It’s hard to write lightheartedly on the beautiful attractions of Russia’s second largest city given all that’s going on in Ukraine and Crimea, not to mention having just read the touching and troubling obituary of Boris Nemtsov in the Economist. But, for a second, let’s set aside Russia, the place, and Russia, the politics.
It’s simple: St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. It was by far my favorite destination along our Baltic adventure. And though I saved my recollection of Paris for last (because sorting through four days’ worth of photos is really, really hard), I have the fondest memories of this Russian riverfront city.
Any first-timer to St. Petersburg ought to visit the State Hermitage Museum. It’s one of the greatest museums in the world, so unless you are physically allergic to fine art, the Hermitage should be a priority. Like the Louvre, it’s big and crowded, easily consuming a whole day or two of your sojourn if you want to see everything.
For more art and history, head to the Peterhof Palace and Gardens, which could be described as the Versailles of St. Petersburg, though I found the palace grounds here far more beautiful. A stroll through the gardens leads you past numerous fountains of varying beauty, easily Instagrammable as Wi-Fi is provided for free. Keep in mind, though, that the starting of the fountains near the palace is a popular affair, and you’ll want to find a good spot to catch the spectacle before the hoards of other tourists.
Yusupov Palace (or Moika Palace), while nowhere as large as Peterhof, is a riverfront historic site that houses an impressive array of art in its limited confines. It’s also the location of the murder of Grigori Rasputin, Russia’s infamous “mad monk,” the Yoko Ono of the Russian monarchy and perhaps history’s greatest con artist. More recently, he served as the villain in Hellboy and the mascot for North Coast Brewing’s amazing Russian Imperial Stout, so one could argue that he’s still not dead (again). Anyway, this gives the Yusupov Palace a creepy vibe, especially when you descend into the dimly lit underground area where it’s difficult to capture a decent photo.
Some of the most lavish decor can be found in St. Petersburg’s churches. This is hardly surprising as the Tsars lived big and bold off the shoulders of the pre-revolution underpaid peasant class. Just look at the elaborate facade of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. And there’s enough gold in St. Isaac’s Cathedral to make your eyes vomit with a confusing mix of delight and disgust. The more demure Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, with the Chapel of St. Catherine the Martyr inside, may not be as grand but it’s no less poignant; you’ll find the remains of nearly all the Russian emperors entombed within.
Finally, in a merciful breath of levity, we reach the easiest, cheapest and least crowded of all the top attractions in St. Petersburg: the Neva River and the St. Petersburg canals. Whether you explore the waterways by boat or along walking paths, it’s one of the best ways to enjoy the city on a rare Russian sunny day…