While it is quite easy to see the differences between the two most touristy Russian cities, it remains difficult to choose between the cultural capital to the North and the current political capital of Russia.
It is often assumed that the cost of living is higher in large Russian cities than elsewhere in Europe, but that’s incorrect.
Although prices in Moscow or St. Petersburg will always be more expensive than other Russian cities like Vladivostok, Kazan, Novgorod, Volgograd or Irkutsk in Siberia near Lake Baikal, the cost of living in Russia remains very affordable.
The cost of living in Moscow is about 35% lower than in New York. In St Petersburg, it is 50% lower than in New York City for.
We will return in detail on these figures in the article.
Between stereotypes, real differences, and similarities, we will give you an overview of all the information you need to choose the perfect destination for you!
Moscow - the Third Rome
Like we all know, Moscow is the capital of Russia. This gigantic city has a population of more than 12 million people in an area of 2500 square kilometers - or more than twice the size of New York City,
Prepare for your trip
Moscow is less than 9 hours from New York city via a direct flight. It is also possible to organize a stopover in Europe and swap to a low-cost carrier, but the cost of direct flights from New York City to Moscow start at just $500 return.
There are many different airlines which offer flights from the US to Russia, and they often offer sales throughout the year.
A price comparison website like Skyscanner or Hopper is often the best way to find the most affordable price. Prices often skyrocket if you try to book a flight at the last minute.
Life in Moscow is not as expensive as one might think.
Studies have shown that the cost of food, hotels, and transport in the Russian capital are on average 70% lower than in the US.
However, leisure and shopping costs are still about the same or even more than what you’d pay in Western Europe (+ 9% and -7% respectively).
Bargain prices are not an insignificant factor if you’re trying to decide if you want to stay for a while in the capital or just whiz through in 4 or 5 days.
Before you travel, it’s also worth checking out our list of the top 10 Russian personalities!
St Petersburg - the home of Russia’s Tsars
A bit of history
From 1712 until 1917, the Russian capital was Saint Petersburg, not Moscow.
The city was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great and reflects the strong European influences of the time. Today, the city is populated by 5 million inhabitants who are known as Petersburgers.
Like its sister city of Moscow, the capital of the tsars is a dense city (and about the same size as New York).
Architecturally speaking we can find some similarities between Moscow and Saint Petersburg - the striking similarities between the Moscow station in Saint Petersburg and the Moscow station Leningrad, or between the cathedrals Saint Savior and Saint Basil in Moscow. However, there are nevertheless real differences between these two cities.
The main differences between Moscow and St Petersburg
First of all, where the streets of Moscow were built around the buildings, in St Petersburg urbanization was initiated by the evacuation of land from the streets before buildings were constructed.
The result is a more planned city with ‘colder’ architecture in Saint Petersburg than in Moscow, where there are many small alleys and dead ends.
In Saint Petersburg, the cost of living is slightly lower than in Moscow (about 5%) and the ticket price for direct flights is about the same as for Moscow (ie about $500 for a round trip).
By using a flight comparison search engine like Skyscanner or Google Flight, it is sometimes even possible to find a flight at an even lower price.
Our top piece of advice - compare the prices!
You can also take advantage of the opportunities created by your trip to learn some of the Russian language…
Are the residents truly different?
To describe the habits and behaviors of Petersburgers and Muscovites, the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol described the inhabitants of Saint Petersburg as a "man well cared for, the perfect German, much more down to earth than anyone else, and who looks to see what he has in his pocket before inviting anyone to dinner.”
Conversely, the Muscovite is described as a "Russian noble" who does not care about how much money he has and who is a bon vivant concerned only with the present moment.
Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great and has remained close ties to its European heritage, while many would say that the Russian capital, Moscow, is a megalopolis with Asian cultural influences - a strong display of wealth, success and an exacerbated competitive spirit.
Muscovites are also generally perceived as being warmer but also more superficial than the Petersburgers.
For their part, the inhabitants of the capital of the North are sometimes considered to have an overly reserved nature and are seen as being much more discreet than their compatriots in the capital.
Make your choice based on your goals
Culture: St Petersburg
As we have said, St Petersburg is the former capital city and allows many tourists to get a better sense of the Russian culture than Moscow.
Take a walk through the many churches, museums of art, chocolate or torture, and make sure you visit the Hermitage Museum, the world's largest museum in terms of exhibits (there are more than 60,000) in order to complete your Russian education. The Hermitage includes an impressive collection of works by Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, and Rembrandt.
From its kitchens to its paintings, the palace itself is also a true work of art.
Finally, for those who are more interested in living in Russia for a few months or who lack Russian language skills, it’s important to note that St. Petersburg is much more English-friendly than its big sister Moscow.
The siege of Leningrad, also known as the Leningrad Blockade (and in Russian: блокада Ленинграда) was a prolonged military blockage undertaken by the German North Army Regiment against Leningrad, (the current name of St. Petersburg during the period) as part of the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
The siege began on September 8, 1941, when the last road to the city was cut off. Although the Soviets managed to open a narrow land corridor to the city on January 18, 1943, the siege was lifted only on January 27, 1944, a whopping 872 days after it began.
To enjoy your trip to Russia it’s also worth checking out Russian literature …
A European city with Asian culture - Moscow
There are also many other arguments that can be made to tip the scales for the Russian capital. All of the most famous monuments in Russia, such as the Red Square, the Kremlin, and the Lenin Mausoleum, are in Moscow.
Although the city looks like a globalized megalopolis, it is still a stronghold of Russian culture too.
However, said metropolis has more than 10 million inhabitants and many very festive corners to have fun, where students of the Russian language will find it easy to deploy their Russian for beginner courses and online Russian lessons.
Moscow is still a beacon across Europe for the most die-hard party fans among us. For many people, whether they are Russian or not, Moscow is considered more accessible and warmer than St Petersburg.
Why not visit both?
The best way to make your own opinion of these two Russian cities, is, of course, if time and wallet allow, to visit both. Many travel agencies or tour operators offer tours that combine a visit to both of the two cities.
The two cities are only 400 miles away as the crow flies, and there are many different ways to travel between these two giants. The plane (obviously), the car, but also the train.
You can choose between the Trans-Siberian railway or take the Sapsan which runs 5 to 10 connections per day, all with a journey time of about 4 hours.
It’s worth noting that it is also possible to reach the two cities by boat and there are many cruises available which run on the Volga and the Neva.
These cruises also allow you to discover beautiful villages like Goritsy or the island of Kiji.
For those in a hurry, many low cost or no-frills airlines also offer cheap flights between Moscow and St Petersburg for around thirty-five dollars. By booking longer in advance it is even possible to buy tickets for twenty dollars per person.
- Of course, it’s hard to offer any definitive answers who which of the two cities you should choose. Nevertheless, there are some differences which can help to distinguish these two cities. Moscow offers parties and globalization, while St Petersburg, the capital of the North, showcases a unique blend of Russian culture and European influences.
- Far from the clichés, you’ll often hear about traveling in Russia, the cost of living is actually lower than in the US. Where some will prefer trendy Moscow neighborhoods, others will find themselves much more comfortable with the calmer (and ever so slightly cheaper) atmosphere in the capital of the North.
- Russia is also a country extremely well served by airlines with direct flights to Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Aeroflot offers direct flights from many major US cities, and several European flag carriers like Air France, Lufthansa, and KLM also offer connecting flights.
So grab your suitcases! But don’t forget to check our tips for obtaining a visa for Russia first…
It also might be a good idea to prepare yourself for your trip by learning the basics of the Russian language before you go:
- Russian courses in New York City
- Learn Russian in San Francisco