This is going to be a 2-parter!
Please stay tuned for Part 2!
Oh Russia. It has worked up quite a name for itself, hasn’t it? Regardless of your feelings on Russian politics or Vladimir Putin, there is no denying that 17th to 19th century Russians were opulent and enjoyed grandeur. One thing old-school Russia loved more than communism or vodka is the palaces. They are everywhere. They are smack dab in the middle of the city, in the countryside, and even across the channel where we had to take a boat. Old-school Russia also liked to make all their official government buildings grand and spectacular, as well as all their churches.
Something else that is everywhere? Police. If you stood in the middle of any busy area in this city, I guarantee no matter which way you turned, you’d see a police officer or multiple officers. We would constantly joke that they were the infamous KGB, but now that we’re older and wiser, it’s not quite as humorous, because it’s probably true. We drove to the countryside to visit Catherine Palace, and I was in awe that we drove past two police officers walking down the sidewalk, in a rather remote area. Few houses, no stores, but police. It’s an eerie feeling, to say the least.
If you can ignore the 1984 vibes, St. Petersburg really delivers in terms of beauty, as there is a plethora of palaces and magnificent buildings. The one major downside – it attracts a lot of people…. a lot of people. Aside from London, St. Petersburg was by far the most crowded city we visited in Europe. Some of the biggest lines I’ve ever stood in have been here.
Russians also strongly believe in myths and urban legends. There are countless statues where supposedly if you make a wish while simultaneously rubbing a foot, boot, horses hoof or some other part, your wish will come true. Or you will be granted good luck by rubbing said part. OR you are supposed to throw a coin down or up onto something (usually a statute) while making a wish. If it lands where it’s supposed to, your wish will come true. Just all depends on the statue and the myth/legend.
Something else Russians love? Vodka. Just like the way Costco in the United States hands out little samples of food, Russia souvenir shops hand out shots of vodka. We only went to one souvenir shop, near St. Michael’s Castle (aka Mikhailovsky Castle), which was filled with Russian nesting dolls, nesting doll inspired chess sets, and all the other typical knick-knacks one can think of. In the back corner there was a tray filled with vodka shots, and they handed them out to us for free, just for fun, at 9am.
It also rained one of the two days we were visiting, which was a bit of a bummer. Did you know that St. Petersburg gets an average of only 72 days of sunlight per year? So, for an average of 293 days a year, it is rainy and gloomy with overcast skies. We got lucky the first day, but not the second. We had to stand in line outside Catherine Palace for an hour in the rain, just waiting to get inside.
We visited so many places that I lost count; however, here are the major ones:
Day 1: The Hermitage Museum, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul’s Fortress, Yusupov’s Palace (aka The Moika Palace), Vasilvevsky Island, and Kazan Cathedral.
Day 2: Catherine Palace, Peterhof Palace, Monplaisir by the Sea, and Saint Peter’s Metro Station.
I will break them down one by one.
All the locations on day one were in the heart of the city, with day two being in the outskirts. The Hermitage Museum was our first stop. A massive, grandiose building, it is the second largest museum in the world, coming only behind the Louvre in France, and is smack dab in the middle of St. Petersburg. According to Wiki, “it was founded in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great acquired an impressive collection of paintings from the Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky.” However, it was not opened to the public for almost 100 years, in 1852. Since then, it attracts on average 4.5 to 4.9 million visitors per year, although that came to a screeching halt last year. I have no doubt that once Covid-19 is over, the visitor numbers will spike once again.
Located at Palace Square, 2, St Petersburg, Russia, 190000, it’s open Tuesday – Sunday. The hours are 10:30am – 6pm on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and from 10:30am – 9pm on Wednesday and Friday. The museum is closed on Monday. There are 6 buildings in the museum complex, with 5 open to the public: The Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, and Hermitage Theatre. Tickets are inexpensive, 500 rubles per person, which exchanges to roughly $6.65 USD. Typically, you will be on a pre-bought, government-approved tour and they usually take care of the tickets for the group.
*Side note: not only do you need a passport to enter Russia, you also need a Russian travel visa. Acquiring this as a private individual can be incredibly difficult and is not the typical way most people, from any country, visit Russia. Most people book tours through government-approved travel agencies which have the proper paperwork issued directly to them, therefore you can forgo the headache of trying to obtain a Russian travel visa yourself. The government is well aware that the travel agencies tread lightly and won’t be discussing any negative or disparaging remarks about Russia or the government. The government-approved tour guides are also literal babysitters, as you are not allowed to wander about – anywhere – in Russia without them. If you want to do that then you need to acquire a Russian travel visa. May the odds forever be in your favor.*
There are countless pieces of art at the Hermitage, around 3 million pieces. This grand museum houses everything from mummies, to priceless jewelry, to “classical antiquities” like the Hall of Twenty Columns and The Room of the Great Vase, to prehistoric artifacts that date from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age, to Italian Renaissance art (including from artists Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, as well as Benois Madonna and Madonna Litta attributed to Leonardo da Vinci), to Italian and Spanish art from the 16th-18th centuries (including from artists Veronese, Giambattista Pittoni, Tintoretto, Velázquez and Murillo), to Greek art (including the famous Three Graces sculpture by Antonio Canova), as well as works by Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, and a large collection of Rembrandts.
One could spend several days inside the Hermitage and still not see every single piece housed there. It’s an extraordinarily massive building, with countless rooms and halls. The number of priceless paintings alone is overwhelming. Some famous paintings include: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, The Madonna Litta allegedly by Leonardo da Vinci, The Conestabile Madonna by Raphael, Apostles Peter and Paul by El Greco, Thatched Cottages and Houses by Van Gogh, Two Sisters (Meeting) by Pablo Picasso, Portrait of a Lady in Blue by Thomas Gainsborough (only painting of his in the entirety of Russia), and Danaë by Titian. This does not even begin to skim the surface of the amount of painting housed here.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Constructed between 1883 and 1907, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is a fan favorite because it was built in the name of medieval Russian architecture, with the onion domes usually associated by Westerners with Russia. It was originally built as a Russian Orthodox church but now operates as a secular museum. The church was built on the very spot where political nihilists assassinated Emperor Alexander II in 1881. The building was funded by the famous Romanov royal family, of Anastasia fame, before their sad and tragic downfall. It has a lot going on.
Located at Griboyedov Channel Embankment, 2Б, St Petersburg, Russia, 191186, it’s hours of operation are Thursday to Tuesday (closed on Wednesday’s) from 10:30am to 6pm.
The inside is impressive, and breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s not like the Hermitage, housing countless pieces of art and history. You mainly walk around going “ooohh” and “awe”, admiring the elaborately ordained walls and arches while listening to your government-approved guide tell you the detailed history. You can also gawk at the impressive alters.
Also, here is where I had a monkey shoved into my arms. As we exited the church, numerous Russian street photographers/performers were waiting, ready to charge unexpecting tourists outrageous amounts of money for a photo with their animal. We did not pay for a photo, but he let me hold the monkey regardless. There are many street performers throughout Europe, so get used to that!
St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Monument to Nicholas I
Located at St Isaac’s Square, 4, St Petersburg, Russia, 190000, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is another magnificent Russian Orthodox Church-turned-government-owned tourist trap museum. Its hours are also Thursday to Tuesday, 10:30am to 6pm. The church was ordered to be built by Tsar Alexander I in 1818 but was not completed until 1858. It operated within its intended purpose as an orthodox church until it was seized by the Russian communist government in 1931 and turned into a state-run museum (as you would do if you were an oppressive communist government).
The church once claimed the fame of being St. Petersburg’s main church, as well as the largest church in all of Russia (and Russia isn’t exactly small). That has of course since been overpassed, but nonetheless, the church remains as an iconic staple of Russian architecture, history, and tourism.
The cost of entry is incredibly low, at 250.00 rubles for adults (approx. $3.30 USD) and 50.00 rubles for children (approx. 65 cents USD).
There is also the impressive Monument to Nicholas I, which sits right across from the cathedral. It was completed in 1859 by French sculptor Auguste de Montferrand (who also built St. Isaac’s Cathedral) and “was considered a technical wonder at the time of its creation”. According to Wiki, “it is one of only a few bronze statues with only two support points (the rear hooves of the horse)”.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Monument to Nicholas I were my favorite pieces of architecture in St. Petersburg.
Peter and Paul’s Fortress
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, this fortress was the original citadel, first structure to be built in St. Petersburg, and the namesake of the city. However, it never served its intended purpose and was used in the first half of the 16th century and the early 1920’s as a prison for “political criminals”, including the famous Russian Marxist revolutionary, political theorist and politician Leon Trotsky. It was turned into a museum in 1924 and has functioned as one ever since. It also became the go-to mausoleum amongst the Tsar’s and Tsarina’s, as well as their families and entourages.
Located on Zayachy (Hare) Island, the address is simply St. Petersburg, Russia, 197046, and it’s open Thursday to Tuesday from 10am to 4pm (many places in Russia are closed on Wednesday, for some reason; I’m not sure why). The history of the Fortress is fascinating, not only due to its tenure as a political prison or its deep historical ties to St. Petersburg, Russia, but also because of how revered it was amongst Russian royalty, turning it into their preferred burial place, as mentioned above.
According to Wiki, “The cathedral is the burial place of all Russian tsars from Peter I to Alexander III, with the exception of Peter II and Ivan VI. The remains of Nicholas II and his family and entourage were re-interred there, in the side chapel of St. Catherine, on July 17, 1998, the 80th anniversary of their deaths. Toward the end of 2006, the remains of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna were brought from Roskilde Cathedral outside Copenhagen and reinterred next to her husband, Alexander III.”
As with most places in Russia, it is extremely ornate and opulent. The Russians spared no expense when it came to their royalty, per the course of practically all past and future royalty worldwide.
Yusupov’s Palace, formally known as The Moika Palace, is most well-known for being the murderin’ spot of the infamous Rasputin. For those unaware of who Grigori “Mad Monk” Rasputin is, in the simplest of terms, he was a con artist and shyster. He was an alleged mystic and self-proclaimed holy man, who somehow befriended the family of Nicholas II, gaining significant influence in late imperial Russia as a result.
Naturally, Russia’s nobility and political elite did not appreciate a peasant having such considerable power over the ruler, especially one who claimed to be supernatural, making Rasputin a rather large target. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “By the First World War, Rasputin was also providing political advice and making recommendations for ministerial appointments, much to the dismay of the Russian elite.” He was “too poor” and “too sneaky” for them, and after one failed assassination attempt, a second plan was hatched.
Exactly how the night went down is debated. The most accepted version of events comes from Prince Felix Yusupov, who at the time was the wealthiest man in Russia, and also the murderer (so you can imagine that his version of events is definitely the true and accurate one).
So, the story goes…
Yusupov, along with several other Russian nobility, invited Rasputin over to Yusupov’s Palace for a night of cyanide infused wine and cakes. After eating the cakes, and drinking 3 glasses of wine, Rasputin had still not succumbed to the poison. It was getting late, around 2:30am, so Yusupov went upstairs to collect his co-conspirators, leading them back downstairs to the basement. He then shot Rasputin once in the chest and left him in the basement. After dressing like Rasputin and driving to his apartment to make it appear as if he returned home, Yusupov went back down to the basement to see if he was really dead. Much to his surprise and dismay, Rasputin allegedly jumped up and attacked Yusupov, who fought him off and ran back upstairs. Rasputin chased him into the courtyard, where Rasputin was shot again two more times, once at close range in the head. They then wrapped up his body and dumped it into the Malaya Nevka River.
He was discovered about 14 days later by two workmen, although news of his death had already spread quickly throughout Russia. One of the accomplices could not keep his mouth shut, per usual. Although an autopsy was performed and he was clearly murdered, no charges ever came against those who killed him, and the imperial family even attended his funeral. He was buried but his body later exhumed by Russian soldiers and burned after the fall of the tsar in 1917, so that his burial place would not become a rallying place for supporters of the old regime.
Yusupov Palace was my least favorite place we visited, perhaps during the whole trip, but definitely on the first day. As far as palaces and museums go, Yusupov was… meh. I’m not sure if that was because it was the very last place we visited before heading back and I was completely spent, but it was less flamboyant, exaggerated, and over the top than a majority of the other places we visited.
The coolest thing about Yusupov Palace is that you get to visit the very basement that Rasputin was jumped in, complete with very creepy life-size dolls to help recreate the entire thing (as shown above).
Vasilyevsky Island – Rostral Columns
I had no clue we were even on an island while on Vasilyevsky Island. It’s 7 ½ sq. miles, well connected to the mainland, and doesn’t sit out in the ocean. It sits inside the Gulf of Finland, bordered by two rivers on either side, with the city of St. Petersburg hugging it from both sides.
We came to the island mainly to visit the famed Rostral Columns, which have been in place for more than two centuries. Their first and main purpose was to be beacons for the Russian trading post, welcoming foreign merchant ships to St. Petersburg. The columns were erected between 1805 and 1810 and were created by architect Jean-Francois Thomas de Thomon.
The columns are fun to look at, as well as marvel in the fact that you’re staring at over 200-year-old architecture, but there isn’t much to do with them other than look. You get a great view of the Winter Palace from across the river, but that is about it for the area. Small business owners taking advantage of the never-ending rotation of tourist groups have set up shop with mini carts selling typical Russian tourist souvenirs such as Russian nesting dolls (a lot of Russian nesting dolls), t-shirts, collectable plates and cups, ashtrays, magnets, fake Fabergé eggs, keychains, hats, books, compact mirrors, and so many other little knick-knacks.
We never went inside Kazan Cathedral due to accessibility being denied to the public. I’m not sure why nobody was allowed inside, as we were allowed inside practically every other church and palace. I think it’s still an active Russian Orthodox church, so that could be why. Nonetheless, we got to walk around the outside of it and marvel in its grandness and beauty.
It’s a gorgeous building and one of my personal favorites in St. Petersburg, with a dome that sits at number 32 on a list of 150 World’s Tallest Domes (St. Isaac’s Cathedral is number 17). Sadly, since it is apparently closed to looky-loo tourists, there isn’t much to do other than ogle at it while listening to your government-approved guide tell you the history (which isn’t much more than what I’m about to tell you here).
Completed in 1811, Kazan Cathedral was built to resemble the famed St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Russians almost immediately lost ownership of it after Napoleon invaded just one year later in 1812; however, just 5 months after that, Napoleon lost and was booted out of Russia, and the Russians reclaimed the church. They saw it as a memorial to their victory over the tiny French dictator.
It is also the site of the first political demonstration in Russia, the Kazan Demonstration, which occurred in 1876. It was a tepid worker strike type demonstration that had crazy, disproportionate old-school Russian consequences. According to Wiki, “As a result, 31 demonstrators were arrested, of which five people would later be sentenced to 10 to 15 years of katorga, other ten to Siberian exile and other three to a 5-year incarceration in a monastery.” Katorga was forced labor in a penal camp in Siberia and is thankfully no longer used.
Stay tuned for Part 2!