Category Archives: Russia

#rtw2012 – St. Petersburg

This is one in a series of blog posts about my 2012 trip around the world, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may want to start at the beginning for context.

The way I set up my trip in Russia was two long weekends in Moscow, with the 5 days between them in St. Petersburg. I wanted to optimize for Moscow nightlife, and I’m glad I did it that way, although St. Petersburg can definitely hold its own in this area too. More on that below.

Sergei and I on the train.

I took the overnight “Red Arrow” train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. This was an adventure, highly recommended. It’s a fairly fancy train, comfortable, and a lot of fun. My cabin mate was a 55-60-year-old man named Sergei, who had a great attitude, amazing stories, and a capacity for vodka drinking far greater than my own.

I wouldn’t count on the train’s food service, though. You can get much better food for cheap from the train station stands and take it with you. That’s what I did. Sergei brought drinks 🙂

Riding in the back of Sergei’s car

Sergei was nice enough to have his driver drop me off at my AirBnb apartment. The latter, conveniently, was in the same set of buildings as the US consulate. It was cool the see the marines nearby, in Russia of all places.

First view of the Neva river. Nice wide sidewalks for jogging.

The garden.

As soon as I got there, I went out for a recon jog. The jogging path took me along the Summer Garden, Field of Mars, and of course the Neva river. All are beautiful, fun places that I visited multiple times at a slower pace later.

Fun ad near the Field of Mars (to the left of this pic.)

It was immediately evident why some call St. Petersburg “the Venice of the North.” There are canals everywhere, with bridges over them, and boats traveling around.

Tempting to jump aboard…

I continued to the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, just to check out the queues. I had already bought a ticket online the day before, for the next day, so I wasn’t going in today. The queues were very long, as every guide book says. I don’t know why people don’t buy tickets online. This was one of the very few museums on my trip to which I dedicated a whole day in advance, and I was glad that I did.

Ticket queue for the Hermitage Museum. Buy a ticket online to bypass it.. 
Hermitage Museum directions.

The Winter Palace and museum buildings are impressive from the outside, but they blew my mind inside. The Hermitage might be the most impressive museum I’ve ever seen, or tied with the Louvre for that honor. Its collections would be incredible (top 5 in the world) even if they were housed in a dingy basement. The buildings themselves would be a top-tier attraction in most cities, even if they were empty. The combination of the contents with the buildings, how they’re arranged together, is mind-blowing.

Palace Square. The girls in uniforms are local tour guides.

I kept jogging through the Palace Square towards Nevskiy Prospekt, the main street. It’s a really fun town for walking, jogging, and biking — at least in the summer (I was there in July), when the sidewalks are clear, no ice anywhere. I jogged as far as Ploschad Vosstaniya, then back home to shower and change. It made for a nice refreshing loop.

Nevskiy Prospekt, the main street.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s going on 24 hours  a day.

OK, the Hermitage. It was an amazing museum, and would be my #1 stop when I come back to St. Petersburg, I think. There’s always more to see. They have entire rooms dedicating to specific artists, e.g. some of the European masters. So instead of just one Picasso painting, they’d have a room with a dozen or more. The collection is insane. It also extends to sculptures and other types of art.

My Hermitage museum ticket, with extra sticker for photography permit.

Lucky timing to visit a special exhibit from Santiago Calatrava.

My pics don’t do the ornate ceilings, floors, or surroundings justice.

So many masterpieces they are just crammed together..

The Raphael Loggias, NBD. Yes, that Raphael.

The original of that one…

Yes, I tried to pay with a credit card, just for kicks. Bank of America, no less.

Many millions of dollars in art.

The short dude with the wings is always Cupid

I have dozens of photos from the Hermitage. I won’t post them all here. If we’re Facebook friends, you can see them there.

Trips are better with locals. My St. Petersburg guide, Anna.

i was fortunate to have a local tour guide I’d met the previous evening. She was surprisingly informed, and it was nice to tour a museum not by myself during this trip. Thanks, Anna 🙂

By the Kunstkamera entrance. The “no pictures inside” rules are strictly enforced.

Another awesome museum in St. Petersburg is the Kunstkamera, and specifically the deformed “creatures” exhibit. This is gross, and makes the X-Files look tame, but it’s also fascinating to see.

Heyo fun church!

Entrance ticket!

Looks great at night, too.

Of the several excellent churches in St. Petersburg, my favorite was the Church of the Savior on Blood, which has several variations of that name. It’s a colorful church that you can tour, just a few steps off Nevskiy Prospekt. As I found out, it’s also near several bars and restaurants, a convenient location all around.

Bears outside the Admiralty.

The churches of St. Peter and St. Paul (part of a fortified complex that has little else to see), and St. Isaac’s, were both fun as well. One of them is right by the Admiralty, which was closed for renovations while I was there, but had a fun exhibit of standing bears outside the building.

Important people buried here.

Gorgeous mosaics.

the “baby Cazr” is buried there.

As with Moscow, St. Petersburg has many cultural attractions that are not religious. The Mariinskiy Theatre, for example, as well as many others.

Carmen, one of my favorite operas! Lucky timing.

The nightlife in St. Petersburg was fun. It didn’t feel quite as over-the-top as Moscow, but there still good drinks, good nightclubs, and good options at all hours of the day or night.

Is that an ad? Yes, it is.

Learning the different local beers.

Nevskiy Prospekt at 4:30am.

Solid drinks.

Shot flights? Shot flights.

Of the cocktail bars, I have a specific note to mention 22-13 here. It stuck out as having Eastern Standard-caliber drinks (one of my measuring sticks, a favorite Boston bar). But apparently it’s been bought by new ownership?

There are many bridges over the Neva river. They are closed (meaning cars can travel over them) most of the time. They have a set schedule of when they open to allow boats under them. They are also nicely lit up at night, so watching them open and close is a sort of tourist (and local) attraction. This typically happens in the middle of the night, so it’s a nice break between dinner / drinking / dancing / whatever you’re doing at that time. Here’s a schedule.

The bridge lit up on a rainy night.

Watching the bridge open up, letting boats go under it.

I was apparently there during a busy wedding season, as there were bridal parties taking pictures everywhere.

St. Petersburg’s underground train / metro system is well-known for its very deep and pretty stations. I made sure to use the subway a couple of times, and it was fun. It was easier to find your way around compared to Moscow’s subway, because the signs had some English on them.

Descending into the deep subway station.

English on the signs!

On some of them, anyways.

Overall, St. Petersburg struck me as a beautiful city. It was clean and welcoming, friendly. It was easy to navigate, and gorgeous to walk around. I’d love to go back there in the future.

And sometimes, late at night, you run into a random group of women on horseback on the main street of the city. Why? Not clear. I’m surprised they were staying on the horses at that point.

I took the “Sapsan” (Falcon) high-speed train back to Moscow. Onto the next city.

Re-plums FTW.


#rtw2012 – Moscow

This is one of a series of blog posts about my round-the-world trip in 2012, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may wish to read the first couple of background posts for context.

After a great few days in Istanbul, I flew on to Israel to hang out with my family. That was a lot of fun, as always, and I might blog about it later. But after that, I went to Moscow. Russia had long been on my “top 5 places to visit” list, so I was excited to swing by for the first time.

Landing in Moscow, it immediately felt unwelcome. This feeling would permeate the entire city, which is kind of bizarre. There is very little English signage, even at the standard international airport spots.

One of the few international signs at the airport.

Thankfully, I had amazing hosts in Moscow, Anna and her husband Dima. They made my visit to the city so much better. And the city itself has a ton to offer. More on both below. But my initial impression was “whoa! This is going to be interesting.” A uniquely “visitors not welcome here” feeling.

Also worth noting before I get into details: Moscow was the first city of the trip for which I still have all my pictures, not just a few low-resolution captures from Foursquare. To find out how / why I lost many pictures, see rtw2012 – Photography. Or if you want to just see pictures, here’s the Facebook album.

From the airport I took the subway, for the first of many times, to meet my host Anna. I had to change lines once and it was in the middle of rush hour. It was crowded, everybody moving fast. I love that rush, especially in a new city where I’ve never been before.

To the metro…

What station is this?

Nice train station.

There are no English signs in the subway, almost at all. So I had to improve my Russian reading, or at least trans-literation, skills, on the fly. It’s actually not that hard, thankfully.

One of the first signs I saw coming out of the metro was for a Tiesto show, and that was followed closely by an Armin van Buuren show. I was curious to hear some local DJ talent, as well. It later turned out they were pretty good.

I met up with Anna, and we walked to her apartment. She very graciously let me stay there while I was in Moscow, and it’s a beautiful apartment in a great location. Thanks for the connection, T.

After showering and changing, we went out to dinner. The open-air restaurant / bar / lounge is part of a little complex, a few places, in a former candy factory, I think? Some kind of manufacturing plant, anyways, which makes for a cool vibe. The weather was perfect, and the crowd was fascinating to watch. The thing at this place is that you pick your (meat), and they grill it for you, with various sides, Russian-style. It was delicious.

One of many impressive Moscow structures, from a taxi.
We swung by some sort of bike rally near Moscow State University, on the way to a nearby lookout.

From there we went to Strelka, a well-known bar not far away. It was a good bar with great music, setting the theme for Moscow.


The next day I walked around many of Moscow’s central, historical buildings. Walking past the Lubyanka was a thrill, having read so many books that mention it directly or in passing.

A little morning refreshment on my walk.

Walking around Red Square is just impressive. I’d read so much about it, but seeing it in person is something else. It’s huge and foreboding, like it’s designed to intimidate. There were many people out and about in the perfect afternoon weather. Everything seemed spotlessly clean, unlike some of the side streets and alleys — par for the course in a large town.

Hats for sale in Red Square.

Available for pictures, individually or together…

St. Basil’s cathedral, the famous dome seen in many pictures, was cool. There was (luckily) not a long line to see Lenin’s mausoleum, and I also got an unexpected treat from Formula 1 visiting town for a day or two, drawing a large crowd for a demo race.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

I stopped by the GUM mall on a friend’s recommendation. I didn’t do a lot of shopping on this trip in general, but this mall was very cool. It reminded me of Milano’s covered shopping arcades.

Inside the GUM mall / department store.
Watching F1’s “Moscow City Racing” behind Red Square. You can see one car there…

It was fun to walk around the classic main streets of Moscow, such as Tverskaya and Petrovka. I checked out the Bolshoi theatre, but did not go to a show. From there I made my way to Pushkin’s square, and back home along the “bulvar” (ring road).

Not random at all. At least it’s in English too.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Red Square.
An accidental selfie in Pushkinskaya square.

I’ve only read about this place in about 50 spy novels: the Hotel Metropol.

The Kremlin itself was fascinating. It took a while to get tickets, but walking around once inside was cool. i didn’t do all my research, so I didn’t realize it was actually numerous buildings, churches, and other things to check out.

Kremlin ticket offices.
Inside the Kremlin.

My, that’s a big cannon you’ve got there. (That’s the Tsar Cannon.)

I don’t think I’m supposed to take pictures in here.

She was singing and praying.

The gardens around Red Square are very nice, too. Some people were dancing, others just walking around. They are really clean and well-kept, and everything was blossoming. (This is in July…)

Russia’s “hero cities” (Soviet names) by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Peeps be dancing in the square.

Nice haircut, little kid 😉

I also went to the Tretyakov Gallery, and it was good, but nothing compared to the Winter Palace / Hermitage museum I visited in St. Petersburg the next week (subject of the next blog post in this series.)

An interesting couple.

Time to go in to this restaurant and improve my Russian…

Petrovka street has a bunch of fancy shops…

Like this Christian Louboutin store.

Oligarch much? Compensate much?
Denis Simachev‘s store / bar / restaurant was cool.
Sunny afternoon.

Anna and I grabbed dinner at a Soviet “traditional style” restaurant near the Lubyanka, and it was delicious. I really liked the Russian country dark bread, especially fresh and hot. Overall, the food is fairly simple, earthy, and much of it (sadly) is fried. As in several other countries, McDonald’s was a popular destination for many locals, although I did not swing by.

Some typical Russian food.

Love that bread.
Yup, a Starbucks. Nope, I didn’t stop inside.

Moscow nightlife deserves a chapter of its own, really. I loved the clubbing scene here. A lot of people complain about “feis kontrol” (pronounced “face control”), perhaps rightfully, but the system is pretty easy to work, and similar to other picky parts of the world. It’s easier as a foreigner, actually.

No one complains about the “local” women. After a night or two, when I saw any non-blonde woman, I started to think she was wearing a wig just to stand out.

You know it’s a good night when you give your phone to someone to take a pic of you, and they take pics of random people.

Nice ceiling. It changed colors, too.
Many vodkas.

Ever hear a Russian remix of “Call Me Maybe?” 
The legendary “Night Flight” — doesn’t look like much from the outside…

Layered shots, again.

Why are some of us having shots with a straw?

A 5D show?!?

Pacha Moscow is inside that little alley.

I’m not going to elaborate on the Moscow nightclubs here, but if you see me in person, ask for stories. They’re solid. Krysha Myra, Fabrique, Propaganda, Night Flight, they’re legendary places for a reason.

With pickles on the side? Sure.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and selection of craft cocktails in Moscow. There was plenty of vodka everywhere, obviously, but also a variety of other interesting options. City Space‘s “molecular mixology” stood out, and their “Nano Maria” was amazing.

Even though it was July, not the holidays, some buildings were lit up at night.

How late (or early…) must you be at Red Square to capture it with no visitors? Very.

Sunrise in Red Square, ~5am.

One final attraction worth visiting in Moscow is a tiny museum, but a fascinating one, is the official Gulag History museum. You have to go through a small archway on the fancy Tverskaya street, past a fake barbed wire fence and guard towers, made to look like the entrance to a Gulag camp. It’s really cool inside, featuring many photographs in all their versions, “official” and real, edited and otherwise, chronicling media manipulation, and of course the gulags themselves. Highly recommended.

Soon enough, it was time for me to board the classic “Red Arrow” train on an overnight ride to St. Petersburg. Moscow was a blast. Even though it initially felt unwelcoming, I can see myself coming back.

Caught one brief rain shower — had to run to the metro. At least I wasn’t wearing heels, unlike my tour guide…
Looks like the right train.