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Best to take train or cruise ?

We plan to be in Russia sometime in June and are looking at just visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow starting in either one, we are undecided how best to do it. We have looked at tours which go by train with some stops to visit towns and sites in between, or travel on a cruise which can vary between 7 and 11 nights and also visit some towns and sites. In the 2 cities we will probably find our own way around as that is what we usually do, but also undecided about that because of the Cyrillic alphabet and no English signage, but I will try to learn some. May'be a tour in Moscow would be better because of its size ?
Some help or ideas would be appreciated.

Posted by
7676 posts

We spent 2 days with a guide and a private driver in St. Petersburg a year ago--coming off a Baltic cruise.
St. Petersburg is simply an incredible city in every way. Although we're established travelers, not having English signage might present a problem.
Our guide was like listening to a college professor specializing in Russian history.
You might do best to be on a guided tour to these two cities as you'll see so much more and understand what you're seeing.

Posted by
333 posts

My daughter and I took a Russian River Cruise in 2012. We started in Moscow and took two weeks on the river to St Petes. It was amazing! We spent a couple extra days in Moscow, but without a knowledge of the city or the language, it can be difficult to get around. Moscow is NOT a pretty city, though it has it's places of beauty. It can be intimidating. The Russian people can seem very cold and angry (they're not, but it can seem that way) until they get to know you. As bleak as Moscow can appear, St Pete's is just the opposite- so lovely! The little towns along the river show you more relaxed people and a lot of character and personality. (And a lot of people VERY protective of their town's Lenin statues!) I highly recommend seeing Russia by river with a knowledgable guide to show you around. With the cruise, you get more of a feel for the Russian people. I would say take Moscow to St Petes and not the other way around. Moscow might seem worse if you've visited the other places first. I really liked Moscow, by the way. It's just a city where you have to be able to remove a few "layers" to get to the heart of it.

Posted by
7373 posts

It isn't a river between Moscow and Petersburg, but a canal and lake system and remarkably unpicturesque. I would spend several days in Moscow -- it is really a fascinating place. You might book a private guide for a couple of days to get started although it is fairly easy to get around on the metro once you get the hang of it. I would consider visiting some smaller towns in the region. And then take the train to Petersburg. The stops on the cruise are very tourist trappy. One of them was literally a village created about 10 years ago with craft shops specifically as a cruise stop. St. Petersburg is endlessly fascinating. We spent 9 nights there last year and 5 this year and enjoyed every minute. The cruise can be pleasant if you like cruising but for the time you have, spending more time at either end and a few smaller towns would be my choice. If you won't have all the time in the world, the cruise is not a good use of it IMHO>

Posted by
15365 posts

I can only add that well-traveled friends of mine went from Moscow to St. P by boat and they said "boring, boring, boring.. . . wish we'd taken the train or flown."

Posted by
7205 posts

Have been twice and started both times in Moscow. Don't waste your time on a boat getting from Moscow to St Petersburg. Take the super fast SapSan train.

We hooked up with Dan Petrov in Moscow to be our guide. He's a great guy, intelligent, funny, friendly. His direct website is

In St Petersburg we've hired guides both times from to take us to Catherine's Palace in Pushkin. Nikolai M was our most recent guide, and I would recommend him as a very good guide. He picked us up in his personal car from our hotel in St Petersburg.

Posted by
15112 posts

We visited Moscow for Orthodox Christmas one year. I think it was 2012, because I know it was after the Russian invasion of Georgia but before the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Getting old and my mind is going I guess. Anyway, the people were “okay” and I guess since we weren’t there long it would be unfair to characterize them one way or another. To be fair I have some close and dear friends who are recent Russian immigrants and I wouldn’t expect Russians as a whole to be any different.

Someone else the other day asked if given the current world politics Russia is safe. I cant imagine it not being safe no matter what shakes out. We will either stand up to Russia or cede the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine to Russia; either way tourism should be glorious. Oh, just try avoid looking gay or Jewish. Both groups are pretty heavily persecuted and there are actually some relatively new antigay laws on the books. Oh, and I wouldn’t talk politics either. Most that talk ill of Putin end up missing, in prison or seeking asylum outside of Russia.,

What surprised me the most on the trip were the glorious subway stations that Moscow is so famous for. They were filthy, full of homeless and vomit. Stunk to high heaven. I was also surprised by the attendees at the Bolshoi performance we attended. They were beautifully dressed but there was an odor in the place that was hard to deal with. I was told by our guide that it had something to do with winter, lack of heat and hot water and a less than stellar willingness to bath under those conditions.

Still, it was an amazing trip. For someone of my generation to walk Red Square was sort of a rush. Wanted to pick up some souviners in the shop near Lenin’s tomb, but the shop stunk to high heaven so we moved on quickly.

I have never been so cold in my life (Orthodox Christmas in January 5th) and actually the cold sort of rounded out a stereotype for Moscow so I thought it was great. For public transportation, we “hailed” illegal cabs which was also, an amazing experience.

We used Daniel Petrov for our guide. Excellent kid and I guide I would recommend with out reservation.

We attended Mass at Kazan Cathedral. A new and very special experience. I say we “attended” this was an event that went on all day long. People walk in for a period of time then leave. We spent 2.5 hours. The devotion was moving. We stayed at the Hotel National a 5 star hotel at reasonable prices cause no one in their right mind goes to Moscow in January.
Oh, and despite the warnings, the food was decent. Not amazing, but absolutely nothing to complain about.

Posted by
7373 posts

We were not there in the depths of winter but rather in the fall and did not find the metro unsightly or smelly. And our turn at the Mariinsky the year before also in fall, was not unusually odorous. I can imagine that in poorly heated apartments people may avoid frequent bathing but we didn't find it to be an issue.

Posted by
436 posts

I second most of the above - the intercity river cruise is not your best option. Actually, I wouldn't go with the train ride with stops in between the two capitals either. Which stopovers did you have in mind?

Now, I don't know how much time you have, but would you possibly consider using the time originally assigned for the cruise to visit another city? If you use Moscow as your base, you could either go visit one or several of the Golden Ring towns, or get an overnight train and spend a couple of days in Kazan - it's a bustling city that would give you a completely different perspective on Russia. Once there, you could take a day cruise - I promise, even an hour spent on the Volga in and around Kazan would provide you with far better "river" experience than the whole Moscow2StPete cruise.

As to the tour - while I believe it is totally optional (especially if you read up on your destination before you go), it does give you an opportunity to talk to one of the locals and get an overall feel of the city. If you feel it might increase your level of comfort in a new and unknown environment - go for it, by all means.

Posted by
436 posts

Also, as far as level of comfort goes - even a tiny bit of Russian/Cyrillic comprehension goes a LONG way.

It may sound unfair to suggest that visitors should spend their valuable time on something that they will hardly ever use in their daily lives - but please bear with me.

Language barrier can become somewhat of a problem, especially outside big cities. That said, there are several things you might want to do to mitigate it (to a certain extent, anyway).

  1. Install Google translate and its offline Russian package.

  2. Familiarize with Cyrillic alphabet. Install one of the many free apps out there. I tried out Russian Alphabet Mastery - it's video-based and therefore takes longer to go through, but in any case shouldn't take longer than a couple of hours of your time. That's two hours total. And it's actually fun.

  3. Install Duolingo and go through the first couple of lessons. Beware, it's addictive. Overall, with time investment of 15 minutes a day for a couple of weeks you should be able to get the basics down - enough to establish some semblance of a conversation to break the ice - and then switch to google translate for more challenging topics.

I know it may sound daunting - but you will get an appreciable return on your investment of time and effort.

Have fun getting ready for your trip!

Posted by
7373 posts

With a translator on your phone (we used it to read the labels when grocery shopping on occasion and the signs in museums) and a bare knowledge of cyrillic letters you will do fine on your own. Lots of Russian words are similar to English words once you can read them. And rather than joining a large tour or cruise, I would just hire local private guides - we used tours by locals but there are others -- for more challenging trips. We for example hired someone to take us to Catherine Palace rather than doing it on public transport and in Moscow we hired a guide for the metros and the Novodivichy Convent -- Having done that the first day, we then were equipped to be on our own and use the metro to get to other sites like the New Tretyakov gallery and Muzeon park where the statues of fallen leaders are:
It is easy to get around on your own in both Moscow and Petersburg; most people don't speak English so having a smattering of Russian politeness phrases, the phone translator and knowing the alphabet makes it all much easier. for example I am allergic to onions and of course they are in most cuisine. I was able to get the phrase on my phone in cyrillic so I could communicate that to waiters and had no trouble getting restaurants to make up, for example, beef stroganoff without the onions. It was much easier than I had anticipated.

Posted by
436 posts

I have just learnt, somewhat accidentally, how much Viking charges for their intercity cruises - and at that price level, I don't understand why anyone would prefer a cruise over other available options.
I had no idea - I remember paying something like 300 dollars (if that) back in the day. Granted, it was a Russian tour company and the ship was not freshly refurbished - but it was the same DDR-built Furmanov-class ship Viking now uses.
It's just not the best route - and in that price range, commiting yourself to a double bubble of ship hull/almost vertical banks of Moskva-Volga canal is a bit of a crime.
All imho, of course - maybe I'm just not mature enough to fully grasp the benefits of this kind of vacationing.