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Trip Report Russia: Trip Report....mom & teenaged son (really long!)

This is a series of Trip reports that I originally posted on Trip Advisor. I've been enjoying trip reports on THIS website as I plan our Turkey trip that I thought I would repost mine here. So if there are mentions of TripAdvisor, that's why! :)

Trip Report - Part One: Preparation & Arrival

Apr 19, 2012

Moscow:
Preparation and arrival:
I must admit that about 2-3 years ago I first looked at this trip and found the planning so daunting that I felt at the time that you MUST book everything through a travel agency and do an organized tour. That was just so expensive (and so far off how we usually plan trips, where I feel the planning is half the fun and we are strictly DIY travelers) that I gave up the idea of the trip at that point. I’m happy to say when I came back to it again last fall, at the urging of my 16 year old son that really wanted to visit Moscow, that I found that my initial impression couldn’t have been further from the truth! We were a mom and 16 year old son, travelling in the off-season, and we had not a spot of trouble. I have to say that for all the crazy stories, Moscow felt far safer to us than Rome, Naples (by far!), or even parts of Paris. St. Petersburg seemed like a place where you might get your pocket picked in the high season (but still probably less so than in Rome or Barcelona), but as far as VIOLENT crimes I just can’t even imagine. The police presence is always there in both cities, but they really struck as that they were there to protect people and stop petty criminals rather than shaking people down for money and bribes (yes, we’d heard all the stories, including from family members that travelled in 2002). The one time I thought a metro station was a bit (just a bit!) sketchy in a far-flung area of Moscow (far off the tourist route) and some of the characters worried me JUST a bit, there were immediately several policemen right on the heels of the guys that worried me. So happy to see those Moscow policemen! 

Certainly the thing that at first initially seemed “hard” was the visa process. In the end, there was really nothing to it. It took a bit of time and a good bit of money, but that was it. Really, it’s not as confusing as it first seems. When you run into questions, do a search on the message board here or on TripAdvisor as every question about visas has already been asked and answered!

We ended up getting our tourist vouchers and all paperwork that we needed to submit with our visa applications from our St. Petersburg hotel (Comfort Hotel). We chose to get it through them because they were cheaper than doing it through our Moscow Hotel (Hotel Budapest) and the StP hotel was also just smaller and friendlier to converse with via email. We also could have obtained the paperwork through Travisa, who processed our visas. Simply check the costs with each and see which is less. Any hotel can do it for the entirety of your stay if you simply give them the information on all your other hotels (name, address, phone number, dates…). As I said, Travisa (www.travisa.com) processed our visas and it was simple and straightforward. When I went to the Russian Embassy website in the USA (kind of hard to find the official one!) and went to their information on visas, they state they you HAVE to use a visa processing company and gave 3 that could be used. I briefly looked at the websites and picked the one that looked most user-friendly and that was Travisa.

Guidebooks: There was no one guidebook that stood alone. We used a mix of Fodor’s Moscow & St. Petersburg (we liked this for information that was meaty enough to take along to basically use in place of a tour guide for volume of information), Frommer’s Moscow Day by Day and St. Petersburg Day by Day (these Day by Day guides proved very useful when we had extra time on our hands, and also gave great information on things off the beaten track), and a Moscow book with good pictures…..was it DK? Eyewitness? Anyway, that one we found best for reading before we went, as it gave us an idea with the photos and drawings what we would see and helped us choose what we wanted to see (I left that book in the Moscow hotel because I was weighed down with books!).

We used the Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook. What can I say? It’s basically the only small phrasebook available. Honestly, for travel to Moscow & St.P I thought it focused far too much on very specific phrases that we would NEVER use in casual tourism, and far too little on realistic phrases we could have used (like how to order a coffee with cream, how to get your blini “to go”, how to ask for the check or a water with “no gas”). We figured all of these phrases out eventually, mostly with the kind assistance of tour guides and the staff at the Comfort Hotel. I sorely missed the Rick Steve’s series of phrasebooks that we usually use for our travels.

Books we read in preparation:
Robert K. Massie both Nicholas and Alexandra and Catherine the Great. I wish I had time to read his book about Peter the Great before going. Both these books gave so much insight into the tsars and also the revolution.
Russka, by Edward Rutherford (WOW! Long book but GREAT because it covered basically the whole length of Russian history and made me finally understand Tartars and boyars and patriarchs…..!)
Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman (about the gulag system….kind of….and the mentality that allowed it)
City of Thieves by David Benioff (set during the Siege of Leningrad)
The Siege by Helen Dunmore (also about the Siege of Leningrad, but TOTALLY different)
And over the years I have read Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy…..
For just purely fun fiction set in Russia that gave a sense of the place and time, we read (besides oodles of spy thrillers over the years)…
The Charm School, by Nelson DeMille (set near the end of Soviet Russia)
Child 44 and The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith (set in Soviet Russia right before and after Stalin’s death)
Moscow Rules, by Daniel Silva (set in post-Soviet Russia)

We also checked our local library for documentaries and watched several on Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, the tsars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin……all were so helpful.

I think if you really understand Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (and understand what made them “great”) and also know the story of the last Romanovs, you will get much much more from your trip!

We travelled when it was still “winter” (end of March, beginning of April) and we found that in the evenings there really wasn’t much for a mom and teenaged son to do with the weather so cold. Plus after a long day of sightseeing we kind of needed to decompress and relax. So most of our evenings were spent relaxing in our hotel rooms, reading books (see the list above)(Plus The Hunger Games which actually had a bit of a Soviet feel to it also). Luckily my teen son and I are both bookworms, so it was enjoyable for us. If you are similar, take books! 

While in Moscow we really enjoyed the free English language newspaper (check the lobby of your hotel) The Moscow Times. It is written with quite an irreverent tone and you can tell that many of the writers are quite the character! It made great reading in the evenings, and we enjoyed both the hysterically funny articles poking fun at the ridiculous nature of the government (“Medvedev’s cat ran away! Why won’t he admit it?!”) and the editorials (often highly thought-provoking) and many articles about current events, corruption, etc that were fascinating. In St. Petersburg look for the sister paper The St. Petersburg Times. I hate to say “It will make you laugh! It will make you cry!” but that’s pretty much how that paper is.

ARRIVAL IN MOSCOW:
On our flight on Delta from Amsterdam, the little white form that is perforated down the middle was handed out to each passenger. These need to be filled out for each passenger (including children). All information you can get off your passport and visa. We lined up for passport control and after a short line we were checked, passports stamped, and half the little white form handed back to us. Simply keep this in your passport and they will take it when you leave the country. From the time we stepped off the plane until we finished passport control was about 15 minutes.

We had set up in advance for a driver to pick us up through www.go-to.ru and were really glad we did. It was cheaper than a taxi and nearly as cheap for 2 people as the train/subway combo that goes to the airport. Boy, I wouldn’t suggest the subway on arrival after a transatlantic flight with luggage. The combination of long walks through metro stations and many stairs and having to figure out the metro map in the Cyrillic language immediately upon arrival wouldn’t be fun at all. I have to give kudos to www.go-to.ru because they made it easy (they were also far cheaper than setting up the transfer through our hotel). I used their website, but since I didn’t know our arrival terminal I also emailed them and they made the necessary changes to the reservation. About 48 hours in advance of arrival they sent me an email confirmation that included the type of car that would be driven and even the license plate number. This was nice to see when we left the airport to confirm we had the right driver (especially after all the crazy stories about being driven to the woods and robbed by Russian taxi drivers that you hear). Our driver was SO NICE. He spoke only a smattering of English, but tried to point things out to us as we drove. Between his few words of English and our few words of Russian we figured things out! Forget all your fears about the drivers, this guy was great. Unlike so many other airport drivers that we have had in other European countries, he didn’t smoke (yay!) and he didn’t talk on his cell phone the whole time. When he did pick up his phone twice to answer a call, he apologized to us and spoke softly and ended the call quickly. No tip is expected by the drivers (loving this country already!).
Upon arrival at our hotel, when we checked in they began the paperwork for the migration cards. THIS IS NO BOTHER TO YOU. This is something that the hotels worry about, not the tourists. They kept our passports for maybe 30 minutes (long enough for us to take our bags to the room and then come back down) and then handed them back. They told us to come back after 6 pm on the next business day (which we arrived on a Friday night, so that ended up being Monday after 6 pm) to pick up our migration cards. These cards (when we finally got them) aren’t really cards at all, basically a blue piece of paper about ¼ the size of an 8x11 piece of paper. This is simply one more piece of paper to stuff into your passport for safekeeping. When we moved on to our next hotel we simply handed them our passports with the white piece of paper plus the blue migration card piece of paper and our glued-in visas and they worked their magic and handed our passports and all the little slips of paper back to us in less than 30 minutes. They kind of laughed and said “Oh no, all of this is OUR worry and not YOUR worry!” Really everyone, don’t stress out about all of these migration cards and immigration forms and blah blah blah. You’re walked through it by your hotel and even in my sleep-deprived state it was no worry at all, they just took it, took care of things, and handed stuff back to me. When you go to leave the country, simply hand over your passport and all the pieces of paper you’ve collected and they’ll pull out what they want. In the end, we came home with the blue migration card paper still stuffed in our passports.

Well we've arrived, and it was a Friday night at the end of March. Myself and my 16 year old son. We were a little surprised to find the sun still high in the sky when we got to our hotel a bit before 7 pm after landing at SVO at 5. We checked in at the Hotel Budapest (see that review) and decided first thing was to brush our teeth (yippeee! I'm a dentist and that made me so happy!) and then go and find money. Yes, we arrived in Russia without a single ruble. I was going to look for an ATM/cash machine in the airport but we transitted the airport so quickly and then had our go-to.ru driver waiting there for us that I didn't get a chance. But no problem because I had paid for our driver in advance with a credit card and no tip is expected. We stepped out of our hotel in central Moscow and looked right and looked left and realized that our worries about money machines were for naught. Like every other major city in the world, they are EVERYWHERE in Moscow (and StP). In fact, that could have been our mantra for the trip. Whenever confronted with the phrase "But isn't Russia so....(insert frightening adjective like "dangerous")" you could literally answer it with "Like every other major city in the world....." So we hopped 1/2 a block down and worked the money machine (with Russian and English options and my 4-digit pin) with no problem whatsoever (like every other major city in the world!). Got our rubles, looked at them (never having seen them before!) and stashed them away.


Let me digress a bit on 2 topics here.....money machines first. There are basically 3 styles of money machines. One is a twirpy little lone-standing machine that often looks beat up and looks like someone just plopped it on the sidewalk. My 16 year old son and I laughed that we were pretty sure we could pick one up and carry it back to our hotel with us. We deemed these "possibly sketchy" and never used them. Then there were the ones that were part of the wall outside a bank. We used these often. Then I realized that there were often machines at banks, but in an entry way. When I found those I started using those just because they seemed to lend an extra bit of security (right or wrong, they might actually be easier to tamper with but maybe not because of security cameras?) and they were warmer (it was cold while we were there!). I would say I probably used the in-the-wall-outside 90% of the time and the "inside" ones 10% of the time. Really, these are nothing to stress about.


Second tangent to veer off on: What do you carry with you? We were travelling when it was still WINTER (though the calendar said SPRING) so we had the advantage of multiple layers and inside zippered pockets. I also carried a smallish over-the-shoulder purse with a short shoulder strap (it's almost more of a handbag length) so it tucked kind of into my armpit/under my arm and was easy for me to hold securely across my chest in the metro or crowds ("Like every other major city in the world"). We were SO worried about being shaken down by police for bribes and having our passports inspected or having our passports stolen before we went. After discussion here on the forum it was determined that carrying a photocopy of your passport and visa with you is a better idea than carrying them, and if confronted just take the officials back to your hotel to see the real things. We did this EXCEPT for on days 2 & 3 in Moscow and that was only because there was a massive police and military response to demonstrations (not that we ever saw the demonstrations, just lots of response to them). There were literally thousands of soldiers around the Kremlin, and then in squares all around the "inside ring". We did see a few people (100% Russians) being hassled by police at the Triumphal Square (which is ground zero for demonstrations, and is quite a way from the Kremlin) but the people mostly shook the police off but as we waded through the crowds and troops and riot police (and confronted many blocked off squares/ploschads and streets on our way back to our hotel) my son and I realized that maybe this was the ONE time it might behoove us to actually carry the real passports. And it was easy enough to have them in a zippered inside pocket. I often had my son carry both because he had the best inside pocket, and then they wouldn't be in where I was pulling out the money (I was more afraid of accidently dropping them when pulling something out of my pocket). Having said all that, we never felt in any danger and we noticed most of the soldiers (not being much older than my son) were simply trying to find a spot to stay warm and were checking out my son's brightly colored Reebok Zig shoes.

We also were sooooo concerned before arriving about where to put money on our persons so we wouldn't lose it all if we were robbed or shaken down for a bribe.....ha ha. That seems kind of funny now. Again, "Like any major city in the world" be careful about pickpockets, but this didn't seem a problem in the off season (I think it was too cold and everyone was too bundled up) and I just watched how the Russian ladies were handling their purses and did likewise. If I had a large amount of money, I did tuck it into an inside zippered pocket.

OK, back to the actual trip.....

After getting our money from the cash machine, we were TIRED and HUNGRY after our long flight Detroit-Amsterdam-Moscow. We went out to eat, and settled on the restaurant Roni that was on the same block as the Hotel Budapest. Their menu was in both Russian and English, so it was easy. We think some of the staff spoke some English, but with the loud pulsing techno music (am I getting old?) it was hard to hear what they were saying. A lot of pointing and we got ordered. Actually GREAT Asian food (!!!!) and a friendly "hip" atmosphere. This restaurant made it apparent to us that dining out here is much more of an "event" than at home in the USA. We managed to spend $55 for the two of us (no alcoholic beverages or I would have fallen asleep with my face in the plate) even though we tried for the cheapest options. After that, fortified by food in our bellies, we decided to walk to Red Square to view it at night. I'm so glad we did because it was MAGICAL and really, I almost think your first view of RS should be at night. We didn't have our map with us, so we wandered in what we thought was the right direction (I should have listened to my son, because he was more right than I was and I looped us way out by Lubyanka before cutting back which added a huge walking distance on). It was after dark and we were alone and there weren't many pedestrians out (at all!) and we were stumbling along semi-lost, but all seemed safe. We managed to find it and WOW! Truly, the look on my son's face made every bit of planning worthwhile. He was the one that really wanted to come here, and that first view of Red Square was worth everything. Got some great photos and watched them clearing the last of the snow (it had snowed that day). Then walked back to our hotel the amazingly shorter "right" way. :)

The next morning we were up, breakfasted at the hotel, and set out to join up with the Moscow Free Tour. We met the group with no problem and it was a young, friendly group from all around the world and we enjoyed chatting and comparing notes while waiting for our guide. Airat arrived and led us off and it was completely enjoyable. This is a no-brainer of a tour to do, as it kind of orients you to the sights and gives you background. AND it's nice to have a Russian to ask questions of. I would highly recommend this for your first morning. It is a walking tour, though, and you travel along at a fast pace and cover several miles, so if you're not up to that and aren't a reasonably fast walker or not sure on your feet, don't do it. I would also recommend (as with any walking tour anyplace) to really utilize the time to talk to your guide. You will have the best experience if you stay at the front and use the time between "stop & talk" areas to pepper your guide with questions. Airat was a young, friendly guy and was happy to answer questions on literally every topic we threw at him. The smaller your group is and the more you stay at the front, the more you'll enjoy it. Everyone tipped him at the end.

My son and I then hit a common coffee shop/restaurant (they're all over the place) that if you sound it out is pronounced "Coffee House" but I don't know how to type Cyrillic so.....maybe someone can help. They were a good bet for lunch because they had a menu with photos of all the food and both English and Russian translations. Easy to point and order with our fractured Russian since no one in the shop spoke any English. We also used their bathrooms. It was a lunch type menu with sandwiches and wraps and salads. Reasonable prices. Couldn't figure out if tip was included so we left a tip (10%).

After lunch we met back up with Airat for the Red Trace/KGB tour that we had set up in advance via the internet. He gave my son a student discount and we paid at the end with euros that I had left over from previous trips to Europe (which made it easier than spending my rubles). Moscow Free Tours will take US Dollars and Euros readily for any paid tour (probably other currency too) which is nice to pay in cash "from home" rather than hitting the money machine yet again. The tour was good and started at Lubyanka Square and finished at Triumphal Square (Malaskaya?) smack in the middle of soldiers and riot police and a demonstration. Couldn't have planned that more perfectly! Just as good as the tour was the chance to talk to Airat about his experiences growing up in Russia and his family's experiences with Stalin's purges and his thoughts on the current happenings (the Kremlin was also myseriously closed without explanation for 2 days) and all sorts of things. Really, this made our visit to Moscow. His tales of his parents taking the train to Moscow from Kazan to shop at GUM and their trips to the first McDonalds in Kazan as a kid were so funny and so telling! He's very politically minded, so he had a lot to say about Putin and current events. We also learned a lot about far ranging subjects (including architecture) that we took on with us to StP.

That night we ended up eating at the McDonalds not far from Triumphal Square (is it Malaskaya?). It was the first McDonalds in the Soviet Union so we convinced ourselves it was "cultural". Really, after our long busy day we were just looking for the easiest and cheapest option to get food in our bellies. Ordering ended up being a lot of pointing again. The place was JAMMED with Russian teenagers (!) and Russian soldiers (!!!!!). I wish I had had the guts to take a picture of my 16 year old son standing in the bathroom line with all the Russian soldiers in their awesome winter uniforms. He commented when he came out of the bathroom (the only civilian in there AND an American teen) "Well that was a little strange and intimidating!" :D But I will add that the soldiers and police never acted in any way that seemed intimidating (besides their meer presence at the urinals!).

We walked back to our hotel (quite a way through the city) dodging around closed streets and squares and rows of army trucks. We didn't feel like attempting the metro yet. As we walked we practiced sounding signs out in Russian and started getting good at the alphabet. Nice time to discuss all we had heard and seen that day. Moscow is easy to navigate on foot, though lots of cobblestones.

By the time we got back to our hotel, we were so happy to be WARM (it was seriously cold on the Red Trace/KGB tour which is all outside and the wind was BLOWING and it was probably about 17 degrees fahrenheit) and just wanted to sit and be quiet. Enough mother-son togetherness! :) So we pulled our books out of our suitcases and spent the rest of the evening reading with CNN and ESPN playing quietly in the background (ahhh! English!).

We did find that almost every night we would suddenly look at the clock and realize it was almost midnight and we were still wide awake and we really needed to close our books and go to bed!!!!! :)

End of day one! Tomorrow....our carefully made plans go awry because the Kremlin is closed! When in Russia, it's best to roll with the punches

Moscow – Day 2

Let me back up a bit and tell you a little about us. We were a mom and son (aged “almost 17”, 11th grader) from Michigan in the USA (so the cold weather didn’t bother us). We have travelled extensively overseas; though this was the first time the whole family didn’t travel together (my husband and younger son were hiking the Appalachian Trail in the USA). Russia was my son’s choice. Why did he pick it? An interest in military and Soviet history, an interest in the KGB, an interest in a career in the CIA or something having to do with national security and international relations, and years of reading way too many spy novels! ;) I was happy to go because I’d always had an interest in the tsars and the last Romanovs, and grew up as a child of the Cold War (I was born in 1967) always waiting for nuclear annihilation. My mother’s parents were immigrants from Lithuania, fleeing the Russians, so that had always added to the mystique. I’m pretty sure my grandparents rolled in their graves when I uttered the comment “The Russian people are so nice!”

Our style of travel: We always try to find value when we travel, and prefer to spend less money than more. Our ideal hotel has a central location, is clean and friendly, and has nice hot showers, all for a good price! (you can find the former in Moscow, but good luck with the latter). We did find that our hotel was SIGNIFICANTLY less expensive because we were there in the off-season, and also because 3 of our 4 nights in Moscow were deemed “weekend” nights and thus had a SIZABLE drop in price for those nights. This was so worthwhile that I would really recommend you try to take advantage of being in Moscow over a weekend for no other reason than to save money. We also are more the “eat to live” than “live to eat” sort of people. Good local food for a good local price is what we aim for and while we enjoy good food I’m not willing to shell out a lot of money for it day after day and we’re not looking for anything that is fancy or “an event”. We found Moscow to be the most challenging place we’ve ever been to find good inexpensive food. I think this was compounded by the fact that this was our first stop in Russia so we were just figuring things out and getting adjusted. On this trip, we found that after the first day, we never ate lunch (yes, even with a teenaged boy!) because it was just so much hassle to order food due to the language barrier, and it always ended up being quite pricey. We stopped and checked out the pastries sold in the metro stations and “walk unders” many times and tried with our phrasebook to figure out what was in them but had a tough time. Certainly give these a try though, as others we met said they got them repeatedly and they were dirt cheap and great, and always a surprise what you had pointed at to buy. So instead we loaded up on breakfast at our hotel, and then had an early dinner. Once we arrived in St. Petersburg we became regulars at our neighborhood Teremok and popped in there late every afternoon to pick up a blini each to go (vzat s soboy) to stave off hypoglycemia enough so that we could manage wading through the often difficult task of getting dinner. We also found that early dinners tended to cut down on the degree of smoke that was present in restaurants. I wish I had taken along granola or protein bars to snack on during the day. Finding a grocery store in central Moscow was impossible (except for a few very pricey “gourmet” options) although they were plentiful in St. Petersburg.

Quick photography note! (While I’m thinking about it). The bridge behind the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior is a great location to photograph the Kremlin from a distance. Try it both with zoom and not-zoomed. You also have a good view of the Peter the Great statue from here (yep, it’s enormous!). The bridge behind St. Basil’s (in Red Square) is also an awesome location to take photos of the Kremlin and also Red Square from “the back side”. Photos from the bridge behind St. Basil’s and also photos in Red Square of the red building at one end (The State Historical Museum, right?) look best if taken in the morning. Photos of St. Basil’s itself (from the Red Square side) look best if taken later in the afternoon. Or at least that’s what we found to be the case in the spring. But do keep track of the where the sun is because we noticed when the sun was behind us and shining onto the face of a building, the picture was SUPERB and all the colors really shone. Everything looks great at night!

On to our Day!: Sunday, and after a hardy breakfast we walked down to the Kremlin to see if it was still “closed” (after checking with our front desk that told us “the Kremlin is open every day, 7 days!” so it was not well known at the time of our visit that it was closed for 2 days). The ticket sellers would not state why, just that it was closed and would “maybe” be open tomorrow and there were no signs posting the fact. Apparently, this is not a common occurrence, so don’t worry about it happening to you. This threw a wrench into our plans. Fortunately the Armoury Museum was still open, so we decided to spend the morning doing that. While standing in line for the Armoury tickets, ladies would come out periodically and make announcements (in Russian) and then some people would walk inside. Ask around to see if someone else in line can translate (often college students doing a study-abroad in Russia). In our case they were saying that the Kremlin was closed, and the line was for the next session of the Diamond Fund, but if you only wanted to go the Armoury Museum (that was us!) then you could come to the front of the line. We did and went inside (it’s tiny in there) and I was immediately scared by the dour look of the ticket ladies behind the glass. Well lo and behold once I started talking to them in my terribly mangled Russian, they were sweet as pie and tried to be incredibly helpful even though their English was very minimal and they were talking through a little hole in the glass. Honestly, we found this to be the case everywhere. Ticket ladies (museums, palaces, train stations…) that looked rather fierce (and in this case had every reason to be grumpy after spending two days repeating “the Kremlin is closed, I don’t know why, maybe it will be open tomorrow” to dazed tourists) were all incredibly nice and sweet and really tried to be helpful. And it’s amazing how well you can communicate with creative hand gestures and charades and a few words of a shared language. The student discount here AND EVERYWHERE is enormous. ENORMOUS! To get it you almost always have to show a student i.d., though we found that my son’s student identification card from his high school in the USA (which had his name and photo on it) was accepted with no problem whatsoever. Often you will see tickets quoted as “Full” ticket and then the student price is listed as sometimes “Reduced”, “partial”, “student” or “discount” ticket. I can’t think of anyplace we went where there wasn’t a student discount. I should add up how much this saved us, but just with 1 kid this easily equaled probably around $200 during a week. If you have kids that are obviously young then you probably won’t have to produce an i.d., but for any kid that looks older at all definitely bring along their student i.d. card from their school at home.

We entered the Armoury, used their coat check (realizing that coat checks are free and no one seemed to tip). Use the bathroom right near the coat check as it is the only one and is good. We had been told that the audio guides were free to everyone that day (to make up for the fact that the Kremlin was closed???!) so we picked those up at the desk after the coat check. Whatever the cost of the audio guide, GET THE AUDIOGUIDE! Trust me on this! Sometimes I like audio guides, sometimes I don’t, but this one was a really good one. In fact, I think the fact that we had them really contributed to the Armoury being my favorite place we visited in Russia. My 16 year old son confirmed it was really interesting and his comment was “We would have just been wandering around in there having no idea what we were looking at without them!” Once you’re inside, go UP the big staircase to the next floor (there’s a smaller staircase to your left with another gallery, but you’ll do that after doing the upstairs). The audio guides cue you to go to “Display 1” and simply look for the number at the top of the display case. The number is kind of small, but once you realize what you’re looking for it’s easy. The audio guides are nice because they direct you to kind of the “greatest hits” in each display case, then stop (or maybe we paused it when they said “Go to Display Case 2…”?). So you then have time to look at everything else in the display case before moving on with the audio guide. So again GET THE AUDIO GUIDE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The stuff in the Armoury is just a wacky bunch of stuff, and really makes you realize how expensive it was to have nobility! The Armoury probably took us about 2 hours (we didn’t do the Diamond Fund). After that we headed over to do our third tour with Airat of Moscow Free Tours. This one was the Metro Tour and we did it since the closed Kremlin threw a wrench into our plans and we had a free afternoon. I’m glad we did it because we ended up being the only people doing it, so it was just us and Airat and Masha (one of his tour guides who had never done the tour before so she was tagging along). The tour was good, though even with just the 4 of us at some crowded metro stations it was pretty hard to hear (again, am I getting old?!). We certainly got a lot more out of it than if we had done it alone. The cost was equivalent to $25 USA and I paid with US Dollars since I had those in my wallet and wanted to conserve my rubles. A bit pricey for a 90 minute tour, but by that point Airat felt like an old friend, and we had nothing else to do for the afternoon so spending time with him seemed like our best option! As enjoyable as the tour was, it was even better to be talking to 2 young (20-something) Russians and they were friendly and delightful. Masha and my son chatted for a long time about the university system in the USA and she quizzed him about a lot of different things in the USA which he enjoyed (she was a cutie). Masha was funny because although she had lived her whole life in Moscow (and is a tour guide and student) she had never really looked at the metro stations like we were. She also admitted that no one in her family had ever visited the Armoury, and she had never gone to the Kremlin until she was getting ready to lead tours. This spawned all sorts of discussions amongst the 4 of us, as you can imagine. It was such a treat to have the time to have wide-ranging discussions with these young Russians.

When we were done with them, we continued on the metro to Park Pebody (still having time to waste). We went there partly because it has the longest escalator in the world (and as a child I was struck in Washington DC at the statistic that the Roslyn station there at that time had the second longest and you would have to go to Moscow to ride the longest, and at the age of 10 I decided I wanted to ride the long one in Moscow…..so we did!). And the escalator was indeed long, much to our merriment! Another reason to go out here was at the urging of Ebertsj who suggested my son might like the Victory Park there. It was a good suggestion! We popped out above ground and it was immediately obvious which way to go……across an enormous Russian sized plaza toward an enormous Russian-sized statue with an enormous Russian-size memorial behind it. As we walked across the cold, snow-swept plaza (it’s seriously huge!) we had to giggle at how Russia is much like Texas in the “everything is big here!” mentality. You can also get an interesting view of central Moscow from out here. This is where Napoleon waited for the surrender of Moscow, only to see it go up in flames instead, which again made us chuckle at what that scene must have looked like with a hopping mad Napoleon! We chuckled at the small children riding their bikes in the plaza with parents running behind them, and toddlers trying to make their escape. This was the one spot in all of Russia that we saw skateboarders other than some longboarders in the plaza in front of the Hermitage in StP, and it is a good skate spot (my younger son that didn’t come with us is an avid skateboarder). We had to check them out and their equipment and set-ups (didn’t see any Russian brands, all were American or European) and take some video to show my son back home their skills on the stairset. My youngest son would have LOVED being there to skate with these kids! Not quite sure what the kids made of us, but they were friendly once they realized we weren’t there to yell at them (like skateboarders everywhere). Also, like teenagers everywhere, they had their coats flung on the ground and were skating around in t-shirts even though it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Apparently mothers all over the world have the same arguments with their kids. ;) Around back of the monument and to the left were the kids with their stunt bikes, again, coats off! Ha ha!

We skipped the museum here because we were enjoying the fresh (cold!) air out away from the city and we didn’t have a ton of time before closing. There is an open air museum of military equipment off to the left through the trees. There is a nominal fee paid to the typical scared-me-at-first-but-then-was-so-jolly ticket lady. I couldn’t figure out at first how much the fee was and my son was rolling his eyes behind me in horror at my stupidity and the lady was laughing and finally motioned for me to just throw all my money in the tray and shove it through….I did and she took out a few coins and sent the rest back to me practically falling off her chair laughing because I had probably given her close to $100 USD in my frustration and confusion. So funny! Her laughter made my son decide to love me again. ;) Having a teen boy, we enjoyed the display of tanks and planes and artillery……oh I don’t know, military STUFF! There were signs (minimal but enough) in Russian and English. My son was thrilled beyond belief because he’s the kind of boy that can identify any tank or plane or what-have-you and tell you important statistics about them and these were all things he’d read about but never had the chance to see in person. Just when the display seemed like it was done (at the back of the airplanes) we followed a little path back to a mock-up of a Partisan camp in the appropriately snowy woods. Oh how fun! We kept walking through the snowy landscape and ended up at the “marine” display with all sorts of bits of boats and full boats and artillery….all set in manmade ponds (that were drained at this time of year). We ended up with muddy, slushy feet and both stepped at least once into snow where we sank up to our knees, but we had a great time just tromping about with no one else around. In the front section there seemed to be a docent walking around and I wished we had shared a language to talk to him as he could see how excited my son was and obviously wanted to talk to us (and seemed really interested that we were Americans) but the language barrier was hopeless. It was a welcome relief from the usual Russian fare of museums and palaces and from all the diesel fumes in central Russia from the army trucks.

When we left, we hopped back on the metro (after enjoying the looooong escalator ride again). We decided to go back to a Subway restaurant that we had seen above the metro station kitty-corner from the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior. We thought that would be quick, easy and cheap, and we could take the subs back to our room to eat. We were tired out by that point, and the thought of trying to navigate finding a restaurant that was affordable and figuring out the menu and ordering…..ugh. It just seemed like too much work. Of course we got into Subway and it proved more daunting than we thought (we thought we could just point, but that didn’t work). A very kind Russian a few people in front of us in line walked back to us and asked if we would like him to help us order. Yes we sure would! He helped us out and we got our sandwiches and thanked him profusely and chatted with him for a bit (he thought we were Norwegian for some reason, and was really interested to find out we were Americans. Never in my life have I been mistaken for a Norwegian, so I think it’s time to cut back on the blonde highlights in my hair a bit!). In the same little plaza there was a grocery, so we poked around and came out with 2 bags of chips (mystery flavors since they were in Russian!) and some Russian cookies and candy bars and two waters (drat! Bought the ones “with gas” by mistake). If I remember right, the most common water has darker blue and lighter blue print on the bottles, and the lighter blue is “no gas”. No matter how we examined the bottles and all the print on them, we could never figure out where it was written whether it had gas or not, or was still or not, and believe me we got kind of obsessed with this and kept checking again and again as our grasp of the Russian language got better because we were so scarred from the water “with gas” this night . A mystery that will remain with us forever. So that night we enjoyed a quiet picnic in our hotel room with our shoes off and feet up!

Tomorrow....at last! The kremlin!

For those that are reading my series of trip reports, let me add that on the day previous to the ones I’m talking about here, we arrived at Red Square in the morning (planning to see Lenin’s Tomb, visit GUM, take more photos of Red Square….) only to find that it was closed. No, it’s not usually “closed”. But on this day we arrived to find all entrances barricaded by the army and soldiers stationed all around. So that was part of the reason why we were scrambling for “things to do” yesterday. It turns out that there had been a “White Out of Red Square” planned for April Fool’s Day (April 1, which was that day) on social media (Twitter, Facebook….). The idea was that people would wear a white ribbon or flower on their coat, or a white coat or hat. Partly it was just meant as fun, and partly as a continuing protest against the elections. Well, once the government got wind of it, Red Square was closed off. Reading the English language newspaper “The Moscow Times” the next day, we saw that the plans were changed to decorating one of the metro stations that are in front of Red Square with white ribbons and flowers “sometime that week” since the April 1 idea got thwarted by the government. The reasoning was that they could shut down Red Square, but couldn’t shut down a whole metro station. We were glad that it didn’t occur the day we were leaving, as we utilized those metro stations to catch our train to StP! Our experience with these demonstrations is that the military/police response seems to be about 100x the turnout of any demonstrators.

Today was Monday, and finally the Kremlin was re-opened. Unfortunately, on Monday Lenin’s tomb is NOT open, so now we’re down to just tomorrow morning left to try to get in to see Comrade Lenin. We were hoping like crazy that there would be no more closures to thwart our carefully made plans. Today we went to the Kremlin (again, utilizing my son’s USA high school i.d. card for tremendous savings for him). The line, being in early April, was very short and we had our tickets with 15-20 minutes. Again, when they come out to make announcements while you’re standing in line, ask people around you if anyone can translate for you. This is very important because people are standing all in one line to buy tickets for 3 different places (Kremlin, Armoury, Diamond Fund) and all 3 have different timed entries so they will call in groups such as “People waiting for the Kremlin tickets come on in!”

My son was stopped at the tower entrance when he showed his student ticket and he had to show his student i.d. card again. He was THRILLED that someone thought he looked old enough to be an “adult” and not a “student”. One glance at his student i.d. card and he was waved through with no more questions. My son has a cardiac pacemaker (so he can’t go through metal detectors) and before we left, Ebertsj on here ever-so-kindly made us a warning card to that effect in Russian. I printed it on neon orange paper and laminated it at my local copy shop. It worked wonders and Ebertsj is forever our hero! At every single place we went, the moment he showed the card and they read the first sentence or two he was motioned to step around (or crawl over) the barricades. He was never given any additional search EXCEPT for at the St. Petersburg airport as we left. The same thing happened at the Kremlin, he literally walked around the barricades at security and walked in….wearing a heavy winter coat, laughing because he could have had a bomb or weapon under his coat.

I don't know what I was expecting, but it is mostly churches that you visit. It is cool just to be IN the Kremlin itself. It was a little hard to figure out exactly where we were supposed to go as things aren't marked very well (if at all) so make sure you have a good guidebook and look at the map so you don't miss anything. It was often hard to tell whether you were supposed to go in someplace or not, so we just started trying doors and if it was unlocked we walked in! We were there in the off-season, so when there are more tourists around I'm sure it would be easier to follow the crowd. I can see the churches getting REALLY crowded in the main tourist season because they are quite small inside. It is very interesting to see the churches since they are not like any other European church you've seen and you'll have no doubt you are in Russia. No photos are allowed inside the churches themselves, which is a pity since they are pretty crazy looking inside with lots of carved, painted wood.

As you enter each building there is a rack with free literature....they looked like big paper placemats to me and there are a variety of languages to choose from. The information is very good on them and will inform you very well what you are looking at. Return them to the rack when you're done, or keep them if you like. Between the “paper placemat information cards” and pages I had ripped out of our guidebooks, I felt like we covered everything very well. I saw many Kremlin tours that were really very pricey, and I would be hard-pressed to pay for those. If you go on a sunny day with blue skies, the photos you get will be incredible. The tallest building (is it the Peter Tower? I can’t remember and I ripped the pages out of my guidebook and then tossed them after our visit) is really hard to get into a single frame when you’re standing in the square in the Kremlin.

After this we grabbed some muffins and waters (finally figuring out the “still/without gas” color) at a little grocery store in the underground mall in front of the Kremlin. There is a food court in there also, but we weren’t hungry enough to hassle with that.

We hopped on the metro and went to the Arbat area. The street is certainly cute with its cobblestones. We weren’t particularly charmed though, as we felt the shops were just all souvenir shops. We poked through them, but other than a propaganda poster for 160 rubles for my son, we didn’t find anything we even wanted to buy. My son also got tired of being pestered every time we entered a shop. There were “performers” in the street, some of them quite good and with Russian folk instruments, but also a good number of teenagers with boom-boxes dancing to hip-hop…..some of the lyrics were so raunchy that we chuckled, and thought it was a good thing that most of the Russians walking by couldn’t understand the lyrics or they would have fallen over dead in a faint! There was even the ubiquitous “Andes Pipe” guy. Seriously? Is there no place in the world you can go to escape the guys playing the Andes pipes??! We looked at the restaurants as we walked by and almost ate at the Moo-Moo there (which would have been the better choice) but instead ended up at a place called “60’s Diner” mostly because we were hungry to the point of being cranky (especially my teen son) and he just did NOT feel like muddling through Russian food and I didn’t feel like making him eat Russian food. It was entertaining to see the Russian take on an American diner menu. Food was fine, reasonable-ish prices. My son commented that it was pretty authentic to a 1960’s diner because the smoke was THICK in the air. Ha ha! It was also interesting to see kids that were my son’s age drinking beer.

After dinner, we strolled back through the Arbat, enjoying the bright sunshine, to the metro station. We zipped down to Red Square again.

Quick comment on the Moscow metro. Very easy to use ONCE YOU FIGURE OUT THE ALPHABET. Remember that when you’re on the trains, you won’t be able to see anything telling you what station you’re entering or leaving. So count the number of stops to where you need to get off or switch trains. Easy! I ended up pulling a good Russian/English metro map out of my “Moscow Day by Day” guidebook and folding it up in an outside pocket of my purse. It was literally our best friend. We used our time as we rode the metro to solidify our grasp of the Russian alphabet by sounding out advertisements. We be sitting there in silence then one of us would burst out “Panorama!” or “Volkswagen Toureg!” or “Mega-phone!” or something of the sort and the other would go “Yeah, I got that one too!” or “Oh, I’m working on that one now!” I’m pretty sure the Russians thought we were nuts, but it was a fun game while walking around or riding the metro and we got really good at sounding things out. There is also lots of walking in the metro….up stairs, down stairs, walking through huge underground passages, escalators up down and all around. But it’s easy enough. Even when it’s very crowded, things are orderly. Never any pushing or shoving as people funnel onto the escalators. Everyone is always very respectful of the elderly, and we just naturally started kind of scooping up the older folks in front of us to make way for them and let them in in front of us. Everyone always gives up their seats to the elderly or pregnant women or people with small children. Always. No questions. They just do it. Many times we saw soldiers or police helping the elderly up stairs, and a few times even carrying them up stairs (a soldier at each elbow hoisting them up). You can’t help but pick up the good vibe and several times both my son and myself wordlessly helped an elderly person with their parcels on the stairs or offered an elbow. It’s simply what is done. When you’re on the escalators, absolutely stay to the right as people trot up or down on the left. We loved the prancing style of going down the escalators quickly (you’ll see what I mean when you get there) and learned to imitate it which caused us never ending mirth.

We got back to Red Square and FINALLY wandered through GUM…..wow, what a change from what I imagined from Soviet times! It is a super-ritzy, high priced mall with multiple levels. Very pretty, but “just like at home” so we did a loop through the first floor and said “enough” and headed back out into Red Square. If you like shopping, you could spend some serious time here. The only store we went into was the Russian Olympic team store which is set up in advance of them hosting the winter Olympics. Pretty cool!

Back out in Red Square we walked all around getting our last pictures, walking out on the bridge behind St. Basil’s over the river to get a different viewpoint.

We hopped on the metro one more time to make a dry run out to Leningradsky Train Station since we would be doing the same route the next day with our suitcases. I was glad we made a quick run out there a day in advance, as when you pop out of the metro station it wasn’t readily apparent which one was “our” station since it is under construction. But we just looked at the ways the railroad tracks were heading out of each station and figured the ones heading north must be to StP and that must be Leningrandsky Station. We went into the station and then checked out what our options for food would be, and where exactly on the platform our train would be leaving. I was a little confused at first because we were leaving from a track that didn’t seem to be there. Whatever the number was (say #10) the tracks went up to #8 and then stopped. Huh? Well we were WAY overthinking it and realized that the Sapsan trains have their own little indoor lounge area at the track, where you go through their own security. Ahhh! I don’t know why this wasn’t immediately obvious to us.

TUESDAY: Last day in Moscow and so many loose ends to tie up! First we got up, chowed down at the buffet, and then immediately headed down to Red Square to be there as Lenin’s Tomb was opening. We took no cell phones or cameras as we knew they weren’t allowed. Red Square was again barricaded (though lone people seemed to be walking across the square) but upon questioning the soldiers (“Lenin?”) we were directed to the side to wait in line “5 minutes”. Sure enough they let in a group of about 15 of us (which is all that were waiting) and we were sent up to wait in the line for the security. Someone came over and made an announcement in Russian, and the Russians in the group moved over to a window on the left side of the archway. All the English speakers were perplexed and we lined up there, too, thinking maybe we had to get free tickets? Then I read the signs and realized that was the line to check all cameras and cell phones for a fee. We didn’t have any so we went back to the security line. My son was again directed over the barricades and we entered the area. First you walk past all over the people buried there. I wish we had written down the names (in Russian) of the “famous” ones we wanted to see. Most were hard to decipher and there were so many it would have taken us forever to sound them all out, especially since I think we would have recognized only maybe 10% of the people buried there. We found some big hitters, and then entered the tomb. It is very dark. My son was chastised by the soldier inside for having his hands in his pockets (in Russian) and vigorously motioned to removed his hands from his pockets (it’s considered disrespectful to have your hands in your pockets in Lenin’s tomb or in an Orthodox church, take note!). We slowly walked around and had a good look. It’s crazy to realize that you are THERE and that is LENIN and he’s the one that started it all that rolled into the whole Cold War. Amazing!

Once we were done there (it doesn’t take long, maybe 15 minutes) we headed back to the Hotel Budapest and checked out of our room and left our bags at the front desk. Then we headed to Bunker 42 on Taganka for the 1:00 tour that was in English. See my separate review for that.

We finished that tour at 2:30, way out at the Taganka metro station and had a 4:30 train to catch. We hopped on the metro, headed back to the hotel, picked up our bags and headed back to the metro just as it started to snow the most big, lovely snowflakes. We stopped in front of the Bolshoi Theater to get some great photos of it in the snow. Navigating the streets of Moscow with our luggage was no problem at all, but we each had a smallish rolling bag only. Any more luggage than that and I don’t think it would be a wise idea. Getting onto the metro and using it also with the luggage that we had was not a problem. Russians readily made way for us and motioned us to open areas in the car where we could stand with our luggage. You wouldn’t want to travel at rush hour with luggage, though! Do realize that you will be picking up your luggage and CARRYING it both up and down stairs, so consider that before making the trek with luggage. But we were able to navigate quickly to Leningradsky station. We picked up dinner “to go” at the station. There are several options and we chose a kind of gyro type place because it seemed the easiest to point and order. Food was good and filling! We bought drinks and some more interesting Russian candy bars at another stand. Small digression…..Russia is the world of Really Big Candy Bars! We saw Twix bars there that were ENORMOUS! I would call many of their candy bars “family-sized”! Having walked out of our bunker tour at 2:30, we had no problem making the 4:30 train. Yep, that’s how efficient the metro is!

We had bought our tickets in advance. I tried and tried and tried to use Ebertsj’s excellent tutorial to use www.rzd.ru to get the best priced tickets (and got really good at it!) but it simply didn’t like my Visa. I know other Americans who had no trouble, so for sure try it as the savings are sizable. I ended up looking at www.russiantrains.com and also www.realrussia.co.uk (even though I’m in the USA) and ended up using www.realrussia.co.uk because their prices were about $15/ticket cheaper AND they let me choose the seats I wanted (I simply checked what was still open on the www.rzd.ru site and then entered my top 3 choices in the “comment” section at realrussia and they got me my first choice). I wanted to get seats that faced forward on the way to StP, didn’t want to be too close to the bathroom in case it smelled funny (it didn’t), and I also wanted to get the seats that were at the little table since I thought it would be good to probably sit across from some Russians (it was). Our tickets were eRegistration which means when we were on the platform, a person was there and took our passports and keyed in our passport numbers and that pulled up our tickets and we were checked in. Easy! Gave us back our passports (it took maybe 90 seconds) and we went to our seats. Really nice trains! Very comfortable seats. Wifi for free. No smoking in the cars (yay!) and no smoke smell from in between the cars. Bathrooms were really nice for a train. There are overhead luggage racks (which we used) and also luggage closets at the back of each car. Someone came around and did check tickets and took only a cursory glance at our print-outs. Someone also came around with a little cart like on an airplane, selling drinks and snacks. Didn’t check the prices. There is also a dining car. We were on the 4:30 pm train and at this time of year I would estimate it was about 90% Russians (seemed to be mostly business people) and 10% tourists (at the most!). Looking out the window actually afforded good views and interesting things to see, though I spent a good bit of my trip reading “The Hunger Games” (and ended up crying at the part where Rue died which the Russian across from me noticed and expressed concern and I showed him the book and he nodded in understanding). As you enter St. Petersburg, look for the nuclear power plant. It is of the same design as Chernobyl. One thing I noticed is that for a “fast” train it didn’t feel like it was travelling that fast. I guess I was expecting a bullet train, but it didn’t feel anything near that speed. I know the night trains go extra slow so as to give people time to sleep, and honestly it must practically crawl along! We arrived early and our 8:00 pm arrival got moved up to 7:20 pm! Awesome! Getting off the train was easy and we walked out of the station and looped around to the metro station and took the metro to our hotel (Comfort Hotel). My goodness, St. Petersburg felt almost TOO easy after Moscow. Everything signed in English! We felt like we were cheating somehow. If anything, the St. Petersburg stations felt like MORE walking than the Moscow stations, especially when transferring lines (which we seemed to do far more transfers in StP than in Moscow) and these transfers required lots of stairs up and stairs down and long passages, so we definitely worked off our Russian sized candy bar!!!!! :)

Day train vs overnight train: We were glad that we had chosen the daytime fast train, rather than the overnight train. Originally we had planned to do the overnight train, but then we were turned off by the times of the train (having to hang around the Moscow station until nearly midnight before boarding, remember, we are a mom & teen son) and the fact that with a late departure and an early arrival, we would either have to get to sleep REALLY quickly in order to get any rest at all (having no time to enjoy just being on the train) or else we would be arriving super tired (we’re not great as tired people). Plus arriving in StP so early, and unable to check into our hotel room for hours and hours, we’d be dragging around StP for most of the day with unwashed hair, unshowered, tired…..ugh. And since we were a mom and son, we didn’t want to be in the 4 person cabin with men we didn’t know (I was picturing vodka drinking and loud snoring, pretty sure I wouldn’t have slept well) and we couldn’t go into the single-sex “womens” 4-person cabins because of my son. That left us having to get the 2 person cabin which sounded like a good solution until I saw the price and my jaw hit the floor. WOW! Expensive! It was cheaper to spend another night in expensive Moscow at our hotel (getting a good night sleep, hot shower and breakfast) than to buy 2 tickets for the train. Once we really looked at it, the daytime fast train was far less expensive and promised not to leave us tired and unbathed.

Arrival: We pulled into St. Petersburg on the “fast” Sapsan train from Moscow at 7:30 p.m. We were thrilled that the train arrived earlier than scheduled. I thought that we would be arriving in the dark at that time of year, but even the first week in April it was already still bright daylight at that time of day (I don’t think the sun set until around 9:30). Getting off the train with our one piece of wheeled luggage each was easy. This had been a totally pleasant train ride, and was so comfortable that it made even these two automobile-loving Americans wish we could travel by train more back home. We exited the station (honestly have no recall of the station whatsoever, so I guess it looked pretty much like Leningradsky station that we had left in Moscow) and were immediately met (even in the off season) by taxi drivers offering rides (which we declined). We looped around to the metro station which maybe took us 5 minutes from stepping off the train to stepping in to the metro station, and I’m pretty sure we took the “long way” by walking outside the building the way we did. As soon as we entered the metro station we were immediately struck by ENGLISH (!) translations for everything. Everything was labeled….ticket booths, routes, stations, exits….all in English. This may sound weird, but we were a little snobby about it (now that we had such rocking Cyrillic alphabet skills!) and immediately put our noses in the air a little bit that St. Petersburg was “too easy”. The St. Petersburg metro is wonderfully signed in English, uses tokens (which seemed so much more eco-friendly than the Moscow tickets), has a much more modern look to it than Moscow’s, and seemed to involve a LOT more walking when transferring lines. Were we starting to get a little nostalgic for the crazy, oil-smelling, Moscow metro? I think we were! When you put your token in, make sure you don’t just drop it in but kind of give it a little push into the slot. Otherwise, about 10% of the time it comes right down into the “change” slot on the machine and the alarm goes off at the gate and you get walloped with the gate closing on your hip (yep, happened to me) and you stand there bewildered until the guard comes out and gestures for you to pull your token out of the slot and PUSH it in, not just drop it. Getting from the train station to “our” Admiralteyskaya metro station required a change of lines and enough walking that we started to joke that we were actually walking most of the way there (a joke that came up over and over when using the St.P metro). It also involved carrying our luggage up and down multiple stair sets, so if you don’t think you can do this then get a taxi or some other transport. Checked in to the Comfort Hotel (see my review).

The next day was Wednesday, and we had gone back and forth about whether to wait a day and go to the Hermitage/Winter Palace the NEXT day which was the first Thursday of the month and thus had free entry. Once I realized that my son (having his USA student high school i.d.) got in free as a student, we decided to go on Wednesday so to hopefully avoid the crowds on the free day. The “free to students” entry was sure a huge savings! Being the off-season, we simply walked right up at around 10:30 a.m. and got our tickets. (I should add that we did kind of a looping walk around StP to get from our hotel to the Hermitage just to see some sights and more of the city). We were struck by how St. Petersburg made us think less of Russia and more of Paris (exactly Peter the Great’s point). Again, because there weren’t many people around, as with many places in Russia, we weren’t exactly clear at first where we were supposed to enter the building. So we just headed to the door at the center of the square and went in….and we were in the right place! There were ticket booths off to the side, so my son showed his i.d. and we got our tickets. Coat check was down the hall, well signed in English (seriously, we were AMAZED that everything in StP is signed in English after being in Moscow!). We had a laugh at the “Large Coat Room” (I think 3,500 coats?) and the “Small Coat Room” (only holding 1,700 coats?)….only in Russia would that size of coat room be considered small. There is definitely a culture of coat rooms here in Russia, but we much appreciated it with our heavy winter coats (it was still unseasonably cold). And the fact that they were all free and no one expected a tip…..loved it!

Paying for taking photos. This was not a lot (I think 200 rubles?) and was well worth it because you WILL want to take photos! I paid for one “photo pass” and they give you a sticker to put on your shirt. My son almost got stopped a couple of times in the State Rooms since he didn’t have a sticker, but then I would sidle up to him (tucking my camera away) and since he was a teenager and I was obviously his mom (and crowds were very light) they sort of looked us over and let it fly. After a while I just put the sticker on his shirt and I put my camera away since he was taking more photos. But they absolutely do watch for the “photo pass” stickers.

Audioguides: This is something you might well want to consider as I think it would be great for the State Rooms, as nothing is really signed and you don’t know what is what. I honestly don’t know how the audioguides are set up, and if they even cover the state rooms? If they do, certainly consider them. We did fine with our guidebooks, but might have gotten more out of our visit to the state rooms with audioguides???? In the art section (the Hermitage) paintings are clearly marked with audioguide numbers, but there are so many paintings that I think it would have been overwhelming for a casual art lover. For the art part, a tour might be a better option?

We used the bathroom by the coat rooms and then set out, again a bit confused which way to go to start. As we entered, there were guides standing around past the metal detectors and near the tour desk, offering themselves for tours for “almost free”. There is also a desk for signing up for group tours. You might want to look into this carefully BEFORE you go. A tour wouldn’t have been a bad idea, since they lead you around and show you the biggest hits in the art collection, which would certainly shave off a lot of time and be incredibly more efficient. I think you would want to have this lined up to do as soon as you arrive. But since we had allotted the whole day for the Hermitage/Winter Palace we felt we had plenty of time. If you only have a few hours, then by all means GET A TOUR! If you are a huge art lover or want to see the gold and diamond rooms, then probably get a 2 day pass. We spent a total of 6 hours in the Palace/Hermitage and I would say we are “casual” art fans and we cruised through at a rapid pace.

Before getting there, I didn’t really understand that this is two separate things (in a way). There is the Winter Palace which was (obviously) the Winter Palace of the Romanov Tsars. Then there is the (connected) Hermitage which was built by the tsars specifically to house their art. It was added on to many times as the art collection grew. Before arriving there, I thought it was more like the Louvre, a palace that had been changed into an art museum after no longer being used as a palace. The fact that it is both a palace and an art museum made it doubly cool for us. Spend time even when you’re in the Hermitage looking at the building itself, and remember to look out the windows of both parts as you tour around.

Here is a link to the tickets you can buy for all sorts of additional bits as well as the main tickets. hermitagemuseum.org/html_En/02/hm2_1_0.html

Figure out BEFORE you arrive in StP what you want to buy tickets for as you have to get them all at the ticket booth and you don’t want to be figuring it out when you’re standing there (which we did and it was a mistake). In retrospect I wish we had also bought the tickets to the Winter Palace of Peter I section…..though truthfully we didn’t stumble across the entrance to it in all of our wanderings.

With your tickets you get a map, which really doesn’t tell you a whole heck of a lot. If that is all the information you have at your disposal then you are going to be seriously confused and lost. It shows you the lay out and the room numbers, and also general categories of art are labeled. But it is all VERY general. We used 2 guidebooks to help us out (Frommer’s St. Petersburg Day by Day and also Fodor’s Moscow & St. Petersburg) and honestly would have been lost without both of these. What you really need in a guidebook is a listing of the “must see” items, along with their ROOM NUMBERS (this is crucial). Then you can see where you are on the map and find things that are in nearby rooms. Without having some idea, you would wander around clueless, not knowing where to go or what to see or what is “important”. Nothing is really signed in the State Rooms, so you really need a guidebook to let you know what is what.

Here’s my take on what you should do. Start in the Winter Palace part by going up the Jordan Staircase (not labeled on the map as such, but it is simply “the” staircase that seems most natural to go up when entering the Winter Palace part to go to the State Rooms. That isn’t very clear, is it?). The Jordan Staircase is to the right or the east of the main entrance hallway where you bought your tickets and checked your coat. Tour the State Rooms first, as they are more of a finite thing than the infinite art in the Hermitage. But make sure you go into EVERY room because there was one section (of recreated Russian interiors) that we somehow missed and only realized afterwards and we really kicked ourselves. Look at the map and be sure to hit anything color-coded for “Russian Culture” and “Palace Interiors”. This is going to take a lot of weaving in and out while looking at the map, so give the map to the most directionally gifted person in your group. Pray to god that your best map person isn’t color-blind because you have to differentiate between a lot of shades of purple and green on the map! It ended up that my son took the map and directed us around, while I kept the guidebooks and cross-referenced it with room numbers and read off what was in each room and what we were looking at or looking for. Room numbers are of vital importance here. Look for the small room number signs above doorways. This is how you will know where you are on the map and can also reference in your guidebook(s) what the significance of the room is that you are in. I can’t stress this enough! We literally wandered around in a state of being pretty lost for the first 45 minutes before realizing this, and I think that’s how we missed some of the rooms we wanted to see in the State Rooms. It would help if the person that has the map takes a pen and traces your route as you go so you can see clearly on the map where you’ve been. We did quite a few loops initially where we ended up back where we started. You’re probably thinking I’m nuts right now, but this place is a maze and is BIG! Do yourself a favor and print out the map and have a look at it before you go, you will thank yourself! hermitagemuseum.org/html_En/02/hm2_14.html

Side note: Take a look at the signs with each piece of art. Many are very interesting in where and from whom they were “acquired”. We noticed that with each war that Russia was victorious in, there was a corresponding flood of “acquisition” of pieces, often noted as “Acquired from the Empress Josephine from castle outside Paris” or acquired from the collection of someone-or-another with a German name during WWII. To the victor go the spoils.

When we finally decided we were done and started wandering towards the exit, it probably took us a full hour to actually get out of the building. We started in the farthest part of the 3rd floor in the AMAZING impressionist rooms, and ended up in the Egyptian section on the 1st floor without finding an exit. We finally realized that it was a gift to take every opportunity to get distracted and off track (and honestly, we were having a hard time finding the exit, and were concerned about finding the RIGHT exit where our coats were in the coat check). As a result, we stumbled across some AMAZING things that you will see nowhere else except in the “basement” of a Russian museum. So be sure to cruise around the 1st floor in the sections “Caucasus” and “Antiquities from Siberia” and “Central Asia” and all that area. Crazy bizarre things, log cabin type burial chambers, log coffins, unwrapped mummies from several cultures, Rosetta Stone type engravings….. in the end this ended up being some of the most memorable things we saw. Really, we had more gasping “Look at THAT!” moments in this section than we did in the Rembrandts. We would often wander through numerous rooms without seeing another tourist, just the ubiquitous Museum Lady sitting in the corner of each room. We did run across a mother-daughter pair we had met briefly in Moscow, and they like us were looking for the exit. If you see a darkened room down on that floor that has “No Picture” signs at the entrance you’re guaranteed something enthralling like a dead body several thousand years old. Some displays were signed in English, some weren’t. Trying to figure it all out was half the fun. Some rooms made us giggle at a serious display of fabric fragments from some “-istan” country (we were just not up to understanding the importance of these) and the next room would have us grabbing each others arms and shrieking “Look at THAT!”

Somehow we ended up (6 hours after entering) stumbling out right at the coat check where we’d left our coats. Victory!

We headed back to the Comfort Hotel, trying to figure out how many miles we had walked that day in the Hermitage/Winter Palace. If someone goes there with a pedometer or anything that can measure distance walked, please let me know! Back at the Comfort Hotel we enjoyed our afternoon ritual of hot chocolate, coffee, and cookies (free at the hotel) and chatted a bit with some other tourists in the common room while watching an English news channel. We had our daily take-away blini from the Teremok down the street. I should add that we bought waters from the little café inside the Hermitage when we stumbled across it.

My son was ready for a bit of relaxation (and probably a break from mom). So I left him sprawled on his bed in our room, reading a book. I switched to a new pair of shoes and set out by myself on a walk. I headed back to the square in front of the Hermitage, then crossed the river on the bridge “Dvortsovy Most” where I watched the ice breaking up on the Neva and flowing downstream. Over to the Strelka and got some great early evening photos of the Peter & Paul Fortress with the evening sun shining on it. Checked out the Rostral columns, walked over the Birzhevoy Most bridge, poked around the eastern end of Vasilievsky Island a bit looking at the old palaces and such. Fun people watching even in the cold of young lovers and tour groups huddled against the cold and other people watching the ice break up. Yes, I absolutely felt perfectly safe. As I walked back I had fun checking out the cars and the people sitting in their cars in the traffic jams and the toddlers being chased in the parks.

Getting back to the room, we decided to go in search of the Yolki Palki (Yelki Palki?) restaurant as a good Russian chain-restaurant budget option. We knew we had seen it the day before right off Nevsky Prospekt and not far from the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Their sign is a bit hard to decipher so look at their sign on their website http://www.elki-palki.ru/ and look for the same one with the same colors on the side of the building. They often have someone dressed up as a big bear on Nevsky Prospekt handing out coupons, so you know you’re in the right area when you see him on the east/north side of the street. This is a good budget option if you’re in the Nevsky Prospekt area. While over here we took photos at COTSOSB (getting some bridal parties in the photos) and checking out the shops and architecture along Nevsky Prospekt. Yolki Palki has English-speaking staff, and our favorite kind of menu (photos AND both Russian & English). Prices are good and portions enough to fill a teenager, and everything is Russian and yummy. When you sit down a comely maiden with a basket full of bottles comes around offering shots of different vodkas and “shots that are suitable for ladies” for reasonable prices, so it’s a good place to try a bit of Russian alcohol fun. The decor is entertaining and kitschy and is supposed to look like a Russian dacha. When we were there it was mostly Russian clientele. Like many restaurants, the cigarette smoke can swirl in thick clouds, but by this point our lungs were used to it.

One other place we visited today was the Kazan Cathedral. From the outside it looks like a small version of St. Peter’s in Rome. On the inside it is Pure Russian. This was hands down the most amazing church we visited in Russia, and the only one that felt like a real church. While it doesn’t look Russian from the outside, you will have no doubt inside. The air is thick with incense, people are walking all about, lining up for one particular icon (praying in front of it, stroking it, kissing it…) and babushkas and younger people are praying in front of icons all around, kissing them and lighting candles. My teenaged son stopped dead at one point, staring at a babushka, then said “Rechenka’s Eggs!” I knew immediately what he meant as the babushka he was watching pray looked exactly like the main character in the children’s book by Patricia Polacco “Rechenka’s Eggs”. In fact, let me add all of Patricia Polacco’s children’s books to my list of “read before you go”. Check them out at your local library, you’ll be glad you did as they are delightful and very Russian in flavor with amazing artwork. We walked around and took in the scene and each bought a candle to light. Take note that Orthodox churches don’t have pews because everyone stands during the service. Make sure to keep your hands out of your pockets as it’s considered disrespectful in a church. We ended up popping into this cathedral a few more times while in StP, just to breathe in the atmosphere and as a welcome break from the very Westernized feel of St. Petersburg

Thursday dawned a bright and sunny day. At last! It really looked like spring today, though the temperature was probably hovering only a little above freezing. Still, we delighted in not wearing gloves, and in unzipping our coats when we were in a sunny spot.

I had seen mention of Peter’s Walking Tours since Rick Steve’s visited Russia….I’m guessing that was at least 10 years ago. Find information on both the general work and also specialty walks/tours that you can book at www.peterswalk.com . This was the first day that the tours were being run for the year (April 4). We met at the Life Hostel as detailed on the website. You don’t make a reservation in advance for the “Original Peter’s Walk”, just show up at the Life Hostel for the 10:30 start time. That's kind of nice because you can pick a good day once you're there depending on the weather. Going into the hostel brought back memories of backpacking through Europe with my brother at the age of 19. Seems like a very nice, clean, well-run hostel. But boy oh boy I am glad to be past those days! ;)

Since it was still early in the season, it was only me, my 16 year old son, and 3 adults from Sweden. Our guide was Nikolai, a very tall, fast-walking, friendly Russian with perfect English. In fact, he often spends the winters in Los Angeles, California so he tripped on very few words (one was the word for “recess”, when we were talking about elementary schools, and “residency” when talking about the process of medical education in Russia). Before starting, he asked what we wanted to see. Mostly we all just said “Whatever is interesting!” though I said I was interested in the Siege of Leningrad and my son said anything about the KGB and one of the Swedish gals wanted to see a market, a statue of Lenin, and graffiti. If you are interested in ANYTHING, then speak up and they will work to incorporate it. This can be historical things or literary things or architecture or even the most mundane of interests. We all agreed that we wanted to stay away from the central historical area, and instead wanted to see things that we wouldn’t stumble across on our own and wanted to see more of the “everyday life” side of St. Petersburg. With that in mind, we set off at a fast clip. Like any walking tour, the real treasure lies in having a local with you and being able to talk to them and ask questions. Stick close to your guide and start talking! Some of the most interesting things were tidbits of information from Nikolai about growing up in StP, about his grandmother being a young woman during the Siege of Leningrad, a discussion about smoking, restaurant suggestions, an explanation of how buildings in StP are heated (there is a central boiler plant, no joke!) and what happens when things go wrong with the central heating plant, locals thoughts on the nuclear power plant on the edge of town, a dissertation on banyas (he showed us the last wood heated banya in StP, which he said smells SO much better than propane heated banyas) and the culture of banyas (yes, even as a young man he goes to them), pets, plumbing, Putin, corruption,kick-backs, the KGB and the current “secret police”, shoddy construction, elementary schools and childcare, the process of medical education, Catherine the great and her lovers and how many children she had and by who (we argued about this), Peter the Great and his legacy, the death of the last Romanov family, the Revolution, politics the world over…….oh gosh, just lots of things. Simply take any topic and run with it with your guide. I think we cut through more alleys than actually walked on streets (which is kind of a necessity in StP). We jumped on a trolley for about ½ a mile. In the end we spent 5 pleasant hours and covered what had to be many miles. We saw so many things. Let me think of a few: architecture of all sorts, statues, where Stalin met his wife, a plaza with a statue of the “father of the KGB” - Dzerzhinsky (Dzerzhinsky was one warped dude even as a kid!!!!), a statue of Lenin (the Swedish gals and I sweet-talked our way past the soldiers to get close-up pictures inside the compound), the Smolensky Cathedral and Institute, the central boiler plant, lots of graffiti, a market, parks, old ventilation shafts from WWII bunkers, where Putin grew up, bridges……the list goes on and on. We zig-zagged all over the place. All the time we were talking and talking and talking (and walking!). For lunch he took us to the WaterWorks Building and we ate at the employee cafeteria. Super incredibly cheap and filling Russian food (I had cod and buckwheat) and so interesting to see the average Russian at lunch on a work day, and see what they eat. Beer in the office cafeteria struck we Americans as quite a novelty, but didn’t even make the Swedish folks blink. The cost was 650 rubles per person for the tour, and we gave a bit of a tip (I rounded up to 1400 rubles for the two of us). At the end the Swedes asked for a recommendation for a pub to go get a drink (I had to chuckle, it was mid-afternoon) and our guide Nikolai said, “I’ll take you to one right close by here and have a drink WITH you!” I have no doubt they had an amiable extension to the afternoon with our guide. If you enjoy a half day of walking and a casual atmosphere, then by all means go out with Peter’s Walking Tours. It was certainly good exercise! They also have private tours you can book (set price noted on the internet) which would be fabulous for a small group, I’m sure, in that I suspect all the guides would be equally as friendly and open to conversation as ours. If we had one more day, I absolutely would have done a private tour about WWII and the Siege of Leningrad with them.

My son and I trailed off and enjoyed the bright sunshine and enjoyed watching the Russians enjoying the early spring day. Children with their babushkas were dangling off most every bridge, merrily feeding the ducks that were paddling amidst the rapidly melting ice.

One thing I should add here, being the first week of April (and a late start to spring after a very hard winter) we found that every park that could be closed (being surrounded by fences) which was every park in the central part of the city, WAS CLOSED. This is because as the snow was melting it was all a slushy, muddy mess and as Nikolai put it “They don’t want the grass to be ruined”. The only garden we could enter in StP was the one in front of the Smolensky Institute/Convent. I imagine all the gardens are GORGEOUS in warm weather. They are all open at all other times, but not during the height of the snow melt. The one garden we went to was almost comical because our whole group was sliding around on the muddy paths like we were on the slipperiest imaginable ice! I wish I had taken a video, it was that comical looking. We all had a good laugh at how awkward it was, and were glad that none of us ended up face-down in a pile of mud. Seriously, that is some amazingly slippery mud.

After that, my son and I just spent the rest of the day wandering here and there and seeing this and that. We went souvenir hunting by the Church on the Site of Spilled Blood with full intentions of buying some Easter eggs, but came away empty handed. This is a good place to buy souvenirs quickly and easily, and has a wide selection of most anything you'd want. The vendors are friendly and talkative and conversant in English. In the end, there was just nothing that we wanted to buy. I can’t believe that the only souvenir we came home with was a single 160 ruble old Soviet era propaganda poster we picked up in Moscow (the bookstores along Nevsky Prospekt also have a good selection). I never found a single postcard anywhere in Russia (are they obsolete now?) and even my teenaged son didn’t bite at the limited variety of t-shirts available. We discussed how there is just a huge market out there for really cool Russian t-shirts to sell to tourists…..Russian entrepreneurs take note of this untapped market! But we enjoyed poking around all the shops and soaking up the sights.

For dinner that night we went to a Georgian restaurant in the block with the Admiraltskaya metro station (between the McDonalds on the corner of Bolshaya Morskaya and the metro station at the other end of the little street off Bolshaya Morskaya). The name translates as "Don't Grieve" but in Russian is "Ne something or another". It is in the basement (a few steps down) on the same side as the subway entrance and has some mustached Georgian men on the sign. It is family owned/run and is SUPERB! When we asked our “Peter’s Walks” guide Nikolai to recommend a good Georgian restaurant, this is one of the two he recommended, for the fact that it was family owned and run, had great food and good prices. We were delighted because we had passed it many times and knew right where he meant. Now we understand why Russians like Georgian food so much. The family at this restaurant speaks only a little English but the menu is in both Russian and English and they are friendly and obviously used to non-Russian speakers and there are pictures for everything on the menu so it's easy to point to order. Good beer! The "cheese bread" (Khachapurri and the rest) and the shish kebabs are out of this world and hearty and very reasonably priced. Lots of other interesting dishes also to experiment with, all for a good price. LOVED IT!!!!! One night I had a creamy eggplant dish that was out of this world (along with the khachapurri….always khachapurri!). We ended up eating here twice and would have eaten here more if we had discovered it earlier in our StP stay and if my son hadn’t thought it would seem “a bit stalkerish” if we went 3 nights in a row. One evening we arrived and there was a large family party taking place with lots of toasts and drinking and merriment and small children dressed up and running about. It was very fun to watch! The group didn’t realize we didn’t speak Russian, and since we were the only other people in the restaurant for a while they were yelling jolly sounding things to us and including us in their toasts and apparent jokes and speeches. We smiled and waved and hoisted our drinks at the right times and I don’t think they ever figured out we didn’t understand a word they said. At one point the littlest of the girls (probably ages 3-5), in their frilly dresses, were hiding in the corner behind my teen son’s chair, giggling and having fun. One of the dads came roaring over at them in mock rage and chased them out of the corner amid wild peals of laughter from the little girls. My son almost had a heart attack because he just looked up to see a bellowing Russian man bearing down on him. I almost died laughing! The dad pounded my son merrily on the back a few times (starting his heart beating again I think) and shouted more jolly sounding things with the whole table laughing and yelling along. My son leaned across the table and whispered two things….”that must be what we look like at home when we all go out to eat as a big family!” and “geez, I thought he was going to make me do a shot of vodka with him!” Ha ha! It was nice to get a glimpse of a Russian family at ease and see how similar families are the world over.

We figured on this trip to go and see one PALACE (!) and picked the Catherine and Alexander Palaces at Detskoe Selo/Tsarskoe Selo. One important factor for us is that it was the off season and still “winter” (winter was really hanging on this year, with plenty of snow still on the ground in early April). We decided since the fountains wouldn’t be turned on until early May, a trip to Peterhof wouldn’t be worth it. We also had read about the Amber Room quite a bit and really wanted to see it, as well as wanting to see the Alexander Palace for the last Romanov history bit.

Before going, I read all the descriptions in the guidebooks about how to reach the Catherine Palace by public transportation as a do-it-yourself and quite frankly found them to be daunting and confusing. I had nearly decided to pay for a tour (even though we HATE group tours on big tour busses) because I was so worried that it would be difficult. Let me assure you that IN THE OFF SEASON (I can’t vouch for the high season and ticket difficulties) that this is absolutely an easy “Do It Yourself” type of trip. I'm going to quote now the directions I pulled of someone else's trip report on TripAdvisor.....

“HOW TO GET TO TSARSKOE SELO (AND BACK) FROM ST PETERSBURG BY TRAIN: Go to Vitebsk Station (either walk, take the metro to Pushkinskaya, or take a taxi – we took a taxi from our hotel which cost RR500 for the 10 minute ride). VITEBSK STATION is ‘the finest Style Moderne building in St Petersburg’ and has recently been restored to its full splendour. It is a terminal for both inter-city and suburban trains.
Go upstairs to the first floor, across a vast hall (by-pass any ticket offices you see on the way) and through to the platforms where the inter-city trains leave from. Over in the far right-hand corner (as you face the trains) there is a small ticket office and turn stiles which take you through to the suburban trains. We couldn’t find this straightaway so I went up to a newsstand and said Pushkin? in an inquiring manner and we were immediately pointed in the right direction. (Note: the train station at Tsarskoe Selo is officially called Detskoe Selo – ‘Детское Село’, but for the purpose of asking directions/buying tickets it is easiest to say ‘Pushkin’ – its other name – because you will be easily understood).

Buy your return tickets to Pushkin at the little ticket office (using your phrasebook & gestures!) and go through the turnstiles on to the platform – it is just like a small town station, very quiet, with only a couple of platforms. If you are not sure which platform to use, just ask for Pushkin – you won’t have a problem. Trains run 2 or 3 times an hour (with a gap between 10:00 and 11:30). The journey takes exactly 30 minutes. Our train stopped at 6 stations along the way and the 7th one was Detskoe Selo. There were another couple of tourists on the train who were clearly relying on asking the locals when they needed to get off – no problem.

The return train journey is even easier - arriving at Detskoe Selo station you go through the turnstile and take the little subway under the track to Platform 2. St Petersburg is the end of the line and trains run regularly several times an hour.

Most people/guide books recommend that you get one of the minibuses which wait outside the station to take you to the palaces. However, we chose to walk (we also noticed the other ‘tourist couple’ looking at the minibuses, getting on one, then getting back off it and setting off on foot!). It takes between 20 and 30 minutes to reach the park gates – the town of Pushkin is very attractive, it was built as a modern town on a chessboard plan and it is a very pleasant walk along quiet, wide, tree-lined streets with pretty coloured buildings. It is not a difficult route – you go straight over the roundabout outside the station and basically carry straight on, bearing to the right. There is a very accurate map in the Rough Guide. When we walked back to the station it was snowing extremely heavily, but it was still a very pleasant walk.”

A couple of notes from me:
We used the metro to get us to the train station. Incredibly easy and efficient.
When she says “upstairs to the first floor”, to Americans like us that means “upstairs to the second floor”.
The ticket ladies were cheery and well-used to non-Russian speakers and were ready with their hand-gestures for “there and back” to ask if we wanted the round-trip or “return” ticket rather than just one way (we did). The price was ridiculously low. And I mean RIDICULOUSLY low! I can’t remember exactly now, but it was either $1.70 (equivalent) one way or $1.70 both ways.

Your “ticket” looks like a little paper receipt. There is a bar code on it and you scan it at the turnstiles to get in. Same thing on the way back, using the same little paper ticket/receipt. By far the most difficult thing about the whole trip was not losing the tiny little slips of paper!
While we were waiting for our train, inside but just past the turnstile, I saw Russians consulting schedules posted on a little bulletin board. We went over and looked at it and were able to locate the schedule/route for the train that we would be on. It showed the route and I took a photo of it with my camera. I was glad we did because I was able to follow the stations as we passed them and could tell when we were getting close to our station. If I remember correctly, the station right before Pushkin/Detskoe Selo has the word “Kilometer” in it with a number. Someone Russian can tell you the name, but it’s very easy to see (even though we didn’t stop, just flew past it) and then you know the next one is your stop.

When we passed that “Number Kilometer” station, I asked “Pushkin, da?” and pointed down the direction we were going and put up my finger one to ask if it was one more stop. Easily enough understood and our seatmates nodded “Da! Da!” When we pulled into Detskoe Selo/Pushkin, I couldn’t see the sign on the station platform, so I again motioned and asked “Pushkin?” and they assured me “Da! Da! Pushkin!” and motioned for us to get off. We ended up calling out to some other people on the train that were obviously tourists and they scrambled off with us. For whatever reason, the number of stations that particular train stopped at wasn’t what we were all expecting, and we all missed the station sign, so they would have all missed it. A pair of German girls (could tell by the guidebook they were poring over) looked blankly at us as we all leaped off the train, so I’m not sure where they ended up and I felt bad about leaving them behind on the train. Absolutely enlist the help of the locals around you on the train in assuring yourself you’re at the correct station. When you pull into the station, the stop is pretty quick, so don’t dawdle.
As a note, in her English-English description she states you go through a “little subway” under the tracks when getting to the return tracks….which for my fellow Americans I would describe as a walkway or tunnel under the tracks.

We also walked to the Palaces. It took longer than I was expecting (a good 45+ minutes even though we walk quickly). It is several kilometers. We were hampered by the fact that we didn’t have the good Rough Guide map that Isleofwightseagull talks about. Our maps didn’t mark exactly where the train station was, so while we could see where we were going, we couldn’t actually tell with certainty where we had STARTED. Eventually we figured it out, but our route wasn’t the most efficient or straight, let’s just say. Several times we stopped older ladies (we found older ladies to be very willing to help in any situation anywhere in Russia) and the first two times they couldn’t even point in a general direction when we asked for Ekaterinsky and even when we showed the photo of the palace in guidebook. Gulp. That caused me a bit of stress as I started to second guess whether we were heading in the most insanely wrong direction (we weren’t). So if you walk (which is pleasant, even though we had a very cold day and it snowed lightly on our walk) make sure you can see the train station (your starting point) on the map you’re using.

If you want to take the minibuses (which I’m guessing 99% of you will do), when you walk out of the tiny train station they are all RIGHT THERE in the roundabout. Super easy. When we left the palaces, we actually planned to take a bus or minibus back to the station since our feet were tired from the long walk to the palaces and all the walking we had done that day. But we realized that we didn’t know where they dropped people off and picked them up since we hadn’t ridden one out! So if you take a bus or minibus, take note of where you’re supposed to get back on them. We hadn’t seen any buses on our walk from the Alexander Palace on the road back to the Catherine Palace. We looked around and took a guess at where we thought they would be in relation to the palace….and we guessed wrong. We debated whether to start hiking around the palace, looking for the dropoff/pickup spot, but figured that might be a LOT more walking and we might not find it. We asked a food vendor on the street in our awful Russian, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure she was motioning us towards the train station thinking that’s what we were asking. At least we picked up some inexpensive sodas and waters from her since by this point we were DYING of thirst! I should add that during this whole day we never ran across any food or drink concessions anywhere, so we literally hadn’t had anything to eat or drink (other than one water fountain at the Alexander Palace) since we left our hotel that morning. It worked out fine, but be forewarned in the off-season that it might be wise to stuff some granola bars in your pockets and keep an eye peeled for a drinking fountain, especially near the bathrooms and coat checks. Then we started walking, assuming we would find one at some point. We would see one up ahead go around a corner and race after it, but then couldn’t find the stop. We’d see them going TOWARD the palace, but didn’t see one we could flag down going AWAY from the palace (so they must go on a loop, instead of a straight there and back?). We would get to bus stops and decipher the signs (in Russian) but never stumbled across one going in the right direction any time soon. After a bit it got to be comical and we started laughing about how there was probably a line of minibuses around every corner purposefully hiding from us or every time we turned our backs one would race behind us at the speed of light. This was our last day in Russia and the only time that we just could NOT figure out the public transportation. Honestly, I don’t think it was as difficult as we made it. Maybe just because it was the off-season so there weren’t so many of them running. Maybe we had just lost our minds by that point. Maybe it was our Midwestern American inability to understand public transportation of any sort. So we ended up walking all the way back to the train station (much quicker this time, probably 30 minutes). It ended up being a delightful wrap-up to our vacation in Russia as we were leaving the next morning and this gave us time to hash over in conversation everything we had seen and all we had learned and put it all together with what we thought about Russia after our trip. All the talking also distracted us from the fact that our feet were getting SERIOUSLY cold!

OK…now on to the actual visit to the Palaces. Once we finally found the palaces, we walked up and realized (again, in off-season, so no crowds and no lines) that like many Russian palaces and museums and such, it wasn’t completely obvious where you were supposed to enter the building. So we sort of looked at the building and said “It must be there” and we were right. So if you’re there in the off-season, just go with your intuition and start trying doors. Ticket booths were easy to maneuver and signs were posted in both English and Russian. If you have any kind of student TAKE THEIR STUDENT I.D. as there is a HEFTY student discount! My son used his high school identification card from the USA at all the ticket booths here with no problem. We also rented audioguides which was THE BEST IDEA since we weren’t with a tour group. The audio guides are very good and add a lot to your understanding of what you’re seeing so that you can move beyond the “gosh this is pretty!” and actually learn something. The audioguides were explained to us in English and we set off. Ladies, make sure you use the restroom before entering, as there is no option until you finish touring the palace.

Again, this is only accurate for the off-season (which stretches until I think May 1 each year). We went through security and entered a small room where everyone puts on booties to protect the floors. This is where I was confused after reading so many trip reports and TA forum questions about whether you can just walk through by yourself or whether you would be put with a group with a Russian speaking guide to be shepherded through. Let me make it clear once and for all for off-season travelers….YOU GET TO WALK THROUGH AT YOUR OWN PACE BY YOURSELF! We were waved through into the palace and started out with our audioguides. Wow. There is some crazy ornate stuff going on in there. If you have the audioguide, it is easy to stop it once you get to a point where you think “OK, enough” and move on to the next room and the next number on the audioguide. So you can make it as indepth as you want and skip things when they get to be too much. Towards the end, in the private apartments, we would listen to the first bit of each room and then stop it when it started to go into excruciating detail about a piece of furniture (remember, I was travelling with a teen boy, and we reached palace-overload at a certain point). You can also take photos everywhere except the Amber Room. And yes, the Amber Room really IS that amazing. Really! It actually didn’t look like either of us thought it would (we’d never seen a picture) but it was even better than we had imagined.

For a really cool picture, when you’re in the really ornate great hall at the beginning (the huge one) take a photo of your group in one of the mirrors with all the splendor behind you. I took one like this just for fun, and the photo of the ornate wall and mirror and then the two of us reflected in the mirror with the whole crazy great room behind us ended up being one of my favorite pictures.

And if you’re here in the off-season, take a minute to pat yourself on the back for making such a wise choice to travel at this time of year. It was AMAZING to be in the Palace and have whole rooms to ourselves and take photos with no other tourists in them.

Watch for students on field trips. We had quite the chuckle at some young ones (probably no more than 7 years old) that were on a field trip. Like any field trip in any country, you had the couple of kids that were listening intently and rushing to answer every question, half the kids mildly listening and mildly goofing off, and 2 little boys on the floor in their own little world spinning like little tops on their rear ends. We were trying to decipher what was being said, and when the guide was obviously asking who was shown in a portrait (even without hardly a word of Russian, we could tell what was being asked) one of the eager little girls gave the wrong answer and both my son and I exclaimed the CORRECT name (probably a bit too loudly) and the guide laughed and pointed at us and all the kids (except for the spinning tops) turned and LOOKED at us and we skittered away with red faces.

To go off on a tangent….we also ran across many school groups (probably about 10 years old) in the prison area at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Man, we wished we could understand what the guide was saying because the guides were REALLY animated and the kids were looking on in absolute horror and fascination while they spoke. Then they would be ushered into a cell and huddle together while the guide waved her finger in their faces and very sternly told them about something or another that made them all shiver with delicious, fun terror. My teen son commented “Man! They must have WAY more exciting field trips here than we do in the USA!” I think he’s absolutely right.

As we exited the Catherine Palace, we decided to walk through the gardens to the Alexander Palace. What would have been a quick walk on the streets ended up taking over an hour, but that was fine with us. Again, there was still snow covering everything, the day was cold, and the paths were either messy mud or hard-packed ice in the more wooded areas. None of the outbuildings were open, and they were working with backhoes on the drained fountain in front of the palace, so it wasn’t very ornate. We walked about and peeked in the windows of several of the other buildings. OK, this is where the off-season isn’t such a great thing. We ended up at a large lake that was still frozen and snow covered. I walked out on it and stamped out the big word “RUSSIA” with my feet which again made a good photo op. My teen son stayed on shore, waiting in horror for me to either fall through the ice and drown or be arrested by the KGB. Neither happened. We looped around the far side of the Catherine Palace, just kind of guessing which way to go. Walking through the gardens was absolutely great, but again we realized that we didn’t have a map that showed both palaces and the gardens on the same map, so we kind of didn’t know EXACTLY which direction the Alexander Palace was or how the two palaces were oriented to each other. But with the very vaguest of ideas, we did manage to find it (after wandering off in the wrong direction several times). So if you want to do this, I would suggest finding a map in advance that shows the entire area. Because it was still winter, many of the gates were closed. We ended up leaving the Catherine gardens and found ourselves on a road that ran between the two gardens. We walked up and down looking for a way in to the Alexander gardens (there were various locked gates and we could see a one soldier with a big gun well down the road at a gate and bridge but didn’t much feel like walking ALL the way down there to ask the man with the gun if we could go in). I finally spotted an open area past a utility shed so we traversed a snowy ditch and climbed in that way (the guard with the gun was watching us from a distance, kind of shaking his head). We had already walked so far this day that we didn’t much feel like adding to our mileage by wandering up and down this road until we found the “proper” entrance. It was literally the two of us and the soldier with the gun out there on this road at this time of year. We explored the Alexander Garden and this whole time only ran across one other group (some Russian teens, walking a big dog). I’m guessing a lot of locals use this garden to exercise their dogs in the winter because there were a lot of large “land mines” from dogs scattered about, and even some horse manure. We ran across many interesting things and had a fantastic, philosophical talk about royalty and….well, let’s just say that when you’re travelling with a teenager you can get into some really excellent philosophical discussions about types of governments and different rulers and such! We eventually ended up at the back of the Alexander Palace, which was the wrong side. I found a hole in the fence (we had seriously tired feet by this time!) which we squeezed through, down through the snowy ditch and back on to the road. We felt like quite the adventurers!

Once again, when you reach the Alexander Palace it isn’t obvious where to go in. It is “C” shaped. The formal part of the palace is in the center part of the “C” up the grand stairs. We went in specifically looking for Romanov apartments. As everywhere, first stop is the coat check, then the ticket booth. No English is spoken here and there was not a single other tourist here. With tickets in hand we tried to walk through a door….nope, wrong one. The ladies motioned us to the correct door. We entered and found that the “formal” part of the palace we had entered only had 2 rooms on display. The museum ladies woke up and popped over to us and started to chatter and offer to show us things…..if only we spoke Russian! As we walked around we quickly realized this wasn’t the part we were looking forward. The museum ladies were so delighted to see us, and were right on our heels making sure we saw everything whether we understood Russian or not. Just to make them happy we exclaimed over everything and took great care looking at the items in the display cases and bobbed our heads and smiled while they played Russian Charades trying to tell us what things were. We dutifully listened while they recounted exactly who was in each grand portrait, with us slowly repeating the long Russian name and sorting out who it was in English while the ladies looked at expectantly, waiting for us to figure it out and then we’d all kind of cheer with delight that we understood each other and had sorted out another mystery of Russian royal portraits. Such genuinely nice ladies! In a very odd way, they ended up being an excellent memory from the trip, even though it was the “wrong” part of the palace. Truly, the view out of these rooms at the gardens gives you a peace you don’t find in the far grander Catherine Palace.

We eventually left these two rooms, chuckling as we peeled off our booties and collected our coats from the coat room, that we went to the wrong part. Luckily the Alexander Palace tickets are cheap cheap cheap so we didn’t mind. And we certainly were some entertainment for the museum ladies. I tried asking all the ladies in the ticket area where the Romanov apartments could be found, but simply couldn’t make myself understood. I should have asked the ladies INSIDE the rooms because they probably would have taken us by the hand and led us there. As we walked out, we decided to try the door at the top of the little stairs at the “bottom of the C” (the part closest to the Catherine Palace). We walked in and (again) didn’t know if we were intruding or were in a museum or ??? But we found a coat check and another ticket booth so we checked our coats and bought tickets (again, very inexpensive, so what the heck!), tried a few doors, finally found one that opened to a finished area and walked in only to have a lady rush at us with her arms waving, saying something very urgently to us in Russian. We were startled, wondering if we’d wandered into a closed area or Putin’s apartment or something. Turns out she was just telling us to hurry up to join a free tour that was just starting….unfortunately it was in Russian so we were out of luck. Because of that little bit of excitement, I think we missed where you get audioguides. Half way through the tour we ran across another tourist that had an audioguide and we were sad we didn’t have them! I think these would have been REALLY interesting. The young man with the audioguide and my son spoke briefly in German and he said the audioguide was “really good”, so if you go here get the audioguide! Even without the audioguide, the signage in each room was reasonably good in English (better than just about any other Russian museum we went to) so it was still very enjoyable. We ended up enjoying this part of the tour VERY much and it really brought the last czar’s family to life after we’d read so much about them.

OK! Think that’s it!

Good luck to all you do-it-yourselfers out there. It is absolutely possible (and preferable) to travel that way in Russia.
Yes, it’s safe.
No, it’s not that hard.
Yes, you can get by and have fun with no real Russian ability (just make sure you figure out the alphabet QUICKLY when you get there!).
We planned it all in about 4 months, you can too!

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