The State Hermitage (Государственный Эрмитаж) is one of the largest and oldest art and cultural museums in the world. The museum was originally built privately under the orders of Catherine the Great, housing her ever-growing collection; however, in 1852, the doors were opened to the public, since acquiring enough art to fill its six magnificent buildings residing along the Neva embankment and near the Winter Palace.
The museum displays an array of work, with pieces that exhibit the development of world art from the beginning of recorded history through modern day. The museum shows perhaps the most impressive displays of primitive art, archaeology and cultural pieces, as well as work from the Soviet era.
There are also large Western European art exhibits that feature sculptures, applied arts and paintings from the 13th century onward, as well as Egyptian antiquities that bring the life and culture of ancient Mesopotamia to life.
With its gigantic golden dome coated with over 220 pounds of gold and an impressive red granite portico, St Isaac’s Cathedral looks more like a palace than a cathedral, and it’s no surprise that the eye-catching masterpiece is among St. Petersburg’s most visited attractions. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander I in 1818 to mark the defeat of Napoleon, the magnificent cathedral took over 40 years to build and still ranks among the largest domed cathedrals in the world, with a capacity for up to 14,000 worshippers.
Set on the banks of the Neva River, the cathedral’s extravagant design was the work of French architect Auguste de Montferrand, blending Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical elements, and sparing no expenses. The cathedral interiors are equally lavish, featuring painstakingly sculpted reliefs, grand bronze doors and a colonnaded iconostasis adorned with semiprecious gems.
Nevsky Prospekt (Не́вский проспе́кт) is the most famous street in Russia and main street of St. Petersberg, spanning from the Admiralty (Адмиралтейства) to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (Александро-Невской лавры).
As a major central street in the city, Nevsky Prospekt is oft the stomping grounds for many holiday, national, and other celebrations, such as Victory Day, and Day of the City, hosting events from festivals to parades. The street is also home to many sculptures that captures both Russian heroes and historical figures including Nevsky himself, Catherine the Great, city hero of Leningrad Obelisk, Kutuzov, and one of Mikhail Barclay do Tolly, located in the Kazan area.
No visit to St Petersburg is really complete without spending a few hours at the site where it all began – the Peter & Paul Fortress. This is the original citadel of the city, built on Hare Island near the north bank of the Neva River between 1706 and 1740. And this is where you can get a feel for St Petersburg’s more than 300 year old history, from royal tombs to prison blocks to historical museum exhibitions.
The Peter & Paul Fortress was originally built to protect Russia’s new capital from a possible Swedish attack, but it never really served that purpose. Instead, it soon became a prison for high-ranking and political prisoners, beginning with Alexey, the son of Peter the Great. In 1872, a new prison within the walls of the Trubetskoy Bastion was built and over the next forty years, it held thousands of prisoners who were considered to be enemies of the state.
Possibly the most iconic site in St. Petersburg after the Hermitage Museum, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood stands out with its multicolored façade and onion-shaped domes. Sometimes called the Church of the Resurrection of Christ or the Resurrection Church, it was built on the site near the Griboedov Canal where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Completed in 1907, the church’s design was inspired by traditional Russian styles, as well as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev. The interior, designed by some of the most popular Russian artists at the time, features more than 7500 square feet of mosaic tiles covering the walls and ceilings.
The church endured significant damage over the years, first in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and later during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, when it was used as a morgue.
Completed in 1811 and standing at an impressive 203 feet tall (62 meters), St Petersburg's Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan exhibits Russian classical architecture, having replaced a wooden church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral took 10 years to construct and today encircles a small square with a double row of beautiful columns, while the interior is adorned with the works of some of the country's greatest artists and sculptors, such as I.P. Prokofyev and F.G. Gordeev, with reliefs on the facade by I.P. Martos, S.S. Pimenov and I.P. Martos.
Among some of the cathedral's other beauties are the Tsar's silver-casted gates and a golden frame decorated with precious stones, made specifically for the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan. The site has served as the setting for many of Russia’s historical events, including Tsesarevish Pavel Petrovich’s marriage and the celebration of many Russian military victories.
Long upheld as the lifeline of the city, the Neva River runs straight through the heart of St Petersburg, with its many tributaries and canal ways crisscrossing the city center. For visitors to St. Petersburg, following the path of the Neva River makes a popular route for walking tours and sightseeing cruises, with many of the city’s top attractions lining its banks. The grand façades of the Anichkov Palace, the Winter Palace and the Mariinsky Theatre, the Classicist buildings of New Holland Island, the historic Peter and Paul Fortress and the lush Summer Gardens all face onto the waterfront, punctuated by iconic drawbridges like the Peter the Great Bridge and the Palace Bridge.
The most romantic time to stroll along the Neva River is in late June or early July during the city’s famous ‘White Nights’, a phenomenon caused by the city’s high latitude where the sun never sets.
In Moscow, grand boulevards and massive buildings that seem to stretch for miles are the norm, but some of the city’s most impressive sites are actually found below the streets, in the underground metro system used that transports millions of residents each day.
Moscow’s metro system is one of the busiest in the world and, at 190 miles (305kms) long with 185 stations, it’s also one of the largest. The stations aren’t just transit hubs – they’re a sort of free public art exhibit, and one that tells the history of the city in their design and decoration. The stations were designed so lavishly in the hopes that their beauty would inspire workers on their way to dreary jobs under Soviet rule. These ornate stations eventually became known as “the palaces of the people” for their extravagant architecture. Later, new stations were designed in a slightly more understated way, their appearance reflecting a more austere time in the city’s history.
Peter Carl Fabergé was born in St Petersburg in 1846 and went into the family jewelry business. Appointed to serve the Russian court in 1885, he became the darling of the ill-fated Russian Imperial family for his intricate golden eggs, jewelry and ornate carved clocks. Following the assassination of the Romanovs in 1918, the Bolsheviks stole the Imperial jewelry collection and Fabergé fled to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he died two years later.
In over 35 years of Tsarist patronage, Faberge, his diamond cutters and goldsmiths created 54 gold eggs for them to mark significant occasions from coronations to royal weddings; of these, only 47 are accounted for. Post Communism, Russia has been quietly buying back its cultural heritage, and as the most famous name in Tsarist decorative arts, the fabulously bling Fabergé eggs were deservedly awarded their own museum in 2013.
The Bronze Horseman is a statue of Peter the Great on a horse. Catherine the Great had the statue built in the late 1700s to honor Peter the Great as the founder of the city of St. Petersburg. She commissioned the French sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet who had spent a long time studying the movements of horsemen on reared mounts. The horse stands on a rock meant to represent a cliff. This huge block of granite weighs more than 1,600 tons and took more than nine months to transport from the Gulf of Finland.
Visitors can still see an inscription on the stone that says "to Peter the First from Catherine the Second” in Latin on one side and in Russian on the other side. The statue faces west to represent Peter “leading Russia forward” because he drew inspiration from countries in the west. Legend has it that St Petersburg can never be taken by enemy forces as long as the statue remains standing in Senatskaya Square.
Red Square is the central square in Moscow, sitting just northeast of the famous Kremlin. Once a marketplace, over the years it has been the sight of public ceremonies and proclamations, the occasional coronation and during Soviet times, military parades. Together with the Kremlin, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, one of the first sites in the Soviet Union to receive such designation. Today Red Square also serves as a major concert venue, with Paul McCartney, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shakira, among stars who have performed in recent years.
The main entrance to Red Square is through the Resurrection Gate, which was rebuilt in 1995 to copy the gate that was originally finished in 1680. At the center of the gateway stands a small chapel housing an icon known as the Iverian Virgin. It’s not uncommon to see crowds of people gathered around the chapel throughout the day.
The Christ the Savior Cathedral was originally commissioned by Tsar Alexander I after Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, but work did not begin on it until 1839. Designed by a famed St Petersburg architect, it was modeled on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The cathedral was eventually consecrated in 1883, but its tenure was short-lived as the Soviets destroyed it in 1931 to make way for what would have been a Grand Palace of Soviets. However, the palace was never built and instead a swimming pool stood in its place for several decades. In the mid-1990s, Moscow’s mayor joined with the Russian Orthodox Church to rebuild the cathedral and construction began in 1994.
With donations from more than a million Moscow residents, the new church followed the original design, but with modern day improvements. At 103 meters tall, it is the tallest Orthodox church in the world and can accommodate nearly 10,000 church-goers.
GUM is an abbreviation meaning “Main Universal Store”, from the Russian “Глáвный универсáльный магазѝн”. It is the name of a private shopping mall located in central Moscow, just opposite Red Square. The building is a trapezoidal shape, with a steel framework and a glass roof. This made it quite unique at the time of construction, in the 1890s. From 1890 to the 1920s, the Red Square GUM was known as the Upper Trading Rows and served as a State Department Store. It was built to replace the previous trading rows, which were destroyed during the 1812 Fire of Moscow. However, GUM hasn’t always served as a shopping destination. In 1928, Joseph Stalin converted it into office spaces, and it only reopened as a department store in 1953. It then became one of the only stores in the former Soviet Union not to suffer from consumer goods shortage, often resulting in long shopper queues spilling into Red Square.
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts is the largest European art museum in Moscow, with over 560,000 works of art. Opened in 1912, it actually has no connection to Alexander Pushkin, the famous Russian poet – it was simply renamed in his honor in 1937 to mark the centenary of his death.
The museum includes an impressive collection of Dutch and Flemish masterpieces from the 17th century, including several works by Rembrandt, as well as Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by painters such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. The latter are now housed in a new Gallery of European & American Art of the 19th and 20th centuries next door to the main museum building. Many of the museum’s paintings were obtained in the 1920s and 1930s when private estates were nationalized; other works were taken from the History Museum, the Kremlin Museum, the Hermitage and other museums in St Petersburg.
Once a chocolate factory producing some of Russia’s most popular chocolate, the Red October Complex was the first industrial site in Moscow to be converted into artistic space. Located on Bolotny Island in the Moscow River, the complex itself dates back to the 19th century. In recent years, it has been transformed into a multi-purpose space featuring art and photo galleries, designers’ studios, television and web media headquarters and a variety of bars and cafes. It is also home to the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, which offers workshops, lectures and concerts for the public.
The Red October Complex is especially popular on the weekends with bars and restaurants like Art Akademiya, Dome and Bar Strelka, the latter of which donates its proceeds to the Strelka Institute. It also boasts a lively clubbing scene for those looking to explore Moscow’s famous nightlife.
One of the most iconic sights in all of Russia, Moscow’s Kremlin is a massive fortress sitting along the banks of the Moskva River. First the seat of the Russian Grand Dukes, then the residence of the Romanov tsars and later home to Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin, the Kremlin today serves as the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation. Despite that, much of the complex is open to the public on a daily basis, including the bell tower, several cathedrals, the Patriarch’s Palace and the famous Armoury.
Once the tallest building in Russia, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower offers great views around the city and the Assumption Cathedral, the Archangel’s Cathedral and the Annunciation Cathedral surrounding the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square offer visitors a glimpse into Russian religious life. The Armoury, though, is what will take your breath away, with its impressive collection of jewels, armor, weapons and ancient Russian relics.
One of the best known theaters in the world, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, traces its history back to 1776. This was when Empress Catherine the Great granted Prince Pyotr Urusov the privilege of maintaining theater performances of all kinds for a period of 10 years. The current Bolshoi building opened on the coronation day of Tsar Alexander II in 1856, and featured a six-tier auditorium decorated in crimson and gold that could seat up to 2,300 people.
The Bolshoi recently re-opened in October 2011 after being closed for a six-year renovation project. The reconstruction and refurbishment of the theater’s main stage employed over 3,000 specialists at the theater each day, as well as an additional 1,000 in restoration workshops outside of the theater. The project not only restored the historical appearance of the theater, inside and out, but it also restored its legendary acoustics while adding state-of-the-art machinery and stage equipment.
Lenin’s Mausoleum is the current resting place of Vladimir Lenin, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s embalmed body has been on display since he passed away in 1924 and his tomb has been visited by millions. Located near Red Square in the center of Moscow, the tomb is a small granite building that features elements derived from ancient mausoleums such as the Step Pyramid in Egypt and the Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Iran. Although a bit morbid, a visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum is considered a must for visitors to Moscow.