St Basil church- it took my breath away every time I drove past it!
I pride myself in being well traveled, yet I have never been to Russia. I am also embarrassed to admit I had many reservations about this trip as I was traveling alone. Is it safe to travel alone through Russia? Would I freeze? Are the locals friendly to Americans? Luckily none of my concerns were justified. My first time visiting magical Moscow and regal Saint Petersburg was one of the best trips of my life! Admittedly, the temperature was freezing (yet not colder than New York city in Feb during NYFW!), but the warmth of Russian holiday lights and spirits with its friendly locals more than made up for it! In addition to touring beautiful landmarks and museums like the picturesque St. Basil church, the towers of Ivan the Great (did you know the Tzars did not allow any building in Russia to be taller than the golden domes of the church?!), and the Red Square (I learned that Red Square walls were built by Italian artisans the Emperor of Russia commissioned during the renaissance!) I was also surprised to find so much delicious Chinese cuisine from our neighboring country. In fact, I felt like Russia was more a part of Asia than Europe!
I also had no idea how high tech and advanced Moscow was, if you run out batteries anywhere, duck into any small cafe or grand restaurant– sit down, order tea or a snack and they will bring you a portable charger for iPhone or any smart phone! Whether I ran out in a michelin starred restaurant or a corner cafe, they had this service everywhere! And the food, I had not eaten fresh Russian crab before (I felt like a country bumpkin at times!) and it is literally my favorite seafood now. More tasty than Alaskan King Crab and about twice the size!
But perhaps the best of my discoveries was the amazing shopping in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Magnificent stores like TSUM and DLT were as grand as any I’ve ever seen, built in historical buildings yet with thoroughly modern flair and my favorite luxury designer brands- along with prices that matched that of Paris and Milan, some items even less than Europe! Not to mention limited edition items only available in Russia. I was so overstimulated I felt like a little kid in a candy store! Speaking of kids- I attended some of the most extravagant children’s parties of my life! Reindeers, candy and sweet bars (at an actual bar that only served treats), every imaginable cookie, cake and confections, Russian acrobats, indoor carousels, life size edible gingerbread houses and champagne- my god- I have never drank so much champagne and that is saying a lot. But beneath all that excess was a true love of for children, as every child was accompanied by not only parents but grandparents, aunts, relative- adults actually outnumbered kids at these parties! Life really revolves around children in Russia. I’m used to kids being dropped off at parties and being picked up afterwards but the Russians want to enjoy and celebrate with their kids- so sweet!
I definitely plan to return, next time with all my besties in tow, who wants to come with me??
WHEN TO GO: Funny enough, before my trip, everyone told me I was crazy to go in December when Russia is freezing and desolate. Yet I found it to be the exact opposite! Yes it was cold but not any colder than New York or Aspen for that matter and far from desolate. The city was alive and pulsing at all hours! Bright lights big city is how I think of Moscow. Over Christmas there’s also the Christmas Market so I definitely recommend going during the holidays, it is absolutely magical. Many of my friends prefer going in June, as it’s never that hot in Moscow, you can enjoy sitting outdoors in the cafes and take long strolls around the picturesque cathedrals that dot the city.
MUST DO: An evening at the Bolshoi Ballet- this was the most incredible ballet experience I have ever had! The Bolshoi is perhaps the world’s oldest and grandest ballet theaters that boasts some of the most talented ballerinas and it did not disappoint! I felt like a Tsarina with my glass of champagne watching ballerinas do moves I’ve never seen before! No photos allowed during performance but I was able to capture the theatre and the final bow!
View from my balcony box. When I close my eyes I can still hear the music and the gentle thump of ballerina toes.
The Russians are so friendly! I was about to chug down my champagne before leaving the lobby area and was told by a smiling attendant that I was welcome to take my bubbly and snacks to my box. No frowning ballet hall monitors at the Bolshoi like I am used to in the US!
Right outside the Bolshoi was this fantastic light instalment, not sure what it was for but it made for a great backdrop for photos!
I would not be exaggerating to say that Moscow was like Disneyland in Vegas with the sophistication of New York city. Lights everywhere you looked! I had trouble discerning day from night, as the lights shone brightly all the time!
Ralph Lauren is a favorite of Russians and Chinese tourists alike, and who can blame them. The classic Ricky bag in lush suede was so soft I wanted to crawl inside it! At TSUM
WHERE TO SHOP: Tsum is by far my favorite department store in Russia! Not only can you find just about anything your heart desires, they recently launched a “Best Price” program selling popular styles of clothes, bags and shoes from luxury brands 10% less than Paris and Milan! In addition, Russia will offer tourists 12% VAT refund in March! Now if that’s not incentive to shop in Russia, then I don’t know what is.
Celine belt bag, also priced 10% less than Paris, plus Russia will begin Vat refunds in March!
Are you getting my drift about Moscow being the real bright lights big city?! I am certain you can see this sparkling city from space! This Bottega bag is also on the “Best Price” list at Tsum and DLT- I just don’t understand how they’re able to be 10% less than Milan but who am I to ask questions about discounts when it’s in our favor?!?!
Gorgeous Christmas bazaar across the street from TSUM.
WHERE TO SHOP: Besides the grand TSUM department store in Moscow- I highly recommend going to the Barvikha village (an hour outside of the city center), stay at the Barvikha hotel, indulge at the spa, and shop at the world’s best boutiques here. This village is a billionaire’s playground! Putin lives near by as do almost all the billionaires in Moscow. I ran into Reindeers giving rides to giggling children and gave them instructions to my home address in case Santa’s memory was hazy.
Such a quaint little sleepy snow village! You wouldn’t think the best Valentino store is here but it is!
Another favorite spot to shop during the holidays is Moscow’s Famed Christmas Market- it looked like a fariy tale! Sip hot spiced beer while shopping for Christmas ornaments, dolls, fur, scarves, and many other Russian treats! I came home with a suitcase full of Matryoshka dolls and ornaments! All the kiosks are run by mom and pops, you are welcome to bargain with them and as long as you smile, they’ll be very accommodating! Did I mention already the Russians were some of the warmest and friendliest people I’ve ever encountered? Since I was traveling alone, it made it less daunting to run around a strange land when everyone was so friendly. Granted, I had a guide and a driver with me at all times but he couldn’t accompany me to the market as he had to stay in the car, I managed to negotiate quite a few bargains on my own! The only downside is traffic in Moscow, it is beyond ridiculous, just plan to walk as often as possible because your legs move faster than most cars in this city.
Did I mention the Russians really love their Bentleys? Everywhere I turned there were Bentleys! This one took the award for most bling bling of all- a hot pink striped Bentley with matching interior. Maybe hubby will want to get it for me for Valentine’s day? haha At Bentley Barvikha Village
Dancing on Russian rooftops is totally accepted and highly encouraged, even in 6 inches of snow! This way you really see the entire city, it’s breathtaking! Here I am, below, tossing a python Celine box bag around for fun, prancing around and enjoying the scenery. (Not really, I was actually shooting for Vogue China and it was FREEZING in my thin but beautiful Valentino cape!)
Christmas is a magical time to visit Russia! It’s not as cold as I had imagined, in fact- I was boiling hot on most days as I overdressed!
No professional photo shoots allowed inside the walls of the Red Square. So we made do with my iPhone!
WHERE TO EAT:
DINNER: Michelin star Baccarat Crystal room restaurant is a sight to be seen. Ornate and decadent, with epicurean delights that stood up to its reputation. Get the fresh crab salad with spicy seasoning to start with, followed by the organic chicken or veal cheeks with truffles and chocolate bomb dessert and you won’t go wrong. Another great dinner spot is Novikov– yummy pan-asian fare including a fantastic Tom Yum soup and super fresh sashimi.
AFTERNOON TEA: The Russians love their chai! If you have time, stop by Cafe Pushkin for historic fare of Russian nobility for a late lunch. Or go to the Club level of the Ritz hotel for a grand view of the Red Square while you sip your Russian tea.
PRE-DINNER DRINKS: Vogue cafe was a fun place to have a glass of champagne before heading off to the theater. Try the Napoleon with your bubbly, multi-layers of mouth watering puff pastry with custard and whip cream (also known as Mille-feuille)- the best I have ever had.
WEEKEND CHAMPAGNE BRUNCH: Brunch at Tsum is also a delightful affair! All you can eat Russian crab (have I mentioned how obsessed I am with Russian crab?!), fresh Oysters and many other Russian dishes that I can’t pronounce! I do love that the Russians enjoy spices as much as I do. Some of the hottest sauces I have ever had in the world was in Moscow!
Super fresh oysters! And this CRAB! I still dream of this crab!!!!
Not sure what I was eating here, some sort of Fur under herring concoction. And wonderful soups, the Russians make the tastiest and heartiest soups (next to the Chinese of course!)
The Trotteur, another “best priced” bag offered by Tsum- 10% less than Paris.
Dolce Gabbana is quite popular in Russia!
Posing in front of TSUM, as I do, in Roberto Cavalli suede and fox coat.
I wanted this hat so badly, but had to ask myself- do you really need this? You live in Texas, a very warm state and spend most of your holidays home in LA- talked myself out of it in the end. Biggest regret of the trip as I am still dreaming of it!
WHAT TO SEE: I highly recommend hiring a private tour guide for a day of sight seeing at the Kremlin and Red square. So many churches, historical buildings and museums to see! This is an actual bomb used in World War I!!!
Golden bell towers of Ivan the Great- during the Tzar’s reign, no building in Moscow was allowed to be higher than the golden domes of this building!
No photos allowed inside the Assumption cathedral historic church (or any of the churches for that matter) for fear of damaging the art inside. Russian churches are everything! So ornate and detailed. I wish I could show you what I saw at the many churches I visited, but I guess you’ll just have to plan for a trip to see for yourself!
WHERE TO GO: Saint Petersburg is an easy 4 hour train from Moscow or a one hour flight. Moscow was Vegas on steroid, but Saint Petersburg was an elegant contrast- old world and enchanting, not unlike being in Paris (and really really cold). Hermitage museum is a must visit, this is where the Tzar and his family lived!
When in Saint Petersburg, stay at the Four Seasons hotel (they have the most amazing brunch! With yummy Chinese congee), it’s centrally located and an easy stroll to the museums weather permitting.
SHOP- I am obsessed with DLT store in Saint Petersburg- it was grand and beautiful, I was so busy taking photos I almost forgot to shop, luckily a team of VIP service sales assistants helped me. Did I mention how friendly and service oriented Russians are? I was definitely surprised to find them so friendly to tourists. DLT has amazing luxury designers with exclusive items you won’t find outside of Russia. Here I am with my dear friend and Fashion Director of TSUM online and Mens Director- Riccardo Tortato. We had the best meals in Russia, but one of our favorites was in Saint Petersburg at the Sintoho restaurant- the most authentic Szechuan food I’ve had in a long time! The chef recently moved to Saint Petersburg from Szechuan.
My last day in Russia was spent back at the Barvikha spa and hotel… I can’t think of a more perfect way to end my Russian adventure- being pampered with one of the best massages I’ve ever had at the most grand spa! I have so many more photos to share, but will save that for Part 2. Hope you enjoyed seeing Russia through my lens! xo
Credit: All bags TSUM Department Store, Moscow.
Photographer: Kirill Kushpel
In partnership with TSUM