Although Russia officially has just one capital, Moscow, both St. Petersburg and Moscow are often described as the country’s two capitals. They are Russia’s two largest cities, rich in history and packed with artistic treasures.
Situated on the Moskva River, Moscow is Europe’s most populous metropolis, and from the 14th century until the early 18th was the capital of the Russian Empire. In 1712, Russia’s capital was moved to St. Petersburg, which Peter the Great transformed from marshland into a vibrant city of islands, canals, bridges and pastel-colored palaces. About 200 years later, the Russian capital returned to Moscow.
Moscow’s historic city center is home to Red Square, with its landmark Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the Lenin Mausoleum and the sprawling GUM department store. Once the location of a slum situated at the foot of the Kremlin walls, the famous square later became the site of official military parades staged to show the world the strength of the Soviet Union. Today Red Square is used for more lighthearted events such as fashion shows, festivals and rock concerts.
Russia’s capital is also home to a wealth of galleries, museums and other cultural venues. Fans of contemporary art may wish to visit the Red October Chocolate Factory. Located on an island in the river, this former confectionary is now a venue for trendy restaurants, galleries and bars. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts boasts a remarkable collection of French Impressionist and Old Master paintings. At the newly restored Bolshoi Theater, one of the world’s greatest ballet companies is back in residence. The Old Tretyakov Gallery has an extraordinary collection of Russian art, ranging from 12th-century icons to 20th-century paintings, and the New Tretyakov Picture Gallery features works by artists including Kandinsky and Chagall. Thanks to an amazing and elegant metro system, it’s easy to get around Moscow, and a high-speed train now connects it to St. Petersburg.
Peter the Great’s former capital is Russia’s second largest city as well as a major cultural center. The name of the city was changed to Petrograd in 1914 and Leningrad in 1924. It reverted to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, at about the same time the Historic Center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. St. Petersburg is also home to more than 200 museums including the vast Hermitage. The museum’s 400 rooms contain spectacular examples of nearly all schools of Western art, including one of the greatest collections of French Impressionist works in the world. Lesser-known museums in the city include the St. Petersburg Museum of Dolls and the intimate Museum of Non-Conformist Art.
St. Petersburg is also a hub for the performing arts. The Hermitage Theatre, built by the order of Catherine the Great in the 1780s, hosts musical festivals as well as ballet performances. The Mariinsky Theatre, which can trace its history back to 1783, is renowned for ballet and opera. The city also has a number of festivals. Perhaps the most famous, the annual White Nights Festival—which occurs during the season of midnight sun—consists of a series of music concerts, ballets and other performances.