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Early planning: trip to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Golden Ring

We are considering a trip to Russia for about 3 weeks (could be a little longer) in September, or maybe late August or early October. I’m thinking St. Petersburg and Moscow, and visiting the Golden Ring towns. This will be our first trip to Russia. I am currently “studying” Russian. I think I will be able to handle very basic conversations in Russian by then, nowhere approaching fluency but enough to buy tickets and order food at a restaurant.

We usually travel independently. We don’t like to rush. But we would consider a tour for Russia or tours for parts of the trip. We do like to learn about places we visit, so very much enjoy English explanations. We’re interested in history, the arts, culture. The visa process sounds manageable. I think we’ll be ok with Cyrillic and the language.

I’ve bought some guidebooks and am reading through them. Would be interested in experiences you have had traveling in Russia. What made you take a tour if you did? What would you do if you went back? Do you speak any Russian? How much time would you spend in St. Petersburg? Moscow? Has anyone visited Golden ring towns? How much time did you spend? Any other suggestions?

(I’m also thinking that we would do a second trip to Irkutsk and other destinations, and to Beijing or Vladivostok, assuming the first trip goes well.)

Posted by
3283 posts

I'm not real up to date on Russia, but might you want to evaluate any safety concerns?

Posted by
661 posts

Jules, yes, of course we will evaluate safety, but the potential trip is 6 months away and a lot can change. For what it is worth, I did look at the current State Department warning level. It is Level 2, exercise increased caution (the same as France).

If anyone has any insight on how to evaluate safety, that would be helpful too. I’m not overly concerned at this point, but not terribly well informed either.

Posted by
5700 posts

Sounds great. WE have been twice -- 9 days in an apartment in Petersburg then returned for a Moscow - Petersburg cruise with extra days at each end. We would not recommend the cruise -- a huge waste of time -- touring the Golden Ring cities is so much smarter IMHO than going down this boring canal which is not scenic and offers spots that are basically tourist traps (one stop was for a 'crafts village' built only a few years ago specifically for cruise stops). We did only two tours. WE hired a private guide through Tours by locals in Petersburg to take us from the apartment to Catherine Palace -- well worth the money as he facilitated entry steered us clear of the hoards of tour groups, took us to a nice local place for lunch and delivered us back -- just made it easy. In Moscow I hired a guide for our first day from Tours by locals who took us to the Novodivichy Convent by metro and then took us on a tour of 9 of the most artistic metro stops. This gave us a clear idea of how to get around and after that we used the metro to get to places we wanted to visit.

We do not like groups tours -- the ones from the cruise were awful -- photo ops, drive bys, crummy meals -- just not a good way to spend time. If we had not done it on our own, we would not have gone into St. Basils in Moscow or the Church on Spilled blood in Petersburg two highlights of the trip. We spent 5 days on our own at the Hermitage and booked a wonderful ballet at the Mariinsky on our own. The walk through with the cruise tour of the hermitage was ridiculously bad; if that had been our only exposure we would have been so disappointed. Their ballet offering was hugely overpriced and a tourist show not the real deal. I would avoid tours except where a private guide can make access easier or where you could not otherwise reach a place.

I come from the US so I don't worry much about safety traveling abroad. I think we are safer in Paris or St. Petersburg or Moscow than we are in the average American city.

Posted by
145 posts

Three weeks is a really nice chunk of time! I have done two trips to Moscow + St. Peter + Suzdal/Vladimir. We did travel as a group but since I was responsibe for the whole schedule, it was up to me where and how long we'd stay. So i can say that what we did in 9 days there would probably take about 2 weeks for a regular traveler since we didn'T have to worry about figuring out the metro or trains etc as I did all of that before we left for the trip.

A coupe of comments, St. Petersburg is not famous for good weather _ I was there a few years ago during mid-august and on soem days people were wearing leather jackets! Last trip we did was durig the first week of Sept. We had gorgeous weather in Moscow for the 3 days there. A downpour in Suzdal which still breaks my heart as I had high hopes for the area. And (almost) good weather in St. Peter (wiht one day of heavy rain for a few hours)..this accoridg to our guide was a very very good weather for St. Peter.

Not sure in terms of crowds whether late August would be worse than September, but if you can try getting to Moscow during the Tattoo Festival (Spasskaya Tower Festival) on the Red Square, then do! It was amazing! This year it's Aug 23 till Sept 1. Get tickets online and make sure you get the side that is facing the Kremlin. It was really a sight to behold! https://spasstower.ru/en/festival/iato/ https://spasstower.ru

We only did Suzdal, Vladimir, and Sergiev Posad. The first trip, we stayed only one night and did Suzdal and Vladimir in one day....I know I know.. But the second time we stayed 2 nights, and I wouldn't have mind staying longer. We really didn't get much time in Vladimir before catching the train back to Moscow. Vladimir is easily accessable by train from Moscow, so Vladimir and Suzdal combination is easy to do. Of course there are many other cities / towns, but I cannot comment as I've not yet visited them. As for Sergiev Posad, it mght be easie to do from Moscow for a half day excusion. The only thing I can say is that the trains running from Vladimir to Moscow are very nice, clean and modern. The ones that run between Moscow and Sergiev Posad are not. Or so my guide told me when I was trying to talk her into using them. And I do trust our guide as I know her quite well.

St. Peter is still one of the most amazing cities I've ever visited, and I think you can stay for a week or more and still not have enough time to see everything. I agree with the previous answer that you need to be careful about balet/opera if you decided to go for it. Anything that is on stage before the season opening is probably not going to be worth the splurge. Even Mariinsky... I believe duiring the off season, theaters rent out their stages to companies from other cities. So do your research if you decide to see a ballet or an opera (we saw an season premier opera at the Mihailovsky theater as that was the only option for out dates... and oh...boy.... that was BAD!). I'd go for balet if I were you, since Russia is famous for its ballet. But you can be certain that every day and every theater will have... Swan Lake. Of course :))

Another thing I recommend is one night staying up to take the cruise in St.Peter to see the drawing bridges. The cruises depart after midnight and it takes about 1.5-2 hours. If you get a nice boat (first trip we did. second we didn't _) It is a very nice and very unique experience. But do dress accordingly as it is pretty chilly even during summer months.

Have fun in Russia!

Posted by
109 posts

I went last summer for World Cup. We arrived at our Moscow hotel ~2:00 p.m. and I had previously booked a 2-3 hour subway tour from Viator. She came to the hotel and we then visited maybe 10-12 different stops, each are unique and cool. The upside was we learned how to use the subway system right away; the downside was we finished during rush hour, so a little hectic and a bit harder getting pictures, but I'd do it exactly like that again.

Next day I booked Viator for a 6 hour Red Square- and area tour which was great. Day after we visited Izamailovo for souvenir shopping. Booked it as a three hour tour but didn't need to, should have just used Uber. Last day we booked a six hour tour build around WW2 (Victory Museum area).

High-speed train to St. Petersburg, saw the churches on our own and booked tours the next two days at Hermitage and Peterhof.

I probably would do all this over again, very convenient and low hassle. We booked a few private (4 people) and the rest were small groups (8-10 max).

Posted by
661 posts

Wow! Your advice is so helpful! I’ll be back tomorrow with follow up, after I’ve had a chance to sift through all of your comments. Thank you!

Posted by
4 posts

I took a 16-day tour of Moscow/St. Petersburg/Golden Ring with Road Scholar last year, and was very glad that I was on a tour. (First tour ever, prefer independent travel.) I was particularly interested in seeing several of the Golden Ring towns without the stress of figuring out bus/train schedules, where to eat, etc. The guides were incredible. I know a lot about art and was quite impressed with the guides' narration in the museums and historic sites we visited. I think we saw much more, and learned much more, than we would have done trying to navigate on our own, especially between the Golden Ring towns. Also very much enjoyed the home dinners with Russian families and talks by professors that were arranged for our group.

Having done that, I would now be comfortable returning to Russia and exploring the things I enjoyed most at greater leisure. The people we encountered were delightful and very welcoming, by the way. Only thing to watch out for safety-wise are pickpockets in crowded areas.

Favorite things: Moscow - Tretyakov Gallery, the Kremlin Museums, Pushkin Museum, Novodevichy Cemetery, opera at the Bolshoi, Metro. Golden Ring - Suzdal, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov, Sergiev Posad - one magnificent monastery/cathedral after another. St. Petersburg - Hermitage (maginficent building but very crowded, unfortunately, but the separate building that holds an incredible collection of post-Impressionist and early 20th century French art was virtually empty), Peter and Paul Fortress, Yusupov Palace, and the Russian Museum. Grounds of Peterhof lovely if it's a sunny day.

I found two books most valuable: guidebook by Masha Nordbye on these areas (esp. Golden Ring), and for a cultural overview of Russian history, Natasha's Dance (sorry, forgot author's name). Also the Netflix documentary series Empire of the Tsars is not only entertaining but gives some insights into the period of the Romanov dynasty.

Posted by
98 posts

3 years ago we were in St. Petersburg with the Regal Princess. Although the ship offers tours, we were recommended to hire private tour guide, and after a little research online we came across Anastasia Travel. They provided a fully personalized service and although we weren't hoping on an excellent treatment in Russia, Anastasia Travel did more then we expected. It is the only time we ever booked a tour from outside the ship, besides some snorkeling and swimming with dolphins tours on the Caribbean islands. They took care of our visas and the guide met us just outside next to the passport control. Anyways, we were a group of 8, and I see you mentioned you don't like crowded groups. Neither do we! And for St. Petersburg is important to be in a smaller group since you may get the chance to be in front of the long lines to visit the museums which can save you good 2 hours of your time. It was not a rushed day at all. Highly recommend them. Well worth the money! Hope this helps a bit.