I don’t get asked questions about traveling to Russia often. Today, Russia is still considered to be an exotic, somewhat mysterious and even slightly scary destination by many tourists. Surely, not everyone has the time and courage to board a Trans-Siberian train, but there are enough options even for more cautious travellers. Despite a nominal visa requirement, it might be closer than you think: there are plenty of low-cost flights from major European cities, which can take you across the Eastern border in less than 3 hours.
So, if somebody does ask me a question about travelling to Russia, most often it starts with this one: “Which city should I visit, Moscow or St. Petersburg?”
I need to confess: I’m a born and raised “moscovite”. It would be rather optimistic to expect an objective answer from me: while I would look at Saint Petersburg as a tourist, Moscow is my hometown, where the majority of my years, good and bad, were spent.
For me, this city does not just have a thousand years track record of Russian history. For me, it has a track record of more important history – my own. What would look like a boring monument with typical Soviet architecture to you, could look like an island of hope and romance to me, because it was where my first date in life started. On the contrary, I might not notice marvellous halls of Moscow metro which look like palace, because in our daily routines even beauty of a masterpiece fades. Meanwhile, the image of St. Petersburg will always be covered with a nostalgic veil of romanticism for me.
To be fair, these two cities should never be compared – they are two different planets with two different souls, and you should find a chance to visit both in your life time. In this post, I’ll just show you a bit of their faces and leave it for you to decide, which of them you’d like to start with. (All pictures are taken by @pickphocket)
Moscow – a city of 17 million people, with a hidden provincial charm
Moscow is huge. In fact, it belongs to the 15 biggest cities in the world and it keeps growing. Since centuries it’s been attracting people from all over the country (even when it was a different and even a bigger country) in search for a “lucky ticket” or simply for a better life. Some newcomers manage to make their dreams come true, many settle with what was meant to be for them.
In Moscow, you will feel the energy of a megapolis, with everything operating 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Crowds in busy streets, cars on roads with 5 lanes, people in wide metro halls – everyone and everything is moving with immense speed. Moscovites would sometimes complain, that they crash into people when they visit St. Petersburg – because they can’t catch up with a laid-back rhythm.
Yet the city has a lot of surprises – sometimes it is enough to turn around the corner to find yourself in a quite backyard, between two-storey historical buildings or next to a hidden monastery. These yards are a unique feature of the city.
St. Petersburg – little Europe locked inside Russia
St. Petersburg was set to become a symbol of perfection. To put it very simply – its founder, Peter the Great, wanted to build a European city, but better, more beautiful, more grand, as it meant to be a new capital of the Russian Empire.
Unlike chaotically grown Moscow, St. Petersburg was well planned, and in its architecture it is a living testament to the time of its foundation.
Time has passed, but till now its inhabitants are tagged as more “European” in their looks, etiquette and attitude. They are also considered to be more relaxed and friendly. Probably, geographical proximity to the border with Finland is another reason to blame.
Moscow – a city of (political) ambition and millions tales
Moscow has been enjoying a status of a centre for almost a 1000 (!) years. Many ambitions of the powerful got imprinted in the city’s landscape.
Each era left a symbol behind: classical buildings, Soviet monumental structures, and even medieval churches (which are VERY different from anything you’ve seen before) are scattered all around the city.
Each place is so rich with stories, some are fact-based and some are merely tales from its inhabitants, that you’ll never run short of places to explore in Moscow, even if you stay there for years.
In certain parts of the city, every stone seems to have witnessed an event or two, often from its modern history, because Moscow is the city where history is made.
As Moscow grew through the years and swallowed former villages and forests around it – so did it swallow their heritage, with numerous royal palaces and residencies now located within the city.
St. Petersburg – a city of water and bridges
St. Petersburg lies on the banks of the Neva river, which was meant to be “the main street” of the city – till date, it has a busy marine traffic which connects different parts of the city and brings travellers to the Gulf of Finland.
In winter, however, the river is covered with ice and it possesses rather sad and dangerously lethargic looks. Perhaps for that reason Neva also became infamous in Russian classical literature for promoting suicidal thoughts. All of them were attempted in the cold time of the year though, when a cold wind from the Baltic sea chases visitors in numerous cosy cafes of the city.
In summer, however, the city can easily claim a status of Russian Venice. But it is not just the picturesque canals that make the city so unique and romantic.
In summer the day in St. Petersburg never ends, and the sky remains covered with pink and blue shades of dawn through the entire night. The phenomena called “white nights”, which is in its peak in the end of June, is typical for the cities in the Northern hemisphere, but in this city it is celebrated to its fullest.
Moscow – a city of living history.
If you ever start coming back to Moscow, you’ll notice that the city is in constant, on-going change. A title song from the only Soviet Oscar-winning movie “Moscow doesn’t believe in tears” says “Moscow wasn’t built in a day” and concludes saying that there will be a place for everyone in this city.
That movie was set in the 80’s, but it feels that nothing has changed since (except for the crowds and cars), yet EVERYTHING has changed.
Moscow has a unique character of continuous movement and it is constantly changing. On the darker side it is cursed with never-ending construction work, but on a brighter side it is constantly moving towards whatever is considered to be better for the city at that particular time.
Something is always happening in the city, and it ties you might feel that you are in the middle of turmoil – only to realize that it’s been another ordinary day.
St. Petersburg – a city of classical arts
St. Petersburg holds a title of a “cultural capital” of Russia and not without a reason. Home of the Russians best artists and performers throughout history, it hasn’t lost its status to date.
If architectural jewels and visual arts do not seem convincing enough for you, pay a visit to Mariinsky Theatre, which is unanimously considered to be the cradle of Russian Ballet in its classical tradition.
One of the grandest structure, which was built with a “mission” to create an even more spectacular palace ensemble than Versailles, is Petergof.
The place is especially famous because of its fountains, which are turned into a main attraction for kids in summer:
A collection of gardens and palaces is set on the shore of the Gulf of Finland and it is so big that even despite the tourists crowd you might get lost among its rose bushes.
If you set your eyes on Russia as your next travel destination – keep in mind that Moscow and St. Petersburg are just for beginners. The further East (North/South) you move, the more wilderness, hospitality and cultural diversity will come your way.