St Petersburg majors in imperial opulence, Moscow in soaring structures of Soviet might. For maximum impact, you must do the two on one trip, says Melissa Twigg
Snowflakes danced around the whipped-cream Winter Palace; ice fronds fringed the moody Neva River. In the wan northern light, I watched soldiers in thick fur hats crunch across the powdery Palace Square, tailed by children throwing snowballs. A Russian friend once described the first flurries of the season as the most beautiful moment of the year — and on this late November visit, I’d arrived only hours after it. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The guidebooks insist you should visit Russia during the ‘white nights’ of June, when locals drink at blue-sky midnight and warm bodies fill parks under the midday sun. But I’ve always preferred it in winter. That’s when the thrill of the crackling air and the sight of vast palaces rising out of the snow create a uniquely Russian cocktail of harshness and beauty. Steaming Russian banyas (old-fashioned bath halls) warm up chill bones, while cosy restaurants and long lunches rebuff the Baltic wind.
It scarcely costs more to fly into St Petersburg and out of Moscow, meaning you can get a taste of both cities in a week. I suggest you do: not only does the visa faff mean you’ll want to see as much as possible on one trip, but to understand Russia you need to experience both the stately imperial city and the post-Soviet glamour of the capital.
I started with the former, getting my bearings on day one by climbing the 250 steps to the colonnade of St Isaac’s Cathedral. Wrapped up like the Michelin Man, I stood at the buttress and saw Peter the Great’s vision unfold below me, a neat ramble of pastel palaces and gaudy churches. Flocks of Siberian gulls swirled around gilded spires and, far below, a woman wrapped in fox fur dragged a chair onto her balcony, then turned her sun-starved face to the sky.
The cathedral — Russia’s richest and most famous — is peak St Petersburg. It is ostentatious, with a dome plated in pure gold, columns covered in lapis lazuli and a soaring ceiling painted with cherubs. Come at 5pm — an hour before closing — and you’ll find it lit only by candles and chandeliers.
More elaborate must-sees: the Catherine Palace, with its turquoise and ice-white exterior; the ornate Mariinsky Theatre, with its worn velvet seats and gilt interior; and, of course, the Winter Palace — part of the famed Hermitage Museum complex. Even today’s tech billionaires might feel humbled by the interior of this art-filled fever dream. The staterooms are encrusted with gold and diamonds, hallways are lined with portraits of unsmiling tsars and tsarinas, and in Catherine the Great’s quarters, you’ll find a lifesize mechanical peacock gilded with gold. Book a two-day ticket online to skip the queue.
Behind Palace Square, I love to wander next to the snow-dusted frozen canals and bounce from one Tolstoyesque story to the next. This visit, I popped into the buttermilk-hued Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin devoured cakes drizzled with cyanide; then the bulbous-domed Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built where Alexander II was fatally wounded by assassins. Close by, I checked in at the Alexander House hotel, with its flickering fires, a library, and 20 lovely bedrooms, remarkably inexpensive given its central location.
There are few St Petersburg pleasures like stepping from a murderously cold wind into the warmth of a packed restaurant. The next day, I spent the afternoon at Erivan, a gilt-edged dining hall of stained-glass windows near the Fontanka River, where I ate spicy lamb, a dish that was loved by locals in flavourless Soviet times. Later, I dined at the nearby Literary Cafe, where Pushkin ate his last meal before his fatal duel. Maybe he, like I, had the borscht, spooned from heavy bread bowls, or the creamy herring toast, served with a shot.
You’ll soon learn that spirits in Russia taste nothing like the rocket fuel served elsewhere in the world. It has a rich, rather than harsh, flavour that hits the back of the throat. One evening, I drank in the glittering Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace, then I walked along the river, snow settling on my eyelashes, to Hat Bar, a jazz club where I danced and danced. Hard-partying lives on in Russia: bars rarely close before dawn.
In the morning your need is for pyshki: doughnuts glazed in sugar. I got mine at Pyshechnaya, a starkly Soviet cafe where babushkas queue with their hungry grandchildren. The steaming buns were so delicious I ate mine before they cooled, scalding my mouth on the hot sugar.
From St Petersburg to Moscow it’s a three-hour journey by bullet train — it’s a cheaper, easier and much more absorbing experience than flying (reserve a seat and bring food, because there aren’t many snacks unless you go First Class). You can take the Red Arrow sleeper train, enjoying dinner and a private cabin, though keen to watch the white desolation of the Russian countryside rush past, I went by day and pressed my nose against the window.
Moscow is more than twice the size of its museum-filled sibling to the north, and three times as debauched. It pulsates with energy and power, packed with markers of both its Soviet past and glitzy present. St Petersburg’s endlessly ornate palaces may be lovely, but Moscow’s sumptuous department stores, vast Stalinist apartment blocks and intimidating architecture (the Kremlin’s in particular) are exhilarating to behold.
Keep your focus within the Garden Ring — a road that circles inner Moscow — where a contemporary, often nouveau-riche atmosphere prevails, with oligarchs’ wives dripping in Louis Vuitton and burly bodyguards lurking on street corners. Stay as central as you can — for instance at Baltschug Kempinski — and instead of burning your credit cards in the neighbouring shops, stand very still in the awe-inspiringly vast Red Square, steeping yourself in the atmosphere.
I stood there, with my back to the churning, freezing Moskva River, and stared up at St Basil’s Cathedral. With its giant balloon domes swirled with emerald and sky-blue stripes, it looks like a church wearing fancy dress. Opposite, within the walls of the mighty Kremlin, are entire squares, museums, cathedrals and a vast collection of diamonds. I skipped Lenin’s eerie mausoleum next door, having seen it before — although fascinating, the sight of his embalmed corpse is something you only need to see once. (It’s free, but if you don’t want to queue, most hotels can sort private tours for about $75pp for two hours — a move of which the man himself would surely not have approved.) Despite Moscow’s sprawling dimensions, most of its must-sees are concentrated within a few dazzling square miles.
A 10-minute walk from Red Square lies the dripping-in-gold Bolshoi Theatre, where Russians still dress up for the ballet like Anna Karenina — in floor-length gowns and dagger-sharp stilettos. A show here is like none other, and it’s best to book tickets two months ahead.
Pricey restaurants peddling high-end French food dot inner Moscow, but I prefer spots such as Sahli, an old-world Georgian restaurant where a raucous band plays music as you grapple with khinkali, meat-filled dumplings you eat with your hands. Top tip: if you want to hear a word your partner is saying, sit as far from the stage as possible.
For drinks, head to Voda, an underground bar with no street signage and what looks like a Stalinist thug at the door. It only has 20 tables, and there’s no menu — you tell the bartender what you like and he invents something on the spot. That comes as a relief in a city where everything is in excess — although the same can’t be said for the head-turning clientele, who look as if they’ve flown in from Paris Fashion Week. My advice? Put on every last piece of jewellery you own — and even then be prepared to fade into the background. Even the bathhouses are extravagant. One afternoon I visited Sanduny, the most luxurious banya in the city, resplendent with marble floors and arched ceilings shiny like gold. The super-rich were congregating — they book private pools and saunas regularly — but for the public areas are gorgeous enough. Even the elite wouldn’t have been safe from the ‘massage’ treatment I had: a branch-thwacking by a burly attendant that was, to put it mildly, terrifying.
Wallets, too, will take more of a beating in Moscow than St Petersburg. For all the Cold War architecture on offer, Moscow’s department stores feel like New York on overdrive — Tsum is packed with edgy Russian fashion brands, part brocade and fur, part grungy, urban design. I couldn’t afford any of it, but I still wanted to take a small piece of Russia home with me.
If a particular spirit is one cliché here, caviar is the other. For one final time I descended into the chandelier-festooned, stuccoed metro stations — a far more beautiful experience than taking a taxi — and emerged at Eliseevskiy, a gilded food hall where Muscovites with discernment have been calling in to buy caviar by the kilo since Lenin was a student. I lingered next to the white-gloved attendants — it turns out that, if you ask nicely and look as if you’re ready to whip out your credit card, they’ll produce a small silver spoon covered in half a dozen eggs. My favourite was the absurdly delicious Kaluga. I bought a black caviar, and a few days later I ate it straight out of the jar with a spoon, popping the salty eggs on the roof of my mouth. It was the perfect taste of Russia.