Lachlan Jackson, Johanna Selth, and their two kids: Siena (6) and Tadgh (3).
We went to Russia and Finland from August 5-19. We flew from Beijing to Moscow with Aeroflot (we were surprised at how much it has improved as an airline) and spent three days at Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya. The hotel is located inside one of the old Stalin skyscrapers and is very close to the subway and the international train station. We thought it was a brilliant location and the hotel was really beautiful.
We then took an overnight train to Helsinki, Finland, and spent one day and one night there. After that, we drove into the Finnish Lakeland and stayed for three days at a small town near the Finnish-Russian border called Savonlinna. Then, we took the fast train to St. Petersburg, where we spent the remaining six days of the trip. Finally, we took the night train again to Moscow to catch our return flight to Beijing. We organized the trip ourselves using Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com), and booked tickets using eLong (www.elong.com).
The total cost was around RMB 35,000 for a family of four. It includes:
Roundtrip flights for two adults and two children with Aeroflot (RMB 15,000)
Accommodations for approximately RMB 5,400 per night at the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya, Best Western Helsinki, and Perhehotelli Hospitz (www.hospitz.com) in Savonlinna
Three train trips for RMB 10,000 (Note: Kids under 5 travel for free)
A three-day car rental for RMB 1,700
Food for around RMB 7,000
It cost a bit extra for sightseeing and souvenirs. We also stayed with friends in St. Petersburg for six nights, which significantly reduced accommodation costs. Hotels in Moscow are normally very expensive, but we found some great deals in August during the off-season.
The Best Part
Seeing the Russian Ballet at Olavinlinna, a 15th century medieval castle in Finland, was a highlight. Every year after the Opera Festival in July, Savonlinna hosts stars from the Bolshoi Ballet and Marinsky Theatre. Our children would say the best part was going to the Russian circus in St. Petersburg. It wasn’t as cringe-worthy as we expected in terms of animal rights; there were no lions, tigers, or elephants – much to the kids’ dismay.
For the grownups, another highlight was the Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. We took our time enjoying the collection of mainly European art from various historical periods, since we were able to leave the kids at home with our friends.
Moscow was surprisingly beautiful and easy to get around; the metro is brilliant. The Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral were real eye-poppers. The newly-refurbished Gorky Park in Moscow was a wonderful respite for the kids. There are great expanses of lawn you can sit on, playgrounds, an amusement area, hammocks, cafes, a lake with boats, and loads of ducks and swans.
In Helsinki, the harborside market was really interesting, with traditional Finnish clothing and handicrafts. It had lots of little outdoor restaurants, where you can get a plate of salmon, chips, and veggies for EUR 7 and eat in a gorgeous setting.
The Worst Part
Although they were brilliant once you got on them, the process of actually boarding the trains was harder than we expected. We ordered our tickets online, but Russia is still behind in terms of getting things done on the Internet. Even though we had a printout of our booking and were told we could print our tickets at the station, this proved to be false and we nearly didn’t get on the train. Luckily, a hotel staff member had come to the station with us at 10pm and sorted everything out with five minutes to spare. Almost no one speaks English, so it would have been impossible to resolve this on our own. The kids were exhausted by the time we boarded the train!
Finnish trains are amazing! Imagine our surprise when our “super fast” three-hour train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg came fully-equipped with a children’s play area, bottle warmer, huge family-friendly bathrooms, and incredibly clean surroundings.
In Helsinki, we were surprised to find that our hotel used to be a jail. The entire hotel was prison-themed, from the staff uniforms to the authentic jail cells in the basement. There was even a fully-stocked children’s playroom next to the cells.
In Moscow, Siena was delighted when the vendor poured a ladle of liquid chocolate all over the bucket of fresh berries that we bought at Gorky Park.
We were taken to a fabulous Georgian restaurant in Moscow and were amazed by the quality, freshness, and flavor of the food. There were loads of grilled meat, salads, and other healthy options. It was also reasonably priced, costing around USD 120 for eight people. Most restaurants in Russia are frightfully expensive (USD 50 for Burger King, anyone?).
In general, Russia is not a great destination for young children. Kids aged 6 and up will start to appreciate the architecture and museums; Siena enjoyed many of the activities, but Tadgh was bored a lot of the time and slept in his pram for hours each afternoon. We were very lucky to be able to leave the kids with our friends, their children, and their nanny in St. Petersburg. This made the holiday relaxing and enjoyable for everyone.
Finland is great for children. Everyone speaks English, the food is excellent, and there’s good pram access everywhere. The Best Western Katajanokka in Helskinki had an excellent children’s playroom, a lovely garden, lawns to run around on, and fabulous breakfast. Savonlinna was also family-friendly, with boat trips, walking areas around the lake, places for picnics and fishing, and a huge playground on the waterfront.
It can be difficult to get a Russian visa. Leave plenty of time and be prepared to give your entire life story.
Most Russians don’t speak any English; we felt quite helpless several times during the trip.
In Finland, save money on food by shopping for lunch supplies at supermarkets. You’ll find picnic food like smoked salmon, cheese, pickled herring, and bread rolls for cheap. Eating at restaurants is generally very expensive.
If you’re visiting a church or a museum, let the kids decide on how to proceed – they are much more interested in it all if they can “lead the way.”
There is lots to see and do in every place and it’s tempting to try and fit it all in, but it just makes for grumpy children, so take it slow. Do stay in a nice hotel with a swimming pool – we found this made all the difference. The kids could have a swim in the morning and then our 3-year-old would crash in the pram for two to three hours in the early afternoon while we walked all over the city.