During my 13-weeks trip in summer 2017, I had the opportunity to travel a total of 9 countries of which I would describe most being rather exotic and off the beaten track, especially countries such as Iran, Belarus or Armenia. At the same time, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia as well. However, the immense size of this country did not allow me to visit a lot of places there. I guess it would need another journey of at least one month to get to see as much places as possible in Russia and to get a better feeling for the Russian culture. Therefore, I decided to visit at least Saint Petersburg and Moscow which would be the most touristy places on my trip.
Saint Petersburg with its five million inhabitants is the second largest city of Russia and the fourth largest city in Europe. While the largest part of Russia is geographically located in Asia, Saint Petersburg is located in the European Northwest of the country with direct access to the Baltic Sea, more specifically at Neva Bay on the Eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. Historically, the city which was founded in early 18th century by Tsar Peter the Great is relatively young. Over time, the city was not always called Saint Petersburg but also “Petrograd” and “Leningrad”. Between 18th and 20th century, it even served as the capital of the Russian Empire. This has several implications for the architecture and design of the city and the region as many palaces and fortresses were built in and around Saint Petersburg which are famous sights nowadays.
In general, Saint Petersburg is a very European city, especially when it comes to its cityscape. Many of the buildings in the city could easily be found in Western European cities. Due to the proximity to the Baltic Sea, Neva river, and many parks, Saint Petersburg is a very attractive, walkable city with a high quality of life. However, choosing the metro is always a great option through which you can get great impressions of the magnificent halls and stations which are only surpassed by Moscow. Since FIFA Confederations Cup took place in Russia during my stay, I was lucky that metros and many places in the city were supplemented by English-language signage for the many football fans. Hint: Traveling with Saint Petersburg Metro can be very confusing without knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet. Just have a look on the floor for finding the English signs!
Let’s get about sightseeing in Saint Petersburg! The focus here is clearly on buildings, facades, and architecture in general. One of the most characteristic buildings in the city is certainly the Church of the Savior on Blood. In contrast to most of the churches in the city centre, this church is not built in Baroque or Neoclassical style. It is not only the colourful roof of the blood, but also its location directly next to Griboedov Canal. It is also worth entering the church because its interior decoration consists mostly of mosaics whose beauty is absolutely touching.
Another highlight is Saint Isaac’s Cathedral which is not only the largest church of Saint Petersburg but also one of the largest sacred buildings in the world. A beautiful building, especially seeing it from the park in front of the cathedral. There is also the possibility to climb the gilded dome from where you have a great view over the city.
Also obligatory is the visit of the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace. The Hermitage Museum is one of the largest museums of art and culture in the world, distributed on many historic buildings which are all listed UNESCO World Heritage Site just as the whole historical centre of the city. Its collection comprises more than three million items of which only a small part is on permanent display. Moreover, the Hermitage Museum has the largest collection of paintings in the world with an important collection of classical Western European Art with works of all known painters such as Matisse, Gauguin, Rembrandt, Picasso or van Gogh are complemented by the works of Russian painters and artists from all over the world. There are also special exhibitions. It seems impossible to see all works of the museum in one day so that you can buy tickets solely for individual buildings, especially if you are interested in a specific era. A great thing is the free admission for children and students! In addition, it is useful to buy tickets online to avoid the long queues at the museum.
Further sights in Saint Petersburg are Kazan Cathedral, a Russian-Orthodox church modelled on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Nevsky Prospect, one of the most famous streets of Russia with numerous magnificent buildings, and the many channels since the city has a total of 300 bridges and is also known as “Venice of the East”.
A rather unusual attraction is the daily spectacle on Neva river when bridges are opened for shipping traffic. This happens every night at 1 am wherefore you need to make sure to stand on the correct side of the bridge because you can’t cross it anymore after its opening. The bridges are only opening in summer and only at night to avoid traffic jams during the day. The spectacle itself is supported by music and in presence of hundreds of tourists. Finally, I also recommend you to visit Peter and Paul Fortress on a small island called “Rabbit Island” from where you have a great view of the old town.
The castles and palaces around Saint Petersburg provide you the opportunity for day trips to the countryside. The most famous palaces are Peterhof and Catherine Palace in Pushkin. Peterhof is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in the Gulf of Finland about 30 kilometres west of Saint Petersburg, often considered to be the “Versailles of Russia”. The beautiful park surrounding the castle is also worth seeing. Due to the enormous number of tourists, especially on weekends, you should bring enough time to see the whole complex.
25 kilometres south of Russia’s second largest city is the city of Pushkin where Catherine Park and Palace is located. This Rococo palace used to be the summer residence of the Russian tsars. In World War II, it was intentionally destroyed wherefore most of the building nowadays is a reconstruction. Also here, not only the interior of the palace is worth visiting but also the huge park area with a pond.
If you are looking for a hostel in Saint Petersburg, I highly recommend Traveller’s Palace Hostel which has beautiful rooms in a historical building, very friendly staff, and a nice neighbourhood. Also recommended is the free walking tour with which you will get a lot of background information about a large part of the above mentioned sights. If you are looking for good and cheap food, I recommend you to go to “Marketplace” where you can get a business lunch during the week, a delicious, very tasty and cheap meal. In addition, you can choose from a variety of different dishes from a buffet. Staff speaks English.
To summarize, Saint Petersburg is a very attractive city with a positive, nice flair wherefore it’s not a surprise that thousands of tourists from all over the world visit this place every year. From Saint Petersburg, I finally went to Moscow, Russia’s capital. I decided to take the train called “Nevsky Express”. There is a much modern version called “Sapsan” but since I prefer old types of trains due to their authenticity, I took “Nevsky Express”. It’s a little cheaper than “Sapsan” but reaches Moscow almost at the same time. I liked the train a lot and think that it is a good alternative to “Sapsan” or flights between the cities.
Regarding Moscow I must admit that I couldn’t take many pictures there because of the loss of my phone and because I wasn’t bringing my camera with me wherefore the section on Moscow is very limited.
In general, Moscow is very different from Saint Petersburg. Not only is the capital much larger but also less appealing in terms of architecture as there is also a lot of modern buildings in Moscow. Despite this, there are, of course, some highlights that should not be missed. First, Red Square with beautiful Saint Basil Cathedral is one of those places in the world one should visit one day in his or her life. Next to the cathedral, one can find Kremlin, the centre of Russian politics. Further sights worth seeing are Bolshoi Theatre, Lenin Mausoleum, and Gorky Park, being a green oasis in the middle of the metropolis. A bit off the beaten track, you can visit some of the architecturally unique metro stations as well as Izmailovsky Market where you can buy fancy souvenirs.
Overall, I enjoyed my stay in Russia a lot and met some amazing people there. However, I must get back one day to visit the Russian countryside to get a better feeling for Russian identity, culture and traditions. Especially I want to travel Siberia. In this context, I have a recommendation for you: the documentary “Siberian Love” by Olga Delane. An interesting, touching and sometimes extreme collection of exciting moments from a small Siberian village!
Do you have any questions or further suggestions about Saint Petersburg and Moscow? You’ve been there before and you think I’ve forgotten essential information? Leave a comment and let me know whether you enjoyed reading this article!