I’m a frequent traveler, so my friends and family have grown used to my gallivanting to faraway lands, with some locations more questionable than others. But if I had a dime for every strange look or “but why?” response I receive when I told someone that I was adventuring to Russia not once but TWICE in 2019, I would be rich. (Or maybe just $10 richer.) And to be completely honest, just a few years ago, I probably would have responded similarly.
With all the political hype and rhetoric, along with the history that has fogged the West’s view of Eastern Europe and specifically Russia, I had no idea what to expect and, quite frankly, wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. I expected a monochromatic everything, a solemn and serious people, and an overall hardness of heart and culture. And on Day 2, all of those presuppositions were proven incorrect.
I witnessed the stunning gardens within the Kremlin wall. I met Vladimir and his family, and visited their home in the countryside of Moscow, where they treated us to homemade moonshine, rye bread and sweet cake. I wandered around the city center and felt as safe and secure as I do here stateside.
And that’s the thing about perceptions — they’re funny. We all have them, and they’re neither good nor bad. But sometimes perceptions can be proven wrong. And I’ve come to find that my previous perception of Russia and the Russian people to be completely blown out of the water. This is one of the many reasons why I love to travel, the mind-blowing, mind-bending perspective/perception shifting that I notice in myself toward cultures different than mine. Traveling stretches us to our limits and expectations.
My mom and I vacationed in Russia on a Viking River Cruise, starting in Moscow and sailing north toward the Gulf of Finland and St. Petersburg. We traveled in the latter part of August through the beginning of September. I traveled east again in November as a fellow with the California Ag Leadership Program and also visited the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Two very different trips two short months apart.
While there’s much more of the country to explore, I’ve put together a few high-lights and must-see sights as a guide for your next adventure in Eastern Europe.
Moscow — don’t miss:
- For the foodie, White Rabbit, an Alice in Wonderland-themed decor and a creative menu with a Russian flare. Menu changes seasonally and the chef is focused on traditional Russian food with a twist. Majority of the waitstaff speak some English and are helpful in describing various dishes that are offered. Be sure to make reservations ahead! You won’t be disappointed by the outside, rooftop dining experience OR the uniquely decorated indoor experience. Either option is a good one. If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, White Rabbit was featured on the hit Netflix show “Chef’s Table.” Highlightsof our meal: Salted-carmel moose milk ice cream bar (cue mouth watering).
- For the history buff, the Kremlin. Most folks are surprised to hear that the Kremlin isn’t a red brick castle in Russia. In fact, a lot of cities in Russia have a kremlin, which basically means “city center.” The Kremlin in Moscow is filled with gardens, government buildings, churches, museums and more. For those who want even more history, the Armoury Chamber has more than 4,000 artifacts from the 4th century to the 20th. While you’re in the area, don’t miss Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral right around the corner. The GUM, or national department store, makes up one of the four sides of Red Square.
St. Petersburg — Don’t miss:
- For the art lover, the Hermitage. It’s considered the Russian Louvre and is the second-largest art museum in the world. The art lover will be in paradise with these historic art collections founded by Catherine the Great in the 1760s. You won’t want to miss the 200-plus-year-old, ornate golden Peacock Clock or Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” and so much more.
- For the oogly-eyed designer, Peterhof and Catherine Palace. You can spend weeks at both of these stunning sites just outside St. Petersburg.
Peterhof is a palace originally commissioned by Peter the Great as a direct response to the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. And with one look, you can tell why. It’s located right on the Gulf of Finland, and the views can’t be beat. The ornate decor and pristine condition of the different gold-plated rooms (yep, you read that right) just need to be stared at for a moment or five. The bonus is the cool little booties that are required to cover your outdoor shoes while in the palace. The show stopper is truly the grounds and the stunning fountains. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring fact of Peterhof is that all the 60-plus fountains operate without the use of pumps and instead rely on reservoirs on higher ground and gravity. Make it by 11 a.m. and witness the fountains turn on, and marvel at the technological achieve-ments that Peter the Great brought to this place years ago.
Catherine Palace was the summer palace of the Russian tsars. And still today, you can easily see why. The Central Park-like feeling of the grounds makes you want to stay all summer, meandering around with the cool breeze and impressive views of the palace. Indoors, there are similar looking rooms to what you’ll see at Peterhof with detail decor and gold-plated everything.
Don’t miss this food: Black caviar, vodka (chased with rye bread and pickles), borscht (beet soup is good for the soul), pelmeni (the Russian dumpling; don’t forget to top it with sour cream), pickled anything.
The Metro: Both St. Petersburg and Moscow are known for their metro systems, the cleanest and most beautiful underground metros, not to mention ahead of their time. They are easy to use despite the enormous language/alphabet difference and are probably the most timely and efficient metros I’ve ever been on. If you do plan to utilize this public transportation method, be sure to download the Yandex Metro app — very user-friendly and easy to understand.
The Ballet: A visit to Russia is not complete without a trip to the ballet. I saw three different ballets while in Eastern Europe. Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake topped the list for me. There are many theaters and opportunities to see various ballets and shouldn’t be missed.
Get off the beaten path: The big cities in Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg) are exactly that — big cities. Think: New York City, except cleaner! Plan to dive into the true Russian culture outside of the cities. The rural areas of the country are where the true heart of the Russian people dwell. An even balance of city and rural life is the key to truly experiencing a country.
Time of year: Unless you’re planning to train for the Iditarod, I recommend visiting from May-October. My trip in November consisted of overcast skies, rain and winterized gardenscape. I suppose that there’s a winter culture of Russia that could be discovered.
If you decide to travel then, let me know how that goes and don’t forget your parka.
Do your homework and know the history: There’s more to the world that just what’s in our history books. BUT do some research. Learn about the history, what got them to where they are today. There isn’t a lack of history in Eastern Europe, so doing advanced research on this area really helped me gain insight and understanding for Russia and her people. Use the knowledge as a lens through which to experience this new world/country.
And finally, don’t believe everything you think. Go in with zero expectations. Let the people and the culture teach you. Embrace the unknown and the mystery of it all and learn from it. Choose to think the best and give the benefit of the doubt.
So, in case it wasn’t clear .… Spoiler alert, Russia is in fact bright and colorful, the people are kind and welcoming, and the culture is deep and inspiring.
So, get out. Go explore the far corners of the world. Learn from those you encounter and let them teach you. But be warned, you won’t come back the same.
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain