But Russia is so large and overwhelming, where do you even start? And this is where I come in with my itineraries and tips.
I truly believe that even if you are short on time and only have a couple of weeks to spare, you can still get a good sense of Russia. Yes, you would probably have to skip the Trans-Siberian, but two major centers - Moscow and St. Petersburg - can be a great introduction to the country. And then you can decide if you want to venture further from civilization into the real woods.
The itinerary below has been tested and found perfect for a 2-week getaway. Jonny and I did this exact same trip in early September 2011, except an additional week was spent in Voronezh, my home town, hanging out with my family, visiting old friends, eating a lot, and just enjoying the life.
When to go?
I would strongly recommend the end of August / beginning of September as the ideal time to travel to Russia. First, it's not as humid and hot as it usually is in summer, but not as cold and miserable as in the late fall, winter or early spring. Yes, you are reading me correctly - contrary to the general belief, central Russia gets really hot in summer with average temperature at 25-30C (77-86F). Seconds, it is also not as busy travel-wise, lines to the Hermitage and the Kremlin are not as long, and accommodations are not as expensive as they are in summer (May - August).
Simple itinerary (download a pdf version of this itinerary, budget, & tips here)
Fri Arrive in Moscow, Domodedovo (DME), take Aeroexpress train to the city - Paveletskaya metro station
(every 30 min, ~1 hour ride), from there by subway
Rest of afternoon free
Sat Full day in Moscow
Sun Full day in Moscow
Mon Full day in Moscow
Tue Flying Moscow - St. Petersburg, take bus to the city
Rest of afternoon free
Wed Full day in St. Petersburg
Thu Day trip: Peterhof Palace or Catherine’s Palace - both in the suburbs of St. Petersburg
Fri Full day in St. Petersburg
Sat Full day in St. Petersburg
Sun Flying St. Petersburg (LED) - Moscow (DME) ~70 min
Departing from Moscow (DME)
Total days: 11. Total vacation days: 6-7.
There are lots of places in both Moscow and St. Petersburg that are worth seeing but I outlined the major ones below, including how much time each places would require and how much it would cost. You won't be able to cover it all in this trip, but you can pick the places/activities that interest you most.
St. Basil's Cathedral - 1.5 hrs - $2/$8
The Red Square, Lenin's Tomb, & GUM - 3-4 hrs - free
The Kremlin: The Armoury Chamber & Cathedrals - 5-6 hrs - $9-33
The Kremlin: Diamond Collection - 40 min - $3/$16
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - 1.5 hrs - free
Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery - 4 hrs - $5
Museum-reserve Tsaritsyno - 5-6 hrs free/$4-11
Victory Park (open-air WWII museum) - 2-3 hrs - free
Boat cruise on the Moscow river - 1.5 hrs - $13+
Tretyakov Art Gallery (Russian art) - 3 hrs - $9-14
Estates of Russian authors (Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc) - 1+ hr - $3+
Kolomenskoye Park & Estate - 4-5 hrs - free
Bunker-42 (The Cold War museum) - 3 hrs - $23/$42
GULAG History Museum - 1.5 hrs - $2-11
Bolshoi Theatre - 3+ hrs - $80+
The Hermitage - 5-6 hrs - free/$13
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood - 1 hr - $8
Peter and Paul Fortress - 4-5 hrs - $11
Lady of Kazan Cathedral - 0.5 hr - free
St. Isaac's Cathedral + access to the roof - 2 hrs - $11
Boat tour of the canals - 1.5 hrs - $9-11
Peterhof Palace & Gardens (out of town) - 1 day - $17/$32
Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography (Kunstkammer) - 2-3 hrs - $6
Yusupov Palace - 2-3 hrs - $17/$25
Stroll along Nevsky Avenue - free
Watch bridge drawing at night - 1-2 hrs - free
Take panoramic pictures from Strelka (Vasilievsky Island) - free
Escape the heat at newly-renovated Summer Garden - 2 hrs - free
Make a wish at Chizhik-Pyzhik (Siskin) statue - free
Catherine's Palace & Gardens (out of town) - 1 day - $7/$14
Air tickets (from pretty much anywhere other than Europe) - $950-1300
Russian visa (depending on country of citizenship and whether you use travel agency services) - $60-260
Moscow - St. Petersburg round trip flight - $140-150
Accommodation (this really depends: there are couchsurfers and hostels and there are also all the major hotel chains) - $70/night in an average hotel in both St. Petersburg and Moscow
Food (also depends since Moscow has a ton of fancy restaurants but also a lot of fast food chains with very affordable and tasty Russian-style cuisine) - $20-35/day if eating at quick service restaurants & food stands.
By the way, Russian fast food is not what you are used to in the Western world: you won't find any burgers or fries. The standard items on the menu: soups, mayonnaise-based salads, bakes potatoes, and blini - sweet or savory pancakes with 20+ different fillings to choose from. My favourite fast food chain is "Teremok". I can eat at this place for two weeks straight!
Good to Know:
1. Train travel in Russia is becoming more expensive: a second class ONE way ticket between Moscow and St. Petersburg cost as much as a round trip flight ($140-150)
2. Trains with names (e.g., Red Arrow, Leo Tolstoy, Grand Express) are a little more expensive than trains that are just numbered. Are they better? Ideally they are newer and cleaner, but that's not a guarantee. Russia is all about surprises - pleasant and unpleasant.
3. Once in the Hermitage, go through the state rooms first and leave the museum part for later. State rooms are more fun and you need to be fresh to appreciate all the details.
4. The Kremlin is closed on Thursdays and the Hermitage- on Mondays. Every first Thursday of the month - entrance to the Hermitage is free to all. Also, Hermitage is free with a student card.
5. The Armoury Chamber is the main attraction inside the Kremlin, and tickets there are often sold out within hours. To make sure you get in, come early. For example, the ticket office is open at 9:30; you need to be there at 9:00 or even 8:30 (in summer). Box offices are located outside the Kremlin wall in the Aleksandrov Gardens. An audio guide inside the museum is free.
6. The Diamond collection is a separate exhibition inside the Armory Chamber which requires an additional ticket that you can purchase once you are inside. Tickets are very limited, and the line is usually long. It’s okay if you don’t get in: many Muscovites have never made it there - and that’s not because of the lack of trying.
7. If you want to visit Lenin's Mausoleum at the Red Square, get some patience. Like if he was alive, he has a hectic schedule and limited visitation hours. Admission is free, but expect to stand in a long line and be prepared to check all your belongings at a nearby storage facility. Admission to Mausoleum allows you to access the part of the Kremlin wall where other prominent people of the Soviet Union are buried. Hours: 10 am -1 pm on Tue, Wed, Thu, Sat
Aeroexpress train is the fastest and the cheapest way to get from Domodedovo International Airport (DME) to downtown Moscow. It departs every 30 min and cost 320 rubles ($10). See their website for the schedule and the instructions on where to purchase the tickets.
Transaero is one of the major Russian airlines with cheap flights between Moscow and St. Petersburg. A round trip will cost you little under $150.
Official English pages for the Moscow Kremlin and the Hermitage.
Bunker-42 used to be a secret shelter built underground during the Cold War as a hiding place in case of nuclear attack. Now it is open to the public and is promoted as a hip place to learn about the history of the conflict. This place is privately owned, so the prices are steep.
English pages of Moscow attractions:
- GULAG History Museum
- Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery
- Museum-reserve Tsaritsyno
- Kolomenskoye Park & Estate
- Tretyakov Art Gallery
- Bolshoi Theatre
English pages of St. Petersburg attractions:
- Peterhof Palace & Gardens
- Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography (Kunstkammer)
- Catherine's Palace & Gardens
You can download the printable version of Russian Itinerary, Budget, & Tips in pdf format here
Are you planning a trip to Russia? You may also find useful:
How To Navigate Moscow Subway: The Hacking Tips
Ticket Prices In Russia: A Pleasant Surprise!
Stress-Free Day At The Hermitage