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Best way to spend 8 nights in Russia this January?

Hi! I will be flying into Moscow on December 30 and will have 8 nights to spend in Russia, and then I'll fly to Paris. It will be my first visit to Russia and I'm doing a lot of research for the trip. I was initially thinking that I'd spend 4 nights in Moscow, 3 nights in St. Petersburg, fly to Riga for 1 night, and then fly to Paris on Jan 7 (I have to be in Paris by the 7th). I'm travelling on my own and usually like to pack in a lot of sightseeing and visiting as many places as I can. And I've always heard good things about Riga, so I thought I'd squeeze it into the itinerary. Also, the night I would be in Riga will also be orthodox Christmas Eve (Jan 6). However, I'm wondering if I should leave Riga off the itinerary (save it for another day) and stay an additional night in Moscow or St. Petersburg? Any thoughts are appreciated on the best way to spend these 7-8 nights in Russia!

Posted by
3261 posts

It's January. In Russia. With only 6 hours of daylight and frigid temps, I'm thinking you'll likely pass on the walking tours and stick to indoor venues? Will you be arranging your visa via a private tour agency or going the independent route (you have your own sponsor)?

Posted by
6 posts

Hi CJean - I'll be arranging my VISA the independent route and will probably arrange the sponsorship through the hotel I book. Rick Steve's book on St. Petersburg seems to give some really clear guidance on how to do this (and i'm doing other research as well, to make sure I'm covering all my bases)... Regarding activities, yes, I'm expecting to focus more on indoor venues such a museums, theatre art performances, etc. Although, I do hope to get in some ice skating. I love winter and am prepared for the frigid temps! Do you have some suggestions on how I might spend the 8 nights, and whether it's worth it to include a night in Riga? Thanks in advance!

Posted by
4637 posts

With just 8 nights I would use them for Russia - Moscow and St. Petersburg. Riga is not in Russia, you can visit there without a visa so I would postpone that and do it with other Baltic republics.

Posted by
11286 posts

Ilja makes a great point. Given the expense and hassle of getting a Russian visa, you will want to utilize it to the fullest. So, save Riga for another trip.

I hope you're learning the Cyrillic alphabet; without it, you'll be miserable. With it, you can decipher signs and make our a surprising number of words. PECTOPAH, for instance, is "restoran" and is indeed a restaurant. I found the book Teach Yourself The Cyrillic Alphabet invaluable. The exact one I used is long out of print, but similar books are available cheaply as used copies on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Teach-Yourself-Beginners-Russian-Script/dp/0071419861

As for what to do, I've been to these cities in September 2001 (was actually in St. Petersburg on 9/11) and in April 2010, but I've never been there in winter. I can say that two of the highlights of St. Petersburg were the Russia Museum and the Sheremetyov Palace. The Russia Museum has great art by Russian artists you've never heard of and whose work doesn't travel and isn't in other collections. That's why it made a stronger impression than the Hermitage, which has great art by artists you know and whose work can be seen elsewhere (not to say there isn't great stuff there - just not as much of a surprise, and not unique). The Sheremetyov Palace is now a museum of musical instruments, as well as being a grand palace (wait till you see the Etruscan room); as a bonus, it's practically empty of other visitors, so you have it to yourself. I also was wowed by the Church On The Spilt Blood.

Before your trip, you will read endlessly of Nevsky Prospekt. However, it's just a street. Much like Fifth Avenue in New York, the Champs-Elysee in Paris, or the Ramblas in Barcelona, I don't get the fuss. These are all wonderful cities, and these famous thoroughfares aren't worth going out of the way to see. Of course, in the winter, this goes double.

In Moscow, do check out the famous metro stops - they are indeed as grand as you've heard. Some worth making a special trip for are:
Ploschad Revolutsii on line 3 (sculptures)
Mayakovskaya on line 2 (amazing mixture of materials, and great mosaics)
Kievskaya on line 5 (more great mosaics)
Komsomolskaya on line 5 (high vaulted ceilings)
Novoslobodskaya on line 5 (stained glass)
Taganskaya on line 5 ("cameo brooches," but huge)

A great lesser-known sight in Moscow is the Gorky House - amazing Art Nouveau, with a stunner of a carved stone staircase railing.

I don't know if the Izmailovsky Market is going in the winter, but nearby is the statue called Worker and Collective Farm Girl. This is a must-see, as pictures simply cannot do justice the immense scale of it. Just thinking of it makes my jaw drop.

Here's another Forum thread, about the subject of visiting Russia in the winter: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/russia/first-time-in-moscow-st-petersburg-in-dec-2015

Posted by
21041 posts

There's an old joke that harks back to the Soviet era. An old Moscow hand, a longtime foreign resident, is showing a new colleague around. The newcomer spots a Cyrillic sign and asks, "peck to pah, peck to pah, what the heck is a peck to pah?" The old Russian hand responds, "When you've been here a while, you'll figure out that it means 'restoran'--a place to eat. But when you've been here a while longer, you'll realize it just means 'pecktopah' ". I'm sure I find it funnier for having actually eaten (using the term liberally) in a few Soviet restaurants in 1972.

Posted by
537 posts

Dont know what impact this will have on your trip, but New Years is a major holiday in Russia. many of my coworkers are from Russia - this is the holiday they will request over all others. Religious holidays were discouraged in the Communist times, so were more quietly observed.

Posted by
6 posts

Thank you all so much for the input! This is fabulous and really, really helpful. In my researching, I was definitely realizing the importance of learning the Cyrillic alphabet and I really appreciate the suggestion on a book to use (I've already ordered it!). I also really appreciate the specific recommendations on places of interest - they all sound wonderful. I'm thinking I will do 4 nights Moscow and 4 nights St. Petersburg. I am looking forward to spending New Years in Moscow, as well as seeing the Christmas decor/lights still up.

Another question I'm researching and wondering about is the safety factor. As a single female, I've traveled quite a bit throughout Europe and have a sense of extra safety precautions to take. I'm reading a lot about "aggressive" pickpocketers, scams, and making sure to not be out alone at night. I'm assuming I'll use taxis at night for going to eat at a "restoran" (I love the joke that was mentioned!) and I'm careful to use a crossbody purse in front of me as well as a and a money belt. In comparison to other big cities I've been to on my own (Paris, London, Rome, Istanbul, Athens, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Tangier) as well as the common tourist areas in those countries, how would you describe/compare the safety factor for a single woman in Moscow and St. Petersburg?

Also, what areas in both cities would you recommend that I arrange my hotel so that it's safe and within walking distance to some sites?

Thank you so much for the help!

Posted by
537 posts

Actually, on our recent trip to Moscow and St Petersberg, we did not see any of the street scams, card games etc. the only thing we did see was the costumed people offering to take a photo with you and then wanting money. They were easily avoided and not aggressive. I felt very safe there. Just take the normal precautions you use in any location.

Posted by
29 posts

Sounds like a great trip HB. I'm planning on going that way next fall and will probably do 3-4 nights each in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In reading about safety, my book mentions that single women will often be defended by babushkas (an older woman or grandmother) nearby. Not sure why, but I find that funny. Trying to picture that in my head (like a knock on the head with a rolling pin - or a good scolding). Hopefully you won't need that help. Again, it's probably like anywhere else. Be safe.

Posted by
22 posts

Neither Moscow nor St Petersburg are more dangerous than any EU capital or big city. Just follow simple reasonable rules of behaviour and you will be on the safe side (like not to take out a big sum of money in cash or go to the suburbs at 4 o clock in the morning). Moscow is big and the sightseeing points are located in different parts of the city. The metro system is good, but is overcharged in peak hours plus you can spend like one hour going from one side to the other. To be comfortably set, check the lodging within the B ring.
Unless the winter is like last year, it must be pretty cold, but you shall walk through Old Arbat street (not the new one), normally it is beautifully arranged for New Year.

Posted by
5457 posts

You must like cold weather. I would plan to visit some museums like the Hermitage in St. Pete. It won't be crowded and you will be inside.

Riga is a great city, but with only 8 days, I say stick to Moscow and St. Pete.

Posted by
6 posts

Thank you for the responses! I ended up doing 4 nights in Moscow (including New Year's Eve) and 4 nights in St. Petersburg. Surprisingly, there were a TON of people in both cities! They seemed to be mostly Russians and tourists from non English-speaking countries because I didn't recognize anyone speaking English. But I had a wonderful time, visiting the museums and churches, the Kremlin, other historical sites, shopping, eating, tasting vodka, and experiencing probably the best and most festive New Years Eve I've ever had! I can't wait to go back to Russia!