For centuries the world has wondered what to believe about Russia. The country has been reported variously as a land of unbelievable riches and indescribable poverty, cruel tyrants and great minds, generous hospitality and meddlesome bureaucracy, beautiful ballets and industrial monstrosities, pious faith and unbridled hedonism. These eternal Russian truths coexist in equally diverse landscapes of icy tundra and sun-kissed beaches, dense silver birch and fir forests and deep and mysterious lakes, snow-capped mountains and swaying grasslands – those famous steppes. Factor in ancient fortresses, luxurious palaces, swirly spired churches and lost-in-time wooden villages and you begin to see why Russia is simply amazing.
If it is your first time in Russia, start at the top with the awe-inspiring capital Moscow and the spellbinding imperial capital St Petersburg. The cities of Moscow and St Petersburg serve as metaphorical bookends of Russia's history. As the former capital and window to the west, St Petersburg owes much of its sophisticated European sheen to Italian architects who ushered in many of the baroque and neoclassical buildings. Moscow, on the other hand, stood testament to a changing history and landscape where old cathedrals made way for neo-gothic and functionalist towers.
The apex of political power, the Kremlin is the kernel not only of Moscow but all of Russia. From here Ivan the Terrible orchestrated his terror; Napoleon watched Moscow burn; Lenin fashioned the proletariat dictatorship; Stalin purged his ranks; Khrushchev fought the Cold War; Gorbach introduced perestroika and Yelstin concocted the New Russia. Put aside a day to get the full experience.
Immediately outside the Kremlin's northeastern wall is the celebrated Red Square, the 400m by 150m area of cobbles that is at the very heart of Moscow. Commanding the square from the southern end is St Basil's Cathedral. This panorama never fails to send the heart aflutter, especially at night.
The exotic boyar castle on a little lane in Zamoskvorechie contains the main branch of the State Tretyakov Gallery, housing the world's best collection of Russian icons and an outstanding collection of other prerevolutionary Russian art. Show up early to beat the queues. For 20th Century art, visit the New Tretyakov Gallery.
The gallery started as the private collection of the 19th-century industrialist brothers Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov. Pavel was a patron of the Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers, a group of 19th-century painters who broke away from the conservative Academy of Arts and started depicting common people and social problems. Nowadays, these are among Russia's most celebrated painters, and the Tretyakov boasts some of the most exquisite examples of their work.
When it comes to exquisite art, St Petersburg has an amazing array.
There are art galleries, there are museums, there are the great museums of the world and then there is the Hermitage. An unrivalled collection of art treasures housed in the magnificent palace from which the Romanov tsars ruled the Russian Empire, the State Hermitage will inevitably be the focus of any first visit to St Petersburg, and rightly so. At the information kiosk of the State Hermitage Museum you can pick up a free colour map of the museum, available in most European languages. Immediately after ticket inspection you can hire an audio guide with recorded tours in English, German, French, Italian or Russian. Groups enter from the river side of the Winter Palace.
After the Hermitage, you may feel like you have had your fill of art, but try your utmost to make some time for this gem of a museum. The former Mikhailovsky Palace, now the Russian Museum, houses one of the country's finest collections of Russian art.
If you want to get in touch with your inner aristocrat, St Petersburg is ringed by grand palaces set in beautifully landscaped grounds such as Petrodvorets, Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo) and Pavlovsk.
Both cities encompass the best elements of Russia's turbulent past and glittering present. Unless time is an issue, any trip between Moscow and St Petersburg should be done via train. Train travel is a beautiful way to see the landscape and, at about 65km, it is a relatively quick trip between both points. If you need to escape the city, you have easy access to the historic Golden Ring towns of Sergiev Posad, Suzdal and Vladimir, where you will be rewarded with a slice of rural Russian life far from the frenetic city pace. Also leave time for ancient Novgorod, home to an impressive kremlin, the Byzantine Cathedral of St Sophia and the riverside Yurev Monastery.
A week is the absolute minimum needed if you want to experience the cream of both cities. Add on another week if you plan on visiting the Golden Ring towns, the palaces around St Petersburg, and Novgorod, where it's best to stay at least one night.