Greetings Internet Stranger! I’ve introduced you to enough St Petersburg in a Day itineraries to have a grand old time in Russia’s prettiest city. We’ve taken walking tours, explored art from all over the world, and eaten our body weight in beets. But today we’re hitting up the big kahuna, the most famous attraction in St Petersburg. That’s right, I’m talking about the Hermitage Museum.
I’m a certified museum addict, and I’ve been to museums all over the world, from Tokyo, Japan to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I even have spent 24 hours in one museum. So believe me when I say the Hermitage Museum is the most impressive museum I have ever visited. Part of that is because of the art collection, but much of that is because of the building that houses the Hermitage Museum. Join me for St Petersburg in a Day, and I’m sure you’ll come to agree with me…or else!
St Petersburg in a Day
Where to Stay?
St Petersburg is one of the most expensive cities in Russia, and if you want to stay in a central location during your St Petersburg in a Day trip, 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.
St Petersburg in a Day
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 Russia.
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.
St Petersburg in a Day
Morning: The Hermitage Museum
The State Hermitage Museum has many claims to fame. It is the second largest art museum in the entire world, after The Louvre. It was actually founded by Empress Catherine the Great because she just had so many gorgeous things she didn’t know what to do with them. It’s good to be the Empress! I mean, until the Bolsheviks take over. Then it’s not so good.
The Hermitage Museum is crazy famous and therefore crazy popular. If you just show up randomly on your St Petersburg in a Day trip, you will wait on line for a thousand years before you are able to enter. I seriously urge you to buy tickets online in advance here. That way you’ll only have to wait a short time to enter.
Once you are inside, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the majesty and beauty of the collection. I recommend downloading the Hermitage Museum app because they have pre-programmed audio tours that will take you through the highlights. I can also help you get started…
approximately top 5: state hermitage museum
1) the winter palace
The main reason the Hermitage Museum is so impressive is that it isn’t just an art museum. It’s also located in the Winter Palace, the former residence of the tsars. So it’s like someone put the art collection of The Louvre inside Versailles. (Yes, I know the Louvre was once a palace too, but the Winter Palace is much more luxurious, palace-wise.)
Many of the rooms in the Hermitage Museum, like the small throne room pictured above, have been left as they were in the days of the tsars. So if you’re interested in Imperial Russian history, or you were just a little girl who watched the ridiculously historically inaccurate film Anastasia too many times and dreamed of a Russian con artist who mysteriously looked and sounded like John Cusack sweeping you off your feet, now’s the chance to live your dreams!
2) 1917 clock
Of course the Romanovs weren’t the only famous residents of the Hermitage Museum. In this room pictured above, you can see a clock with a sign next to it. This clock was in the room when the Bolsheviks (Communists) took over the Winter Palace. But the Bolsheviks didn’t take over from the Romanovs. The tsar Nicholas II had already been deposed, mostly for being terrible. A more moderate Provisional Government was in charge when the Bolsheviks took over.
For 100 years, this clock remained stopped at 2:10 a.m., 26 October 1917, the moment of the Revolution. But on the 100th anniversary, the Hermitage Museum decided to start the clock again. Still, the clock remains in the room where it has been for over 100 years.
The Bolsheviks did many terrible things during their years in power. But walking around the Hermitage Museum and seeing the elaborate chandeliers hanging everywhere while many ordinary Russians were starving, it’s not hard to understand why people wanted a change.
3) peacock clock
Can’t get your fill of clocks, Internet Stranger? Then I introduce you to the most marvelous object in the Hermitage Museum, the peacock clock. This baby actually belonged to Catherine the Great, though it was manufactured by an Englishman. There are three different mechanical birds on this clock: the peacock, an owl, and a rooster. When the clock goes off, all the birds will move as if by magic. I assume Rasputin is responsible somehow.
I’ve been to the Hermitage Museum a couple of times, and I’ve never seen the clock go off. It’s unlikely you will either. But fortunately there is a movie in the room that shows you what it looks like. And thanks to the magic of You Tube, you can even watch a video of the peacock clock in the privacy of your own home!
4) rembrandt’s danae
This is an art museum, not Russia’s Big House of Clocks, so let’s move on the paintings. One of the most famous paintings in the Hermitage Museum is Rembrandt’s painting of Danae. (The Hermitage Museum has an entire room of Rembrandts. We should all thank our lucky stars the Nazis never got their hands on these babies.)
In Greek mythology, Danae is the mother of Perseus. She was very beautiful, and her crazy father kept her locked in a tower so no man could have her. But that didn’t stop Zeus from falling for her. So he did what any sensible Greek god would, and he turned himself into a shower of gold and got her pregnant. Is having sex with or as a shower of gold pleasant? It really doesn’t seem like it would be. (And if you know the answer to this question, please never, never tell me.)
But this painting isn’t just famous for its artist or its freaky subject matter. Back in the 1980s, a Lithuanian man named Bronius Maigys threw sulfuric acid on the painting and stabbed it several times. I feel like there’s healthier ways of getting out your aggression, sir! Maybe try meditating instead. The Hermitage Museum did an impressive job of restoring the painting so you can’t see the damage any more. I also enjoy how everyone I’ve told this story to just assumes that the Russians executed the guy who attacked the painting. (They didn’t. He was declared insane.)
5) drops of jupiter
Interested in something a little more sculptural? I recommend this statue of Mr. Golden Shower himself, Zeus. Although it would be more accurate to call this guy Jupiter because he is a Roman statue. The Romans changed the names of all the Greek gods, just to show the Greeks that they were the captain now.
What I like about this statue of Jupiter is that his fashion game is really on point. That’s the perfect loungewear for any god to wear when sitting at home on Mount Olympus catching up on his stories. Jupiter is holding a tiny statue of the goddess of victory, Nike, in one hand, and he’s seated next to the imperial Roman eagle. I would expect the goddess to be a lot larger than an eagle, but maybe that’s why they don’t let me sculpt giant statues of Jupiter.
24 hour tip
Do spend a little time wandering around the Hermitage Museum without your audioguide before continuing your St Petersburg in a Day trip outside. See what strikes your fancy. I’m very partial to this fish baby, who seems to have just had it. Like, he is done with your nonsense.
You can also go on a hunt for the famous Hermitage Museum cats! These cats keep the mice away, and they’re all over the basement of the museum. You never know when you’ll run into one. This cat pictured above was the only one I could find. He’s very cute, and he’s also remarkably good at sitting still.
St Petersburg in a Day
Afternoon: St Isaac’s Cathedral
Now that we’ve finished at the Hermitage Museum, it’s time on our St Petersburg in a Day trip to visit one of the other main attractions of St Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral. We stopped by this place on our last St Petersburg in a Day, and we learned that it was turned into a Museum of Atheism under the Soviets. Well the Soviets are out and the Orthodox Church is in, I guess, so now St Isaac’s Cathedral is a regular church museum.
I promise we’ll learn all about St Isaac’s in just a moment, but first I need to feed you! And I know just the spot.
24 hour treat: teremok
Teremok is an Only in Russia kind of experience. Some people call it the McDonalds of Russia because it’s a fast food joint. But you won’t find hamburgers here! Teremok is the place to go if you want to try blinis stuffed with chicken and cheese or maybe a nice warming cup of borscht. The service is crazy fast, and they even have English language menus for us foreigners. (I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, but I don’t speak Russian, so that’s often not very helpful.)
Teremok did try to open a couple of restaurants in my hometown, New York City, but the owner closed them because apparently the New York government kept asking him too many questions about money laundering and Vladimir Putin. So maybe if you eat at Teremok, you’ll be giving Putin some money? But that’s probably the case no matter what you spend money on in Russia, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
And now that you’re fed, it’s time to head over to St Isaac’s and feed your brain with…
three fun facts: st isaac’s cathedral
1) how do you get in?
It’s actually really easy to get into St Isaac’s. Unlike with the Hermitage Museum, I don’t suggest buying tickets in advance. There are efficient ticket machines outside of St Isaac’s, so you won’t waste your St Petersburg in a Day time on line. You can choose to buy entry for the museum, the view from the dome, or both. However, I’ve read that St Isaac’s is being turned over to the Russian Orthodox Church, after which admission to the church interior will be free. See what the case is when you arrive! The tickets are not expensive, in any case.
I strongly suggest getting the view for the dome and doing that first. As you can see from my photos, you’ll have spectacular views from the entire city. Yes, it’s a 262 step walk up, but if you’re able to do the walk, the result is more than worth it.
2) what is this gorgeous object?
The can’t miss sight inside St Isaac’s is the main iconostasis in the back. In the Orthodox Church, an iconostasis, or wall of icons separates the nave, where the ordinary church goer would be, from the sanctuary, where only the priests are permitted, unless you have a special reason for passing the iconostasis.
The iconostasis in St Isaac’s is particularly remarkable because the columns are made of green malachite and blue lapis lazuli. I don’t even want to think about how expensive this was! I hope the Russian Orthodox Church can maintain it even without the funds from tourist admissions.
3) is all of the church painted like this?
One thing that sets Orthodox churches apart from Catholic and Protestant churches is the decorations on the walls. Orthodox churches often have paintings all over their walls. Sometimes, as in the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg, these images can be in the form of mosaics. I’m not Orthodox, so there’s probably many important things I’m missed.
But one reason for all the pictures is that icons are so important in the Orthodox religion. Icons are images of saints, and they are an important part of worship in the Orthodox church. It’s common to see worshipers going up to icons in the church and crossing themselves repeatedly in front of the icon or kissing the icon.
St Isaac’s alone has over 150 paintings, depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament. So when you go inside St Isaac’s, don’t forget to look up! You don’t want to miss something beautiful.
St Petersburg in a Day
Late Afternoon: Neva River Cruise
We should have a little time to kill before our evening’s festivities. So why not relax on the water and enjoy the Neva River and the canals of St Petersburg? You can learn why some call it the Venice of the North!
You don’t need to book in advance. The river/canal cruises are so popular during the summer that many companies send boats out every half hour or so. They all cost about 600 rubles, as of this writing. You can find a good list of the sightseeing boat companies and where to meet each boat here. Most companies will follow a similar itinerary.
You’ll get up close to the famous bridges of St Petersburg.
And you’ll even get to see the famous golden dome of St. Isaac’s from the water. Hey! We were just standing on top of that dome. Hello, Dome!
St Petersburg in a Day
Evening: St Petersburg Like a Local Tour
I like going out to bars as much as the next red-blooded American girl. But what I don’t like is going out to bars alone. I’ve found it’s generally just a good way to meet some truly terrible men, and I don’t need any of those in my life. So I was excited to find the St Petersburg Like a Local tour through Urban Adventures. This way I could explore St Petersburg in the evening with a bevy of ladies by my side: our Russian guide Oxsana, and two other American tourists.
We had an evening full of fun and facts, so I’m going to share with you just…
three fun facts: st petersburg at night
1) where’s the shopping at?
Ah, I can see you’re a person after my own heart! Our first stop on the tour was the Magazin Kuptsov Yeliseyevykh. That’s quite a mouthful, but I can’t quite decide whether to call the store MKY or “Yeli” for short. This building has been in St Petersburg for over 100 years. It used to belong to the Elisseeff Brothers, but once the Soviets took over, the Elisseeffs weren’t allowed to continue to own their own business. But some time after the fall of Communism, the MKY was turned back into a luxury goods store.
Now you can buy lots of important items here, like this head of Lenin made out of white chocolate. I have to think Lenin would disapprove of being turned into Capitalist Chocolate.
You don’t even need to shop to have a good time here! Just sit back and relax while a ghost plays some piano tunes for you. One of the other girls decided to buy a dessert, so I waited outside for her. As I did, I saw a woman holding up a sign that said “Happy Birthday Oleg Sentsov”. Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker who protested the Russian occupation of Crimea and was sent to prison in Russia for terrorism. His conviction caused a huge outcry in the international community.
Sentsov was recently released from prison, but when I was in Russia, he was still jailed and on a hunger strike. I don’t know who this woman with the sign was, but she was very brave because the police quickly came and whisked her away. I hope you’re all right, Lady with the Sign!
2) what is this gorgeous building?
Like Moscow, St Petersburg is famous for its stunning stations. On the tour, we got to visit a couple of the most striking metro stations.
One of my favorites was Pushkinskaya, which is home to this statue of famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. We don’t have anything like this back in New York City. We don’t even have one marble statue of Walt Whitman in the New York City subway, probably because people would just get drunk and pee on it.
But my favorite station we visited was the Vitebsky railway station. It was done in the Art Nouveau style, as you can see by the beautiful curves on the walls. You feel just like you’re in Paris when you’re walking through!
Vitebsky railway station has also been a filming location for many Russian versions of Anna Karenina. Anna famously throws herself in front of a train when her tragic love affair with Count Vronsky goes wrong. (I’m not giving out spoiler warnings for books that are over 100 years old.)
On our way to our final stop, we got out at Avtovo station, which is the fanciest metro station I have ever seen. Yes, those columns are made out of actual marble. I was surprised they didn’t have their own 18th century peacock clock here, that’s how fancy this station is. And I didn’t see even one Pizza Rat!
3) can I have some vodka?
I mean, you can’t, but you can watch me drink some vodka. And then you can go to St Petersburg and drink some yourself! We went to a bar that’s famous for its infused vodka. So you can try some vodka with a little horseradish, herb, or citrus flavor going on. You might prefer that because ordinarily vodka tastes like nothing.
And what is a bar without bar snacks? In Russia, instead of Buffalo wings and salted peanuts, they have tiny oily fish, various kinds of onions, and boiled potatoes. I wonder what would happen if I started demanding tiny fish and onions at my local dive bar back home? They’d probably just cut me off.
Ordinarily only one vodka drink is including with the tour. But our group sort of lucked out because a table of gentlemen kept sending over free drinks to our table. First they tried horseradish vodka with pickles.
When that didn’t work, they sent orange vodka. No one else in my group was a big drinker, so I ended up doing all the vodka shots myself. Somehow I managed to walk back to my hotel just fine. I think that makes me an honorary Russian now!
PS: None of those guys got our numbers. Gentlemen of the world, do not think that sending drinks as a group to a group of ladies is going to work. One guy needs to pick one lady and try to charm her personally, so she feels special, not like you’ll just get on the first girl who can tolerate you. That’s a pro tip from me to you.
That’s a Perfect St Petersburg in a Day!
What would you do with St Petersburg in a Day? Does sending over vodka shots to a table full of ladies ever work? And what happened to that fish baby to make it so tired? 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 see St Petersburg in a Day. If you have time for another St Petersburg in a Day, 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 want to visit St Petersburg with the Russian Museum, click here.