Elusive yet enticingly beautiful, Russia tops the bucket list of most travel freaks across the world. Its dark imperialist past, scenic Siberian trains, travelling circuses, beautiful ballerinas and the new-age oligarchs make it an irresistibly romantic and mysterious destination.
It is a country of contradictions. Hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution ousted the czars and ushered in the Communist era, the natives find themselves at these intriguing cultural crossroads, always at odds with one another. While the older generation still holds on to its turbulent past and takes pride in the historical institutions, the millennials are doing everything to fit into the new world order. The younger generation has no recollection of the Soviet Union and what it brought to the 20th century, but the remnants of the red empire stand tall and brooding. Moscow is changing at a breakneck speed with its jazzy nightclubs, vibrant restaurants and fashion-obsessed millionaires. However, you can never miss the storied past still alive in some way —the ornate metro stations, Stalin’s Seven Skyscrapers, Lenin’s mausoleum,the imposing walls of Kremlin and the All Russian Exhibition Centre.
One of the most striking examples of these contrasts is the GUM—Russia’s poshest shopping mall that sells everything from bicycles to boots and also a heavy dose of nostalgia. If you are a sucker for authentic destination cuisine, head to Stolovaya No. 57, a Soviet-style restaurant offering local dishes and a laid-back vibe on the third floor of the GUM. If you are looking for an immersive experience of Russia’s imperialist past, head to the gorgeous city of St. Petersburg. Named after Saint Peter, the mythological guardian of the keys to the gates of heaven, the city is dotted with splendid cathedrals, palaces and museums overlooking the Neva River. It is believed during the revolution in 1917 when the rich and famous fled the country, they hid their valuables worth millions behind the old walls, only to be discovered by strangers restoring these buildings years after the uprising.
So if you want to dig deeper into the tumultuous Soviet era and discover some fascinating contrasts, head to Russia this summer. Here is what you should be looking forward to.
If you want to capture the most stunning sight of St. Basil cathedral, right in the heart of the city, head to the O2 lounge on the rooftop of the Ritz Carlton hotel. Beautifully lit-up against the night sky, the Eastern Orthodox styled cathedral with its candy-coloured domes transforms into a picture-perfect castle from a fairytale post twilight.
While you soak in these sights, don’t forget to order a round of caviar and blinis at this spiffy lounge. The Moscow Mule paired with some Peruvian delicacies here is also a must-have. And just in case it gets a bit chilly, you can grab one of those fluffy throws stacked at the bar, snuggle back into the couch and watch the world pass by the imposing walls of the Kremlin.
If you just have one day to spend in Moscow, hit the Red Square and you can claim to have seen the most in the city. Start your tour within the crimson walls of the Kremlin, admiring the Armoury Museum. Right from the coronation dresses to the royal carriages from the 16th century, you will see a vast collection of valuables from the Russian empire. The most fascinating piece of history here is the Diamond Vault, which can be accessed only by appointment.
There is no dearth of cathedrals in Moscow. Apart from the famed St. Basil Cathedral, you might enjoy a stroll to the white-walled Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Destroyed in 1931 by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the cathedral was rebuilt post the communist reign in the 1990s. It is said to be the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world.
When in Moscow, you can’t miss taking a ride on the metro. A cultural heritage site of sorts, the metro here was brought in 1933 by the Soviets, representing the architectural prowess of the times. With its palatial stations adorned with sculptures and mosaics, the metro in Moscow takes you back into time—a subterranean world reminiscent of the socialist regime. Want to delve deeper into the history of the Cold War? Head to the Bunker 42 Museum located 18 floors below the Taganskaya metro. Created as a strategic centre, this station once served as an anti-nuclear shelter and is a major crowd puller these days.
Moscow is a great place to try food from the other Soviet states. One of my favourite street food discoveries in the city was the khachapuri, Georgian stuffed-cheese bread. Warm, fluffy and absolutely filling, these naan-sort of puffed delights are offered at small food trucks in and around the Red Square over weekends. If you want to experience a truly Russian eatery, head to the kitschy Café Pushkin. With its antique interiors and an extensive library, which is open 24-hours, this romantic restaurant on the Tverskoy Boulevard is the perfect place to unwind in after a long day. You would want to try the Russian pancakes or the blinchiki paired with black caviar and vodka. The famous Sturgeon, steamed rabbit with potato salad, and quail stuffed with duck and meat and borscht and pelmeni(dumplings) top the list of must-haves here.
Another fabulous dining place here is the White Rabbit. The 12-course famed meal prepared by celebrity chef Vladimir Mukhin is listed as one of the most exquisite dining experiences in the world. So if you are willing to shell out Rs 30,000 or more for a meal, do book a table here.
If you want to party till dawn and shake a leg with young Muscovites, check out the old Chocolate Factory. The Krasny Oktyabr and its red brick facade first showed up on the banks of the Moscow River in the early 19th century. The official chocolate maker for the royal household, the Chocolate Factory survived the two World Wars, only to be shut down in 2007. Today the premises have turned into a mini art district of sorts and also a hip party place peppered with funky bars and loud nightclubs.
Strelka Bar on a weekend gives you another authentic taste of Moscow. The riverside restaurant offers a sweeping view of the Christ the Savior Cathedral along with heady cocktails and scrumptious finger food.
If you have a weakness for souvenirs, head to Izmailovsky Park, Moscow’s most charming flea market. From colourful matryoshka dolls to vintage posters to fur hats, it offers great gifts at reasonable prices.
Last but not the least, you must experience the magic of the Bolshoi theatre. You may have to book a show much in advance during summer, but do take a guided tour of the place, marvel at its neoclassical interiors before you sit down to enjoy a stellar performance by some of the world’s best ballet dancers.
A boat ride on the River Neva during the White Nights is the most idyllic way of soaking in the spirit of this beautiful city. Often compared to Venice, St. Petersburg’s lofty European architecture and elegant canals make it one of the most romantic getaways in Russia. Ubiquitous cafes in the historic city centre, baroque mansions and criss-crossing waterways with honeymooners walking over tiny wooden bridges add to the irresistible charm of this historic city.
Just like Moscow, the main town is dotted with cathedrals and museums, the most popular one being the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church is adorned with one of the largest mosaic collections in Europe. It took 24 years to build the majestic interiors in 1907 and more than 27 years to restore the same after it was vandalised during the Soviet years. It was reopened in 1997 after an exhaustive restoration of 7,000 sq metres of magnificent mosaic work inspired by the paintings of artists like Vasnetsov, Nesterov, and Vrube.
If you are a museophile, you can spend months in the city, walking the hallowed hallways of the Hermitage. It is said that in the mid-18th century, Catherine the Great bought 225 paintings by Western European masters and put them up in her private museum at the Winter Palace.
This was just the beginning of an obsession that would lead her to amass more than 2,500 paintings over the next five years. Today, the mint green and white mansion of the world’s wealthiest royal family is packed with three million art pieces. The Hermitage or ‘Place of Solitude’ displays only one fifth of its collection to visitors at a time. From ancient artefacts and clocks to rooms dedicated to Monet and Van Gogh, this place is an art connoisseur's paradise.
Another fascinating place here is the Peterhof estate. If you are in St. Petersburg between May and October, don’t miss the splendour of the 18th century fountains at the Grand Palace. The sprawling gardens, waterbodies and museums here make for an experience extraordinaire.
When you are done exploring the history around the town, follow the crowd to the Nevsky Prospect, the city’s downtown area buzzing with live music, hip eateries and fancy stores. You must splurge on vodka and caviar at the Grand Hotel’s caviar bar and then head to Teremok for creamy mushroom blinis. Offering a stunning view of the Kazan cathedral, Terrassa is another restaurant that’s high on the traveller’s list. If you want to catch the locals indulging in ice-skating or performing arts, go to the island of New Holland or head to Vasilievsky Island just before the bridges open under a starry sky.