From the baffling reports in Sochi during the XXII Olympic Winter Games to the never-ending stream of Putin jokes on “Saturday Night Live,” Russia has been in the media lately for all the wrong reasons. And while the country that is home to dancing bears, vengeful czars, and Communism does have some serious ’splainin’ to do, there are still over 143 million people who call Mother Russia home. During my last trip abroad I traveled to Russia, explored the former U.S.S.R.’s colorful culture, and discovered why so many people are drawn to St. Petersburg:
Bigger Is Better
The first thing I noticed driving through the city was how massive the buildings were— landmarks are more like grandmarks in Russia. With architectural elements borrowed from France and Italy, there is a definite sense of “one-uppance” in Russian culture. In fact, Peterhof Palace, located in the outskirts of St. Petersburg, is often referred to as the “Russian Versailles” due to its similar gardens and grandeur. In an effort to preserve the city’s larger-than-life buildings, it’s not uncommon to see scaffolding and major preservation efforts underway year round.
The Hermitage Is Incredible
When you’re searching for things to do in Russia, don’t skip the Hermitage. I spent nearly four hours in the Hermitage Museum and barely skimmed the surface of its exhibits. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the museum spans seven buildings and includes more than 3 million artworks. Names like Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Rembrandt litter the Hermitage’s hallways, as well as art that dates back to prehistoric times.
Borscht Is Delicious
Beets aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you might enjoy them in a cup of soup. A traditional Russian dish made with beets, cabbage, and beef broth, borscht is the perfect dish to warm your bones on a chilly afternoon—just be sure to check your teeth afterward for a purple glow à la Dwight Schrute.
Soak City Has Nothing on St. Petersburg
When you think of stunning canals, the sweeping streets of Venice or bridges of Amsterdam come to mind. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the great number of waterways in St. Petersburg. The Neva River is the main estuary, but in total there are 11 major rivers and canals that run through the city. We took a boat tour of the city, which was stunning, but our “luxury cruise” ended up being a bunch of lawn chairs on a barge—those Russians sure know how to upsell.
Locals Sure Do Love Their History
While visiting Russia, we were hard-pressed to find anyone who would talk to us about the current political climate. However, locals were eager to discuss Imperial Russia (think a lot of people with ‘the Great’ after their names, lands being seized, and epic plots devised by women named Catherine). From our guide’s refusal to discuss Russia’s politics to “I <3 Putin” t-shirts for sale everywhere, it’s safe to say that St. Petersburg’s inhabitants didn’t feel they could speak freely to foreigners.
A Frown a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
In the footsteps of celebrities trying to stay wrinkle-free such as Victoria Beckham and Kim Kardashian, Russians don’t smile. Alright, they’re not so much worried about their skin as they are their sincerity. In many cultures, the smile is used as a greeting, or to encourage communication between two people. But Russian society frowns upon throwing smiles out willy nilly! The friendly grimace is reserved for moments of genuine happiness, which can be jarring to foreigners.
Petersburg Is a City of Contrast
Majestic churches adorned with spray-painted gold pillars and plastic flowers, instead of solid-gold columns and freshly cut roses: Contrast was as abundant as fur hats in St. Petersburg. The most unsettling being the grand scale of government buildings juxtaposed with the crumbling concrete apartment complexes that composed the residential neighborhoods.
There Are Stunning Churches at Every Turn
While the city’s residential areas are definitely lacking, one thing’s for certain: St. Petersburg is home to some of the most intricate churches in the world. The vibrantly colored tiled mosaic inside the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the mind-blowing altar inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral, and the heavenly golden domes of the Church of the Sainted Apostles Peter and Paul will have you wishing you brought a professional photographer along to document your journey.
Russia’s Souvenir Game is Strong
Looking to adorn your loved ones back home with faux fur hats and Matryoshka dolls out the wazoo? You’ve come to the right place. There are countless souvenir shops and street vendors in St. Petersburg, so be sure to shop around and get the best bang for your rubles. If you find beautiful nesting dolls, they’re probably hand painted, which means they’re going to be pricier. Word to the wise: Don’t trust the toothless guy outside the Hermitage trying to convince you that his fur hats are real mink.
Vodka Is the Real MVP
Whether you’re sipping some liquid courage at the Russian Vodka Museum or enjoying a drink with dinner, the vodka in St. Petersburg can’t be beat. Brands like Stolichnaya, Russian Standard, and Putinka (named after–you guessed it–Putin) all call Mother Russia home. Indulge during your stay, but don’t walk too close to the Neva while under the influence, or you might find yourself at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Although Russia is experiencing a myriad of political and economic issues, at its core, the city of St. Petersburg is bursting with culture, naturally stunning waterways, and vibrant historical landmarks.