Viewing Red Square at Night (Moscow)
The crimson-and-ivy-colored domes of St. Basil's Cathedral rise in a dizzying welcome to this most majestic of Russian plazas. The red stars on the Kremlin towers twinkle above one side of the square, making the medieval fortress seem festive instead of forbidding. Lenin's Mausoleum in nighttime shadow is appropriately eerie. Stand on the rise in the center of the square and feel a part of Russia's expanse.
Experiencing White Nights in St. Petersburg
Two weeks of festivities in late June celebrate the longest day of the year, when the northern sun never dips below the horizon. The White Nights are more than just a party; they're a buoyant, carefree celebration of summer -- liberation after the city's long hibernation. Watch at midnight as residents picnic with their kids or play soccer in the courtyards. Then take a nighttime boat ride through the canals as the sunset melts into a languorous sunrise, and you'll never want to go south again.
Steaming Your Stress Away at the Banya
Thaw your eyelashes in January or escape snow flurries in May in the traditional Russian bathhouse, something between a sauna and a Turkish hammam. The pristine Sandunovsky Baths in Moscow are a special treat, with Greek sculptures and marble baths. Watch expert banya-goers beat themselves with birch branches, plunge into icy pools, exfoliate with coffee grounds, and sip beer while waiting for the next steam. Sandunovsky Baths (Sandunovskiye Banyi) are at 14 Neglinnaya, Moscow (tel. 495/625-4631).
Watching the Drawbridges Open Along the Neva River (St. Petersburg)
An unforgettable outing during White Nights, or anytime, involves perching yourself on the quay at 2am to watch the city's bridges unfold in careful rhythm to allow shipping traffic through the busy Neva. Just be careful not to get caught on the wrong side of the river from your hotel.
Taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad
This winding link between Europe and Asia offers a sense of Russia's scale. Seven days from Moscow to Beijing, or from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast, the journey provides plenty of time for reflection and making acquaintances. Lake Baikal and the Altai Mountains are stunning interruptions in the masses of pine and birch forests.
Picnicking at Kolomenskoye (Moscow)
This architectural reserve boasts the breathtaking 16th-century Church of the Assumption and the wooden house where Peter the Great sought refuge before assuming the throne. The surrounding lawns and groves beckon visitors to stretch out with caviar or cucumber sandwiches and a thermos of strong Russian tea. The hilly paths wind through apple orchards. Historic folk festivals are staged here throughout the year.
Paying Your Respects at Novodevichy Cemetery and Convent (Moscow)
The intricately original graves of the Russian eminences buried here -- writers Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and Stalin's suicidal wife among them -- are allegories more than headstones. The tranquil grounds of the convent above witnessed bloody palace intrigues, and many a powerful woman in Russian history was exiled there. Today its restored cathedrals and adjacent pond exude a quiet serenity.
Sipping Baltika Beer at Patriarch's Ponds (Moscow)
This prestigious neighborhood inspired writer Mikhail Bulgakov (Master and Margarita). It's still a prime spot to sink onto a bench with a bottle of local beer (Baltika is a popular choice) or other beverage and watch Moscow spin by. Whimsical statues of characters from Ivan Krylov's fables will entertain kids, and the pond is a skating rink in winter.
Taking Tea at a Luxury Hotel
A cup of steaming tea from an antique samovar is a treat for anyone, and even those on tight budgets should find something affordable at top-end hotels. To accompany the tea, try jam-filled bliny (thin Russian pancakes), fruit- or meat-filled pirozhki (pies), or caviar on toast. For more information, see the listings for Moscow's Le Royal Meridien National or Metropol hotels or St. Petersburg's Grand Hotel Europe.
Sampling Wild Mushrooms
Mushroom-picking in the countryside is a national pastime, and homemade mushroom dishes are heavenly, though not without risks. Restaurant-approved mushrooms are nearly as good and are sure to be safe: succulent cepes in soup; chanterelles sprinkled on pork chops; or zhulien, any wild mushroom baked with cheese and sour cream.
Enjoying a Night Out at the Mariinsky Theater (formerly known as the Kirov; St. Petersburg)
Locals bemoan falling standards and rising prices at Russia's premier ballet and opera houses, but the performers remain top class. Even seats on the fourth-level balcony offer views of the opulent 18th-century interior. The Bolshoi Theater in Moscow is closed for renovations, though its company is performing on a still-impressive stage nearby.
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