Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to one day in St Petersburg! St Petersburg, Russia is one of the most beautiful and cultured cities in the world. One reason for that is that it is home to an astonishing number of museums. Everyone knows about the Hermitage Museum, but in my opinion you shouldn’t spend One Day in St Petersburg without stopping at the Russian Museum. You can see the finest Russian visual artists from Kandinsky to Faberge!
But that is not all we will experience on this One Day in St Petersburg! We’ll also take a walking tour of some of the most famous highlights of St Petersburg, visit the interior of its most famous church, and dine with Rasputin. Well, we’ll dine with his ghost. Rasputin has probably been dead for a long time. (Although it’s possible he’s not dead. He’s kind of like the Elvis of Russia.) It’s a big day, so let’s get started right away!
One Day in St Petersburg
Where to Stay?
St Petersburg is one of the most expensive cities in Russia, and if you want to spend your One Day in St Petersburg in a central location, it’s even more expensive. That’s why I recommend Nevskaya Classika Hotel. It’s very affordable, the rooms are clean and comfortable, and there’s friendly staff on call 24 hours. But the best thing about Nevskaya Classika is its location! You’re just a quick walk from the Hermitage Museum, and it will be easy for you to reach any spot on this itinerary from the Russian Museum to the The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
One Day in St Petersburg
What to Pack
The weather in Russia can be rainy. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Siberia.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out and about without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or UK plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
One Day in St Petersburg
Morning: St Petersburg Discovery Tour
Because St Petersburg is so beautiful, it’s always full of tourists. This is especially true in the summer, when the weather is as beautiful as the architecture. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the throngs of the international travelers and never get to learn the smaller, hidden secrets of the city.
That’s why I wanted to start my One Day in St Petersburg with Urban Adventures St Petersburg Discovery Tour. I could have a local guide show me around and take me a little bit off the beaten track. I learned so many fun facts about St Petersburg, but for now I’m going to limit myself to sharing with you…
approximately top 5: One Day in St Petersburg
1) faberge house
So any tour guide can take you to the Winter Palace, but this was the first time in St. Petersburg that I had been taken to this random-seeming building. This building used to belong to the famous jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé. Faberge was famous for making gorgeous jeweled eggs. They were worth an extraordinary amount of money in his day, and they are even more valuable today. So Mr. Faberge, through his talent, amassed a massive personal fortune.
Of course that massive personal fortune ran up against a little problem called The Russian Revolution. After the Communists took over, the Faberge business was confiscated, and this lavish home was turned into communal apartments. (In Russian a communal apartment is known as a kommunalka.)
My guide, whose name was not Pierre, told me that after the fall of the Soviet Union and the return of capitalism, the government decided to give people an equal chance to get the property that had been confiscated by the government. So Russian citizens were given documentation of some sort saying that they were entitled to this property.
However, many Russians didn’t understand what the documents were for. It was easy for unscrupulous businessmen to buy their documents for much less than they were worth and get the property for themselves. That’s basically how all the current wealthy oligarchs in Russia made their money. The moral of this story is that both communists and capitalists are terrible.
2) st isaac’s cathedral
Here we have a much more famous monument: St Isaac’s Cathedral. You shouldn’t spend One Day in St Petersburg without seeing it. Under communism, religion was forbidden, so the cathedral was turned into a Museum of Atheism. Apparently the communists were really into turning churches into museums of atheism all over the USSR. The Soviets kind of sound like that guy in your dorm sophomore year who had just read Nietzsche and wouldn’t stop talking about it even after he had bored everyone else into leaving the room. Except unlike that guy, the Soviets had the power to send you to the gulag.
During World War II, which the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, they painted the golden dome of the cathedral gray. This had nothing to do with anti-religious sentiment, instead it was to hide the dome from the Germans. Because the dome was one of the highest points in the city, it was an easy target.
You can still see marks on the exterior where St. Isaac’s was almost hit by German shells, but they never managed to quite reach it. Pierre said that religious Russians will say it is a miracle that this building was never hit by a German bomb, even though it certainly makes a large and attractive target.
3) peter the great
Many major European cities are so old that it’s hard to associate them with just one historical figure. But St. Petersburg is inextricably associated with this one fellow, Tsar Peter the Great. The old capital of Russia was Moscow, but Tsar Peter wanted to make a more modern, European-styles capital. So he created St. Petersburg basically out of nothing and turned it into his capital. (Under communism, the capital reverted to Moscow, where it remains.)
Pierre told me that Peter the Great is basically the only non-controversial leader in Russian history. Everybody likes him from the right-wing to the left. The conservatives like him because he “made Russia great”. The left like him because he was a reformer. He was so dedicated to learning about new ways that he even worked in a shipyard for the Dutch East India company to learn the latest shipbuilding techniques.
He also wanted the Russian nobles to look more like the nobility in the rest of Europe so he…instituted a beard tax. I can’t imagine how that would go over in the United States if you tried to tax people for their facial hair. But I suspect that if you confined the tax to hipsters, you could pull in a surprising amount of money.
4) boat trip!
One of St. Petersburg’s most beautiful features is the Neva River. Pierre said that when the weather is warm, the locals like to hang out by the Neva as much as possible. This is especially true during the White Nights of June, when the sun basically does not set. St. Petersburg has 12 different bridges, and they all are raised late in the evening to let the boats pass. The spectacle of watching the bridges rise one by one is supposed to be gorgeous! But be careful that you are near your hotel when you watch this spectacle, or you could get stuck on the wrong island all night! (The subway in St. Petersburg stops at midnight.)
Of course this boat above is not actually one of the boats that floats down the Neva. Pierre tried to trick me into guessing what it was, but he didn’t know I can read the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet. So I knew that PECTOPAH meant restaurant. You’ve got to wake up pretty early in the morning to fool Stella Jane!
5) peter and paul fortress
The Peter and Paul fortress is located on the island where the city of St. Petersburg began. You can see it’s very important because it has the two-headed Russian imperial eagle on top of the arch. Pierre said people argue about what this means. Some people say that one head is looking towards the state and the other is looking towards the church.
Peter and Paul Fortress nowadays is best known for being the home of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. This is where the tsars are buried, including the last tsar, Nicholas II and his entire family. They are considered to be saints in the Russian Orthodox Church, so the cathedral is a holy place.
Pierre told me that they are mostly considered to be saints because of the way that they died. The Soviets executed the Tsar, his wife, his son, and his four daughters by both shooting and bayoneting them. The reason they were both shot and executed is that the women had sewn their jewelry into their dresses, so the jewels acted almost like a bulletproof vest. (I’m not going to get into the details of how the girls were executed on this blog because it’s too upsetting.)
People have always wished to believe that one of the girls, Anastasia, escaped, but it’s not true. They have conclusively identified all the bodies through DNA evidence. This means that once again, cartoons have lied to me.
6) business lunch!
The final stop on this tour before we head to the Russian Museum was lunch at a local restaurant. Ordinarily on a tour like this, you might get to sample one little snack. But because we’re in St. Petersburg, we get to partake in my favorite Russian tradition: business lunch! A One Day in St Petersburg isn’t complete without one!
Business lunch is sort of what we would call a “set menu” or a “prix-fixe”, but much better value. You get a main course and about one to three side dishes for one low price. But usually you don’t get to choose what you take. I’m not a picky eater, and I was really satisfied with my salad…
Then there was the obligatory soup with the equally obligatory sour cream on top.
Then there was a kind of light chicken stew served with buckwheat. Buckwheat isn’t as popular in the United States as rice, but it’s more flavorful and filling. Also it’s gluten-free and has a lot of nutrients in it. You can read all about it on my other blog www.nowiamobsessedwithbuckwheat.com.
And finally we have a little chocolate ice cream! I don’t think this is traditionally Russian, but I would never trust anyone who turned down some chocolate ice cream on a warm summer day!
One Day in St Petersburg
Afternoon: Russian Museum
Now that we’ve been wandering all over during our One Day in St Petersburg, it’s time to get inside and experience a little culture. The Hermitage Museum is famous for its staggering collection of Western art. But if you want to dive deep into Russian art, you’ll have to head to the State Russian Museum. (Its website with all the most up-to-date information is here.) As you would expect, the Russian Museum houses the largest collection of Russian art in the world.
There’s more than one building that belongs to the Russian Museum. We want to go to the main branch at the Mikhailovsky Palace. I learned more things about Russian art in one afternoon at the Russian Museum than most people have forgotten. And though I can’t teach it all to you, I can teach you…
three fun facts: russian museum
1) who’s the most famous artist?
It’s a little debatable who is the most famous artist at the Russian Museum. But certainly one of them must be Wassily Kandinsky. This painting above is called “Blue Crest”. As you can, it is an abstract painting. Kandinsky believed that painting was something like music. The lines and the shapes in the paintings should evoke emotion in the same way that notes in a musical composition do.
Some people even claim that Kandinsky was the first abstract artist. (Certainly Kandinsky himself claimed this. But I guess you don’t get to be a world-famous artist without having a massive ego!) But whether or not you think Kandinsky was the first abstract artist, certainly he is one of the greatest abstract artists. When you go to the Russian Museum, I recommend testing Kandinsky’s theory that painting should be like music by standing in front of this painting and attempting to sing it. Either you’ll be praised as a genius or you’ll get kicked out of the Russian Museum. An adventure either way!
2) any soviet art?
There’s certainly some Soviet art at the Russian Museum. But by and large, I’m not a fan of the Soviet art. That’s because so much of it is monotonous propaganda about the PRIDE OF THE RUSSIAN WORKER or THE GLORY OF STALIN! I live in New York City. If I want to go see art that’s screaming some banal moral in my face in uninteresting ways, I can just go see some Off-Off Broadway theater for a lot less money than a plane ticket to Russia.
But I did find one type of Soviet art that I liked at the Russian Museum: glassware and ceramics. For some reason, themes that are boring in a painting can be fascinating when they are etched into glass. Also, I don’t even understand what this piece of glass is supposed to do. It looks like someone crossed a lamp and a bowl and got something that won’t serve either function. Like if you tried to use this as a soup bowl, you’d just get soup all over your tablecloth. But great art is supposed to be confusing, so I guess this Soup Lamp is a profound masterpiece.
3) isn’t any russian art just pretty?
Ah, you’re looking for Mikhail Nestorov! Nestorov was a major Russian painter from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century. That was quite an exciting time to be alive and Russian! According to the literature at the Russian Museum, Nestorov was famous for his religious subject matter and his peaceful green landscapes. And if I learned anything from Tolstoy, there’s nothing more Russian than saints and Being One With the Land.
Unfortunately for Nestorov, painting saints went out when the Soviets came into power. Nestorov did not support the Russian Revolution, which derailed his career for a while. Both Nestorov and his daughter were arrested and sent to prison under Stalin. (Nestorov’s son had it much worse; he was executed for espionage.) But I guess Nestorov eventually learned to love Big Brother because after he was released from prison, he won the Stalin Prize for one of his paintings. Would you want a prize named for the man who killed your son? Being Russian seems very difficult to me.
One Day in St Petersburg
Late Afternoon: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
After leaving the Russian Museum, you should still have some free time before dinner. So why not stop at one of the most impressive sights in St Petersburg, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It’s just a short walk from the Russian Museum and it stays open until 6, so we will have plenty of time to see the flabbergastingly beautiful interior. (You don’t need more than an hour for the church.)
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built to honor the memory of yet another murdered tsar, Alexander II. Unlike Nicholas II, Alexander II was a generally popular and liberal tsar. His most famous action was liberating the serfs in the 1860s, but he reformed Russian laws in many other ways. However, I guess even a liberal tsar isn’t going to be that popular with the anarchists, and one of them assassinated him by throwing a grenade into his carriage. That’s such an old school way to murder someone! You never see any Grenade Into Carriage deaths anymore.
If you’ve been following along with this blog post, it will not surprise you to learn that the Soviets shut the church down once they took over. They used it for various purposes, from a morgue to a vegetable warehouse. As you can imagine, it was pretty seriously damaged during this period. But now the church is a museum showcasing the stunning mosaics that cover its walls. Every year, it seems like another part of the church is being restored to its former glory.
One Day in St Petersburg
Evening: Dinner at L’Europe
We’ve been diving deep into the classy side of the city on our One Day in St Petersburg, from Faberge to the Russian Museum. So why not dine in style at L’Europe? L’Europe has been glamorous for such a long time that even famous Tsar Friend and Creepy Monk Extraordinaire Rasputin used to dine here. (Rasputin was a real person who was apparently very difficult to murder, but he was never a zombie, nor was he friends with a talking bat. Once again, cartoons have lied to me!)
I suggest getting the Taste of Russia tasting menu to try all of L’Europe’s specialties. Let me whet your appetite with…
approximately top 5: l’Europe edition
1) egg in egg
So the first dish was also my favorite dish, which is a little unusual for a tasting menu. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing when the first dish is an eggshell filled with truffle scrambled eggs and topped with osietra caviar. This is one of the most expensive and delicious caviars in the world, so I hardly ever get to eat it. And what better place to try it than Russia?
We’ve tried the sturgeon eggs, next it’s time to eat the parents. Of course it’s normal to eat smoked sturgeon with horseradish. But this sturgeon is kicked up a notch because it’s served hot and the horseradish is made into an ice cream. The contrasting temperatures were delightful. Plus it was my first time eating horseradish ice cream, and I just love finding new ways to eat horseradish.
You’ve probably realized the theme of this meal is “updated Russian classics”. And what’s more of a Russian classic than borscht? Unless its crossing your arms over your chest and kicking your legs in the air or assassinating tsars. This borscht was “Moscow” style, which means it’s stuffed with beef and sausage. Why is this especially Moscow? Is it because only the people in Moscow could afford to put so much meat into their borscht?
4) crab kamchatka
After the soup course, it’s time for seafood. The menu said this was crab from Kamchatka served Romanov style. At first I was worried this meant I was supposed to bayonet the crab myself, but fortunately no. I think it just means that the crab is served glammed up with red caviar and a champagne sauce. What a relief because Kamchatka crabs are very large and I really don’t think I could take one down by myself.
5) beef stroganoff
I was a bit skeptical to see beef Stroganoff on the menu. It’s delicious, but it’s very heavy to be just one course on a tasting menu. Fortunately the portion was cute and tiny, enough that I was full after eating, but not so much that I became ill. Normally beef Stroganoff is served over noodles, but at L’Europe it is served over mashed potatoes. Everyone knows potatoes are better than noodles. Well played, L’Europe.
No traditional Russian meal is complete without a little honey cake, aka medovik. (Med is the Russian word for honey. It’s easy to remember because it sounds like mead, the honey wine I drink every year at the Renaissance Faire.) Once again L’Europe nails it with the portion size because this was the perfect little not-too-sweet square with which to end my evening.
24 Hour tip: tchaikovsky night
On Wednesdays and Fridays, L’Europe hosts Tchaikovsky Night. This means, as you can see from my photo above, that you get to watch a free performance of ballet along with your dinner. (Check their website to make sure that the days are still Wednesday and Friday before making your reservation.) There’s literally no reason not to go on Tchaikovsky Night if you can. The show is free and it’s beautiful! And if you don’t like beautiful, free things, I’m a little worried you’re not enjoying your life, Internet Stranger!
That’s a Perfect One Day in St Petersburg
What would you do with One Day in St Petersburg? Why would anybody want to be a tsar when it just means everybody wants to kill you? And what in God’s name is this bunny doing to me? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend One Day in St Petersburg. If you have another One Day in St Petersburg, try this itinerary. And if you have even more time in St Petersburg and want to see Catherine the Great’s palace, check this out. If you’d like to spend a St Petersburg itinerary with the Hermitage museum, click here.