2018 presented me with a unique travel opportunity to combine my fascination with Russia and my desire to attend a World Cup. The fact that visa restrictions were lifted, Russia's infrastructure was at its best and English-language resources were more plentiful than usual were all bonuses.
Visa-free entry to Russia was permitted, provided you could produce a Fan ID and a passport with at least six months' validity. The Fan ID was easily obtained, after FIFA confirmed that you had been granted match tickets, by entering minimal personal data. The ID was then shipped to you, free of charge. This was the first time in FIFA World Cup history that a ticket wasn't enough to gain access to a match. At stadium security stations, you had to first scan your Fan ID, followed by your ticket. They had to link up, making scalping impossible. All reselling/ticket transfers had to be done legitimately through FIFA. The Fan ID was also required when checking into hotels (so the staff could register you with the local city authorities), it granted World Cup spectators free travel in and between host cities and it even supplied free WiFi, in certain places, after entering your Fan ID number. It was absolutely brilliant technology and was implemented flawlessly from what I could see.
Due to heightened political tensions between the UK and Russia and the violence between Russian and English fans at the 2016 Euros in Marseilles, authorities had been warning the British of high risk of clashes and harassment at the World Cup. I also checked the USA's travel advisories for Americans visiting Russia and the threat level was 'Reconsider travel', just one level below 'Do not travel'.
Despite all government warnings and all the pre-event doubt, this tournament turned out to be extraordinary! It far surpassed anything I could have imagined. The Cup was incredibly well-run, the locals did a fantastic job of welcoming the world into their country and Russia was just as interesting and beautiful as I had hoped.
I never once felt unsafe. Event areas were heavily policed (check out the Stormtrooper pictured below at Saint Petersburg Stadium) and security at the stadiums was thorough. Russia also passed strict legislation, ahead of the Cup, criminalizing hooligan activities and promising to prosecute violent fans. Furthermore, the only alcoholic beverage sold during the matches was Budweiser. Since it's basically water, the crowds didn't seem to get too out of control.
The morning of Saturday 30th June, I flew directly from London Heathrow into Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, on Aeroflot. Prior to flying, I looked up Aeroflot's handheld baggage allowances and had a bit of a giggle when I saw that a bouquet of flowers was permitted as a free additional carry-on item. Once in Moscow, I noticed that a lot of people were walking around carrying bouquets of flowers, so I did some research and it turned out that flowers were a thing in Russia and there was even specific occasion-based flower etiquette to which Russians adhered. Who knew?
Moscow, the country's capital and most populous city (with 13.2 million residents), had a 'see and be seen' scene. Moscovites were chic, cosmopolitan and refined. The restaurants and bars were hip and opulent and the emerging food scene was vibrant. Although I don't usually care so much for Russian food, the places I went were surprisingly good and there were also a variety of other cuisines to select from.
The first night I dined in The Library at Cafe Pushkin. It reminded me of Ron Burgundy and his 'many leather-bound books'. The space was a three-floor, 19th-century, restored manor house. The atmosphere of each floor varied and the prices increased as you climbed each staircase. Service was formal, the menu was typical Russian and the music was classical.
After dinner, we wandered down Tverskoy Boulevard. We were looking for a bar where we could watch Suárez take on Ronaldo, errrr, Uruguay play Portugal. We stumbled upon the trendy Fahrenheit, which happened to have open seats, an award-winning mixologist behind the bar and the game projected on the wall. The giant screen made Ronaldo's neck look even bigger than normal, which I didn't know was possible.
As Portugal prepared to head home, we decided to make our own plans for moving on - the first of which required using the facilities. We got a bit lost en route and discovered a series of grand, lavish rooms/restaurants all connected under one roof. They appeared to all be part of the Maison Dellos restaurant group.
The next morning, we awoke bright and early, ready for a busy day of sightseeing and World Cup match #51! We started with breakfast at Grand-Cafe Dr. Zhivago in the Hotel Nacional. It was a beautiful space where interesting pieces of art were woven into a modern design, with a Soviet touch and a view of the Kremlin. I highly recommend going, but be advised that a reservation is required about a week in advance.
Once our bellies were full and the rain had let up, our next stop was across the road, to Red Square. This expansive central square was surrounded by architectural marvels including The State Historical Museum, Kazan Cathedral, GUM Department Store, Lenin's Mausoleum, Spasskaya Tower and Saint Basil's Cathedral. Nikolskaya Street, a pedestrian alleyway connecting Red Square and Lubyanka Square, was decorated with fairy lights and colorful butterflies, which was beautiful and full of high-fiving, selfie-taking fans.
The next agenda item was rooftop drinks at the Ritz-Carlton's O2 Lounge. There we had stunning views of Russia's most iconic building, (Saint Basil's Cathedral). We enjoyed a glass of champagne before taking a car to Luzhniki Stadium to see Spain battle it out with the host nation, in the round of sixteen.
The stadium's capacity was 81,000, making it the largest football stadium in Russia and one of the largest in Europe. Every seat had a Russian flag placed on it, which I thought was a really nice touch; Spanish fans may not have agreed.
Spectators were supporting a variety of teams since they didn't necessarily know who they'd be seeing play when they bought their tickets. Regardless, everyone was friendly, the atmosphere was buzzing and the noise was roaring as the Russians chanted 'russ-e-ya' on repeat.
We entered halftime tied at 1-1, after a Spanish handball in the box lead to a penalty which resulted in Russia equalizing. 45 more minutes of regulation time and 30-minutes of extra-time expired and it was still a draw. Koke & Aspas' missed penalty shots which knocked Spain out of the tournament, secured Russia's spot in the last eight and sent the crowd into raptures. It was electric! You didn't have to speak/understand Russian to figure out the crowd was pleased.
The incredible penalty shootout triumph over Spain sparked joyous celebrations all over Moscow, all night long! Car horns were blaring, people were hanging out of moving cars, main streets were pedestrianized and there was dancing in the roads.
Having consumed only a few barely edible meatballs at the stadium, we were famished. Around 11pm, we headed to Lucky Noodles, which I had read about before traveling to Russia. It was a tiny, chaotic place where people didn't seem to be paying for anything and everyone was shouting and pushing. The noodles were actually pretty delicious, but the real joy of the place was the secret speakeasy below, called Mendeleev. We were told no photography was allowed downstairs, and I didn't dare break any rules in Russia, so I have no images to share, but it was reminiscent of a debonair version of Beetlejuice's Netherworld.
On Monday morning, we took the 4-hour high-speed Sapsan train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. I found Saint Petersburg to be quite different from Moscow. Where Moscow felt cosmopolitan and glossy, Saint Petersburg seemed more artsy and laid back. Often called the 'Venice of the North', with all it's grand canals, St. Petersburg was visually and architecturally stunning. So beautiful in fact that its whole historic city center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We traded in Moscow's 80℉/27℃ dry weather for Saint Petersburg's 51℉/11℃ drizzle. Lousy weather combined with the cancellation of our Swan Lake tickets for that evening ('due to technical reasons at the Hermitage Theatre'), meant that we had to come up with an alternate, indoor evening plan.
We ended up at Bellevue Brasserie, at the Kempinski Hotel, where we were told there was normally a brilliant 360° view of the city, when there wasn't so much cloud cover. There we had some Russian sparkling wine, chatted with the friendly waiter who was raised in Brooklyn and got some recommendations for where to go to watch the Brazil vs. Mexico and Belgium vs. Japan matches.
3rd July was another overloaded day consisting of touring and football. We first went to see the infamous Church of Savior on Blood, which is one of St. Petersburg's main landmarks. It was a shame that it was under construction, but apparently the facade of the cathedral was in a dilapidated condition.
Our wanderings took us through the Field of Mars, on to the Summer Garden (which I learned was closed on Tuesdays for 'the planning and preventive care of the garden and fountain complex') and then onward to the Winter Palace/Hermitage Museum/Palace Square.
It was about that time that the skies opened up and torrential rain attacked us. We dipped into the nearest place we could find for lunch, to wait it out. Luckily the storm passed before our boat ride to the Switzerland vs. Sweden match.
About an hour later, we arrived at Saint Petersburg Stadium, which looked a lot like a spaceship.
After disembarking from the boat, we had a 20-minute walk through a forest before arriving at the 64,287 seat, 1-year-old, very modern stadium.
Of all the matches in the 2018 World Cup, Switzerland-Sweden was probably one of the most boring. After 90-mins, the Swedes advanced to the quarterfinals with a 1-0 scoreline.
Once the game ended, we exited the stadium, passed through the forest and somehow found ourselves being shuffled into a giant beer hall called Alpenhaus, with about a thousand Swedish men. It was like Oktoberfest for Swedes, AKA Vikingfest.
It was here that we watched Colombia lose to England in a penalty shoot-out, on the 394-inch screen. This meant that Sweden would confront England in the quarterfinals. I have never seen such a rambunctious room go so silent as when England won. It was like a record scratched and the only two people screaming in the whole place was my friend and me.
When we finally left Alpenhaus, around 1am, it was eerily light out. For about 80ish nights each year, between May and June, St. Petersburg experiences 'white nights' and it almost never gets dark.
After a massive night celebrating with the Viking, we allowed ourselves a lie-in on Thursday morning, which happened to be 4th of July ('MERICA!). We had a delicious Georgian lunch at Rustaveli before taking an hour-long cab ride to Petehof.
Peterhof, sometimes referred to as the 'Russian Versailles', was a collection of palaces and gardens, created at the orders of Peter the Great. Peterhof has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our last stop on our Saint Petersburg tour was Big Wine Freaks. It was slightly outside the city center, but had a full-bodied decor and the snacks/wine were on point.
The following morning, I left my phone in the taxi after getting dropped at the airport. Even that though could not ruin my trip! This was one of the best sporting competitions I have ever attended and I am already considering going to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
ADDENDUM: Two days after returning home to London, I watched Sweden play England in the quarterfinals. England surprised me by beating Sweden and advancing to the semi-finals. At the end of the match, the cameras panned the crowd and I saw some of the Swedes I had been partying with the prior Tuesday night. Mind you, they were not hard to spot with their yellow braided wigs, but I have also since seen their pictures in various publications (see the second picture in this article and my picture below from 3rd July).
Know Before You Go:
Russia was generally affordable. I would even go so far as to say it was inexpensive, compared to London.
Tipping was not as customary in Russia as in the U.S., but it was always appreciated. Standardly, Russians leave about a 10% tip on a food bill, if the service was good. It was illegal for restaurants/bars to add service charge to their bills, but we saw it done in several places, so beware not to double tip.
Dress up at night if you want to fit in with the locals, especially in Moscow.
At all the nice restaurants in Moscow, a stool or stand was provided for your handbag, so you didn't need to place it on the floor.
Uber is available in some cities in Russia, but the app was operated by Yandex and was really wonky. My friend experienced less trouble with the app in Saint Petersburg than in Moscow. It's a very cheap option though.