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Moscow, St Petersburg, and Sochi over 2 weeks- too much? Other questions for family trip.

I'm planning my first trip to Russia for my family of 5 (kids 10-16). So far I'm flexible on dates but I was thinking the first two weeks of September 2021. The whole family has been working on cyrillic and Russian for months already and we should have the basics down by then. We have travelled as a family to Switzerland, France and Italy in the past and I've never used a travel agent but I probably will this time. My main question is this. We normally like to take very outdoorsy vacations; skiing, hiking, rock climbing, etc. I definitely want to experience the culture of Russia but I wouldn't mind seeing some beautiful nature as well. I don't know if its the culture or geography but I'm not finding much in terms of outdoors activities near that Moscow-St. Pete region. I was thinking of adding a flight from Moscow down to Sochi for a few days to check out the beach and the mountains. Is this more hassle than its worth to cram in to a 2 week trip? Any other advice that comes to mind is welcome. I was thinking of using the travel agent from the Rick Steves tour.

Thanks.

Posted by
1654 posts

We have traveled to Moscow and St. Peterburg on 4 different trips. We spent about 5 days in each city each time. We loved experiencing the sites and culture, but we are big art and music lovers so had spent much of the time in museums. Sounds like a side trip to Sochi would provide some outdoor activites too. I cheched Matix IT, and looks like one way flights from either St. Petersburg or Moscow run less than $80 each. We never used a travel agent, just books and tons of research. We lived near a Russian consulate, so were are to apply for our visas easily. Your study of the alphabet and language will be very helpful.

Posted by
3036 posts

With two weeks , I would stick with Moscow and St Petersburg . There is so much to see in both , a week in each would be a good start . As far as further advice , read Susanne Massie's fine book , " The Land of the Firebird ; The Beauty of Old Russia " ( 1980 ) https://www.amazon.com/Land-Firebird-Beauty-Old-Russia/dp/096441841X . Another excellent book is " Nicholas and Alexandra " by Robert Massie ( Suzanne's ex husband ) the story of the last Czar and the onset of the Revolution . https://www.amazon.com/Nicholas-Alexandra-Classic-Account-Romanov/dp/0345438310 Both of these books are of the " can't put it down " order , and absolute musts .

Posted by
4 posts

You definitely should consider taking a ride on the train while you are in Russia in my opinion it really touches the Russian soul. So much of that nation depends on the railways that it would be a real shame to miss an opportunity to see the country by it. My recommendation to save yourself a hotel night, and half a day of travel is to take the Red Arrow (Красная стрелка) from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It departs very late at night (23:55) and arrives before business the next morning (7:55) with three different classes of service (Luxury, 1st, and 2nd). Seeing you are a family of Five I would recommend 2nd, but the fifth person is going to have three Russian roommates. All rooms are shared unless you buy out all the tickets in the room. However the Red Arrow runs non stop between the two so you don't have to worry about people joining in the middle of the night. It is the most famous train in Russia. As you walk down the platform a "Hymn to our Great City" plays over the loud speakers. If you can't get a ticket on it there are several other trains the Express, Metropolis, and Grand Express. Along with some more basic overnight trains that will give you the unique Russian experience of third class. That will be very memorable but I think it is more memorable on the longer routes because you will get to socialize with people on those more so.

You could also take the train from Moscow to Sochi and it takes roughly a day. While you may lose a full day of sights, you will experience Russia in the best way possible. You will meet everyday civilians and there is something about a train that makes people friendly.

Posted by
409 posts

If you shift your dates about a week back, you can move "against the crowds" (that is, of course, if the pandemic situation is under control by that time): spend the last week of August in relatively empty Moscow/SPB/Kazan, and move to Sochi/Crimea the first week of Sep, when all the families with kids will be heading back to the capitals for the start of the school year. The downside would be that their theater season opens in early Sep, so you'd be missing out on that.

As to "nature" - yes, it is a bit of a cultural difference. Unless done for a specific purpose (mushroom picking, fishing), hiking is not really much of a thing, while multi-day camping, biking, and kayaking trips are, but people will drive for hours from cities to get to their starting point. City dwellers usually get their nature fix from their dachas (summer houses). Given your timeframe, I'd stick with the cities, but maybe consider taking a "weekend cruise" from Moscow to Uglich/Kalyazin and back. Before railroads came in, waterways were the lifelines, and there's something special in experiencing the country that way. Here's a link to an abridged blog by Mark Kalch, who paddled the whole length of the Volga back in 2014: https://www.phseakayaks.com/blog/volga-river-russia-source-to-sea-kayak-descent/

Posted by
4619 posts

Stick with Moscow and St. Petersburg, Sochi is too far away and not worth it.

If you can, consider taking a river cruise that includes days in both cities and about a week on the riverboat to see several cities and some beautiful countryside, especially Kitzi Island way up north.

I studied up on Russian, but once I got to Russia and got on the METRO, I didn't feel comfortable reading the cyrillic signs. I had my Moscow map and was ready, I thought.

Also, be careful where you go in Moscow. The mid-city tourist areas are safe, but some neighborhoods are not safe to visit.

For culture, we visited an art gallery in Moscow as well as the Kremlin, GUM, New Maiden's Convent and much more.
In St. Petersburg, the Hermitage Art Museum, amazing Church of Spilled Blood, Peterhof, Catherine's Palace, a canal cruise and Peter and Paul Fortress. Also, don't miss the ballet. If you can, see Swan Lake at the Marinsky.

I have always been a big fan of Russian literature and music. We met a lot of super Russian people on our tour. Don't try to out drink a Russian. The vodka bottles in Russian have caps that you throw away once you open the bottle, because no Russian ever fails to finish the entire bottle.

Posted by
409 posts

A week per capital is probably the minimum I'd recommend for a no-rush, vacation-mode tour with children, but you could squeeze in a several-day outing elsewhere.

I'd vote against a longer river cruise (anything longer than a couple of days) - the kids will be bored out of their minds. That said, a short one is a good nature fix, even if in a passive kind of way.

If you are all set on the idea of throwing a third destination into the mix, I'd consider Kazan (another capital city, quite cosmopolitan, with a very pronounced Muslim influence).

As to Sochi - unless you do some extensive planning and have a hike/excursion lined up for each day and/or really enjoy the beach vacation by the Black Sea, a week there would probably be a bit too much. Personally, I'd rather go to Crimea, both for nature and for history. There was a longish thread on these boards about Sochi vs Crimea a couple of years ago: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/russia/crimea-or-sochi-as-a-side-trip

PS. Kudos to you for working on the language! FYI, the metro signs/announcements are all in English; there are no areas in Moscow that I would consider "unsafe"; and disposable vodka caps have been phased out about 30 years ago :-)

Posted by
953 posts

Have to agree that Sochi is nothing special, if you want a Black Sea or resort experience then look elsewhere ,as suggested above the Crimea is better IMHO. I have enjoyed St Petersburg twice and there is so much to do. You could also take a high-speed train to Helsinki for something different.
(Wonder how long it takes to get Russian visas these days.)

Posted by
409 posts

Wonder how long it takes to get Russian visas these days.

Well, that's the big unknown, isn't it?

Afaik, the borders are still closed, with consular services for tourist visas suspended. Given the current vaccination rates at either side of the border, I'd be (very) cautiously optimistic and hope the light we seem to see at the end of the tunnel is not an incoming train. But then again, there's always a chance of our respective health watchdogs/border authorities going full bonkers and not recognizing the vaccination passports issued by the other side.

That said, even if the whole consular debacle doesn't spiral any further and RU doesn't close the remaining consulates in the US in response to the recent withdrawal of the last two US consular offices in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, it's safe to assume the wait times, once services resume, are likely to be quite atrocious.

As a point of reference - average interview wait times for RU citizens at the US Embassy in Moscow were advertised at about a year (interviews are mandatory unless you have a recently expired US visa). And that's pre-Covid.