Tourists, tourists and again tourists… tourists are everywhere! Taking pictures of the same buildings and bringing home the same “so original” souvenirs. But you’re not like them. No, you’re a true explorer. Someone that wants to do what locals do, and bring home truly unusual objects and memories. You’re not a redneck and neither are we, so follow this top and experience another Russia!
Take Height at 354 ‒ Restaurants & Observation Deck
You were considering in taking a “Russian tea” at Caffé Pouchkine ? Seriously ? Well, first, Russian tea doesn’t exist. Second, Caffé Pouchkine is amazing but kind of Moscow’s must-do. Instead go take a cocktail at Ruski at the 85th floor of OKO Tower. More than diving into contemporary Russia by exploring Moskva-City, you’ll jump into the highest restaurant in Europe and in the very heart of Moscow’s “hypeness”. Take height and enjoy some fresh air, by letting your kids in the children’s room and entering the highest ice bar in the world! With its set of restaurants and bars, the terrace in summer and the highest skating rink of Europe in winter, the 354 will offer you an unusual and magnificent view!
But maybe, you’ll prefer to stay down-to-earth and visit Moscow by night in a soviet military van (called UAZ) or even enroll for a pub-crawl!
Mystic Moscow & Russian Superstitions
You may know that if you whistle inside a house in Russia, it’ll bring misfortune to that household… As every city, and because it’s the former Soviet Capital, Moscow has many legends, stories, tales and dark secrets to deliver. Diving into these will require bravery, strength and abnegation (act of renouncing) in order to explore the dark secrets and stories of Moscow and its famous people. It probably also requires a good guide whether by enjoying a walk, or using transport. But be careful, in the end you’ll never know which are tales and which are true stories…
The Dark Secrets of Lubyanka
Remember when your parents threatened to put you in the cellar without light if you didn’t calm down? (or is it just mine?) Well, explore Lubyanka around former KGB headquarters and you’ll regret your cellar. For those who don’t know, Lubyanka has been the black heart of the Soviet secret intelligence, enforcing “security” inside and outside USSR. For this one, bring your own kinds. Stories of torture, prison and disappearance will give you a real and efficient leverage on these monsters. And well, except you already know all these dark secrets, you’ll need a guide!
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If you’re living in Moscow or even if you’re only passing by, you can’t miss this enormous cathedral in the very heart of the city! The Cathedral of the Christ the Savior is shining from afar thanks to its white walls and golden cupolas. The Christ the Savior overlooks the Russian federal capital from its 103m high, that makes it the 2nd highest Orthodox church in the world. Seat of the Russian orthodox patriarchate, Christ the Savior is currently the center of Moscow’s religious life. But it has not always been as it!
Indeed the biggest cathedral of the Russian Federation has been built in 1839, then destroyed but rebuilt in 1995. The first cathedral has been built from 1839 to celebrate the end of the Napoleonic wars and remember the numerous Russian deads. However, the Soviet leadership decided to destroy the cathedral in 1931, replacing it by a public swimming pool: the world biggest open-air swimming pool! Despite the popular desire of keeping the swimming pool, the Christ the Savior Cathedral has been rebuilt between 1995 and 2000, and given back to the Russian orthodox patriarchate.
Nowadays, the Christ the Savior remains a stunning cathedral on the inside as on the outside. However, if major orthodox events are celebrated in it, Christ the Savior knows less enthusiasm from the everyday believers than other Muscovite churches.
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Traveling may be expensive. Whether alone, with your lover, with children or even with your step-mother, you don’t want to come back with empty pockets. But avoiding visits, experiences, adventures (or worse, restaurants) is NOT acceptable, especially in Russia’s two capitals ‒ the cultural Saint-Petersburg & the business Moscow. Follow us and you’ll be able to treat yourself tonight, eating caviar in front of the Kremlin!
Moscow by Bike
Curious people, this one’s for you! Especially if you like cycling and feeling the breeze on your skin. Moscow bike sharing system Velobike is definitely the best deal you can find to discover quickly all the main areas of city. For 150₽ a day (2$) you can rent a bike anywhere in Moscow, for the time you want (for free up to 30 minutes), and return it in any bicycle station. Easy and cheap, take a bike and explore the city at your convenience. Also, that’s your chance to “forget” your step-mother or your terrible kids in a remote area of the city… Sorry, not sorry.
If ever you happen to be in Kazan, riding around the city is one of the best ways to discover the capital of Tatarstan.
Open Museums Once a Month (Moscow & Saint-Petersburg)
As culture is very important to Russians, every public museums offer free entrance on the third Sunday of each month. In fact, museums may be somewhat crowded on these days, but come on… it’s free! This is the perfect opportunity to visit or reexplore expensive museums and galleries without spending a kopeck (unless you give in and treat yourself with a coffee break or even souvenirs). Hopefully, Russian museums are like Russia, big and large so you (and your children) can breathe and contemplate the numerous masterpieces (I bet you can’t do it in most museums in Europe).
Yet, you may prefer to visit museums on a quiet day, take the Pushkin Museum for example.
Bulgakov House-Museum (Moscow)
One fantastic thing in Moscow is that you can visit many famous artists’ houses. For example, Bulgakov, the author of The Master and Margarita (but you probably knew that), lived in Moscow city center and his house is opened to the public… for free! The house is very small but you have to go and visit it! You’ll see a traditional Soviet interior and dive into Bulgakov’s world. Well, let’s give it a try !
Winzavod Contemporary Art Center (Moscow)
Winzavod is a huge center for contemporary art in Moscow opened to public for free. Located in several former industrial buildings (and among them Moscow’s beer factory) in Moscow’s city center, it presents to public several contemporary projects. A bit underground (but not too much since Dmitri Medvedev visited it during his presidentship), Winzavod is a good way to spend a casual afternoon in Moscow for free, and discover a younger kind of Russian intelligentsia (you can call them hipsters). Let’s chill there!
Imagine yourself, a sweet breeze on your face, water lapping makes you dreaming, you open your eyes and admire the magnificent monuments of the Russian Capital. Discovering Moscow on the Moskva River is a unique experience, since you can at the same time relax, admire the city, and even sip a delicious cocktail. Boarding on the new, bright and comfortable Flotilla Radisson Royal boat is the treat you deserve, when you already had a busy day or week visiting the city.
And if you’re still eager to learn about Moscow, you may want a guide to accompany you on the Radisson Cruise.
Moscow Subway & Arbat Street
Did you know that Moscow metro stations were built as palaces for its people? Probably, but you may not know that Moscow subway was also built as a refuge in case of nuclear conflict. Muscovites are lucky that the metro is so beautiful, it makes them forget that going from the beginning to the end of any line takes 2 hours. And tourists in Moscow are even more lucky, since you can buy a ticket for a very few rubles and explore the most beautiful stations, just like in a museum. And about exploring Moscow for free (or almost), another outstanding place is Arbat street. I must be honest, this area is quite touristy. But, on this very nice street you’ll find an unequalized concentration of Russian souvenirs, crafts and antiques, and watching all the variety of items shops have to offer is kinda like admiring masterpieces in a museum (with the temptation to buy them for your family & friends as a bonus).
These are not the only free museum-like places, take the Cathedral of the Christ the Saviour for example, the entrance is also free and whether you like religion or not, this is just sublime. If you want to visit the best metro stations in Moscow, Arbat street, and the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in a record time without missing anything about them, this tourwas made for you!
Izmaylovo Kremlin (Moscow)
This one’s tricky. If the entrance is free, you’re at risk of going out from there way poorer than expected. Is that a challenge? I’ll let you judge… Built like a Moscow’s “wonderland”, the Izmaylovo Kremlin hide behind its walls two markets. One is for tourists, with lots of souvenirs, Russian traditional artefacts and fur. The other one is a bric-a-brac, where babushkas (grandmas) and dedushkas (granddads) sell ancient objects from Soviet times and even before. You may also find icons and wooden art over there. And in case you get hungry or cold in this little world, go take a rest in the food court, they make wonderful shashliks and hot tea!
By the way, if you like to do a series of visits, you could begin with Izmaylovo, see some beautiful metro stations, and have a walk in VDNKh and visit some of its pavilions, such as the Soviet Game Museum.
Church of the Savior on Blood (Saint-Petersburg)
Usually churches are free… but this one is technically not a church, in fact it’s a museum (did you know that or are you just pretending?), and thus it isn’t free. But the famous Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built as a memorial to Alexander II’s murder, is absolutely divine. For a few rubles you’ll be able to pay a tribute and pray for the Russian tsar’s memory… and also admire the exquisite shining and goldish mosaics that cover all its walls and its roof.
This one is a church, and a famous one… but also a museum. So for a few rubles, you’ll enter the very heart of Saint-Petersburg religious life and a cathedral with rich ornamentation and dimensions beyond the norm. For the atheists reading this top, you’ll find in Saint Isaaca real museum of stones as the cathedral has been crafted in such varieties of stones from all Russia. One over there, it’s also worth exploring the colonnade which will offer you a marvelous view on the city!
State Kremlin Palace (Moscow)
The Bolshoi, the Mariinsky and many other theatres in Russia are expensive. But Russians love theatre, opera and ballet and so you can find quite easily good tickets very cheap. Surprisingly one of them is the Kremlin Ballet Theatre, aka State Kremlin Palace. I know you thought about it and didn’t look at the prices as “it will be the most expensive of all”. Wrong! The Kremlin Theatre, located in the heart of the Kremlin, offers good operas and ballets (with a strong taste for classics) for not so many rubles. You can even be well seated for only 600r (10$). So take a ticket and you’ll be able to brag yourself while back home!
Although, if you’ve been dreaming about the Bolshoi for a while, we’ve got a VIP access to the backstages that any ballet-lover would like to get.
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Children are nice and cute when they’re not yours (some people say), but they can be real monsters (when not a mortal plague to be honest). As we don’t want to ostracize parents, and help you in raising smart kids, here is a top of things to do in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. Go for these and you’ll enjoy good quality time with your children away from the cold and the overcrowded antic museums!
Moskvarium ‒ The Largest Oceanarium in Moscow
This one will entertain you and your kids at least for a day, away from the cold, and keep them smart. The Moskvarium aims at presenting Russian aquatic inhabitants but also species from all over the world. This oceanarium, located in VDNKh in Moscow, is a living encyclopedia of the underwater world which was thought both for children and grown-ups with shows of killer whales, dolphins belugas and walruses. Perfect to entertain your children and let them know more about marine animals… and don’t tell them but you can also swim with dolphins!
Ice-Skating at VDNKh (Moscow)
One of the top Russian activities, ice-skating is a traditional, children-friendly and fairly cheap outdoor activity. You’ll surely be ashamed when you’ll realise that even a 4yo kiddo is ice-skating better than you, but don’t let it stop you from expressing your very personal style. In winter there are many ice-skating rinks inside Moscow but the best (and biggest) one is definitely the ice-skating rink of VDNKh! You can alsoskate at the 354 (divine) but it’s a bit less children-friendly.
Izmaylovo Kremlin & Market (Moscow)
Izmaylovo Kremlin is something between Wonderland and a Russian Disneyland. This colorful wooden kremlin is a good way to spend a half-day with your children, you may also want to have a walk in the Izmaylovo forest just nearby. In Izmaylovo Market, you’ll be protected from the wind while discovering the Russian craft & antiques (and also many mainstream souvenirs). Kids are always hungry, and always when it’s not time to eat, but this is not a problem as you’ll find delicious shashliks (meat skewers) and many different Russian meals. Though Izmaylovo Market entrance is free, you’ll face much temptation to treat yourself and your family!
NB: don’t hesitate to negotiate prices, this is part of the game and an interesting experience for your children!
Tickets for the Bolshoi are expensive and kids can’t cope with opera, ballet or theater for more than 5 minutes (if so, how the hell did you manage to do that?). If you still want to enter this world-known cultural house but can’t handle the embarrassment that would cause your own blood, you have another option! Indeed, it’s possible to visit the Bolshoi backstages and historic scene with a guide. Lucky you! Cherry on the cake you may have the chance to watch some rehearsals.
Cruises in the Venice of the North and on the Moskva River (Saint-Petersburg & Moscow)
Children have small legs, energy when they should be sleeping, and interest for things they can’t have. Based on that, visiting the city center of a Russian city can become “Mission: Impossible”. Hopefully, there is another way. A way that would blow your kids’ mind and offer you some peace and time to discover Russia. This secret transmitted generations after generations is called cruises. While cruises in Saint-Petersburg’s are very famous for the canals and the Neva River (that’s one of the reasons why it’s also called the Venice of the North), cruises in Moscoware famous for the Moskva River from where you can admire the most beautiful places in the city!
Submarine Museum (Moscow & Saint-Petersburg)
In the same way, children can’t cope with museums. Seriously, why? We all try to improve their knowledge and prepare them for the future, but no, they simply don’t care. Anyway, be ready to appear as a super-parent. Bring them to the Submarine Museum in Moscowand they will be amazed, feeling like a real sailor under the USSR. On the plus side they, and you, will learn a lot on the Russian Navy, submarines and Soviet times! Are you in Saint-Petersburg? Then, the C-189 Submarine Floating Museum is made for you!
Nikulin Circus (Moscow)
Another Russian tradition, often forgotten, is the circus. Animals, clowns (not the scary American ones), magicians and acrobats are all part of the Russian circus. Of course, children are more than welcomed and everyone will be amazed. But to be sure to enjoy the show, you have to pick the good one, which means Nikulin’s Circus.
The Bunker 42 of Taganka (Moscow)
As for the Submarine Museum, and even if it’s is a real labyrinth, the Bunker 42 of Taganka is a great museum, aka the Cold War Museum. As you’ll stroll down the steps and floors into the depth of the earth, you’ll dive into the Soviet era and learn how the USSR was preparing itself for a nuclear conflict. It’s an exceptional opportunity to observe old objects, movies, documentaries, weapons, bots… that all come from Stalin’s ruling of the Union, and which will please everyone!
Babayevsky Chocolate Factory (Moscow)
No matter if your child is an Augustus, Violet, Veruca, Mike or a Charlie, you can go and discover the Babayevsky Chocolate Factory, it’s gonna be safer than in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the most important: tastier. Clearly, kids will be amazed by all the tasty konfety or konfetki produced over there, everyone will love these lil chocolate candies, and also learn about the chocolate-making process. And best of all, you can try Babayevsky konfety at any time during your visit which means your kids will stay calm and you probably won’t have to struggle finding a meal to please them for dinner.
Sokolniki Park: Sledding Race and Ice-Sculpting (Moscow)
Once a year, always on the Defender of the Fatherland Day, i.e. 23rd February, Moscow organizes a sledding race in Sokolniki Park. But this isn’t just a race. Indeed, what matters the most is the originality of the sledge and the final fall! Each year a new theme is settled for the greatest pleasure of all. Lucky you, it’s often held at the same time than the ice-sculpting competition. Don’t miss these two events, your kids will love them!
It’s no secret, Russia, even in its Western part, can be coldish in winter. Well sometimes so cold that you can’t stay outside for more than 1 hour… which is kinda annoying when your goals are to visit big and stunning cities such as Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. But, hopefully for you, life isn’t stopping in Russia with the cold. Although, more than giving you the impression of walking in a snowy-end-of-the-world American movie, Moscow and Saint-Petersburg can offer you many opportunities to discover, experience and above all enjoy the Russian winter!
Ice-Skating in VDNKh(Moscow)
One of the best Russian way to deal with the cold is to fight it with sport. Wondering how? Well running in streets or parks on 10cm of ice is something that Russians keep the secret of. But you surely can give it a try, fall (maybe) but still enjoy it. Ice-skating is fun, it warms you up and you’ll be with Russians while discovering another side of the city. Why in VDNKh you say? Simply because VDNKh’s ice skating rink is the biggest and most popular of Russia (which is not a small deal). So everything is well organised and above all you have as much place as you want to do your acrobatic and artistic figures on ice!
Also, if you want to make the most of VDNKh Park, you may want to visit the Museum of Cosmonautics, located just next the VDNKh metro station, and that would be another great way to get warmer and to discover the great history of Russian space conquest!
The Hermitage Museum (Saint-Petersburg)
The State Hermitage Museum is the most important museum in the world, presenting treasures in around 1000 rooms. But the Hermitage, also known as the Winter Palace, was the Tsars’ main residence and represents a crucial aspect of the Russian history. Going there in winter is the best option for two reasons:
First (and for me the most important reason) you’ll visit this pearl away from the crowd, allowing you to take time and pleasure.
Second because, as a sumptuous palace of the Neva, you’ll discover stunning views of wintery Petersburg from every room, giving you the opportunity of visiting the city while staying warm!
You could literally spend days in the numerous rooms of this wonderful palace, I remember that my first time in there, I stayed until the closing time to gaze at every single piece of art, rushing through all the rooms to have a glimpse of them… Maybe I would have enjoyed it better if I had taken guided tour of the Hermitage Museum earlier that day to admire the most important masterpieces and learn interesting facts about them, and then continue the visit by myself.
Dog-Sledding in the Countryside (Moscow & Saint-Petersburg)
Another great and sporty activity to do in winter is to enjoy a day outside the city center, doing dog-sledding surrounded by the magic Russian nature. Who doesn’t love dogs? You may be more of a cat-person, but I’m sure you have a thing for huskies, we all do, don’t we? Personally, I also have a thing for Russian food, sometimes I wonder if I should treat myself a little less, but you know what? I may not stay here forever, so I want to enjoy every delight I can find in Russia. Take the shashlik or the oladushki for example, the first ones are delicious skewered, marinated and grilled cubes of meat, while the second ones are some mouthwatering small thick pancakes. These are a great treat after a good ride in the snow with the huskies and a good way to get warmer, not only because you’ll be inside or near a fireplace, but because this is one way to discover the Russian soul, the warmer soul you’ll find on Earth in my mind!
(then go for it, treat yourself, you deserve it too)
Having a Goûter or Teatime at Café Singer(Saint-Petersburg)
Close your eyes and imagine: you’ve been walking in Petersburg for two hours, you’re freaking cold and wet (because, well, it’s Petersburg) and the only thing that could cheer you up is a good cake and a hot chocolate (let your inner child live). Open your eyes: here it is. In Saint-Petersburg’s heart, in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, stands with its magnificent glass roof the Café Singer. More than a café, this is a true institution that will warm you up thanks to delicious hot drinks and tasty cakes served while admiring the Kazan Cathedral. And once you got warmer, and maybe by the time it got a little bit sunny, you may be up for a guided tour by walk from cathedral to cathedral?
I think another good way to enjoy Saint-Petersburg on a rainy day, or on any cold day, is to visit its main sights in a private vehicle and listen to the incomparable history of Saint-Petersburg. By the way, do you know the history of Singer House? It was initially designed as a skyscraper for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, yet the building code in Saint Petersburg didn’t allow buildings taller than the Winter Palace, so the architect got round this law to build an elegant six-floor Art Nouveau structure crowned with a glass tower, overtopped by a glass globe sculpture.
The Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow)
If we apply the famous “In Rome do as Romans do”, then being in Russia in winter, you’d better go to the museum. Museums are always a good place to be during a fierce winter: it’s warm, big and full of masterpieces. What are you waiting for? In Moscow, you must visit the Tretyakov Gallery, this is surely the best museum in town. In an afternoon, you cross the centuries of Russian and European arts, looking at masterpieces, from icons to sculptures and paintings. It’s definitely a must do that doesn’t require further explanations. (Seriously, you have to go).
Also, if you want to discover more about Moscow without getting cold or soaked to the skin, a good idea is to visit Moscow in a private vehicle, stopping here and there to admire its majestic monuments. On a sunny day you may prefer to have a walk in the city center, though by car you can see more of the city and go further than the city core.
Enjoy a Traditional Banya ‒ The Russian Sauna (anywhere in Russia)
Of course Russians aren’t spending their winters only in museums, they’re also, and maybe even more, going to banyas. Midway between the Scandinavian sauna and the Arabic hammam, the Slavic banya is perfect to find warmer temperatures, recover from stressing daily life (or stressing tourists’ imperatives) and stay in good health. Start with one of Moscow or Saint-Petersburg’s baths and dive into a new Russian traditional art and experience!
You’re probably wondering why I advise you to visit Izmaylovo Kremlin in the heart of winter? Indeed, why going to a place where there is wind, snow and where you can’t walk fast to warm you up? Because the Izmaylovo Kremlin, aka “Moscow’s Disneyland”, is a great place to buy furs, Russian winter clothes, souvenirs and to eat shashliks! (No, I’m not obsessed with food…)
Have a Walk and a Hot Chocolate in Gorky Park (Moscow)
In winter, Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure may be a bit empty (except around the ice skating rink and when there is a public holiday) but this uphold all its beauty. The snow gives Gorky Park a new face, and add some mystery to the green heart of Moscow. Plus, while walking in Gorky Park you’ll enjoy stunning views on the frozen Moskva River, always impressive and beautifully dangerous. Happily, Gorky Park hosts the Garage Museum of Contemporary Arts, and several delicious restaurants and cafés. My advice would definitely be to sit in one of these and drink a hot chocolate! (Ok, maybe slightly obsessed with food…)
Embark on the Radisson Yacht for a Cruise on the Moskva River (Moscow)
Going on a cruise in winter is quite surprising. Especially when we know that the Moskva River turns into a big ice skating rink. But thankfully, the Radisson cruises are running all year round by using ice-breaker-cruise-boats (what great century to live in) keeping you warm behind super-clean glasses. You’ll be able to discover Moscow under the snow by boat, while drinking a glass of wine and being seated in comfortable sofas!
Take a Dip in Icy Water for Kreshenye (anywhere in Russia)
This one is for the tough ones. For women, men, children that have the inner strength of dealing with fears and primitive instincts. Happening the night between the 18th and the 19th of January, Kreshenye is a traditional celebration during which people immerse themselves 3 times under water to honor the Holy Trinity. This Orthodox tradition, known as the Great Blessing of the Waters, celebrates Epiphany and marks the baptism of Jesus. Securised and well-organised, you’ll gather with Russians from all ages and backgrounds to dive, one by one, in the iced water. Having celebrated it, I can tell you that this is wonderful. Not only because you’re being part of the Russian society, but also because you find that fear is the only obstacle to achieve this. Trust me, take a dive and you’ll be another person, what’s more you won’t be ill for the whole winter!
Saint Basil’s Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, is for sure one of the most symbolic buildings of Moscow and even Russia. This Orthodox church, nowadays a museum, is also the symbol of the traditional Russian architectural style, which explains why it has been a model for the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood built three centuries later in Saint Petersburg. Saint Basil’s has indeed been erected in 1561 under Ivan the Terrible’s command after he vanquished the Tatars of Kazan for good in 1552. For the first time in Muscovy, a church was dedicated to a military victory, with the completion of 8 chapels surrounding the main church, one for each battle won by Ivan IV against the Tatars, and each one crowned by a unique and magnificent cupola.
Often compared to a giant cake because of its colors and peculiar domes and cupolas, Saint Basil’s Cathedral remains Moscow’s symbol and one of its most beautiful building. Everytime I stay in Moscow, I need to see it again, and from time to time I treat myself witha visit of this masterpiece. This majesty led to widespread legend telling that the Tsars bursted the architect’s eyes to prevent him from creating more beautiful buildings in the future!
If it kept safe the Tsar’s treasures some centuries ago, it is now Moscow’s treasure itself. After having been damaged by several fires and by lack of restoration during the first decades of the Soviet Union, Saint Basil’s currently is a bright and colorful spot on the Red Square.
Because of these colors, this peculiar architecture, its symbolism, its secrets and its history, Saint Basil’s Cathedral always caught me out of breath when seeing it by entering the Red Square from the north. I’m always amazed by its beauty and always feel overwhelmed by the rich history of Russia when admiring it! What about you? How do you feel when you look at Saint Basil’s? Maybe it’s time to discover it when having a walk Moscow’s city center.
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