Growing up, my mom and I never took vacations abroad. We made a handful of visits to Beijing in order to see family, but that was it.
She worked hard as a single mother to raise me, and I always wanted to do something to give back, to show her how much I appreciated everything she sacrificed for me.
Last Christmas, I surprised her with an all-expenses-paid trip to her top destination: Russia. She spent her upbringing in Communist China and had always been curious about the “Big Brother” that she grew up idolizing. We’d be leaving the following spring.
And so on May 18th, my mom and I left for our first ever mother-daughter’s trip abroad.
Table of Contents
Fair warning, this a long post! I enjoyed my trip to Russia so much more than I ever expected, and I wanted to include ALL THE THINGS. If you’re in a hurry, feel free to click around to the parts that interest you:
Day 1: San Francisco to Moscow
I was particularly excited for our travel day.
I grew up flying (the first time I flew alone on an airplane I was only four-years-old), and so planes have always been a source of nostalgia—comforting, a second home. I love the sounds and smells of airports, the way your stomach drops slightly when you lift off the ramp and your body tries to make sense of what’s happening.
Our journey to Russia was long, spanning three segments along a nearly 24-hour journey; but we enjoyed it fully, because I got to cross off a bucket list item before we even entered foreign territory—flying first class!
I bought our flights there (with points, because I don’t have twenty grand just lying around to waste on a plane ticket) with Air Canada and Turkish airlines, and they treated us like royalty. We had five-course meals and our own lie-flat beds 30,000 feet in the sky, to which we fell asleep on while watching movies on extra-large TV screens with complimentary Bose headphones. It was wild.
We landed in Moscow around dinner time. After a wonderful (/s) initial experience with Russian bureaucracy, we passed through immigration with our thousand-dollar visas (story to come in another post), picked up our luggage, and headed for the taxi stands.
I was surprised at how much Moscow reminded me of Beijing. The traffic, the weaving cars, the Communist architecture sparingly dotted around wide, empty fields. Mom and I each sat with noses pressed against our respective windows, gazing out into the dusk.
A young concierge team greeted us at the gates of Hotel Sadovnicheskaya, leading us past a row of twinkling lights through two heavy, wooden doors. We took a narrow elevator up to our room, and my mom quickly got to work unpacking our massive suitcase and making the suite feel like home. After a long day in transit, we slept early and deeply.
Day 2: The Kremlin & Red Square
We started our day with our hotel’s breakfast, which my mom and I both took a little too seriously. We piled plates high with pastries, fruit, and made-to-order omelets, as any good American would do.
Our guide, Kristina, met us in the lobby, and we all took a car to the entrance of the Kremlin. We used Yandex, Russia’s (much cheaper) version of Uber. It functions the same way but only costs around $1-4 for a short trip around the city.
Kremlin, the French take on the Russian term “Kreml”, simply means “fortress”. You’ll find plenty of other kremlins located around the country, but Moscow’s is the most famous, as it also serves as the president’s home (think of it as the Russian white house).
It’s a sweeping complex of 277,000 square meters, with walls and towers outlining the perimeter. Inside are several buildings, including multiple churches (the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael among them, which houses the tombs of nearly all past Moscow monarchs). We only visited the inside of the Dormition Cathedral.
Our tour lead us next to the Red Square, the public portion of the city center, home to architectural celebrities like St. Basil’s Cathedral and the State Historical Museum. Here, each distant corner looked like a scene out of Hanzel and Gretel, with red-bricked gingerbread houses providing backdrops to an endless stream of tourist photos.
The final item on our itinerary was a tour of the Moscow metro.
It happens that Moscow’s underground comes from a rich history, and visually, is one of the most stunning transportation systems in the world. It’s also one of the most heavily used, guiding something along 9 million people around the city each day (if you’ve ever been stuck in Russian traffic, you’d understand why).
Each station, originally coined by Stalin as “people’s palaces”, has a unique history behind it based on the time it was built. Mayakovskaya Station served as a bomb shelter during the war, and there’s even a rumor that a secret line exists between the center of the city and the outskirts, in the case that war ever broke out and Russia’s leaders needed a quick escape.
The stations are built like museums, with bronze statues, marble reliefs, and mosaic artworks carefully displayed among ornate chandeliers and arched ceilings.
At this point, we said our goodbyes to Kristina and called a Yandex to bring us back to the hotel.
(If you’re interested at all in the tour we took, click here.)
Our hotel had an extensive, albeit overpriced, menu with Russian cuisine, so mom and I decided to give it a try (It’s difficult for her to get around, especially after a 4-hour tour, so we wanted to stay in the building if at all possible. Don’t judge me.)
The food surprised us. We ordered the fish paté, borscht (beet soup), and pelmeni (Russian dumplings).
Day 3: Tretyakov State Gallery
After a long tour yesterday, we opted for a relaxed day inside of Moscow’s most famous art gallery: the Tretyakov State Gallery.
The Tretyakov has been around since the 1850’s (!) and hosts the world’s largest collection of Russian artwork. It’s a fairly large museum and takes a few hours to explore properly.
Some of my favorite works:
We grabbed lunch at Yest’ Khinkali Pit’ Vino, a Georgian restaurant about a half mile down the road from Hotel Sadovnicheskaya. Georgian food is apparently all the rage, and so you’ll find plenty of restaurants lining up and down the streets alongside your typical Russian joints.
It was both of our first times eating Georgian cuisine, which made for a confusing (but entertaining) interaction between ourselves and our very patient, limited-English-speaking waiter. After a lot of pointing, hand gestures, and hilarious substitutes for common phrasing (i.e., referring to pork dumplings as “the pig”), we were served a delicious spread of khachapuri, khinkali, and lamb ribs, all washed down with Georgia’s famous red wine.
Khinkali are a lot like larger, thicker soup dumplings with a less dense center, making it difficult to eat like a typical Chinese XLB. After more charades with our waiter, we discovered that the dumplings were meant to be eaten by hand, using the doughy stems as a makeshift handle.
We returned to our hotel and had some coffee on the patio to wind down. We were really lucky with weather during this trip, and Moscow was a summery and sunny 75F today.
I went out on my own in the latter half of the afternoon to explore the neighborhood. I wandered in and out of a few shops, including a local grocery, which seems to be my favorite activity when arriving in a new country.
It appeared to be rush our, with swarms of people heading here-and-there across the wide and narrow boulevards. Moscow reminded me a lot of New York: people dressed up in heels with lipstick painted on their serious expressions, couples dangling over bar stools outside on patios, champagne bars and restaurants filled to the brim at 7 o’clock on a Tuesday.
There’s a quick-paced energy here that I didn’t quite expect, along with the many architectural delights that line the streets—unlike your typical destinations like Paris and Prague, most Americans have yet to make it to Russia’s capital, which means it’s one of the few great cities left in the world that still feels capable of “exploring”. You won’t find countless photos on Instagram or an endless sea of blog posts detailing every last point of interest. There’s still so much to be discovered.
Day 4: Izmailovsky Market
Izmailovo Kremlin is a bit of an anomaly.
While not a “true” Kremlin (it was built in 2007 as a culture and entertainment structure), it still has plenty to provide visitors in terms of Russian culture. I was mostly attracted to the architecture, which is part fairytale castle, part colorful circus. Inside sits Moscow’s tallest wooden church, a variety of cultural museums (like the Museum of Vodka and Museum of Bread), and an extensive flea market serving up cheap souvenirs and authentic Soviet memorabilia.
We arrived early in the morning and found the complex mostly empty. The market was located just below the main plaza, nestled in dark wooden structures and shaded by trees—which was lucky, since today was the height of Moscow’s warm weather and we were baking in 80-degree heat by 11 am.
On our way back to the city center, we stopped at Pate & Co, a French-style bistro serving up a variety of casual Russian fare. We spent the next few hours on the outdoor patio (shaded, of course), slowly picking away at a jar of duck paté and a slice of Russian honey cake which will haunt my dreams forever. I sipped on a cold pale ale while watching the afternoon foot traffic and counting how many lip fillers I could spot (Russia, it turns out, is big on plastic surgery).
The day ended with another meal at our hotel, including a beet and cream cheese salad (mom’s choice, not mine, obviously) and another delicious spread of pelmini drizzled in olive oil.
Day 5: Train from Moscow to St. Petersburg
Our time in the capital came to a close as we packed up our bags and headed towards to St. Petersburg.
Moscow, I would soon learn, has quite a few train stations—three of which start with a “K”, and two of those within a mile of each other. As someone who is very unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet (I only learned a handful of letters before the trip), my general navigation strategy thus far had been to type in the first letter of a name and make a crude guess at our destination.
This strategy finally failed me as we entered Kazansky Railway Station, only to be told by the information desk that we were, in fact, at the wrong place, and that the cryptic writing on the tickets in my hands actually said “Kiyevsky”.
Mom’s Yandex app conveniently decided to stop working, so we settled with the taxi stand outside. The driver “negotiated” a flat fee of ₽20,000 (about $30 USD), to bring us 10 minutes down the road. I cursed my stupidity and reluctantly agreed, and a few minutes later we had successfully navigated Moscow traffic in a speeding car, barely making our train just minutes before departure.
After recovering from the ordeal, emotionally and physically, we took in our surroundings. The sapsan (bullet train) was built like most others I had ridden across Asia and Europe in the past. It was nice, modern, and clean.
I had booked us seats in the dining car, which included ₽20,000 of credit to purchase anything you wanted from the menu. Most items were only around ₽200-400, so this amounted to quite a bit of spending power. Mom and I concocted a grand plan to buy up $15 worth of snacks (each) towards the end of the journey, only to be thwarted by an apologetic waitress who informed us that all train service stops an hour before arriving in St. Petersburg. Damn.
We arrived in St. Petersburg just after 2 pm. After checking into our hotel, mom stayed in to recover from the journey, while I went out to explore.
We were staying at Aston Hotel, which was just around the corner from Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s most famous shopping street. It reminded me a lot of Champs-Élysées in Paris.
All around me, I was in awe. Grand, towering buildings sprouted up from every corner, and delicate canals weaved through the streets and under bridges. It instilled a sense of wonder and impressiveness that I hadn’t felt from any city in a long time.
St. Petersburg has the cultural charm of Vienna, delicate grace of Paris, cosmopolitan atmosphere of London, epic grandeur of Budapest, and romantic beauty of Venice. For a moment, I wondered just how so many Americans had managed to miss this place.
I wandered into a few stores, then met mom back at the room. We had a simple dinner at Stolovaya №1, a Soviet-style canteen chain located in various pockets around the city.
Day 6: The Hermitage Museum & Dinner Cruise
The Lovure and the Met get a lot of attention, but did you know that the Hermitage is one of the best and oldest fine-art museums in the world?
It’s also massive, and so we started the day at the online ticketing entrance (which I highly suggest doing if you’re planning on visiting—the main entrance had a cool 400 people waiting in the queue). We rented a wheelchair from the front desk, then headed inside.
The Hermitage was known as the Winter Palace back in the day; in other words, it’s where the ruling family stayed when retreating from the cold until it was time to return to Peterhof (more on that later). The building runs so far it’s almost impossible to see the other side from the ground if you’re right in front of it.
Panels of seafoam green and gold stretched in every direction around the Palace Square, exuding a striking sense of majesty and opulence.
Inside, there are something around 3 million (million!) art pieces and cultural artifacts displayed around the building. Part of the palace is presented in its original state, with furniture and decor arranged to create an in-person experience of what it was like to live there as a Romanov back in the day. The other half has been transformed into an art museum, exclusively dedicated to housing Catherine the Great’s private art collection.
That’s right—the Hermitage’s art pieces were personally curated by Russia’s longest-ruling female leader herself.
After a long afternoon of museum trekking (and dodging tour groups—it was honestly one of the most crowded buildings I’ve ever been to), we returned to the hotel to prepare for dinner.
St. Petersburg is technically a city built on islands, surrounded by the Neva Delta. Among the banks of the main river you’ll find a handful of boating companies looking to guide you around the city’s most notable attractions.
One such company is Astra, which also happens to provide dinner cruises every evening.
The interior of the boat was classier than I had pictured, with a piano sitting square in the center and large windows overlooking the water.
We each ordered a 4-course meal with complementary champagne, and the entire experience came out to a little over $50 (that’s Russian pricing for you) for us both.
Day 7: Savior on the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac’s, High Tea & Mariinsky Ballet
St. Petersburg is filled with many, many cathedrals (you need more than a week here to really explore the place properly), but we narrowed down our morning to just two: Savior on the Spilled Blood and St. Isaac’s.
The former was built in a similar style to St. Basil’s back in Moscow, with colorful details, geometric columns, and swirling onion domes. The interior is darker and older, laced with gold and mosaic portraits of biblical characters.
A line of souvenir vendors lined the canal outside. Mom spotted a horse-and-carriage, and before I knew it, we were trotting along the cobblestone walkways behind a white-haired pony.
St. Isaac’s is an Orthodox cathedral built in a neoclassical style. It was grander and taller, with massive frescos and murals of immense scale covering the ceilings and walls, which were all lined in pink marble and shining gold.
Pro-tip: You can climb to the top of the dome for a 360 view of the city. It overlooks parks, buildings, and the general, breathtaking beauty that is St. Petersburg.
We spent the afternoon at the Four Seasons Lion Palace—just a stone’s throw from St. Isaac’s—sharing a three-tiered plate of mini sandwiches and palm-sized desserts while sipping on a tasty, Russian tea blend. The room was fairly empty and a little stuffy for our tastes, but we enjoyed the food and company (and the very reasonable $30 bill at the end). My favorite was the scones.
The Mariinsky Ballet is one of, if not the, most famous ballet company in the world. It was a no-brainer to get tickets.
I ordered us a Yandex to the theater with the plan of arriving 30 minutes early to take photos and find our seats.
After getting screened and passing through security, we found an usher to help us with our tickets, which were written exclusively in (surprise!) Cyrillic. He made anxious gestures at the paper and started looking around for a coworker who spoke English.
When she arrived, she glanced at our tickets and gave a similar expression of concern. She pointed at the top left corner.
“Yes, Mariinsky. So what level are we on? Top?”
“No Mikhailovsky. Mariinsky!” She stabbed an impatient finger at the paper again.
It took a moment to understand what she was saying: We were at the wrong theater. As it turned out, Мариинский театр and Михайловский театр were two entirely different ballet companies.
Half an hour later, we were speed walking into the real Mariinsky Theater.
The show had started 15 minutes before we arrived, so after spending another few moments navigating several poorly labelled floors (TIL that ballets do not like to label their balconies with numbers—they prefer obscure and unhelpful titles like “dress circle” and “grand tier”), we found our section, only to have our tickets taken by a Russian-speaking usher, who then placed us squarely behind the Tsar’s crown (less ideal than it sounds—these are the worst seats in the house due to the stage being half-blocked by a 4-foot statue of a royal hat).
I knew we were seated incorrectly (I had hand-picked our seats weeks before), but she was hearing none of it. I ended up watching the first act with a permanently craned neck.
During the intermission, the same usher found us again and, after another 20 minutes of dealing with the English-Russian language barrier, pointed us to our actual seats just half a row away.
We watched the rest of the ballet in semi-comfort (although it should probably be said that neither of us had any clue as to what we were watching) and made it home early enough to rest up before our early morning to Peterhof the next day.
Day 8: Peterhof & Palkin
In further attempt to “Europeanize” Russia, Peter the Great decided that the great city of Petersburg just had to have its own version of France’s Versailles.
The building was commissioned to be just as grand, perched on a bluff with a large garden area covering over half a mile of land and decorated with 64 fountains.
The palace itself sat behind a grand cascade of shooting fountains and gold statues, lined with stairs ascending to the building’s entrance. Directly in front stood several hundred people waiting to see the palace interior. After a long hydrofoil ride from the city center and an expansive walk across the gardens, mom and I decided to opt out of spending our afternoon 1.) waiting in line with hundreds of people and 2.) crammed inside a small room with said people.
We ordered a car back to our hotel to get ready for mom’s birthday dinner. Back at our room, we were greeted with a bottle of champagne, cake, and balloons from the hotel staff!
I booked us a table at Palkin, the city’s most famous Russian restaurant, and although Russia doesn’t officially have any Michelin rated restaurants, this was about as close to one as the city had to offer.
Palkin is located on Nevsky Prospekt and is one of the oldest dining establishments in the city, dating back to 1785 (!). Our table was situated right next to the apartment safe, where the restaurant’s 100-year-old book of recipes was found (and where a few dishes are still sourced from to this day). Although I suspect there may have been a little fiction crafted into this story, I appreciated the effort to make our dining experience special.
We opted for the 10-course tasting menu, the highlights of which included a perfectly-cooked scallop dish and home-made nitrogen ice cream, mixed and frozen on the spot.
The meal ended with the entire wait staff circling in with sparklers and a complimentary cake to celebrate mom’s birthday. It was a nice touch, considering how upscale the atmosphere felt.
Day 9: Galleria Shopping & Caviar Tasting
We spent our final day in Russia at The Galleria, a massive shopping complex lined with hundreds of shops (Bershka included—swoon).
We had a surprisingly cheap and tasty lunch at Teremok, a popular chain serving up local dishes like blini and kasha, and then ended our day with a stop at Russia Caviar Bar for an afternoon of fish-egg tasting.
Day 10: Back to America
And—that’s it! A week and a half in Mother Russia.
The country surprised me so much more than I expected. I know it sounds cliché, but everything from the kind people to the delicious food really made our experience so wonderful.
There’s so much still misunderstood about Russia in the U.S. American politics has painted a negative light on the country, but it’s incredibly clean, safe, and welcoming—in fact, I felt more at ease walking around in Moscow and St. Petersburg than I usually do walking to BART every morning during my commute in San Francisco!
Some vacations are for exploring, others are for relaxing—and Russia was for breaking stereotypes. For learning that the world isn’t always what it seams, and for reminding me of the reason why travel is still so important, even in an age where you can FaceTime a friend in Shanghai in just seconds or read up on the news from another side of the world almost instantly. Because even with everything that technology and modern society has afforded us, there are still gaps. Gaps in knowledge, gaps in understanding, gaps in empathy with our fellow humans.
Russia is kind, safe, and beautiful. And it deserves to be seen.
P.S. I made a vlog! If you’re not already tired of hearing about Russia, check it out:
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