I get the impression that Americans feel nervous about traveling to Russia. I would have to say that it might not be for everyone, but my experience left me wanting to go right back! If you’re interested in a taste of Russia, I recommend looking at a visa-free trip: if you meet certain requirements, like entering Russia on a cruise ship or ferry, booking lodging and tours through specific companies, and only stay 72 hours, no visa application is necessary. (Check with the US State Dept. here for more specific information.)
My trip to Russia consisted of a 3-day weekend in St. Petersburg with a group of 200 students from the university in Finland I was studying at toward the end of October. We took a ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, and back, which lasted around 15 hours. So after sleeping in your cabin (or staying up and drinking expensive alcohol, your choice), you wake up and have to pack because you’re in Russia!
During our 72 hours, I was able to:
Take a bus tour of the city
Go to the ballet (Swan Lake!)
Visit Catherine’s Palace, aka the Summer Palace
Take a nighttime river cruise
Explore the Hermitage Museum, formerly known as the Winter Palace
St. Petersburg was founded in 1703, which is relatively recently for Russia and for Europe. It’s built on a swamp, which is why the air feels damp (plus it was raining for most of my trip). It’s made up of several islands, divided by the Neva River, and there are also many canals, as Tsar Peter the Great (the founder) was trying to emulate Venice and Amsterdam in the city design.
This is a nighttime shot from the River Neva of the Fortress of Peter and Paul. The Fortress is the first area of the city that was built, and it has large walls for defense against the Swedish empire. This is where all of the Russian royal family has been buried from Peter the Great to the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. You’ve heard all the stories about Anastasia? According to our tour guide, she is buried here along with her father, mother, and one sister, and the bodies of her brother and other sister that were found fairly recently will be reburied there soon. (So Disney got it wrong? Shocker!)
Ballet at Hermitage Theater
Swan Lake, a famous Russian ballet, in Russia? In a beautiful theater? Cultural experience, check! The ballet was amazing, and it was a really amazing evening. Here I am, with two of my friends, waiting for the performance to begin.
Catherine’s Palace trip
The next morning we took a bus to Pushkin, just outside of St. Petersburg, where Catherine’s Palace, also known as the Summer Palace, is located. Catherine was Peter’s wife, and he built it as a present for her. It was the private home of the royal family during the summer, and it is completely gorgeous. Sorry for all of the pictures…
First look at the palace, it already looks so impressive! Buildings are painted bright colors in St. Petersburg because they only get 60 sunny days a year, 30 of which are fully sunny. It’s even worse than Seattle (where I am from)! But to brighten things, they paint their buildings yellow or blue or green. Plus the decoration of the old buildings is amazingly beautiful!
This palace was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII. The German forces never entered St. Petersburg, but this palace is 30 km outside the city, in Pushkin. It was rebuilt from photos in the original style, and some original pieces that were successfully smuggled out remain.
Have you ever heard of the amber room? It was once called the eighth wonder the world, an entire room covered in amber and with beautiful amber pieces. It disappeared during WWII, likely dismantled by the Nazis. It has been rebuilt in the palace, but it’s the only room where no pictures are allowed. Take my word for it, it’s incredibly beautiful.
The grounds of Catherine’s Palace are incredibly beautiful as well! Going inside of the palace is like walking through a museum, and can be rather crowded during the busy season, but you are free to peruse the grounds on your own.
The Hermitage, also known as the Winter Palace, is right on the Nevsky River. It’s now a museum, but was built by Catherine the Great (not the same Catherine as the namesake of Catherine’s Palace) to house her collection of art. The collection was largely saved from the bombing of the building during WWII by the museum’s director, who disobeyed Stalin’s directive and began evacuating two weeks early. The museum has a great collection of art, and while I am not an art enthusiast, it’s still very nice to walk through. The museum itself is also a piece of art.
The Hermitage is right on the river, and is a wonderful museum. It was built by Catherine the Great (not the same Catherine as the previous palace we viewed) to house her art. The collection was saved from the bombing of the building during WWII by the museum’s director, who disobeyed Stalin’s orders and began evacuating two weeks early. The museum has an incredibly collection of art, in addition to just being a beautiful building.
This red room is the gallery of 1812, which commemorates the victory of Russia over Napoleon by Tsar Alexander I. There are portraits of all of the integral people in the victory, commissioned years later, and if they had died already, with no other portraits, an open space was left so they would still be remembered, but not be painted with the wrong face.
This is a Rembrandt painting, destroyed in the 1970s by a man with a spray bottle of chemicals to dissolve the paint, and a knife. The painting was restored, but he’s the reason why you can’t bring water into the museum anymore. The rest of the art coming up is beautiful, but I’m hopeless with remembering names and artists, so just view this as a taste of the Hermitage.
Cathedral on Spilled Blood
The cathedral has a strange name, obviously, but it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. It’s built in the traditional Russian style, which is unusual for St. Petersburg. Ironically, Tsar Alexander II was very progressive, had abolished the Russian tradition of serfdom, and on the very day he was assassinated, had the plans for a Russian parliament on his desk. His son returned to the more conservative views, and his grandson, Tsar Nicholas II, was the last tsar.
Now, it’s a museum, with services occurring only on special occasions.
Now, if you think the outside is impressive…just check out the inside! It’s entirely made of mosaic.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
St. Isaac’s is also now a museum, but built in the classical style. It’s one of the largest dome churches in the world, and the inside is decorated with oil paintings and mosaics.
The dome was painted over during WWII so it wouldn’t be so obvious against the sky, and therefore received only minor external damage.
St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral
This church is an active one, so no pictures are allowed inside. Our guide said that it’s a typical Russian orthodox church, relatively dark inside, with low ceilings. Women are supposed to cover their hair with a hat or hood or scarf, and men must remove any head coverings to enter. Because it is a highly visited church, there is an information desk inside that sells postcards and magnets, and there are ropes that you can only cross if you are there to pray. It’s a beautiful church, but I felt very invasive being in there, so I left quickly.
What would I do if I visited Russia again?
- Spend more time at the Hermitage.
- Visit Moscow.
- Go to Lake Baikal.
- Enjoy the food (and the vodka?)
Originally published at caitlyninfinland.blogspot.com on Monday, October 26, 2015. Has been edited.