I’ve wanted to go to Russia for a long time, but to be honest I was afraid. After reading recent positive travel experiences of black travelers and gay travelers, I decided to make this trip happen.  The visa application can be overwhelming but now Americans apply through an agency that makes sure your paperwork is in order before submitting your application.  I applied and was approved for a single entry visa. I arrived in Helsinki and spent a day there before taking the train to Russia, where I spent a week visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow. After Russia, I visited Uzbekistan for 8 days that is covered in a separate trip report here.

PLAN
Day 0: fly overnight from NYC to Helsinki
Day 1: full day to explore Helsinki center and surrounding islands; overnight in Helsinki
Day 2: take train to St. Petersburg, visit Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and environs, watch City Day performances, go to evening Swan Lake performance and walk around the city at night; overnight in St. Petersburg
Day 3: full day to explore St. Petersburg embankments, main street – Nevsky Prospect, and Metro system; overnight in St. Petersburg
Day 4: full day to visit surrounding areas, including Peterhof Palace and Pushkin (Catherine Palace); overnight in St. Petersburg
Day 5: visit Hermitage (Winter Palace ;other rooms) and Palace Square, early evening train to Moscow; overnight in Moscow
Day 6: visit Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, and Kitoy Gorod neighborhood; overnight in Moscow
Day 7: visit VDNHk, Moscow metro stations, Moscow City, and Arbat Street; overnight in Moscow
Day 8: relaxing day, visit Krutitskoye monastery, evening flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan

FLIGHTS
FinnAir (economy): JFK-HEL
I used 30k American Airlines miles to fly one-way from New York to Helsinki.

HOTELS
Holiday Inn West – Ruoholahti, Helsinki – moderate
Good rate and good location two stops west of the city centre on the metro.
Recommend: Yes

Radisson Blu Sonya, Saint Petersburg – luxury – 34k Club Carlson points per night
Good location near Summer Garden and I was upgraded to a beautifully decorated, business class room that included breakfast.
Recommend: Yes

Courtyard Paveletskaya, Moscow – moderate – 10k Marriott points per night
Good location with convenient subway access.  The room was basic but nice.
Recommend: Yes

Transportation
I took the high speed train from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg.  The train was comfortable and Russian immigration is done at your seat. Also took the Sapsan high-speed train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow in business class. Comfortable seats and a nice meal was served.

HIGHLIGHTS
Hermitage/Winter Palace
I managed to visit all the most beautiful rooms in my half-day visit, but barely scratched the surface of the incredible art collection.

Kremlin
I had low expectations for the Kremlin since it looked like a small square with a few simple churches.  The churches have unique interiors and the views over Moscow from above the Kremlin walls are incredible. I spent a couple hours inside and I didn’t even visit the Armoury or Diamond Fund collections.

Moscow Metro
The metro stations of Moscow are some of the most beautiful in the world.  I visited most of the stations along the Circle Line (Line 5).

Peterhof
The Peterhof Estate landscapes are much more famous than the palace, so I only visited the Upper and Lower Gardens.  The Upper Gardens are more formal and the Lower Gardens are larger with cascading fountains and views of the Gulf of Finland.

WHAT I MISSED
Hermitage – General Staff Building
I didn’t have enough time to see most of the collection of the main Hermitage museum, so I definitely didn’t make it to amazing impressionist collection housed in the General Staff Building across Palace Square.

Gorky Park/Garage Museum
Gorky Park is the most popular park in Moscow and contains Garage Museum, Moscow’s premier contemporary arts museum.  Also nearby is a branch of the Tretyakov Gallery and Museum Park of Arts, an outdoor sculptural garden.  This area requires a full day to properly visit.

Moscow at Night
Russian cities are brilliantly illuminated at night.  I saved my visit to Moscow’s Red Square at night for my last evening, but this was also the only evening my friend that lives in Moscow was available for dinner, so I opted for friends over photos.

Novodevichy Convent
This beautiful convent is located on a lake and has a mini-Kremlin appearance with colorful towers along a fortification wall.  Unfortunately, I ran out of time and was unable to visit the convent on this trip.

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