Sorry for keeping you waiting! I’ve been away from posting due to some subtitling work and then a trip to Russia, which is what brings me back!
Going to Russia was an amazing experience all-around, with the exception of the visa. Yes, I’m a spoiled EU resident who doesn’t like red tape. Sue me. Apart from that, I couldn’t ask for anything more really. And keep in mind that I DID ask for some things. The idea was to have a typical winter trip (equals fluffy snow), without necessarily bearing the negative effects of the cold. Especially those that could dampen sightseeing and photography, such as actual blizzards, icy sidewalks, etc.
I also had unfounded warnings of harsh temperatures in March, which turned out to be false. In the end, I got exactly what I wanted: white scenery, few moments of actual snowfall and ordinary temperatures (-15º to -0º). These were even LOWER than the average, as told by the locals. Plus, I got no major issues with customs, apart from some longer checks which were MAYBE beard-related; that’s on me, I get it!
It’s never a good idea to compare anything directly on the interweb. As opposed to top lists (for example), which silently ignore the other ones. But I found both cities so different that I thought it was perfect to make a little duel between both. Let’s start with a classical defensive statement: you can’t go wrong with any of them! Furthermore, I went in a very particular low-season period, so take some of my opinions with a bit of salt. Let’s split this analysis through the aspects that I found more different.
1 – To and from the airport
Moscow has more than 17 million people in its metropolitan area. Its major airport lies farther from the city than Saint Petersburg’s. Now, I don’t mind long distances from the airport, as that’s a chance to settle down after “airport life”. But when I coincidentally did that trip on a Monday morning and then on rush hour, IT DID GET ON MY NERVES. The amount of traffic was absolutely insane. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and of course, icy roadsides and streets don’t make it any easier. I publicly commend the taxi driver that got me in time for my flight to SPB: one of the most thrilling rides of my life!
I didn’t try the public transportation to and from the airport, because I had a lot of luggage and 3 connections to make. But depending on where you’re staying, it may be better to choose that instead. Also, you can be deceived as far as taxi fees are concerned. I paid 4000 RUB both times, which for me is expensive, in theory. But given that you’re 2 hours on the car, not so bad. In any case, I was hoping, in general, for cheaper fees in Russia, as stated on the official website.
Saint Petersburg, you ask? A breeze!
2 – Tourism industry
Alright, for me this was the most important thing. In Moscow, I stayed in a massive hotel that was a monument itself, while in SPB it was a much more modest option. Surely, I also tried many restaurants and cafés in both cities, as well as offices and places that require customer contact. The outcome of all these interactions? SPB is much more welcoming and open to tourists. Not just in style (people were warmer and more open), but also in content, i.e. they actually spoke good English. This reminded me of the relationship between Lisbon and Porto, something which was confirmed by a local which has visited both cities!
3 – City itself
Alright, so far SPB wins 2-0. Let’s start balancing things out for Russia’s capital.
It’s not surprising to know that Moscow is bigger. But a lot of cities are big and lack the charm to see it entirely. Not with Moscow though! With one of the most amazing subway systems in the world, you really need some help to reach places of interest on the other side of the city (especially in the winter). Everywhere you go you can stumble upon an amazing piece of architecture, landmark or not. The Soviet influence is, of course, largely present, and personally, I love that style! When it comes to sightseeing and photography, Moscow also takes the lead, as the morphology is more dynamic. Not only do you have more hills to roam (vertical diversity), but you can also climb many places to enjoy cityscapes from above.
SPB, situated along many canals, is clearly flatter. And apart from St. Isaac’s Cathedral (which is amazing), there aren’t many vantage points. You also get the idea that you can see the major central points of interest in WAY less time than in Moscow.
4 – Tourists
For a world-renowned and culturally brilliant capital, I found Moscow to have really FEW tourists. I’m talking about the hottest spots, like the Red Square and the Kremlin. I know it was off-season, but I clearly noticed a different scene in SPB. I was told that for some people / countries, it was cheaper to visit SPB than Moscow. Tourist-wise, SPB felt like any other major capital in Europe, like Barcelona or Prague. On the contrary, Moscow was a really nice change of pace that I don’t usually find in a city this large.
So there it is: 2-2.
5 – Unique factors
Since we have a draw so far, I can only untie this game by using the main weapons of each city.
To most people, including my tour operator, SPB’s greatest feature is the array of canals running through the city. I went in the winter, so all of them were frozen and white (more opportunities to walk on ice though!). Plus, its most famous landmark, the Church of the Savior on Blood, was under maintenance. Let’s just say I had a bit of “visual bad luck” in SPB, I admit that. As such, I can’t faithfully evaluate this subject. To make up for this, I visited the magnificent Catherine Palace some kilometers south of the city. Again, a white picture that must be incredibly more colorful in the summer, but clearly a mandatory day off from the city. Saint Petersburg’s promenade also seems more peaceful and “summer-ish”. Moscow has a larger extent of actual river, but somehow didn’t feel as cozy.
A visit to Moscow is not finished without witnessing the amazing architecture of many of its subway stations. Some websites make it seem that only Moscow has these. However, keep in mind that other grand cities in Russia, such as SPB and Kazan, also have marvelous interiors. In any case, Moscow surely takes the win with the highest number of unique styles. I also was greatly surprised by the picturesque Izmailovo market (on the outskirts), a fairy-tale cultural center that’s fabulous to look at.
There are some more interesting places to visit in either city, but since I’m not done yet with posts about them, I’ll leave it for some other day.
I think you’ve guessed it by now, but here it goes: I’d choose SPB for its people and Moscow for the city itself. So depending on your personality or your purpose when traveling, that can give you a good idea of what to look at in Russia. Since I’m more a lone wolf, Moscow is a sight to behold in all directions. However, I still feel the need to meet SPB in its best form, and I’m sure in such conditions the decision would be harder.