Open the Map and find a large country northeast of continental Europe. On the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea you will discover St. Petersburg. This port city in Russia was the capitol for over 200 years starting in 1703 when Peter the Great made it home. It was the capitol of the Russian Empire until 1918, when the capitol was moved to Moscow. In 1924, it was renamed Leningrad, but its original name was restored in 1991 following the end of the Soviet Union.
Since communism plagued Russia beginning in 1913, until its end in 1991, Russia has been seen as an adversary and a place of mystery and intrigue by the United States and other democracies. I discovered during my visit to St Petersburg in July, 2019, that the Russian people are no different than anyone else. They are hard-working, friendly, educated and love their families with hopes for a bright future. Setting foot in this once impenetrable city felt like a triumph. Generations of Americans would have not thought to vacation in St Petersburg but there I was at 16 years of age. It was a remarkable feeling.
St Petersburg is a large city. It has 5 million inhabitants and covers 556 square miles. The city is a stark visual contrast of imperialism, communism and burgeoning capitalism. Like the layers of rock in the side of a mountain, the architecture of the buildings reflect the distinct political climate during the eras they were constructed. There seemed to be an endless supply of bleak, stark concrete high rises where only utility was a concern when built during the communist era. Then there are beautiful, grand and ornate structures from Russia’s imperial past. The buildings look like the grand structures in Paris or Vienna.
Summer is very crowded as the cruise lines on Baltic voyages make St Petersburg their longest port of call. But summer is the best time to visit since the cold hangs around in spring and returns quickly in fall. Even in June a lightweight down jacket is advisable. Unless you are on a cruise and use one of their arranged guides, you will need a Visa, not just a passport. In October, the Russian government offers two week Visas at heavily discounted prices. The Four Seasons is a beautiful hotel lodged inside a former imperial palace. Food is very hearty and includes meats, dumplings and potatoes. Vodka is usually served ice cold in a little cordial glass at the end of a meal. U.S. fast food chains can even be found as we spotted the “golden arches” at a McDonalds off a highway. The best souvenirs are what you would expect: replica Faberge eggs and the famous Russian nesting dolls. Tourists are usually a little surprised at how pricey these dolls are but it’s important to remember they are hand carved and meticulously painted. They can cost many hundreds of U.S. dollars for one large nesting doll.
St Petersburg was home to the Tsars. Most of the tourist sites were constructed by Peter the Great or Catherine the Great. My advice is to hire a private guide and buy timed tickets to skip the lines. The must-see places to include on your itinerary are the Hermitage Museum, the Peterhof, Church of the Spilt Blood, the Fortress of Peter and Paul, St, Isaac’s Cathedral, the Faberge Museum and a trip to Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin. This palace is where you will see the famous Amber Room. It almost glows as every inch of the walls are covered in precious amber. I was lucky enough to have a special after hour tour and was able to photograph the room which is normally not allowed. The Hermitage is the second largest art museum in the world containing rare religious Rembrandts among other beautiful works. The Peterhof was built as a response to Versailles and has beautiful rooms, gardens and fountains to explore. The fountains known as the Grand Cascade are set to go off to music at 11am. The Church of the Spilt Blood has the colorful onion bulb turrets that are distinctly Russian. It was built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated. The Fortress of Peter and Paul was a citadel original to the city under Peter the Great. Under the Bolsheviks it was a prison and place for political executions. The Faberge Musem houses all the recovered masterpieces of jeweler Karl Faberge. The jewels, precious metals and craftsmanship of these exquisite pieces is mind boggling as they were made in a time without electricity and modern tools.
Our guide was a wonderful man named Dmitriy Efimovskiy. He was very interesting, knowledgeable and made the most of our time in St Petersburg. I returned home with a love of Russian history, and a love of democracy that I am fortunate to be a part of. I had fun writing postcards home and knew my friends would get a kick out of a Russian postmark. So Open the Map! Make plans to travel to the mysterious country of Russia and visit St Petersburg to walk in the footsteps of the Tsars. See the contrast of old and new and return home with an appreciation for your freedoms that the Russians lost for a while. Enjoy the food, history, treasures and culture of this iconic city.