Most meaningful experience: Learning about the deep history and culture of Russia.

Top tips:

– Mingle with Moscow’s elite at Café Pushkin.

– Get an education into Russian art at the Tretyakov Gallery and explore the art galleries of the Hermitage Museum.

– Make a day trip from St. Petersburg to the lavish Peterhof Palace, which was inspired by Versailles.

– Be awed by the monumental architecture of Moscow, including the fortified complex of the Kremlin and its fascinating museums.

“You need to be more alert when I call you”. That was my first introduction to Russia as I navigated my way through immigration at the Moscow International Airport. I had been listening to music and unaware that I was next in line. I handed her my passport. “Americans”, she sighed. Stamp.

As I exited the airport, stout men approached me and started grabbing at my bags, trying to lead me towards the taxi stands. I managed to scamper away and find the official ticket purchasing line before stepping into a sleek, black car with leather seats for the ride to my hotel. I felt like Putin.

As we left the airport grounds, the landscape felt quite barren with clumps of large apartment buildings towering next to shopping centers. The taxi driver gruffly mumbled in response to my questions, not because he was unfriendly but he just didn’t speak much English.

The buildings became grander as we approached the city center, with magnificent bridges spanning the Moskva River and landmarks glowing in the late-afternoon light. Moscow perfectly encapsulated the Russian mystique – grand in appearance but mysteriously quiet while being eerily shady and cool.

But after peeling back the surface, Moscow revealed itself as quite a fun and adventurous destination, with the Russian people much friendlier than their outward appearance might suggest. At first, they came across as hesitant to be open with us, but once we showed interest in their culture, history and situation, that all changed, with many willingly revealing that they didn’t like or agree with Putin.

The city is a show of power and might – from the sprawling museums to the grandiose Orthodox churches and the Kremlin, which is fronted by an eight-lane highway. We explored the island restaurants and bars of Red October en route to the new building of the Tretyakov Gallery, which houses an extensive collection of Russian 20th-century art. Many of the paintings were unknown to the west as a result of the Iron Curtain and my appreciation of art skyrocketed during the visit.

Another interesting visit was to the Kremlin Armoury where imperial carriages, weaponry and an ivory throne once belonging to Ivan the Terrible are exhibited. I tried to sneak a few photos but was caught by one of the security guards who followed us closely for the rest of our visit.

While we didn’t make it to the circus or to see Moscow’s renowned ballet, we did have several good meals with our friend, Alex. He took us to the well-known Café Pushkin (www.cafe-pushkin.ru/en) that’s designed like a 19th-century aristocrats house and an up-and-coming local food chain that dishes up traditional Russian food. Meals such as beef stroganoff (pieces of sautéed beef) and bliny (Russian pancakes) are served on small plates that are decorated like typical Russian living rooms known as Mari Vanna. Don’t miss the borsch, a hot beetroot soup that’s garnished with dill or parsley and quickly became our favorite appetizer for the rest of the trip.

From Moscow, we headed to St Petersburg, which married the grandeur of the capital with the romanticism of Italy, featuring large canals and pretty churches. We admired the gold-platted nave of the famous Church of Spilled Blood and the vast, art-filled halls of the Hermitage Museum, as well as visiting the Nyenskans Fortress’ torture museum and taking in the city sights during a canal boat cruise.

If you have an extra day or two, make the 40-minute trip out to Peterhof Palace, a miniature version of Versailles that can be reached by high-speed catamarans. We also went to the Museum of Russian Vodka where we tasted vodka with herrings (I love herrings as much as the Russians), then tipsily drove Segways across Palace Square.

We found the people in St Petersburg more outgoing than those in Moscow and lucked upon a fashion show at our hotel, which led to some fun parties in the evenings. One night we had dinner at an Armenian restaurant where the owner egged us on to chug wine out of a goat’s horn! I don’t know when I’ll return, but am looking forward to one day discovering more of Russia’s unique and mysterious culture.

Top Russian food recommendations:

Borsch: One of Russia’s most famous soups that can be served hot or cold. It’s made using a meat or chicken bouillon of beetroots, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables. It’s said that a woman is only a good wife if she can cook borsch – that’s how much Russians love it!

Salad “Vinaigrette”: Made from beetroots, carrots, potatoes, peas and pickled cucumbers with an oil dressing. I’m not a fan of American salads but really like this!

Pelmeni: Little balls of minced meat wrapped in a thin dough and boiled in water. They are served with a variety of different sauces – sour cream, mushroom, tomato – as well as with butter, vinegar or mayonnaise. Russians eat pelmeni in tons…as did we!

Piroski: Really big dumplings with potatoes inside. Delicious.

Brown Bread: I don’t know where it comes from but its great!

Cola that tastes like root and licorice.

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