I’ve wanted to go to Russia for a long time, but to be honest I was afraid. After reading recent positive travel experiences of black travelers and gay travelers, I decided to make this trip happen. The visa application can be overwhelming but now Americans apply through an agency that makes sure your paperwork is in order before submitting your application. I applied and was approved for a single entry visa. I arrived in Helsinki and spent a day there before taking the train to Russia, where I spent a week visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow. After Russia, I visited Uzbekistan for 8 days that is covered in a separate trip report here.
Day 1: take train to St. Petersburg, visit Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and environs, watch City Day performances, go to evening Swan Lake performance and walk around the city at night; overnight in St. Petersburg
Day 2: full day to explore St. Petersburg embankments, main street – Nevsky Prospect, and Metro system; overnight in St. Petersburg
Day 3: full day to visit surrounding areas, including Peterhof Palace and Pushkin (Catherine Palace); overnight in St. Petersburg
Day 4: Hermitage Museum, late afternoon train to Moscow
Radisson Blu Sonya, Saint Petersburg – luxury – 34k Club Carlson points per night
Good location near Summer Garden and I was upgraded to a beautifully decorated, business class room that included breakfast.
DAY 1: Saint Petersburg
I spent the first half of my first day in St. Petersburg visiting the landmarks closest to my hotel. It was my first day in Russia, so I wanted to ease into it. I can say that St. Petersburg definitely feels more European than Moscow.
One of the most iconic buildings in St. Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with its bright colored onion domes along the Griboedov Canal. Strangely, this church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was killed. The church is not an active place of worship and functions primarily as a museum. The interior is filled with elaborate mosaics.
The Summer Garden is a large park that contains Peter the Great’s Summer Palace. The park is adjacent to St. Michael’s Castle and Mikhailovsky Gardens. In the evening I saw Swan Lake at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre.
St. Petersburg has to be seen at night. The main attractions and all the buildings along the embankments are illuminated. The bridges across the Neva River are raised after midnight and a crowd gathers on the embankment to watch it.
DAY 2: Saint Petersburg – Embankments, Nevsky Prospect, and Metro
The Neva River is the main waterway through central St. Petersburg and connects to the Gulf of Finland. The harbor has several large islands that are districts of St. Petersburg. Vasilyevsky Island is the largest island and it’s eastern tip is connected to Palace Square by a bridge. This part of the island is the location of the Old Stock Exchange, Rostal Columns, Saint Petersburg State University, and several museums. The waterfront areas are called embankments based on nearby landmarks, ie. Palace embankment, University embankment, etc. Peter and Paul Fortress is located on its own island across the river.
I was fortunate to visit during City Day that celebrates the founding of St. Petersburg. There were plenty of performances, parades, costumes, and festive decorations around the city.
After spending an hour watching dancing and singing performances, I walked back across the river to the Admiralty Embankment. St. Isaac’s Cathedral is the largest church in the city and offers incredible views of St. Petersburg from beneath its gold dome. The second part of the visit includes access to the cathedral’s incredibly beautiful interior.
Nevsky Prospect is the most famous street in St. Petersburg and has a good collection of palaces, churches, and other interesting architecture. Highlights include Anichkov Bridge, Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, Eliseyev Emporium, Alexandrinsky Theatre, Stroganov Palace, Kazan Cathedral, and Dom Knigi (Singer Company Building).
The Faberge Museum is relatively new, opening in late 2013. The museum is home to nine of the 65 Faberge Eggs, including some of the famous Imperial Easter Eggs created for Russian tsars. The largest public collection is the Kremlin Armory Museum, which has ten Faberge Eggs.
St. Petersburg’s metro stations are not as famous as Moscow’s but there a few very beautiful stations. I think Avtovo station is one of the most incredible stations I’ve ever visited.
After spending most of my first days exploring the areas in the center, I walked farther west along Malaya Morskaya Street past St. Isaac’s Cathedral along the Moyka River to Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered. The palace was overcrowded so I kept walking to New Holland Island before heading south past Marinsky Theatre to St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral.
Sobór Smolny Cathedral is on the eastern side of the city center along the Neva River. It’s a decent walk from the nearest metro station, but my local friend had a car, so we drove there on the way to the Street Art Museum, which is difficult to reach by public transport. For an undetermined fee you can climb to the top of one of the cathedral’s bell towers.
DAY 3: Peterhof Palace + Catherine Palace
As we were leaving the city along the road to Pushkin and Peterhof, we passed Moscow Triumphal Gate and Chesme Church. Chesme Church below is small Orthodox church that resembles a birthday cake.
Peterhof, the “Russian Versailles” is an hour from St. Petersburg. Hydrofoil is the most convenient and scenic way to arrive, but my friend offered to chauffeur me to Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo/Pushkin for a long day trip. The large estate has three main sections: the Grand Palace, the Upper Gardens, and the Lower Gardens. The Upper Gardens are more formal and offer nice eye-level views of the main palace and church.
After careful research, I opted to skip the Grand Palace interior, and ventured to the Lower Gardens just in time to see the Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain being turned on. There is a ceremony with music everyday at 11am when the fountains are activated. The rest of the Lower Gardens are expansive and contain over 20 smaller fountains scattered throughout the property. The last stop was the Orangerie garden and gold Triton fountain.
Catherine Palace and Park are located in Tsarskoye Selo/Pushkin and was the summer residence of the tsars. The palace contains the magnificent Amber room, but I was otherwise unimpressed with the palace. There was also a very long, crowded queue to enter the palace and visit the main rooms. I enjoyed Catherine Park much more than the palace. The grounds contain several nice buildings and architectural elements, as well as a large lake with more natural areas.
DAY 4: Hermitage Museum
I saved the Hermitage for my last day in St. Petersburg. The Hermitage, located on Palace Square, is one of the most important art collections in the world. On one side of the square is the yellow, curved General Staff Building, which now houses the Hermitage’s Impressionist collection. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit it. The main museum is a massive complex of four separate, but connected buildings. The mint green Winter Palace is the largest building and fronts the other side of Palace Square.
A full trip report on the Hermitage Museum is located here.
Adjacent to the Winter Palace is the New Hermitage building. The front facade is dominated by the imposing Atlantes portico, the former entrance to the building, composed of giant, granite sculptures that appear to be holding up the building.