As two of the most popular tourist destinations in Russia, most travelers who visit the world’s largest countries end up making their way to both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both cities have a wealth of attractions, including palaces, churches as well as exciting culinary and nightlife scenes. But what if you find yourself able to visit only one – should you visit Moscow or St. Petersburg? Alternatively, if you have time for both, in which city do you spend more days?
During a recent trip to Russia, I had a similar problem deciding. My trip allowed me to visit both cities but I was not sure in the beginning whether I should stay for more days in Moscow or St. Petersburg. As such, the comparison I am going to do here applies both to those trying to allocate the number of days between the two cities as well as those who have enough time to visit only one,
As Russia’s capital, the city serves as the financial center of the country. The city is highly cosmopolitan. You will find a large number of people from all around Russia here and even people from the former Soviet republics. Moscow also has a noticeable expat population and you’ll find various types of eateries here from Japanese to French as well as Italian – the latter which local chefs do very well.
While the city sits firmly in Europe and plenty of the surrounding architecture are certainly typical of the continent, Moscow can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming (and clogged), not to mention polluted due to the smoke coming out of the cars. There are plenty of highways circling the city to reach areas outside the central core. Moscow is definitely one of the great cities of the world.
- Moscow is one of the world’s largest cities and you won’t get bored here. There are plenty of districts from which to explore. Personally, I love the area surrounding the Patriarshy Ponds filled with plenty of charming shops and hip restaurants.
- If you decide to spend more time or devote your entire time in Russia to Moscow, you’ll be pleased that there are plenty of day trip and excursion opportunities from here. The towns around the golden ring, i.e. Suzdal, Vladimir, Sergiev Posad, etc are either a car or train ride away and can easily keep you preoccupied for a couple of days.
- The city is not as touristy as St. Petersburg and that’s a good thing. I visited the Kolomenskoye Park for example, which houses a UNESCO World Heritage Site, without encountering the tour groups I typically see in St. Petersburg.
- If the hipster culture interests you, you’ll be pleased that you have plenty of options in Moscow. The most prominent is Flacon, a short walk from Dmitrovskaya station.
- Overall, I found Moscow to be more expensive – both in terms of hotels, food as well as transport. The Russian capital is frequently ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world. All it takes is a visit to the iconic GUM shopping mall to see the astronomical prices.
- If you are visiting Moscow independently, you might find getting by via public transport a bit confusing. When taking the metro in particular, the signs are all in Cyrillic so it’s helpful to learn a bit of the alphabet in order to familiarize yourself with the names of the places. If any consolation, some of the stations are among the most beautiful subway stations in the world.
- While both Moscow and St. Petersburg have less charming Soviet style buildings, you’ll find more in Moscow – being once the capital of the Soviet Union.
- There are no shortage of sights in Moscow but many of them are scattered all around the city. Interesting places in the outskirts include: Kolomenskoye Park, the Izmailovo Kremlin, Novodevichy Convent and Flaocon. But these are at different directions from the center.
Where I stayed in Moscow: I found the InterContinental Tverskaya Moscow to be conveniently located. It’s within a short walk from at least 3 metro stations while the Red Square is just down the road. Service overall is fantastic compared to other Moscow hotels and vacation rental options and there are good deals to be had during weekends. You can also compare the best prices for hotels in Moscow HERE.
Established some 300 years ago by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg probably ranks among the most visually appealing cities in Europe. Almost any building in the central core for example can be considered as a tourist attraction. The city is one of the great touristic cities in Europe – hosting plenty of daytrippers from cruises around the Baltics or Scandinavia.
- The city is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe with plenty of classical and baroque architecture. Peter the Great spared no expense in hiring the best architects from Western Europe when he established the city.
- St. Petersburg is relatively cheaper than Moscow. Uber rides between most points within the city center don’t go beyond $5.
- Many of the tourist attractions are concentrated within the center so it’s fairly easy to walk from one attraction to another or take a short cab ride.
- The city derives a good part of its income in tourism and you’ll find plenty of signs in English and even in other foreign languages. While I was there, I saw many restaurants and shops displaying signs in Chinese.
- While you will find daytrip opportunities in the form of Petrograd as well as Catherine Palace, they’re significantly less than if you choose to base yourself in Moscow.
- St. Petersburg can get quite touristy and you could find the crowds a bit maddening and you might even need to queue for a long time to enter. It’s possible to purchase tickets for some attractions online but others are available only on the spot.
Where I stayed in St. Petersburg: I was pleasantly surprised by the Crowne Plaza Ligovsky. Some of the rooms are styled like a palace with engravings on the walls. Fresh juices were served during breakfast – something relatively unheard of for a 4 star hotel. Best of all, it is located just across Galeria, one of the biggest shopping malls in St. Petersburg. You can also check out some other hotels and compare the best prices HERE for St. Petersburg.
Where to go if you could choose only one city?
Both Moscow and St. Petersburg are great in their own ways. However, if your stay in Russia is very short and barring any other limitations, I would suggest going to St. Petersburg instead. My reasons are as follows: St. Petersburg is quicker to navigate. You can finish most of the main attractions within a couple of days by focusing on the city center and perhaps visiting the area north of the river. In contrast, Moscow is quite spread out. The city is so much more than the Kremlin and Red Square that it will take you more days to really see the city. It would be better to visit Moscow next time when you have more days to spare.
If you have enough time for both cities, where should you allocate more days?
On the other hand, if you have more time to visit both cities and are deciding where to allocate more days – I would suggest allocating more days for Moscow. Other than the extra time required to see the city outskirts, you could also use the extra days to arrange excursions to the cities in the Golden Ring. Also check out my suggested one week itinerary for Russia. Alternatively, you can also consider venturing to Russia’s third capital, the multicultural city of Kazan if you have time.
Tips for Russia
- Know the Cyrillic alphabet – the local alphabet is not difficult and is actually quite fun to learn especially after you learn how many words sound the same in both Russian and English! This will help greatly when you navigate metro stations and read shop signs.
- Travel insurance – If you are going for a simple eating trip near your home country, travel insurance may not be needed but for Russia which is quite far and rather exotic, I decided to purchase one. I bought from this provider which has a higher than average medical coverage and compensates you for things like accidents and lost items at a relatively cheap price.
- Buy metro cards – Getting the metro cards in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg will save you lots when it comes to transport cost and is far more convenient than buying tickets on the spot. For places that are not covered by the metro, you can consider ride-sharing apps like UBER.