With a week on my hands between Mongolia and Turkey, I decided that rather than spend 50 hours jetting back to and fro Australia, I’d go to Russia.
I’d been wanting to go for years. My grandma on my dad’s side was Russian so I’d always wanted to explore that part of my heritage. And besides, who could resist the land of fur hats, Russian dolls, socialist architecture and girls with really, really long hair?
After getting in touch with Beyond Travel (the company that’s been sending Aussies to Russia for over 20 years, they do it extremely well), organising a couple of assignments to do there, and spending the better part of a month getting my visa sorted (this isn’t an easy process, best be organised like I wasn’t), I flew from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia into Moscow, where I spent two nights before heading to St Petersburg for four nights on the high-speed Sapsan train.
In hindsight I would have reversed the amount of nights spent in each. Although St Petersburg was beautifully European and picturesque, I felt that Moscow had more grit and represented the edgy Russia I had in my mind. And it definitely helped that a friend hooked me up with his gorgeous Muscovite friend Lilya to take me out and give me an insider’s view on the city.
I stayed at the Hotel Metropol, a fabulously grandiose, Art Nouveau-style hotel dating back to 1907.
I loved it not only for its superbly central location (five minutes’ walk from Red Square and the Kremlin and across the road from the Bolshoi Theatre), but also because it oozed Russian opulence and general over-the-topness: think live harp music at breakfast in the grand dining room where caviar, smoked salmon, blinis and Prosecco were served; more marble, chandeliers and stained glass than you could poke a bottle of vodka at; 365 rooms filled with art and antiques… I’m not usually a fan of huge hotels, but big just works in Moscow.
SEE + DO
Red Square is dead sexy. I saw St Basil’s Cathedral by day and by night with its iconic candy-coloured candle-shaped minarets, and suggest you to do the same. By day you’ll get the buzz, by night you’ll get the romance – complete with a PDA if you’re lucky like me (see final pic).
The fairytale, ochre-coloured State Historical Museum is in Red Square too, as is the Lenin Mausoleum where the Russian communist revolutionary is still buried (beware extreeemely long lines), and the ultra-posh and glass atrium-topped GUM department store.
Just around the corner is the Kremlin, the current residence of Vladimir Putin so a potent symbol of Russia’s political power, and home to the gold-domed Assumption Cathedral which looks as though its topped with Herschey’s kisses. Make sure you check out the magnificent Armoury Museum, which is crammed full of a jaw-dropping collection of royal carriages, gowns, jewels and Faberge eggs. Crowded, but unmissable.
Speaking of unmissable, head below ground for a tour of Moscow’s metro stations (guided if you can since all signs are in the completely bamboozling Cyrillic text). Stalin was determined to build the best public transport system in the world, so many of the stations were built in a grand Soviet style with lavish use of marble, mosaics, sculptures and chandeliers. More like art museums than stations, really.
EAT + DRINK
I fell head over heels for Lavkalavka, a farmer’s cafe on Petrovka Street (and a few other locations around Moscow), just ten minutes’ walk from Red Square. This cafe/store sources all its seasonal, organic produce from more than 36 Russian farms that are either organic or biodynamic. Can you imagine my delight when I saw seasonal organic soup, Jerusalem artichoke ‘fries’ and organic apple juice on the menu? I gobbled it all up in their small sunshine-soaked garden, then shopped up a storm in their produce store, stocking up on organic dried apricots, walnuts, vegan sugar-free chocolate, kefir and chamomile tea for the journey ahead.
I was warned that Café Pushkin was a little touristy but I went anyway, and I’m glad I did. The Russian food was delectable (I had a fantastic beetroot salad, and apparently their Russian pies are delicious), but it was the service from some of the slickest waiters in Moscow, and the fabulous 19th-century wood-panelled decor that really sang.
The chic TimeOut rooftop bar above the quirky Peking Hotel (a former KGB building) is the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the city at magic hour.
Patriarch’s Pond (or ‘the Ponds’ to locals) is a hip, un-touristy little neighbourhood that, as the name suggests, is centered around a picturesque pond, which on the night I visited was lined with hot young people chatting, reading, sipping aperitifs and just generally being sexy.
Lilya took me out for a delicious Italian feast here at Uilliam’s Italian on one of the narrow backstreets lined with hip restaurants and cafes, quirky boutiques and private art galleries. But she reckons you could choose from any of the neighbouring restaurants including Mari Vanna (Russian fare) or Saxon Parole and have an equally great experience.