Believe it or not, city breaks can be adventurous too. Heading to Russia for a friend's wedding, Yekaterinburg, Moscow and Saint Petersburg (Russia's three largest cities) didn't disappoint. Adventure 176 breaks down what you need to know and why you NEED to visit.
1. An introduction to Russia's three largest cities
2. Suggestions on accommodation and activities in each
3. An appreciation for Russia beyond the news...
Adventure travel isn't something you would normally associate with cityscapes, but as an experienced traveler once said to me, 'it's what you make of it right'. Averaging some 15km's walking per day, our international group (with no less than six nationalities) had a ferocious appetite for learning and exploring. All the better for the trip as we planned to visit Russia's three largest cities.
Recently hosting the FIFA World Cup, all three hosted games at one point or another and our guides were quick to point out the legacy of the event. Owing to the success of the Russian team in particular, the tournament seems to have been very well received by ordinary Russians. Obviously this is a sensitive time for UK/Russia relations, but political debate to one side, you can't deny that Russia is a hugely interesting place to visit. I mean, to start with how on earth do you govern the world's biggest country by land mass?! How long does it take to travel the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing?! And what happens in the middle of the country where apparently only six people live?! I had a million questions...
I've always said that the best trips are the ones where you know someone local, someone that can take you off the beaten track. Visiting Russia to celebrate the wedding of good friends Igor and Sara, we were in safe hands and had routes, hotels, guides and selected activities planned well in advance. The goal of advanced planning when I'm normally against too much of that? To keep costs down and maximize our time, but also to give Igor a chance to present 'his' Russia. I say his because all Russians I've met have been extremely proud to be Russian and pay special attention to national / local traditions and especially family. We started the tour in his home town of Yekaterinburg, a quaint city about two hour's flight time East of Moscow.
Synonymous with the death of Nicholas II and his family (the Romanovs), the city was founded in 1723 and named after Peter the Great's wife, Yekaterina. Today it is an important Russian business hub famed for the precious stones and resources of the Ural Mountains and surrounding areas, as well as it's geological position as the tectonic boundary between Europe and Asia.
Beautiful churches I hear you say?? It's got plenty. As with most Russian cities, religious architecture plays a big role in Yekaterinburg, with many Orthodox cathedrals and churches influenced by Bizantine design. The Church of All Saints or 'Church on the Blood', commemorating the execution of the last Emperor of Russia and his family, is well worth a visit.
The ornate roof paintings inside All Saints Church
The river walks, particularly in the evening with colored fountains and musicians, are welcome relaxation to a day's sightseeing and there are a good selection of bars and restaurants to explore Russian cuisine. Food is of a acquired taste at times in Russia, but I really enjoyed the Shuba (pickled herring salad) and borscht (beetroot) soup dishes.
It was our Yekaterinburg country retreat that was the highlight for me however. Staying at the Greenwald Hotel on the banks of a beautiful lake, we swam, walked, cycled, played tennis, table tennis and even enjoyed a traditional Russian banya (or bath in English). Highly recommended for those looking to do something a little different.
The sensational sunset view at Greewald's lakeside pier
Yekaterinburg flight deals - available with Aeroflot via kayak.co.uk and others
Hotel 1 - Tsentralny (by USTA Hotels) 3 Star basic but comfortable hotel in downtown Yekaterinburg
Hotel 2 - Greenwald (also by USTA Hotels Group) 4 Star Resort, excellent country location and facilities
Number 1 on my list of Russian cities to visit due to a short previous trip and, well it's the capital isn't it! The sheer size and scale of this city never ceases to amaze me: 12 million people (bigger than London), THE travel hub between Europe and Asia, 6 million Metro passengers a day with just 1.5 minute intervals between trains at peak times, the largest medieval fortress in the world (the Kremlin), withstanding lows of -20 degrees in the Winter etc. etc... The list goes on.
Obviously there is too much to cover in one article so, briefly:
1. Be sure to do a general guided city tour.
Honestly the city is soooo big that the only efficient way to do it in a short space of time is with a guide. There is also a tour option for the Metro system - some of Moscow's Metro stations are incredibly ornate and well presented. The two together would give you the perfect grounding in Moscow history, current affairs and logistics.
Komsomolskaya Metro Station - one of Moscow's most ornate
2. Get to the Kremlin.
This tour really blew me away. I had no idea it was so large inside and, again, the history, scale and ambition of it was immensely impressive. Originally built to withstand Mongol invasions, the fortress has gone through numerous re-builds over it's 800 year history, including oak and limestone wall iterations before it's current design. Ivan III instigated it's16th century re-build, quickly becoming a symbol for the unification of competing interests and factions in Russia.
One of several cathedral's at the Kremlin - home to priceless medieval art and treasures
3. Don't forget Russia's war contributions.
Despite limited English translations, Victory Museum offers an epic lens with which to view Russia's involvement and tragic losses during the Second World War. There is of course a darker side to Russia's involvement in the 'Second Great Patriotic War' - most notably it's questionable war practices that are often not discussed as it fought the Germans back to Berlin - however the suffering of Russian military and civilian personnel far outstretched that of any other Allied nation. The walkway up to Victory Museum is beset with grand statues, monuments and fountains - well worth exploring before the museum.
Memorial depicting a frontline assault - you'll also find monuments of Saint George slaying the dragon, a common symbol of good versus evil in Russia
The vehicle and armaments collection outside the museum is hugely impressive also
Museums - Check out Victory Museum, Park Pobedy (blue line) Metro Station
Hotels - Azimut 4 Star Hotel located in Smolenskaya
Recommended evening entertainment - Kalina Bar, top of the Lotte Business Center
Flight deals - available with Aeroflot via kayak.co.uk and others
SP is a very different beast to Moscow. Historically the two have switched over several times as the capital of Russia and this is displayed right across central Saint Petersburg in the effort and attention that has gone into presenting the city. A hybrid of French and Italian design, SP resembles and, in the right weather, betters a Venetian ambiance with it's busy canals, museums, palaces and cafés. This is very deliberate of course, instigated by Peter the Great to modernize Russia and put it on the map for better trade and political relations.
With it's leading museums (the Hermitage Museum offers one of the best collections in the world) and celebrated classical entertainment venues, SP is regarded as the cultural capital of Russia. All the more interesting that its residents are generally more bohemian than their Moscavian counterparts. Furthermore, at 5 million people, the city is also much smaller so it's generally quicker to get from A to B. Just don't miss a bridge late at night - it's common for citizens to miss-time the bridge openings and take hours to get back home!
Again, too much to describe here so:
1. Get to the Fortress of Peter and Paul.
Completing our story of the Romanov family (their remains were eventually brought here) we explored the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul. As the burial place of Peter the Great himself, this building has huge significance for Russian's and, as with almost all places of worship in the country, no expense has been spared in it's decoration.
Tomb of Peter the Great in the center of the fortress
With more time, the fortress prison, state mint and Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology are also worth a visit. The latter is based at the fortress due to being the secure location of one of the Soviet Union's first rocket research laboratories.
2. Do another general city tour and take in those views, especially by the river.
As impressive as the general tours were in Moscow, SP is by far and away the prettier of the two cities. In the sunshine we were fortunate to have a blue sky backdrop to the incredible baroque city-scape architecture.
Smolny Cathedral, one of the prettiest in the city
Team photo alongside the Neva River
3. Relax at a public Russian Banya / Spa.
After some serious walking I wanted a serious massage. Researching options online can get you into trouble - many of the banyas are for, lets say private use - however there are a wide array of excellent public banyas that are reasonably priced and a fantastic experience. Located close to the hotel and extremely well recommended, I chose Degtyarnyye.
I jumped in at the deep end, opting for the traditional 7 minute birch massage and the longer 40 minute soap scrub massage. The former uses a banya venik or 'bath broom' to pat the skin and stimulate healthy blood flow. Practiced for over a 1,000 years, the birch massage is performed naked with a specialist - overall a slightly weird but very cool experience. The latter, also performed completely in the buff, was a revitalizing massage the alleviated tight muscles while invigorating the skin.
N.B. Take to that cold plunge pool to complete the experience!!
Relaxing after the massages and hitting the hammam
Total banya price including rental of locker, towel, slippers and hat - around 4,000r (£50)
Best view of the city - from the top of Saint Isaac's Cathedral
Sapsan high speed train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg - tickets available at russiatrains.com
Flight deals - available with Aeroflot via kayak.co.uk and others