Category Archives: Europe

Why You Need to Visit Russia in Winter

When I first told friends and family about my upcoming trip to Russia in December, I was met with skepticism. The most common remarks ranged from “But WHY?”,  to “Can’t you just wait until it gets warmer?”. In fact, even while I was already there, Russians kept encouraging me to “come back in Summer”.IMG_2313

Despite the naysayers, I am so glad that I went when I did. Seeing Moscow at its most “authentic” was truly an unforgettable experience. Yes it’s cold and it gets dark early, but this is how Russians spend at least 6 months out of every year. I developed a much better understanding of the attitudes and mindsets that make Russians so notoriously tough. Further, there were hardly any tourists around, which meant that we had the opportunity to enjoy major attractions to ourselves with little to no lines. There’s just something really cool about being one of only a few visitors walking around the Kremlin…it feels so exclusive!

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Here are some additional benefits of visiting Russia during Wintertime:

1. Christmas/New Years’ Markets and Festive Decorations- If you visit Russia over the holidays, be sure to check out the Christmas markets. They sell candies, matryoshka dolls, baked goods, and other Christmas-y gifts and souvenirs.

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Other interesting sights at the Christmas markets include ponies, reindeer, and Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). Every market has different features, making each one fun to discover. Near Cafe Pushkin in Moscow, for example, we enjoyed walking around an outdoor art gallery.

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There are also plenty of ice sculptures. Some of my favorites included an ice maze and ice slides. Ice displays are a time-honored tradition all over Russia, and exist in both large cities and way out in Siberia.

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Stores and businesses are also outfitted for the holiday season. GUM shopping centre in Moscow, for example, has quite the display, with Christmas stalls throughout.

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2. Sparkling Night Lights- Moscow is a beautiful city at night. While these lights can be seen year-round, longer hours of darkness during Winter means there are more opportunities to literally see the city in a different light.

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In fact, one of the best ways to see Moscow at night is on the River Moskva. Luckily, all of the major sites lie along the river and are easy to spot. The Radisson hotel runs dinner cruises all-year long, and even has ice-breaking capabilities for when the river is frozen over.

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 3. The Snow makes for great pictures- If anything, Winter in Russia often results in heavy snowfall. We were lucky enough to get snow on the first day we arrived in Moscow. The sights were very picturesque, and exactly like I’ve always imagined it would be. It just added that extra magical touch to everything we saw.

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As you can see, Russia is absolutely gorgeous during this time of year. So don’t let the weather deter you. Trust me, you’ll be thankful for the experience and will walk away with a new appreciation of this beautiful country and its people!

© Destination Duo, 2014-2015

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Moscow’s Soviet Sights

Moscow is now a part of the Russian Federation, but until 23 years ago, it was the capital of the Soviet Union. Reminders of the city’s Soviet past abound, with impressive yet deceiving displays of grandeur and strength that bring to mind the shortages and propaganda which characterized the times.

Before coming to Russia, I imagined Moscow to be a bit like London: a large city that has become an amalgam of its past, present, and future. And on the surface, it definitely is. But what is fascinating about Moscow is the fact one can’t help but be taken aback by some of the reminders that this modern, cosmopolitan city was once a part of the USSR. So here I present some of the most interesting Soviet sights in Moscow.


One of the most apparent reminders of the Soviet era is actually underground. Constructed during Stalin’s regime, the Metro is now one of the most efficient ways to travel through Moscow. Commuting isn’t typically seen as an exciting experience, but truly this one was! By the end of the trip, I had regretted not getting out at each of the stops just to have a look around.

The Metro is very ornate (for a metro, that is), and each stop is designed with a different Soviet theme. In Ploshad Revolutsii (Пло́щадь Револю́ции), for example, bronze Soviet revolutionary statues grace the archways. One of the most interesting representations of Soviet society is the large statue in Partizanskaya (Партизанская), which depicts partisans fighting for the homeland. And the Mayakovskaya (Маяковская) metro ceilings reveal small but discernible Soviet emblems, including the hammer and sickle. These symbols essentially became Moscow’s equivalent of Disney’s “Hidden Mickeys”, as I found myself finding them in random places throughout the city 😛

IMG_2491(Pictured Above and Below: Ploshad Revolutsii)

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IMG_2291(Above: Soviet Symbols in Mayakovskaya Metro; Below: Sculpture in Partizanskaya Metro)

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An interesting reminder of the former Soviet Union in Moscow is the “cult of personality” that surrounds its past leaders. In fact, a visit here would not be complete without seeing people dressed as Lenin and Stalin. My photo did not turn out, but this was one of two Lenin and Stalin look-a-like pairs.

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Many Soviet leaders are buried in the most recognizable part of Moscow- the Red Square. The Necropolis lies inside the square, along the walls of the Kremlin. It includes the graves of many famous (and infamous) leaders, including Brezhnev, Chernenko, Andropov, and Stalin.

IMG_4805(Above: Kremlin Necropolis)

IMG_2766(Pictures above and below: Stalin’s grave)

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Visitors can only see the necropolis if they also go to Lenin’s mausoleum, which perhaps best represents the cult of personality that encompasses leadership during Soviet times. For those who don’t know, Vladimir Lenin established the Soviet Union. His body was embalmed after his death in 1924 and is now on public display in a mausoleum that was built especially for this purpose…you heard that right! Personally, I think this is a “can’t miss” sight in Moscow, but some may find it a little morbid.

IMG_2455(Above: Lenin’s Mausoleum)

Pictures of the body can’t be taken while inside, and the guards are very strict about this. Rules about visiting the Mausoleum are constantly changing, so I’ve included the latest and most accurate information:

-The mausoleum is free; It’s open every day except Mondays and Fridays.

-There is a line to get in, but it is very short. Typically, visitors will only need to wait a few minutes at most. At least during the Winter months.

-There are metal detectors at the entrance, where bags will be inspected. Bags no longer have to be checked inside the State History Museum as they have been before.

-Photos can be taken outside on the Necropolis, but cameras need to be put away once inside the Mausoleum. Guards will also instruct visitors to take off their hats.


One of the biggest displays of Moscow’s Soviet past is the architecture throughout the city. Some of the tallest buildings were created under the command of Stalin, who had them constructed to display the great wealth and success of the USSR. The imposing Soviet towers known as the “Seven Sisters” can be polarizing to onlookers. Some people think they are really ugly, while others think they are beautiful. I’ll go with the second description, as I quite like them…but you can decide for yourself 😉

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 (Above: Hotel Ukraina, now a Radisson; Below: Moscow State University)

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IMG_2515(Above: Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

While Moscow is now a part of the Russian Federation, it’s history as the Soviet capital is abundantly clear. From the Soviet symbols throughout the city’s Metro, to the nostalgic depictions of past leaders, it’s amazing to see little pieces of the past that remain.

 This is just a brief introduction to some of the many Soviet sights throughout Moscow, but any history buff could spend days walking around the city without getting bored. For those who want to bring something back home, most tourist areas also sell USSR souvenirs. From lighters to shot glasses, to authentic military memorabilia, Russia acknowledges and (somewhat ironically) capitalizes on this part of their history.

 © Destination Duo, 2014-2015

 

Edinburgh Christmas Market

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Edinburgh is an easy place to get into the Christmas spirit. It has cold weather, hearty food, and a very Dickens-esque vibe…this is the UNESCO City of Literature, after all.

But truly one of the best ways to celebrate the holidays in Europe is at the Christmas markets. Luckily for us, Edinburgh has a great one. If you are in town for the holidays, be sure not to miss it!

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Located off of Princes Street (with stunning views of the castle) the Edinburgh Christmas market runs from the end of November until the beginning of January. Charming stalls sell everything from furs, to fudge, to nutcrackers. It’s a good place to pick up gifts for friends and family…don’t forget to treat yourself too! IMG_2188 IMG_2200Food stalls are everywhere, and most of them have a Bavarian theme. You can find bratwurst, streusel, gluhwein, mulled cider, and soft pretzels. You heard me right: soft pretzels (these are very elusive here)! If Bavarian food isn’t to your taste, it’s easy to find fish and chips, burgers, and crepes.

IMG_2138 IMG_2181IMG_2157The market is also extremely family-friendly. There’s an ice skating rink, a Ferris wheel, a Christmas tree maze, train rides, and visits with Santa Claus. For brave souls, there is also a terrifying giant swing. I just might build up the courage to go on it next time 😛

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For those over 18, the market has some interesting and unique drink stands. We really loved the Carousel Bar, which is near the National Gallery, and the Hot Toddy Bar, which overlooks the skating rink (above the “SKATE” sign in the picture).

IMG_2171 IMG_2191All of the bars have similar menus, and for a £2 deposit, you’ll get a ceramic souvenir mug which can either be taken home or returned. You can order various types of  drinks, including hot toddies, gluhwein, and mulled cider. They have non-alcoholic beverages available too, of course!

Most importantly, the Christmas market can be a wonderful place to enjoy the company of good friends 🙂

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Iceland’s Ring Road

Last August, Alex and I visited a place that was on both of our bucket lists: Iceland.

Most travelers coming to Iceland visit Reykjavík, the capital. It’s not surprising, since nearly 2/3 of Iceland’s population lives there. But the rest of the country offers some of the most jaw-dropping sights in the entire world. We covered as much of the country as we could, driving around Iceland on Route 1, also known as the “Ring Road”. It was easily one of the most beautiful drives we’ve taken.

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We rented a car for the journey at Keflavík Airport. Although we paid for a “mini”-sized car, we were lucky to be upgraded for free to a standard sized vehicle, a Skoda Octavia.

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Some of the best sights along the Ring Road included:

Black Beaches: In Vík 

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Glaciers: Including Vatnajökull National Park and Jökulsárlón lagoon (pictured)

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Wildlife: Including puffins, wild horses, seals, whales, and sheep

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Waterfalls: Including Gulfoss, Seljalandsfoss (pictured), Skogafoss, and Godafoss

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Geothermal Sites (Hot Springs/Geysers, etc.): Including Geysir and Mývatn

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Picturesque Villages: Including Húsavík (pictured) and Akureyri

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Stunning Landscapes: Around every corner

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The entire trip is 1,300 km, and can be driven either clockwise or counter-clockwise from Reykjavík (we went counter-clockwise). We drove the Ring Road in 6 days; although, the absolute minimum number of days it would take to complete the trip is 5, and ideally we’d recommend doing it in 7 or 8 days. Trust us, you won’t regret taking the extra time to enjoy the journey!

Our #1 suggestion for this road trip is to book your accommodations in advance. Iceland is very sparsely populated, and places do get fully booked, especially in the Summer. Accommodations along the route include motels, dormitories, farm stays, camping sites, and apartment/cabin rentals.

We were lucky enough to stay overnight at an ocean-side farm. It was one of our favorite experiences on the trip and we’d highly recommend it!

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