Unexpectedly Spectacular Russia

My Travel Experience in Russia

Growing up in Asia in the ’80s, Soviet Russia is widely liked and has been a trusted friend to many Eurasian countries in difficult times. I grew up with friends and family who always loved to visit Russia.

However, as an adult, living in the United States for nearly two decades, the media reinforces a certain viewpoint, hence my expectations on Russia has been very low.

The rhetoric about Russia has been mostly negative about not having fair elections, security issues, oligarchy and lack of certain human rights.

Russia is known for its long and interesting history. The country has been through a lot of suffering starting with Mongol Invasion, Napoleon Invasion, Wars with Sweden, Prussia, Ottomans, Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, Japan, Serfdom, Tsarist rule, Two World Wars, Russian Revolution, Communism, and finally after 1989 a series of flawed reforms towards liberalization and Capitalism ending in Oligarchy and mass poverty.

In as recent as the 20th Century, 100 Million Russians lost their lives in various wars and I can see this impact today of the female population significantly outnumbering the male population.

According to pewresearch.org, the gender ratio in Russia is currently 86.8 men per 100 women, and the ratios in Latvia (84.8), Ukraine (86.3), Armenia (86.5), Belarus (86.8) and other former Soviet nations are similarly low.

Tourist Visa to Russia

The Russian Tourist visa can get a bit complicated if DIY but for us, it was a breeze as we worked with a travel agent. My husband and I received a 3-year multiple entry visa.

If you do want to apply for Tourist Visa yourself, I have a “How to get Russian Visa” video embedded below that has detailed steps on how to do it if you are a US citizen.

I can explain my entire Travel experience in just two words “Unexpectedly Spectacular. As you read through my following travel story, you will know the reason why I said so.

During this trip, we planned to visit two major cities in Russia – St. Petersburg and Moscow. Oh, and I have to tell you that this particular trip included a total of 6 countries and Russia was one of them and we spend more days in Russia obviously.

My Experience in St. Petersburg

We entered Russia through a land route (through the lush forests of Karelia) by crossing the border on our tour bus from Finland. The security at the port of entry was reasonable.

We then proceeded to St. Petersburg and I have to tell you that I found this city drop-dead gorgeous you guys and gals from the minute I entered the city limits.

St. Petersburg – “Venice of the North”

Peter the Great, a father of the nation kind of figure in Russian history, commissioned St. Petersburg to be built in 1703 after widely traveling through Europe. He was inspired by its beautiful architecture and decided that Russia also should have a world-class city like the rest of the European countries.

St. Petersburg at night

As soon as we entered the city, I saw several Canals running through the city center, alongside the Canals, I observed several buildings from the 18th century which are so well-preserved with eye-catching architecture, I couldn’t stop staring and taking pictures. No wonder people admire it as the “Venice of the North”, the former imperial capital of Russia.

The weather was in pleasant 60 degrees Fahrenheit (~16 degrees Celcius) by the evening and I decided to soak up all this beauty by taking a cruise on the Neva River. It was scenic and simply gorgeous.  

St. Petersburg – Cruise on Neva River

During the day, we have visited several attractions as follows:

  • Tsar’s Winter Palace,
  • Nevsky Prospekt,
  • St. Isaac’s Cathedral (4th largest cathedral in the world designed by French architect) interior is decorated by precious materials
  • the Statue of Peter the Great,
  • the Peter and Paul Fortress (18th century built to protect the city against invasion)
  • the Hermitage Museum (the world’s largest and most valuable art collections)
  • Baroque and Rococo walls display the work of da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Vermeer

If you are wondering who is the “Hermit” in the Hermitage museum, that would be “Catherine the Great” who was an excellent ruler but lived a life of a Hermit.

We continued to what’s called the “Imperial Summer Residences” – Pushkin and Petrodvorets where I was taken by a surprise again by Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof Gardens (modeled after the Palace of Versailles), a total masterpiece. The unique Amber room, gilded fountains, the endless trees, the garden filled with colorful flowers and the sculptures together will blow your mind.

St. Petersburg – Peterhof Gardens

If you get to visit this city, do not ever miss “The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood”, this is an iconic church with onion domes built to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. It has the most unique display of mosaic icons.

The church was under construction for the exterior so I had to pull the exterior of the church picture from Unsplash for you, 2nd pic of the interior below is taken by me.

Nevsky Prospekt is simply amazing and full of life with a lot of shopping centers (for locals only, Russia is NOT a shopping destination as the imported goods there are very expensive).

Overall, I found St. Petersburg to be very secure, very clean, very convenient to go around at day or night and jaw-droppingly beautiful. I find the city to be very affordable. I loved the Russian food I tried including their traditional soups, bread, and dumplings.

Finally, before leaving the gorgeous city, my husband and I planned to spend the evening at a Ballet performance. It was held at the historic Tsarist era theatre which is another architectural gem and I thoroughly enjoyed it. They were playing “Swan Lake” (extremely professional artists) and what a lovely way to end our stay in this city.

I left the city with unforgettable memories which totally blew me away with its never-ending beauty, rich history, cultural heritage, stunning architecture, warm people willing to help you if you are able to communicate with them and the delicious food.

I want to let you know a few things about the city:

  • The hotels will keep your passport at check-in and give it back during checkout and there isn’t much I can do about it.
  • The youth and kids speak enough English for us to get some help but do not count on the middle-aged and the seniors to communicate in English.
  • Russian people do not smile without a reason at strangers – similar to the culture of India, Finland, and a few other nations we visited. I found the people to be warm and helpful.
  • Russians are very well-dressed at all times and I must say being a girl that they all looked like models having a fashion show right on the public streets, no kidding.

My Experience in Moscow

We took a 4-hour high-speed train to Moscow from St. Petersburg to reach Moscow, the capital and most populous city of Russia, with ~15 million residents in the city.

We first visited one of the metro stations in Moscow and as a world traveler, I can tell you I have seen nothing like this anywhere else in a metro station, it is ineffable.

It was once described as a “Subterranean paradise of the people”, the most extraordinary and impressive running metro station in the World.

Moscow-Metro Station
The Moscow grandiose Metro station

During the crisis times, Stalin had the vision to create a Metro system that would resemble “People’s Palaces” and it was opened in 1935 and now is the most heavily used (organized collection of 180 metros) metro systems in the world.

I also learned from our professional local guide that some of these metro stations were used as a bomb shelter (Nazis bombing the city from above the metro) during war times, a hospital and even a supreme command headquarters.

Today, more than 9 million people per day travel through this metro (that is more than New York City subway) and certainly is the busiest public transportation in the city.

The Moscow grandiose Metro station is very richly decorated by mosaics, a stained colorful glass each telling a great story of its own surrounded by bronze statues.

At this point, I just wanted to take a pause because I continue to be taken by one surprise after the other so unexpectedly time and again.

In spite of having an extensive public transportation system, I did observe that the young people were into land rovers.

If one thinks of Moscow, the Red Square inevitably appears in front of our eyes, this was our next grand stop. The site is known for many grand celebrations and became a wonderful picture stop once during the day and once during the night with the lights.

Moscow – Red Square
Moscow – Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square Moscow

Russians have developed a taste for imported goods and although very expensive for travelers to shop, the GUM shopping center of Moscow is worth a visit. I felt like it is the cutest shopping mall you will ever see and I will never forget the taste of the most famous ice-cream I relished in GUM, truly rich in any flavor you choose.

We then made our way to the domes of St. Basils Cathedral and then to the red walls of the Kremlin, the seat of the Russian Power. We were allowed to see it from a fair distance to ensure security as expected.

Moscow – Kremlin

We were lucky to have some more time left to visit two important places to learn about Russia’s military and history:

  • Borodino Panorama (a large-scale multi-sensory diorama)
  • Victory Memorial Park (World War II monuments)

Borodino Panorama is a moving work of art that depicts the Battle of Borodino in 1812 between Russia and Napoleon’s Grand Army.

The spectacular Victory Park, it is a memorial place, very emotional for the Russian people who lost so many friends and relatives in wars as well as their pride – a heroic fight against fascism. This place has very impressive monuments and they even air a show for us on the ceiling of a huge room to show the history of World War II.

We now came to an end of our tour with a stroll through the well-known Arbat street full of cafes and restaurants and shops selling souvenirs.

With unlimited surprises, unforgettable memories in my heart, mingling with the local warm-hearted people, admiring the richness and the spirit of Russia clearly visible in both St. Petersburg and Moscow, I said to myself “until next time…” to Russia. 

So, what do you think? which place did you like? what would you like to know about Russia? Have you visited Russia or have plans to visit one day? comment below to let me know and share this post with your people if you can. Cheers…

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