May 30, 2021

Which Russian Metropolis is Right for You?


Which Russian Metropolis is Right for You?
Onion domes or neoclassical architecture? St. Basil's photo by Anton Zelenov; Hermitage by Pedro Szekely; composite by the author.

While we eagerly await the ability to travel back to Russia, we at Russian Life have been daydreaming and living vicariously through blog posts detailing our favorite spots in the world's largest country. But we haven't yet addressed the elephant in the room: Moscow or St. Petersburg?

In the Russophile community, there's no more polarizing question, and we even asked it of our editors this year. So which one is right to satisfy your wanderlust? Here's our winning picks relating to a series of arbitrary criteria. Oh, and full disclosure: this author is biased towards St. Petersburg, so chances are this analysis will anger some readers. Sorry-not-sorry.

Getting There

Moscow. Moscow's three large airports serve a variety of destinations in Europe ad beyond, and it's an easy train trip to downtown. But be warned: the LAX-Moscow direct flight is very, very long. But St. P's lack of a direct flight has an upside: its airport is surprisingly small, and most flights connect pretty easily through Moscow, Helsinki, or Frankfurt.

Art

St. Petersburg. The Hermitage Museum consistently makes it into the top five museums in the world, alongside the likes of the Louvre and the Met. In the main building complex along the Neva River, you can check out classical sculpture, nineteenth-century portraits, and works by the Italian masters. Across the square is the less-visited but still incredible General Staff building, home to more modern works by Gaugin, Picasso, and Matisse (including "The Dance"). If Ilya Repin is more your thing, the State Russian Museum has you covered.

Hermitage cat
Oh, and did we mention that the Hermitage has the cutest guides? | ewwl, Wikimedia Commons

Nightlife

Moscow. The capital's more chic culture allows for greater flexibility when it comes to dancing and late-night cocktails. The same goes for food: chefs are drawn to Moscow's global reputation, meaning that famous restaurants like the White Rabbit, which serves Russian food with twenty-first-century twists, are more common (No, I'm not still bitter about my reservations that got canceled because of COVID). Petersburg's vibe is more book club than dance club, although the sun-never-sets opportunities during White Nights are nothing to sneeze at.

Cafe-Lingering

Petersburg. There's nothing like poring over a good book — or a new issue of Russian Life — on a rainy Petersburg day with a cup of tea and a sweet pastry. Our favorite spot? The cafe above Dom Knigi right downtown, where you can enjoy your drink overlooking Kazan Cathedral and Nevsky Prospect in a bookstore housed in the old art-nouveau Singer Sewing Machine building. Is the food overpriced? Sure, but we think the window is worth it.

Inside the cafe in Dom Knigi, Petersburg
Mmm, cozy. | Griffin Edwards

Shopping

Moscow. GUM and TsUM have you covered and are robust places to drop plenty of rubles. GUM is a classic department store-turned-indoor-mall right on Red Square; inside you'll find an upscale cafeteria, name-brand stores, and a vintage store selling interesting local foods. TsUM is more of a modern mall with all kinds of fancy name-brand European things you don't need. Although, as of only a few months ago, one of Moscow's most iconic groceries recently passed into the ether, so maybe Petersburg is getting back into the running.

Early Russian History

Surprisingly, Moscow, although St. Petersburg is a close second. Moscow's State Historical Museum (which you've probably seen several times but don't know the name of) houses a fairly good collection of early-history artifacts, like ancient tombs, pagan idols, and medieval weapons; the Kremlin Armory houses more pointy things, as well as royal regalia, thrones, and clothing (and carriages); and there's a recreated Romanov Boyar's house not far from Red Square, all great options for early history. Plus, the Golden Ring of medieval cities are all easy day trips. Petersburg's Hermitage, though, almost singlehandedly makes up for it, with its wealth of archaeological goodies from throughout the Russosphere, and Novgorod is not far by train.

Imperial Glory

Petersburg, hands-down. If you like neoclassical architecture from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there's no better place, and a stroll down a cold canal is strangely surreal. Plus, there's a plethora of palaces: in the Hermitage, you can check out the spot where Nicholas II kept his library, or where Catherine the Great was married (this list is just reinforcing that the Hermitage is amazing). Churches like St. Isaac's, Kazan Cathedral, and the Church on the Blood are all architectural highlights with rich histories. Those interested in revolutionary history can keep an eye out for the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was (almost) killed (multiple times over); Tauride Palace, where the first meetings of the Soviet were held; and the cruiser Aurora, which sounded the shot that started the USSR (or didn't).

Soviet Stuff

Easily, Moscow. Whether it's the Arbat shopping district, Stalin's bunker, or good old VDNKh, Moscow is the place to go if you wanna get back to the USSR. Monuments abound, memorializing everything from cosmonauts to the common man to soldierly dogs. Even the metro hosts hammers and sickles, and mosaics of Lenin and Stalin abound. The State Historical Museum, discussed above, also houses Lenin's Rolls Royce, because communism is about equality.

New Arbat Street
New Arbat Street, poetically including one of Stalin's Seven Sisters and Putin's Moscow City in the left and right backgrounds, respectively. | Anna Anichkova, Wikimedia Commons

Literature

Either, really. It depends on what you're into. A foggy Petersburg twilight is ideal for wandering around with a hatchet in the spirit of Dostoyevsky (don't actually do that, please); strangely warm days recall paradoxical Gogol tales; and Anna Akhmatova's apartment tells the story of an iconic poet. In Moscow, a cheeky sign at Patriarch's Ponds warns visitors not to talk to strangers (lest they be Satan), and Bulgakov's apartment is cool enough to spark the inspiration of your inner author.

Congrats! You're now well-equipped to join in the next meaningless online discussion asserting the values of one of these cities over the other. And, hopefully, we'll all have the opportunity to resolidify our biases with cross-border COVID reopenings soon. If the Pechenegs don't get us first.

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