It would probably take a decade to see every work of art in St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum. The collection is enormous – over three million items from throughout the world – and spans history from Ancient Egypt through the early 20th century. But it’s not just what’s inside the Hermitage that is so intriguing. The museum itself is its own collection: A large complex of six historic buildings along the Palace Embankment, including its biggest attraction, the Winter Palace.
The Winter Palace
The Winter Palace was the main residence of the Russian Tsars starting in the 1760s. Built in the lavash Baroque style for Empress Elizabeth, its rooms are grand, pastel painted and glowingly gilded. It’s a stunning backdrop for viewing the renowned works of art, and the best way to hone in on the highlights is with a guide who can get you past the long ticket line and weave your way through the dazzling display.
A Fairy Tale Lunch
After a full morning of da Vinci, Monet and Michelangelo, we were ready for a lunch break. Our guide Eugenia from Anastasia Travel had made reservations at a charming café called Masha and Bear, which she told us is a Russian version of The Three Bears. She said she also thought it was an appropriate place for us because Masha is a Russian name for Mary!
Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood
Our afternoon was devoted to St. Petersburg’s grand cathedrals. Our first stop was The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. Constructed between 1883 and 1907, it was closed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s and later underwent 30 years of restoration before reopening in 1997.
Inside, the walls and ceilings are completely covered in more than 7,500 meters of intricately detailed mosaics. The mosaic pictures were designed to look like paintings and are framed with patterned borders that also are mosaics.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
The final stop of the day was St. Isaac’s Cathedral and another mosaic-filled world. St. Isaac’s was completed over a period of 40 years, starting in 1818, and is the fourth largest cathedral in the world.
Back outside, we were at the end of our tour. Before returning to the ship, we stopped at several shops, with Eugenia serving as our interpreter and pricing guide. That night at dinner, we opened the bottle of Russian champagne that Anastasia Travel had given us in honor of my birthday, sharing it with friends at the next table as we exchanged stories and toasted St. Petersburg. I’m not sure if it was the extraordinary beauty or the historical perspective or simply the reality of being somewhere I had never imagined I would be, but our brief time in Russia was one of those travel experiences that has stayed with me long after the trip has ended.