Lose your heart in Russia

After a lifetime dreaming of visiting Russia, Marion Kate reveals that her budget trip to the icy capital of communism was everything she expected… and much, much more.

Why do we have bucket lists? Is it to keep our dreams alive, to help us reach our goals… or to feel satisfied and content when we do? Whatever it is, Russia has been a bucket list destination for me ever since I started travelling after I finished school. December 2017 finally saw me tick the Soviet state off the list and, since returning home, many people have asked me if it worth waiting for all these years.

The answer is simple: “It was everything and more!” is my instant response.

The depressing grey skies did not dampen our spirits as we set out to see Moscow and St Petersburg over a period of 10 days and on a tight budget. I read afterwards that there had been only 6 minutes of sunshine in Moscow during the entire December and – not unsurprisingly – this lead to an increase in psychiatric treatment. I can categorically state that we did not see a single ray of sunshine for 10 days and it was exceptionally cold… but then when visiting Mother Russia one doesn’t expect to find hot sand dunes and warm beaches to laze about on.

I took a flight with Turkish Airlines from Johannesburg to Istanbul. The stopover in Istanbul is a great offer for anyone wanting to get a taste of the cosmopolitan city. Economy class passengers get to stay for one night in a 4-star hotel, while business class passengers enjoyed two nights at a 5-star hotel in Sultanahmet and Taksim. Passengers can also make use of the Touristanbul if they have a layover; however, they cannot make use of the hotel stay and tour Istanbul on the same journey. From Istanbul to Moscow, Turkish Airlines had me there in just under three hours. I managed to squeeze in one good movie and eat a delicious lunch before landing, and the entire process was quick and easy.

Must-do in Moscow

  • Stay in a capsule hotel such as the Molotoff: these Japanese-inspired capsules are great fun, clean and affordable and are located less than 700 metres from Red Square.
  • Take the red City Sight Seeing bus to get a feel for the city.
  • Go inside St Basils Cathedral: legend has it that Ivan the Terrible ordered the building of this masterpiece of Russian architecture in honour of the Kazan Siege… and then ordered that the architect be blinded so that he could never again build something so beautiful.
  • Bunker 42, located 65 metres underground, this anti-nuclear bunker is the only declassified military object in Russia. After the tour visitors can enjoy a meal at the restaurant.
  • Eat one of the ice-creams at GUM mall. This glitzy, 19th-century mall is filled with name-branded stores and even a caviar restaurant.
  • Watch a ballet at the Bolshoi: home to one of the oldest ballet companies in the world – and Europe’s second largest Opera house – the grandeur of the theatre is astounding.
  • Go to the roof of the Central children’s mall to get a view of the city from one of the highest points (it’s free!): opened in 1957, it became the largest in the country and combined an amusement park, a museum and a club of interests. The top floor houses the museum of toys.
  • Toss a coin at Kilometre Zone: the brass plaque in the ground marks the point at which all distances from Moscow are measured. Tourists stand on the spot and toss a coin over their shoulder for good luck.
  • Take in the splendour of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts: world-famous works by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso are on permanent display, and the first floor is used for temporary exhibitions.
  • Travel the historic metro route with its 12 stations: these palatial stations are artistic monuments, and each offers a different depiction of the Soviet ideal. Some have mosaics, others are stained-glass panels, while others are filled with statues. One ticket at the metro will allow you to hop on and off at each station… so long as you don’t actually exit any of the stations.
  • Walk down Ulitsa Varvarka, one of Moscow’s oldest streets, that is filled with churches. The street and churches are almost all that remains of historic Zaryadye, what was a bustling quarter of artisans and traders.
  • Radisson Hotel, one of Stalin’s 7 sisters: formerly the Ukraine Hotel, the Radisson has 34 floors and 1600 rooms. It is also Europe’s tallest hotel. Visitors can go to the top floor to get an awesome view of the city.
  • Eat at No1 Restaurant: good, local food makes it worth the time you will have to stand in the queue. The vibe inside is cosy and the staff are friendly. The menu has a large selection of traditional food including Borscht, a staple Russian/Ukrainian dish.
  • Drink a Moscow Mule: a cocktail drink made from vodka, spicy ginger beer and lime juice, garnished with a wedge of lime. It is traditionally served in a copper mug.
  • Walk all around the Red Square region, as there is so much to see. Red Square has been the heart of Moscow for more than 500 turbulent years, and its magnificent buildings recall the city’s eventful history.
  • Catch the Sapson train to St Petersburg – this high-speed train travels at 240km per hour and offers ticket options ranging from economy class right up to business class. I recommend the business class, even for those on a budget, as the price isn’t much and the food and comfort is worth the price. Oh, and there’s also unlimited wifi in business class, so… why not.

Must-do in St Petersburg

  • Watch an Opera at the world-renowned Mariinsky theatre: this lavish theatre is home to both ballets and operas.
  • Take a walk to the striking blue-and-white St Nicholas Cathedral: completed in 1762, it was originally intended for sailors and employees of the nearby Admiralty and for years, was known by residents as the “Sailors Church”.
  • Enjoy a drink at the cozy Shamrock pub, which is where the ballerinas go after their performances.
  • The city of rivers and canals, there are many famous bridges, one of them being the Lions Bridge. Two pairs of lions date back to 1825 sit proudly on one of the city’s earliest pedestrian bridges, which is now a popular romantic spot, with a number of “love locks” found along the railings.
  • The Vodka Museum: located next to a restaurant, it tells you about the origins and history of the drink. Included with the ticket are three shots of different types of Vodka.
  • Faberge Museum: the largest collection of works by Carl Faberge, including nine of the famous Imperial Easter Eggs. Best to arrive early in the morning.
  • Red City Bus: hop on hop off is the perfect way on a freezing day to get a feel of the city’s sightseeing spots.
  • Church of Spilled Blood: a cacophony of colour stands out with its twisted domes. Built as a memorial to Alexander II in 1881 on the site of his assassination. It only opened to the public in 1997.
  • Hermitage Museum: after six hours of walking, we had still not seen everything… however, we did have great fun with the museum map and played our own “Amazing Race”, dashing around the museum and ticking off all the images on the map that we presumed were very important. There are over three million items in the museum.
  • Fine dining at Sadko restaurant: serving up fresh, delicious Russian food while enjoying live music, the interior done by famous architect A. Kurochkin combines Russian traditions and modern European style. The bright Zhostovo painting on the dark arched ceiling accentuates the shining of the magnificent lamps of the scarlet Murano glass.
  • Buy a set of Matryoshka dolls: consisting of a series of carved dolls, each smaller than the next, this is one souvenir that every tourist has to go home with.

Many people presume that going to Russia is expensive but, in actual fact, it really is not… as long as you do it smartly.

Metro is the cheapest way to get around and we found Uber very cheap. Fortunately, in both major cities many tourist attractions are within walking distance, so all you need is a good pair of walking shoes. Most churches are free, except for the famous ones. Food is reasonably priced and, once you have figured out how the local supermarkets work, you won’t need to eat at restaurants all the time.

South Africans currently no longer need to apply for a visa to visit Russia: we receive a stamp in our passport on arrival. My advice, though, is that if you are planning your next New Year’s celebration, make it in Red Square, like we did. Fly with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul and get a taste of that city on your way. Who knows… you might be booking your next holiday in Turkey.


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