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Your Russian holiday: Choosing between Moscow and St. Petersburg

If you’ve never been to Russia and you’re planning your first trip, you’re almost certainly considering a visit to either Moscow or St. Petersburg. Maybe you even plan to see both. But as they are roughly 400 miles apart, perhaps it’s wise to visit only one of these great cities – especially as there is so much to see and do in each place.

Anyone who has been to both will testify how different the cities are to each other. Since the time of Peter the Great, Moscow has been described as “the heart of Russia”, and St. Petersburg “the head”. Let’s take a quick look at what each city has to offer tourists, so that you can choose the best city for your next holiday.

Differences in architecture

Moscow, Russia architecture
Lukoil Building, Moscow (SourceLicence)

The most obvious difference between the two cities is their architecture. Moscow has many more modern buildings than St. Petersburg. This is because Moscow’s previous mayor, Luzhkov, had a great love of modern architecture, so between 1990 and 2010 he permitted developers to produce many modern business complexes and skyscrapers.

Paradoxically, Moscow also has more of the traditional onion-domed buildings that people associate with classic Russian architecture. Moscow’s architecture is not at all consistent, but that’s what many people love about it.

St. Petersburg, Russia architecture
The Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg (SourceLicence)

St. Petersburg has a more consistent collection of classical architecture. It also has fewer of the not-so-attractive concrete apartment blocks, which are a sort of Soviet architectural hangover.

The city is full of ornate palaces and many of its buildings are painted with pastel colours. It lacks the diversity of Moscow, but it has an authenticity and classical beauty that many tourists find very appealing.

Loud and busy vs quiet and peaceful

Moscow also has much more variety than St. Petersburg with regards to sightseeing and entertainment, and it is much busier. And noisier. Moscow truly is a 24/7 city, and it’s this hustle that attracts so many tourists and expats each year. And although it is busy, the Moscow Metro is more than capable of servicing the millions of people who use it. In fact, the Moscow Metro services more people per day than the London and Paris metros combined.

However, many tourists and natives prefer St. Petersburg because it’s more peaceful than the capital. There is plenty happening in St. Petersburg, just nowhere near as much as in Moscow. In St. Petersburg you can enjoy the culture and the architecture at a leisurely pace. Some see this as a bonus, others see it as a negative. You have to decide what you want from your holiday.

If you’d like another point of view on both cities, then make sure you read Rick Steves’ Russian Impressions article. Or if you’d like to see the main differences, then simply do a Google-image search for each city and scroll through the photographs, getting a feel for each place.

The best of both cities

Of course, you don’t have to choose between the two cities. 400 miles isn’t too long and the train service is fast and will get you there in just over four hours. There are also regular flights between the two cities with Russian Airlines (also known as Aeroflot) which last approximately 1 hour 15 minutes. There is another option, however: taking a river cruise between the two cities. Companies like The River Cruise Line have special Russian river cruises that go between the cities, allowing passengers to stop off at the less-visited Mandrogi, Kizhi and Goritsy along the way.

If you don’t have to choose between Moscow and St. Petersburg, then don’t. They’re both fascinating, vibrant cities in their own right, with a lot to offer tourists.

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