooking and decorated to look like a cottage in the forest. Always ask your guides where they would eat; they will never lead you astray.
Now the metro in St Petersburg is just as beautiful as Moscow but they are also in English so you shouldn’t have any issue getting around. We were able to use it to get back to the hotel with no issues.
Our final day in St Petersburg was a walking tour of the city to see the buildings and even had a guided tour of the Hermitage. Again this is another place that tickets need to be booked in advance and I highly recommend having the guide come in with you. They are able to take you to the best pieces while avoiding the crowds and making the most of the time that you have there.
There is the palace outside the city that is amazing and the gardens are a must to see but we just did not have enough time. There are not a lot of flight option from St Petersburg to London that didn’t require a day flying so we made a decision to take an overnight train to Lativa and spend a day in Riga before heading home.
So let’s talk about Russian overnight trains. This is not for the faint at heart. You will need patience and the ability to adjust to culture shock. First off, no one at the train or on the train speaks English so finding the track took the help of other passengers and a lot of apologizing on our side. I still have no clue what happened when we went through passport control leaving the country, where the showers were, where the food carriage was, or other than it being the end of the line when our stop would have occurred. There was no assistance with bags on or off the train and finding which compartment you are supposed to be in. We used the Google Translate app to read the paper work. This was also first class so I don’t even want to know about the other levels of “service”. So again, I only recommended this for people looking for a challenge.
We stayed at a hotel that was within walking distance from the train station, the Wellton Hotel Riga. They were nice enough to hold the bags while we walked long the park before heading over to our walking and food tour booked through EatRiga.com. We headed on a journey through the Old City and Moscow district before heading over to the Market. The best part of this city was the Market. It is huge and the pricing is amazing. I was able to get 200 ml of paprika for less than $2.00 and 5 pounds of walnuts for less than $10. Granted I had to shell the walnuts but it was a great way to get an arm workout in at the end of the day.
We headed to bed early to catch up on the sleep that we lost on the train, it was pretty rocky and not in a rock the baby to sleep way. I did make Josh join me for a run in the morning through the park instead of the hotel gym. Afterwards, it was pretty standard breakfast that was included with the hotel then off to the shooting range.
After 20 rounds of shots, we headed over to the local cat café. Yes, cats! They had stray cats that lived there so that you can pet them while you enjoyed a drink. I missed my babies so it was a prefect fit. With a little extra time before we needed to be at the airport we went and saw Pan at the movies. It was in English with Latvian and Russian subtitles. I may have learned a little bit of those languages based on reading some of the movie.
All in all, it was an amazing journey to start off my three month sabbatical. Next up on the list is some time in London before heading over to Wales for a little hike up Snowdon.