St. Petersburg

Apparently tourists who visit Moscow after St. Petersburg complain that there’s nothing to see. That’s because while St. Pete might be smaller in size, it’s larger in terms of cultural institutions, beautifully architected buildings, Venice-like canals; it has an overall ambiance that feels more European than Russian. It’s also free of many of the big-city hassles of Moscow (though St. Pete is still big — 5 million people). Notwithstanding all this, I liked Moscow as much as St. Pete — they’re just different.

From the St. Pete airport we went straight to St. Catherine’s Palace. Stunningly beautiful and ornate! Gilded wood covered with gold plate is in endless supply. A lot of restoration had to happen since the Nazis burned much of it during the battle of Leningrad. Still — each fresco, wood carving, and room feels authentic.P8070081

St. Catherine’s Palace is situated just outside St. Pete. In the city itself, there is a kind of center part (anchored by a huge statue of Lenin) around which most of the interesting things lie. Several beautiful canals / rivers provide a nice walking area. You can definitely do some "wander around by foot" in St. Pete.

During the first night we went to the ballet — no surprises here. Ornate building. Since it was out of season, it was mostly tourists. We finished at 10:30 PM and walked outside to daylight. St. Pete is very close to Scandinavia (two hour drive from Finland) and therefore it similarly stays light late

On day 2 we went to Peterhof, a series of buildings and gardens made by Peter the Great. Very similar to St. Catherine’s Palace on the inside; the magic here is the outside landscaping. The gardens are beautiful, waterfalls everywhere. All the waterfalls and fountains are gravity-powered, which is amazing.

Finally, St. Petersburg is home to one of the greatest art museums in the world: the hermitage. Overloaded with art from big names and little names, but mostly big names. Impressionists, Spanish, on and on and on. It rivals any museum in scale and famous works. We spent three hours; could have spent a whole day.P8070089

For our last dinner in Russia / Ukraine, we finally found a Mexican restaurant! It’s not that Russian food is bad; it’s just bland. And it gets tiresome. Carne asada, chips and salsa, margaritas: all refreshing changes!P8080035

Moscow and the Kremlin

Moscow is one of the world’s most expensive cities, but worth the price of admission if only to spend a couple days immersing yourself in the Kremlin.

The Kremlin and Red Square are magnificent in their aesthetic presence and fascinating history. Lenin’s Tomb looms near St. Basil’s Cathedral (the quintessential Moscow postcard photo). Inside the Kremlin are a couple churches and museums full of jewelry and clothing from the days of Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and other Russian czars.P8050022

We had guides for these places and it was worth it — good ones can really illuminate what you’re looking at. And Russian history is interesting, especially since a defining moment in its past happened just 15 or so years ago.

We also did a bus tour around the city. With 15 million people, it’s a big place, and the bus tour shows a variety of other nooks and crannies. But none stood out (from the bus, at least). The Red Square is really where it’s at in Moscow.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to go to the Moscow Circus as planned, but all the fine arts and theater in Moscow are supposed to be good.P8050017

The Moscow Metro (subway) is worth riding. The metro stations are actually quick tourist spots because they are so ornate. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, expansive stone benches abound. Oh – and the subway is on time, clean, and air conditioned. NYC subway it’s not!

I’m fascinated by what Russia / Moscow is like in the winter. I would expect the Red Square and the surroundings would feel entirely different when covered in white. We were lucky with the weather (sunny the whole time expect for one night which played host to our futile hunt for a Mexican restaurant). The sun in part reduced the stereotypical dour appearance of the Russian people.

All in all, a massive, urban city, which vibrates strongly at its heart (Kremlin). Expensive, for sure, but worth a visit for any international traveler to those parts of the world.

Airline Safety

The safety record of Russian and Ukrainian airlines is terrible.

The planes themselves are also terrible. Ex bombers, seats don’t work, light overhead looks 20+ years old.

You say your prayer on the way up and on the way down.