Venture far above the Arctic Circle in the warmth and comfort of a private train and search for the spectacular Northern Lights.
Arctic Explorer by Private Train
A Russian Train Journey Aboard the Golden Eagle
13 days from $13,995
Venture far above the Arctic Circle in the warmth and comfort of a private train and search for the spectacular Northern Lights.
- A Q&A with Expert Michelle Thaller
- A Q&A with Expert Emilio Cueto
- Smithsonian at Oxford
- A Smithsonian Journeys Around the World Adventure, Part III
Venture far above the Arctic Circle on a winter hunt for the spectacular Northern Lights. Travel north from stunning St. Petersburg to the frosty twilight of the world's polar region in the warmth and comfort of a private train.
- The Aurora Borealis: Enjoy afternoon tea with a guest astronomer who explains the phenomenon of the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights. Plus, search out the Northern Lights across the Aurora Borealis Zone on two consecutive evenings, in the comfort of a cozy coach.
- Visit the Arctic Circle: Venture far above the Arctic Circle and experience twilight at noon. Visit the Snow Hotel, its guest rooms built of snow and adorned with snow carvings and ice sculptures.
- Cultural Treasures: Board the world's first nuclear-powered ice-breaker, the Lenin, now a museum ship. Skim over Lake Onega on a hovercraft to the UNESCO-listed open-air museum on Kizhi Island and admire Russia’s oldest wooden church. Plus, take an exhilarating traditional sleigh ride in old Suzdal.
To see itinerary, please click on an option below.
Day 1 — Depart the U.S.
Depart the U.S. on flights bound for Moscow, Russia. (Meals In-Flight)
Day 2 — Moscow, Russia
Arrive in Moscow and transfer to the hotel. Meet your fellow travelers this evening at the welcome reception and dinner. (R,D)
Day 3 — Moscow / Board the Golden Eagle Private Train
Founded in 1147 by Yuri Dolgoruky (literally “Yuri of the Long Arms”), Moscow rose to prominence during Mongol domination and eventually became the Russian capital. Eclipsed for 200 years by St. Petersburg, Moscow was restored as a political center after the October Revolution in 1917 and served as the capital of the Soviet Union until 1991. Moscow today is a booming metropolis, dignified yet dynamic, where ancient churches sit shoulder to shoulder with 21st-century financial institutions, and where the new high-rise commercial district of Moscow-City is changing the face of the city forever.
Spend the day exploring Russia’s capital city. Take an introductory drive through the city, enjoying the panoramic views of the city from Sparrow Hill and Moscow University. Visit the Novodevichy Convent, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 1524 by Grand Prince Vasily III to honor the returns of Smolensk city to Russia from the Lithuanians. The main attraction of the convent is its cemetery. Such luminaries as Gogol, Chekhov, Scriabin, Mayakovsky, Prokofiev, Eisenstein, Khrushchev, Raisa Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are buried here, and some of the graves are quite fanciful.
Following lunch at a local restaurant, take a tour inside the Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin reminds modern-day Russia of its medieval past. Built on the site of Prince Yuri's hunting lodge, the Kremlin overlooks the Moskva and Neglina rivers. In the mid-14th century, the Russian princes, ruling from the Kremlin, became so powerful that Moscow was named the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. Under the guidance of Ivan the Great, Moscow extended its influence and soon became the seat of Russian political power.
Today, the Kremlin remains the center of Moscow and Russian politics. Inside the fortress walls are palaces, cathedrals, government buildings and the Armory Museum. Built in the 16th century as a warehouse for the Kremlin's weaponry, the Armory was transformed into an exhibition hall and museum in 1814. It now houses Russia's national treasures, such as religious icons, Fabergé eggs, a bejeweled chalice belonging to Prince Yuri, and Catherine the Great’s ball gowns and shoes.
Finish the day with an evening walk on Red Square.
Board the Golden Eagle private train and settle into your elegant cabin. (B,L,D)
Day 4 — Vladimir / Suzdal
Today discover two of Russia’s Golden Ring towns: Vladimir and Suzdal. The Golden Ring is a modern name given to the ancient towns that form an elliptical circle to the north and east of Moscow. Many of these were seats of political and economic power long before the rise of Moscow. Today, they are mostly quiet, sleepy towns dotted with the remnants of defensive kremlins, with active monasteries and some of the oldest and most beautiful churches in Russia. Suzdal and Vladimir, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are among the oldest of the Golden Ring towns, and offer intimate views into Russia's past.
Founded by the last of the great Kievan princes, Grand Duke Vladimir Monomakh, Vladimir is between 900 and 1,000 years old. The capital of Kievan Rus’ from the 12th to the 14th centuries, Vladimir subsided into a small provincial town after power shifted to Moscow. During the Soviet years, it grew into an industrial and cultural center, and much of its wonderful old architecture has been preserved.
Visit the 12th-century Cathedral of the Assumption (Uspensky Cathedral) rising gracefully from the surrounding countryside. Its 6 pillars and 12 blue and gold domes made it one of Russia’s largest churches for over 300 years.
Continue to Suzdal, founded in 1024 by Grand Duke Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev, who came to the region to quell a peasant uprising. In the 12th century Suzdal was a capital city exceeding London in physical size and population. Suzdal’s UNESCO-listed monuments have been remarkably preserved over the ages; so much of the town’s original architecture has been kept that a law was passed to prevent modern development from encroaching on these historic places.
Suzdal’s biggest monastery, UNESCO-listed Savior Monastery of St. Euphinius, was founded in 1352, and its protective brick walls and towers date from the 17th century. Inside the walls stands the five-domed Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior, whose interior was frescoed by Gury Nikitin in the late 17th century. The monastery’s 16th-century bell tower chimes every hour.
After a choral concert by some of the monks who live here, go dashing through the snow on a traditional sleigh ride, called a troika, around the monastery.
This evening, make a final stop in Moscow and enjoy a New Year’s Eve dinner in Red Square before returning to the train. (B,L,D)
Day 5 — Golden Eagle Private Train
Spend a relaxing day onboard the private train, chatting with the other guests, enjoying the privacy of your stateroom, or watching the taiga forest begin to thin, the trees shrinking as the train heads north, with numerous little lakes and boggy areas looking like empty white patches along the snowy tracks. Attend a lecture by your Smithsonian Journeys Expert and enjoy afternoon tea with fresh Russian cakes served in the bar car. (B,L,D)
Day 6 — Cross the Arctic Circle / Murmansk
The train crosses the Arctic Circle early this morning before stopping in Murmansk, the most important city on the Kola Peninsula. Founded in 1916, the port city of Murmansk exists because, despite its being located above the Arctic Circle, the warm waters of the Gulf Stream keep it ice-free for most of the winter. It is so far north that there are no trees, which stop growing over a hundred miles south. The sun neither sets during the summer nor rises all winter.
During your time in the city, board the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker, the Lenin, now a museum ship. The Lenin was launched in 1957 and worked clearing the northern sea routes until 1989. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, records became public that showed the icebreaker had experienced two nuclear reactor accidents, one in 1965 and the other in 1967. After the second mishap, the original reactors were replaced with two more modern reactors. Explore the decks, inner corridors, some of the vessel’s compartments and exhibitions about the future of the Arctic region.
Time permitting, visit the Murmansk Regional History Museum featuring exhibits on the history of the Kola Peninsula from the 17th century, national costumes of northern indigenous people, and rare photos and documents from more recent history. (B,L,D)
Day 7 — Kirkenes, Norway
Pack your overnight bag and disembark from the train at the mining town of Nikel near the border between Russia and Norway. Board the coach and cross the border for the 90-minute drive along a quiet road lined with skinny birch trees, low-growing bushes and rock outcroppings, passing a farmstead here and there.
Arrive in the tidy polar town of Kirkenes, Norway, which overlooks Norway’s easternmost fjord. With a population of some 3,500, “Kirkenes” means “church on the headland.” Here, the Norwegian coastline swings eastward, so that the town is actually east of Finland, unlike the rest of Norway. Located far above the Arctic Circle, Kirkenes experiences continuous daylight from May to August, and conversely, polar night from late November to late January. In the middle of winter, only a blue twilight brightens the sky around noon. By mid-February, the sky can be significantly brighter, but still, the nights are long here, offering a perfect setting for viewing the Northern Lights.
Check into the hotel and then drive to visit the fantastic Snow Hotel, assembled each winter since 2006. Have chilled vodka served in a shot glass of ice at the Icebar, which is decorated with snow and ice sculptures carved by craftsmen from the Harbin Ice Festival, and take a tour of the extraordinary hotel. Enjoy dinner at the lovely timbered restaurant serving meals family-style at long wooden tables.
Take an evening bus tour in search of the Northern Lights. This region is known as the Aurora Borealis Zone and was chosen as the place to study the phenomenon because of its dry winters and abundance of clear nights.
Return to the hotel in Kirkenes for the overnight. (B,L,D)
Day 8 — Kirkenes, Norway
A unique winter experience awaits this morning on a King Crab fishing adventure. Begin with a snowmobile-drawn sleigh ride across the frozen fjords. Warm clothing and a helmet are provided. Through a hole in the ice your master guide will demonstrate how to catch the magnificent Arctic King Crab (which can span two meters and weigh up to 15 kgs). Continue by sleigh to the nearby Fisherman's Lodge where the King Crab lunch awaits by a cozy log fire. The crabs that you catch during the expedition will be prepared and cooked for you here.
Return to Snow Hotel in the afternoon to see the resident reindeer and visit the biggest husky dog farm in Eastern Finnmark, or return to Kirkenes village for a walking tour.
Take another chance this evening to observe the Northern Lights, far from the lights of town. (B,L,D)
Day 9 — Onboard the Golden Eagle Private Train
Following breakfast, drive back to Nikel to re-board the train as it sets off toward Petrozavodsk. (B,L,D)
Day 10 — Petrozavodsk, Russia
Heading back south, the train makes a stop in Petrozavodsk, a city founded by Peter the Great who recognized that he would need a local iron foundry to outfit the ships he intended to build for his new navy. Petrozavodsk grew around the foundry that Peter built here on the shore of Lake Onega.
Take a tour of the city, including the 18th-century Aleksandro-Nevsky Cathedral, constructed by and for the Petrozavodsk foundry workers who, before it was finished, used to walk across town to a shabby little church to worship.
Weather permitting, board a hovercraft and skim over Lake Onega to Kizhi Island, the location of a UNESCO-listed open-air museum stocked with old wooden churches and houses from the Karelia region of northwest Russia. The Cathedral of the Transfiguration, built in 1714 completely without the use of nails, has 22 aspen-shingled cupolas sprouting from its roof. The oldest wooden church still surviving in Russia, the 14th-century Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus, is one of the authentic buildings here, as are Karelian peasants’ and merchants’ houses.
Return to the train in the evening for the final dinner on board before arrival in St. Petersburg the following morning. (B,L,D)
Day 11 — St. Petersburg, Russia
The train arrives in St. Petersburg this morning. At any time of year, St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its miles of canals, laced together with graceful bridges and set amidst pastel 18th century buildings, have earned it the name, the “Venice of the North.” Conceived by Peter the Great and designed by his favorite European architects, St. Petersburg was meant to be Peter’s link to the western world. A convergence of art and soul, the city survived the calamitous 20th century with its reputation as a storehouse of Russian culture intact. Some of the world’s most radiant artworks hang in its museums, and some of the world’s greatest performers, writers and musicians have walked its streets.
Spend the day getting to know this wonderful city. Begin with a drive along Nevsky Prospekt, the three-mile avenue that is the backbone of the city, stopping at Gostiny Dvor, the city’s oldest and largest shopping center; the Eliseyevsky, an extravagantly beautiful pre-Revolutionary grocery decorated with crystal chandeliers; and the imposing Kazan Cathedral.
Visit the Church of the Savior on the Spilt Blood, built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was killed by a bomb in 1881, and commissioned in the style of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow by his son and successor, Alexander III. For many years closed for renovation, the church’s beautiful interior is now open to visitors. Four jasper columns inside mark the spot where the czar was killed.
In the afternoon travel to the town of Pushkin, site of the royal residence Catherine’s Palace, originally built in 1717 by Catherine I. Enjoy a guided tour of the estate. In 1752, famed architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli enlarged and embellished the palace, extending the facade to its current grandeur. The estate and palace buildings were almost completely destroyed by the Germans during World War II, but they have been carefully and expertly restored into a brilliant architectural monument.
The fully restored Amber Room in Catherine's Palace has been years in the making. The wall coverings of amber panels, created in the time of Peter the Great, were taken by the Nazis during the Second World War and never recovered. The beautifully crafted amber panels we see today were re-created from photos and descriptions of the originals, and have become one of the highlights of Catherine’s Palace.
Following dinner at a local restaurant, schedules permitting, attend an evening ballet performance at one of St. Petersburg’s world-renowned theaters. After completion of the performance, return to the hotel. (B,L,D)
Day 12 — St. Petersburg, Russia
This morning explore the Hermitage, also known as the Winter Palace, built in 1754-62 as the principal home of the czars, and lavishly rebuilt in 1839 after it was destroyed by fire. Originally a small private palace gallery begun by Catherine the Great with a purchase of 255 paintings from Berlin, the Hermitage today houses the largest museum collection in the world including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, the French Impressionists, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. The fabulous rooms with their inlaid floors and gilded woodwork and the grand double entry staircase are works of art in themselves.
Across the Neva River from the Hermitage on Hare Island, visit the Fortress of Peter and Paul, one of the first structures in St. Petersburg. Peter the Great laid the cornerstone of the earthen fortress in May 1703, intending it to be used to repel a Swedish invasion. After the Swedes capitulated, the fortress was transformed into a prison in 1718. Most importantly, it is the burial place for most of the czars beginning with Peter the Great.
Stop at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which took 40 years to complete. The 48 red granite columns around the lower part of the building each weigh 110 tons, and the upper columns around the rotunda weigh 67 tons apiece. The dome is covered with 220 pounds of gold, and the interior columns faced with lapis lazuli and malachite. The cathedral is bursting with sculptures, frescoes, stained glass works and woodcarvings.
This evening celebrate the journey with a festive farewell dinner. (B,L,D)
Day 13 — Depart St. Petersburg
Following breakfast at the hotel, the tour concludes today with transfers to the airport for international departures. (B, In-Flight)
Included meals are denoted as follows: Breakfast (B), Lunch (L), Reception (R), Dinner (D)