Back in the summer of 2014, I spent 6 weeks studying abroad in Russia and I have been enamoured by the country ever since. The history, the people, and the beautiful places captured my heart so I wanted to do a feature piece on the long weekend I spent in St. Petersburg and some of the amazing sites you can see if you make your way to this magical city!
The Journey to St. Petersburg
When I went to St. Petersburg, my group left late on Wednesday night on an awesome overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The train was super swanky and the four female students on our program had a compartment to ourselves. I loved the train ride and I honestly think the US needs to invest in a better railway system because that was way more comfortable than flying in the US!
Day 1: Getting Acquainted with the City
Once we arrived in St. Petersburg at 8:30am, it was off on a whirlwind adventure that didn’t have us checking into our hotel until after 6:30 that night. We started with a bus tour of the city where we learned about how most of the gorgeous buildings in the city are actually old aristocratic palaces that would have originally been the dwelling of one family.
Our first real stop was at a statue of Catherine the Great, who is still considered one of the most beloved empresses of Russia. There are statues, monuments buildings and parks all over the city that show how large of an influence she had. The best part about the statue had nothing to do with Catherine the great though. Our tour guide had a very strong Russian accent and instead of saying Catherine the Great’s Time it sounded like she was saying Catherine the great time and my classmates and I all found this mix up to be quite hilarious.
Our next stop was the St. Nicholas Cathedral done in a beautiful baroque style. Inside the church, we were lucky enough to see a small fragment of Russian orthodox mass, which is a lot of singing, crossing yourself and moving around to pray to different saints, but it was beautiful. Then we were off on the bus around and we learned about the many rivers, canals and islands that make up the city, earning it the name “Venice of the North”–however it more closely resembles Amsterdam in my opinion.
Other sites on the first day were the Peter and Paul Fortress: where all the of the Romanov Czars and their families are buried(including what was left of Nikolai II and his family after the Bolsheviks killed them and burned their remains); and then a branch of the Russian Museum dedicated to the 20th century Russian art, which was much like other art museums because there were some pieces that were breathtaking and some that were just odd.
Between seeing the fortress and the museum, we stopped at the Church on Spilt Blood: a massive cathedral that resembles St. Basil’s in Moscow, built on the site where Czar Alexander II was fatally wounded. The inside of the church is made up entirely of mosaics so complex that you don’t realize they aren’t frescoes until you get up close. The church was easily my favorite part of our first day.
We did eventually make it to our hotel to check-in, but there was no rest for the weary because we were off to the amazing Georgian Restaurant next door for a feast fit for kings. We had khachipuri, Khinkali, Shish Kabobs, and so much other food that I don’t even remember all of it. All I know is that it was amazing.
After dinner, some of my classmates and I decided to make our way down to this amazing bookstore on Nevsky Avenue called the House of Books. It was fun to just wander around the bookstore looking at both Russian Language and English books. It was a massive store and ranks in my top 5 favorite bookstores(may have to make a post about that soon).
Day 2: A Bit of Culture
Friday started at 10:45 with a quick cab ride over to the Winter Palace(a massive and beautiful building) which houses a portion of the State Hermitage Museum Collection and is connected to some of the other buildings of the Hermitage. The amount of masterpieces on display doesn’t even account for 1/6 of the entire hermitage collection, and it includes masterpieces from all over Europe, including pieces from : Matisse, Da Vinci, Monet, Picasso, Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and many others. It was also amazing just to see the grandeur of the building itself: high ceilings, beautiful floors, gold leafing, and just general palace beauty, which makes it a little easier to understand why people were outraged at the inequality in Russia.
After we were done at the Museum, it was off to St. Isaac’s cathedral, which is absolutely huge and more closely resembles a catholic church that a Russian Orthodox church, but it is beautiful nonetheless, particularly due to the massive amounts of marble used both inside and outside the cathedral. The best and worst part of St. Isaac’s: climbing up the 262 steps to the colonnade to see the panorama of St. Petersburg(beautiful, but never again).
After that it was time for a quick bite to eat for lunch(mind you it was 4pm by this point so we were all starving) and then a boat tour around the main area of the city. The boat tour was a great way to see where the main sights of the city are in relation to each other, and the view of the Winter Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Peter and Paul fortress from the water was breathtaking.
After the boat tour, it was off to the ballet to see swan lake. In order to keep costs down, we did not go to the more famous theater, but it was still a beautiful ballet. Having seen it once, I have now fallen in love with the show and want to see it again and again.
Day 3: Outside the City
The next day started early with our bus picking us up at 9:15am and then we made our way outside the city to the area called Pushkin, because it is where Pushkin studied in his teens. Our first major stop was Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace, which is huge and beautiful, but really just reminded me of every other European palace because there wasn’t anything uniquely Russian about it.
The one truly unique part was the Amber room: A room where the walls are covered in mosaics made of different colored amber, which was really pretty, but it still felt very European. It does have a cool story behind it though. In World War II when the Nazis invaded Russia they sacked the palace and stole every piece of Amber from the Amber room and it was never recovered. After the war was over, they had to completely re-do the room with new Amber because the Nazis had taken EVERYTHING.
What was really interesting though was that attached to the palace was a school for teenage aristocratic boys to come and live and learn all the skills they would need to be the leaders of the country and it was here that Pushkin studied and wrote the first of his poems.
After visiting the school, we had a quick lunch and then we were off to Peterhof: the Fountain capital of Russia. The gardens of Peterhof(another palace) are often compared to the gardens of Versailles, and having seen both, I can say that Peterhof is far more breathtaking than Versailles.
From the back of the palace you look out at immense gardens full of grandiose fountains and those gardens back up to the Gulf of Finland. It was absolutely amazing and I could have spent all day wandering around and soaking up the beauty of it. However, we only had about an hour and a half and then it was off to the train station to head back to Moscow, this time on a speed train that only takes 3 hours. The speed train was more convenient, and definitely still more comfortable than an airplane(can you say leg room?!) but I personally preferred the overnight train.
Moscow v. St. Petersburg
Once I was back in Moscow, it was really hard for me to say which city I prefer, and it still is. I think of it like this: Moscow is like the husband I have been married to for years; he has a lot of character and good attributes, but there are definitely quirks(read: pollution, the constant rush to get places, the strange nature of the city that makes it very different from home) that make me feel disenchanted with Moscow. In contrast, St. Petersburg is like the young artist that you have a love affair with. He is beautiful, full of life, and much more laid back than your husband, but there isn’t much personality below the surface. Odd metaphors aside, I love both cities and could never really pick between the two.
Writing this post based on my journals from that summer has made me miss Russia greatly and I may have to plan a trip back soon. Have any countries ever captured your heart like this?
From one misguided millennial to the world, this has been a trip through my memories to my visit to St. Petersburg.