In a world where media narratives often shape our perceptions, my journey to Moscow aimed to pierce through the veil of biases and discover the authentic essence of this iconic city during the festive season. Through this blog post, I will try to debunk many myths surrounding Russia and explain why you should visit Moscow, Russia. I will try to answer honestly whether it is worth visiting Moscow in December. And, if yes, then what are the dos and don’ts of visiting Russia for the first time? I hope this article serves as a testament to the unforeseen wonders that unfold when one sets aside preconceived notions and embraces the spirit of exploration. Join me on this enchanting journey as I recount the allure of Moscow, its unique Christmas and New Year celebrations, and a meticulous itinerary that unravelled the city’s winter magic and convinced me it’s totally worth visiting Moscow in December.
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Why did I choose to visit Russia in December?
Different people have different rituals and superstitions for the New Year; mine involves welcoming the New Year in an unexplored destination. Some fifteen years ago, I promised myself that I’d celebrate the new year in a new country as a mark of new beginnings. I have been able to follow this little promise until now.
In early November 2023, when Moscow Seasons extended an enticing invitation to visit Moscow and experience the Journey to Christmas celebrations in the Russian capital, curiosity got the better of me. Unfazed by media narratives, I was keen to witness the culture and traditions of a country that has been on my travel list for a long time. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Having traversed through Christmas markets across Europe, from the enchanting Strasbourg to the imperial Vienna, vibrant London to historic Berlin, picturesque Switzerland to the charming Zagreb and the Czech Republic, I was eager to discover the distinctive charm of Russian Christmas markets and traditions. This marked the genesis of my journey, a quest to unravel the unique tapestry of Russia during the festive season.
Below, I am sharing my personal experiences about why should you visit Moscow, Russia, honest impressions, and a day-by-day itinerary capturing the enchantment of Moscow, especially during the renowned “Journey to Christmas” festival.
What is the journey to Christmas in Moscow?
“Journey to Christmas” is not just a festival; it’s a grand celebration that has been transforming the streets and squares of Moscow since 2013. As the festival marked its 10th anniversary, it unfolded as a colossal New Year and Christmas extravaganza from December 15, 2023 to January 8, 2024.
With 36 festival grounds across the city, “Journey to Christmas” amalgamated traditional Russian Christmas fairs with contemporary ideas, creating a Christmas fairy tale town with illuminations, art installations, ice shows, theatrical performances, and much more. It was a magical experience that I have not experienced anywhere else in the world.
Now, let me drill down further and share my Moscow itinerary to give you a better idea of things to know before visiting Russia from India and the best places to visit in Moscow.
Day 1 – Arriving in Russia
I took a direct Aeroflot flight from Delhi to Moscow, Russia, which arrived at 10:30 am. Immigration was smooth and took around half an hour. However, some of my friends coming from Dubai and London had to wait for approximately two hours for a more stringent check. After collecting my luggage, it took me around 1.5 hours to reach my hotel due to the holiday rush.
I stayed at Moscow Hilton Leningradskaya in one of Moscow’s iconic Seven Sisters skyscrapers. Built in 1954 in the Stalinist neoclassical style, it married the Russian neoclassical style of using socialist realism art with the flare of American skyscrapers of the 1930s. The hotel was designed to be the finest luxury hotel in Moscow and, to date, is a prominent address in Moscow. It had an indoor heated pool with a Jacuzzi and sauna, a fitness centre, a restaurant, and a lounge bar.
The best part was its location – less than half a kilometre from Leningradskiy Train Station and the Metro, a 15-minute metro ride from Red Square, the Kremlin, and St Basil’s Cathedral.
After a brief rest, I went on a Radisson Float Cruise to explore Moscow’s skyline. My knowledgeable guides, Daria and Timur, who were Spanish journalists turned passionate tour guides, accompanied me. The cruise was not just a journey on the Moskva River but an immersion into Moscow’s iconic sights, accompanied by a delightful dinner.
Day 2 – Exploring Moscow’s Achievements in Economy and Space
Bundled in layers to combat the winter chill, I explored Moscow. Our first stop was the landmark Monument of Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (Lady Gardner and Worker), an ascent to the eighth floor offering a 360-degree view of the city.
The monument showcased a dynamic sculpted duo of two figures, a worker and a collective farmer, with their hands raised and touching, in which they hold a hammer and a sickle. Made of stainless chrome-nickel steel, it reached a height of 25 meters and weighed 185 tons; it was made to display at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. After the exhibition, it was installed here for public viewing, and today, it is one of Moscow’s symbols.
From there, we ventured to the exposition grounds of the International Russia Expo at VDNkH, adorned with festive decorations, snow sculptures, and digital tunnels. Our guide, Nataliia, informed us about the international exhibition and forum EXPO Russia being held from November 4, 2023, to April 12, 2024, at the VDNKh exhibition centre in Moscow. Its goal is to demonstrate Russia’s significant achievements in various sectors of the economy, with all 89 Russian regions participating. I spent some hours marvelling at Russia’s technological and economic strides.
The highlight of the day was the visit to the Model of Moscow, where a miniature version of the central part of Moscow came to life through VR technology. A captivating light show set to Russian music added a magical touch to the experience. When you are planning your Moscow itinerary, make sure to keep it as it is one of the best places to visit in Moscow.
After the light show, it was time for lunch at “Moscow Sky“, where I was introduced to delightful culinary delights, including Russian fruit tea and honey cake. All my concerns regarding vegetarian food in Russia were put to rest here. The food and ambience were mind-blowing.
Later, I delved into Russia’s space history at the VDNkH Cosmonautics and Aviation Center, a giant exhibition chronicling the exploration of space and aviation development in Russia. Built in the 1930s, I learned the highlights of the Russian space program here. Yuliana, our guide, passionately narrated the Russian explorers’ past achievements, plans, and current space research. The Cosmos Pavilion museum consists of three major sections and more than 120 examples of space and aviation vehicles, including the originals used by the Russian astronauts. A 3D film about the Russian space program made me feel like an astronaut.
The day concluded atop “The Sun of Moscow” Ferris wheel, providing a bird’s eye view of the city.
Day 3 – Moscow Zoo and Christmas Party
The adventure continued with a ride on the Moscow Metro to the Zoo, an architectural wonder designed by Stalin. The metro’s opulent stations resembled palaces and reflected Stalin’s vision of creating grand spaces for ordinary people.
Although I’m not a big fan of watching animals in captivity, I was told that Moscow Zoo is different. The Zoo, which opened in 1864, is the biggest in Russia and serves as a sanctuary for endangered species. The Zoo contains over 3,000 specimens of 550 species, from Siberian Tigers to endangered Russian leopards and adorable pandas. I was touched by the story of the Asian Elephants that were initially going to Cuba but were abandoned midway. If they had not been adopted by the Moscow Zoo, they would have been drowned in the sea by the ships carrying them. Thank goodness Moscow Zoo came to their aid.
After a touching experience with animals, it was time to address the rumbling in my stomach. The Mediterranean-themed “Moro” restaurant at 5/6 Kamergersky Lane was the perfect remedy. The restaurant had a festive atmosphere and an open kitchen that served delicious vegetarian and non-vegetarian Mediterranean platters.
After lunch, I attended the “Moscow Tea Party” animation program at Tverskaya Square. It was a fantastic experience where I learned about the delicate art of Russian tea-making and the traditions that date back to the 19th century. Drinking hot tea from the ‘Samawar’ was an unforgettable moment. Adding spices and vitamin-C-enriched fruits like berries, oranges, and lemons makes Russian tea a unique and flavorful experience. Dariya, my local guide and a devoted tea drinker, explained that Russian tea is an expression of hospitality and a way for people to connect.
The entire atmosphere was festive and depicted a scene from an era long gone. Tverskaya Square resembled a tiny Christmas town, where children enjoyed riding the carousel, learned how to sew dolls, and cooked candies. Artists dressed in Tsar-era outfits and entertained guests with dance, music, and cultural activities.
The day concluded with a performance of the Russian national ballad “The Nutcracker”, an ice show presented by Russia’s finest figure skaters on Revolution Square. Aside from Revolution Square, 21 free skating rinks were available in various districts of Moscow.
Following the ice show, we visited the Kremlin Square Christmas market, filled with the aroma of Christmas drinks, food, and laughter.
Day 4 – Moscow Journey to Christmas Party
After experiencing the “Journey to Christmas” festival, I decided to explore more Christmas locations. My first stop was the Manezhnaya Square Christmas Fair and Designer Christmas trees near TSUM. At the square near TSUM Moscow, designers, digital artists, and students of creative universities created and installed 12 Christmas trees based on Samuel Marshak’s fairy tale “12 Months”. These were smart, tall fir trees decorated in the style of the New Year’s story about kindness and the triumph of justice.
I then went to Revolution Square, which was only 10 minutes away from TSUM, to learn a new sport – skating. After an hour of falling and standing, I barely knew how to stand still on skates. This experience made me realise how tough it is to be a figure skater.
After the skating craze had subsided, it was time to visit Moscow’s most famous attraction – the Red Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This prominent landmark is home to famous structures such as Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and the GUM department store. Red Square has been the site of demonstrations, revolutions, executions, riots, parades, and speeches. However, during the Christmas season, the atmosphere is entirely different. Russia’s most renowned square is decorated with lights and ornaments and a festive market filled with antiques, art, and souvenir stalls. There were numerous traditional Russian snacks and Christmas drinks to savour and keep the chilly weather at bay.
At approximately 3:30 pm, I ate at the Soviet retro cafe named “Varenichnaya № 1” located on Nikolskaya Ulitsa Street, which became viral during the Russian FIFA World Cup 2018. I tasted traditional Russian dishes such as cabbage dumplings, soup, Napoleon cake, honey cake, etc.
Later, at 6:00 pm, I went to the Moscow City “Panorama 360” observation deck. PANORAMA360 offers breathtaking views of Moscow from six-metre-tall windows. Unfortunately, it was foggy, and I couldn’t see anything. However, I enjoyed some ice cream and milk chocolates made in-house at the observation deck. The chocolate production facility is the highest chocolate production facility in Russia!
Day 5 – Exploring Red Square and GUM Again
Feeling drawn to Red Square and GUM, I returned to explore these iconic locations. But before visiting them, I went to see an Ice Cave experience that aimed to replicate the conditions of the ice caves at Lake Baikal in Russia. Although the 6-minute light and music show fell slightly short of my expectations, the Christmas market more than made up for it with its vibrant offerings.
Afterwards, I visited St. Basil’s Cathedral and spent more hours at the Christmas market. It was a poignant moment, knowing that this very place had been targeted by Ukrainian drones in July 2023 during drone attacks. As night fell, I said goodbye to the hotel and embarked on a night train journey to St. Petersburg.
Day 6-9 – Visiting St. Petersburg and Novgorod
The following four days were spent exploring the captivating cities of St. Petersburg and Novgorod, each possessing their unique charm and cultural richness. Please check out the upcoming detailed posts about each city.
Day 10 – Returning to Moscow
On the final day of my trip, I returned to Moscow from Novgorod via a night train. The day was full of exciting experiences as I visited Ismailova Market for shopping, attended a Russian tree decoration workshop at Kremlin Square at 3:30 pm, and gained insightful knowledge from my visit to the Vodka museum. It is definitely one of the best places to visit in Russia in December or in summer.
As the clock struck 3:30 pm, it was time to say goodbye to Daria, my knowledgeable guide, and her mother, Ola, and prepare for my flight back home at 7:30 pm.
10 Russia Travel Tips – List of Tips for a Perfect Russia Trip
- How to apply for a Russian visa – If your country falls in the list of 55 foreign States, you can apply for a Russian e-visa, which is issued within four calendar days, including weekends and bank holidays. There is no need for any invitations or confirmations; fill in the application form on the website.
- How to book accommodation in Russia– While you can book hotels through any popular booking engine, I would recommend Ostrovok as it is ranked number 1 and is the most visited Accommodation and Hotels website in Russia. Their customer service was prompt.
- What currency to carry in Russia – International credit cards don’t work in Russia, but you can easily exchange US dollars or Euros for Roubles in most big cities.
- What to pack for Russia Travel in Winter – Pack wisely for Russia by layering up. The first layer should be thermals, followed by a cotton t-shirt, sweatshirt/hoodie/sweater, and thick tights. Above that, wear a feather jacket and fleece windproof trousers. The top layer should be a windproof jacket or a thick fur coat. To keep yourself coldproof, wear at least two layers of woollen socks, gloves, thick-sole snow boots, a warm muffler, and a thick woollen or fur hat.
- When is the best time to visit Russia – The peak season for tourists is summer (from June to August) when the temperature ranges from 11°C to 23°C. However, if you love snow-covered landscapes, then winter (December to February) is an ideal time to visit, with temperatures ranging from -16 °C to 05°C. Autumn (September-October, with temperatures ranging from -3°C to 16°C) and spring (March-May, with temperatures ranging from -8°C to 19°C) are also great times to plan a holiday to Russia. Remember that these seasons constitute the shoulder season in Russia and can be quite cold.
- How many days are enough for Russia – If it’s your first time in Russia, keep at least 7-10 days to visit two key cities – Moscow and St. Petersburg.
- Which apps should you download for Russia Travel– Download Yandex for taxi and Yandex.Metro for using Moscow Metro, Yandex.Translate and Google Translate for Russian language translation, WhatsApp and Telegram for staying in touch with people, Visit Russia for trip planning, Outline VPN for accessing banned websites such as FB, Instagram, and Twitter, Google Maps and Maps.me for navigation help.
- What are the must-try foods and drinks in Russia – Definitely try Russian tea, vodka, and Kompot (made with dry fruits), a glass of Kvass (refreshing fermented beverage) with rye bread, Blini (Russian pancakes), Pelmeni (dumplings), Borscht (beet soup), Shchi (cabbage soup), pirozhki (baked or fried puff pastries), shashlyk or shashlik (Russian kebabs), honey cake, and Morozhenoe (ice cream). Don’t drink the tap water.
- What are the must-shop souvenirs from Russia – Russian Matryoshka Dolls (a set of wooden dolls anywhere between three and 50), Russian hats and scarves, hand-painted wooden pins, brooches, and barrettes, baltic amber, khokhloma, lacquer boxes, and other traditional Russian folk art.
- Can you travel in Russian without knowing the Russian language – Yes, you can if you have a local travel guide or the Google Translate app. However, I would strongly recommend learning some basic language.
During my recent trip to Russia, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the heart of the country and witness the enchanting Christmas and New Year celebrations. The “Journey to Christmas” experience helped dispel many misconceptions and allowed me to appreciate the genuine warmth of the Russian people. I can confidently affirm that it is safe to travel to Russia now. Armed with the above Russia Travel Tips, you can embark on a perfect trip without any hassles. I hope this Moscow travel guide answers your questions about why should you visit Moscow, Russia, and provides essential insights about important things to know before visiting Russia.
If you’ve been to Russia or have any comments, please share your valuable observations in the comment section below!
Stay tuned for more stories about my adventures in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novgorod. In these articles, I’ll delve into the nuances of Russian culture and daily life from a traveller’s point of view.
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