An overview of Moscow and St. Petersburg
Russia, the world’s biggest country, is also a multi-ethnic federation that is still little known to Canadian travellers. My partner and I had the opportunity to visit the European part of Russia in August 2019 with Aeroplan miles.
I’ve had a few opportunities to visit Russia in the course of my work, even its Asian and Arctic parts, but this was our first time there together for a vacation.
For Canadians, Russia is also a very affordable country thanks to an exchange rate in our favour. We had the chance to indulge our taste buds in creative and contemporary restaurants without it costing us an arm and a leg!
However, before talking about gastronomy, I will first give you a brief overview of the attractions of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Moscow, the most populous city in Europe
With more than 12 million inhabitants, Moscow is the most populous city in Europe (in second place if we include Istanbul in Europe).
Although some prefer St. Petersburg, Moscow dazzled us with:
- its energy
- a large culinary offer
- its architectural diversity
It boasts Orthodox churches and palaces of the Tsarist period, and modern skyscrapers and urban complexes and constructivist buildings of the Soviet era.
Below, the Cathedral Square in the Moscow Kremlin. Kremlin means fortress and this one was built in 1331.
Or the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the VDNKh Park in Moscow. VDNKh, established in 1939, is a gigantic complex of entertainment, museums, exhibitions, fairs and parks.
Like New York, this city does not sleep and many restaurants and shops are still open past midnight.
Moscow is also very safe, we walked around until late at night without any fear.
We stayed in Moscow for 4 days and it was just enough time to visit the main tourist attractions without rushing, including an exhibition of Ilya Repin’s work at the Tretiakov Gallery.
The capital is huge, so allow time to get from one place to another. Rely on the metro and Yandex Taxi (Russia’s equivalent of Uber) to get around!
As few Russians are fluent in English, apart from people working in the tourism industry, Yandex applications (Taxi, Maps, Metro, Translate) are essential for a pleasant stay. So, download these applications on your cell phone before you arrive!
Speaking of the metro, the Moscow metro is a marvel! Not only from the architectural point of view but also for its efficiency.
Since a metro train arrived every 90 seconds, we never had to run.
Take a few hours, outside of peak periods, to visit the most impressive stations and memorize the Russian alphabet!
The metro is not expensive and if you spend several days in Moscow, it’s really worth getting a Troika card that can be reloaded by credit card.
To build your program, I suggest you consult the Russia Beyond website. The site contains a wealth of information such as:
St. Petersburg, the "Venice of the North"
St. Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia with over 5 million inhabitants. The city is nicknamed the “Venice of the North” because of its many canals and rivers lined with palaces.
St. Petersburg is much smaller than Moscow. So we didn’t have to use the metro and we were able to get almost everywhere by walking during our 3 day stay.
As the city is more dependent on tourism and many cruises stop here, we noticed that people are more fluent in English.
St. Petersburg, with its wide boulevards, its palaces with charming reflections in the water and its famous Hermitage Museum, which includes the Winter Palace of the Tsars, is a splendid city with a great cultural heritage.
We also had the opportunity to attend a ballet performance of Swan Lake at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. An unforgettable memory!
Creative and contemporary Russian cuisine
The discovery of creative and contemporary Russian cuisine was a true revelation and a great pleasure for us.
Wines from the Krasnodar and Crimean regions also pleasantly surprised us. In fact, we would come back to Russia just to please our taste buds!
We really liked the fact that in many restaurants, the ingredients’ origins are indicated on the menu. Even the name of each farm appeared on the menu of the Lavka Lavka restaurant in Moscow!
Points and miles in Russia: our strategy
Note from milesopedia
Below, Thai presents its strategy for earning points with credit cards. These offers were available at the time of planning the trip and may have changed in the meantime.
Since then, for a trip abroad like this, there are also credit cards with no foreign currency conversion fees. These cards could save you 2.5% on every transaction made abroad.
Gas & Transit
Russia was part of our mini-RTW with Turkey and Greece. So we needed 115,000 Aeroplan miles per person in business class for this mini-RTW.
I already had about 90,000 miles from my office trips, so we were about 140,000 miles short. This mini-RTW was the result of our first experience with credit card application through milesopedia.
The cards that helped us earn the missing miles were:
- American Express® Gold Rewards Card: 30,000 points*
- American Express® Gold Small Business Rewards Card: 40,000 points*.
- Platinum Card® from American Express: 50,000 points*
- Best Western Rewards® Mastercard (in order to earn 4,000 Aeroplan miles for free!).
*These cards were applied for during promotional periods between 2017 and 2018.
When you put the value of an Aeroplan Mile at 1.7¢, our business class mini-RTW of 115,000 miles (+ $260 in fees and taxes) was about $2,200 per person.
Google Flights indicated that a ticket for such a trip cost a minimum of $5,500!
So we saved about $3,300 per person and got a good return of 4.5¢/mile, while traveling in great comfort.
We also got an American Express Cobalt™ Card, which we used to pay for some cheap domestic flights in Russia, Turkey and Greece.
The flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow, for example, cost only $72. We decided to take a night train to St. Petersburg and save a night in a hotel.
The Cobalt card Membership Rewards paid for this train trip as well.
For the stays in the hotels, except for the last night in Russia, we decided for Marriott hotels, paid for with Marriott Bonvoy points.
To do this, my partner and I each got a Marriott Bonvoy™ American Express® Card that gave 20,000 SPG points in 2017 (the equivalent of 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points today).
Later in 2018, we also earned 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points with a Marriott Bonvoy™ Business American Express® Card.
When a Bonvoy point is valued at 0.9¢, the hotel nights cost us about $157 each in points.
If we had to pay cash, those nights would have been worth $180 to $200. It wasn’t a great return but, well, we didn’t have to pay for the hotel.
Returning to Moscow from St. Petersburg in the evening for our last night in Russia, we stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Vnukovo Airport.
It was from this airport that we flew to Istanbul the next morning. A super modern, nice hotel paid for by transferring our American Express Cobalt™ Card points to our Hilton Honors account.
A Russian visa is required for tourists with a Canadian passport.
For a tourist visa (maximum stay of 30 days), we had to :
- Get an invitation letter (very easy in 24 hours and by paying $14 through Fortuna Travel);
- Take a 35mm x 45mm photo;
- Fill out a visa application form;
- Print the completed form;
- Paste the photo in the indicated location; and
- Submit the form and passport, and pay the visa fee ($100 in 2019 by debit card) at a visa center.
You will be given a code to track the processing of your application online or by phone. Your passport will be returned to you with the visa within 20 working days.
As of January 2021, a quick 16-day Russian e-visa for $50 will be available for citizens of 53 countries including the European Union. Unfortunately, this option is not yet available for Canada.
Getting to Moscow city centre from the airport
The Moscow region has 3 airports.
Most Star Alliance flights (including our Swiss flight from Zurich) use Domodedovo Airport (DME).
Since taxis at the airport can be very expensive (unless you use Yandex taxis), if you don’t have a lot of luggage, I recommend taking the Aeroexpress train for $8. It’s super efficient and comfortable! This train takes you to the Paveletsky station which is connected to the metro.
We had a backpack and a suitcase each and the trip from DME to our hotel by Aeroexpress and metro went very well even if the metro was still crowded when we arrived. The Yandex Metro application on our cell phone was a great help.
You can buy a SIM card for your phone at the airport before you go out to take a train or taxi. Megafon, on the second floor, has many options and the young people who work there speak good English.
Cell phone costs are very affordable in Russia and Wi-Fi is very present in Moscow and St. Petersburg, even on the metro.
Tele2 offers a package for tourists at 600 rubles ($11) valid for one month and including 15 GB, 4G Internet, 500 call minutes.
If you forgot to buy your SIM card at the airport, it is also possible to buy one on board the Aeroexpress train. The train seat pocket contains a Tele2 brochure with a SIM card and activation instructions.
Having already visited the Baikal Lake region near the Mongolian border, overlooked by Tibetan-style Buddhist temples, I was able to see the great cultural diversity of Russia.
This trip paidn for with points gave us the motivation to come back to explore other regions, such as Tatarstan where Turko-Mongolian people of Muslim religion live.