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Highlights of a Rich Cultural City

by Eileen Prescott

Last Updated on July 7, 2014 by

Before I even landed in St. Petersburg, I was curled up with a guidebook trying to figure out how on earth I was going to see everything the city had to offer in less than six weeks.

I made an extensive list of museums; one source told me there are ninety-three museums in St. Petersburg, ranging from the enormous Hermitage to the less-renowned Cat Museum. Even at a rate of one per day, I couldn’t possibly see everything.

But it turns out, it’s not difficult to find the things you care most about in a city like St. Petersburg. I was lucky enough to move in with a host parent who shares my love of music, so my very first evening with her, she took me to an organ concert. It was in a German church just down the road that I never would have known about otherwise. Within two days, with her help, I had attended the opera Cavalleria Rusticana at the Mikhailovsky Theater.

For ten dollars, I didn't have the best view, but the music was divine.

For ten dollars, I didn’t have the best view, but the music was divine.

And that’s just in a few days! Our AIFS group has been chock-full of city tours and excursions to some of the biggest attractions in and around this beautiful and colorful city.

One of our first stops was the world-renowned Hermitage Museum, whose collection is so expansive that, if you spent one minute viewing each display, it would take eleven years to completely explore. Our tour included stops at works by da Vinci, Raphael, and Caravaggio. I felt as though I could barely absorb everything we were seeing, from lapis lazuli vases to Egyptian sarcophagi, and we only managed to walk through about half of what the museum had to offer, over the course of several hours!

The collection is housed in multiple buildings, including the Winter Palace.

The collection is housed in multiple buildings, including the Winter Palace.

It's hard to believe this was past midnight.A few days later, we had the opportunity to travel downtown and watch the bridges open at 1:00am. In case you’re unfamiliar with St. Petersburg at this time of year (as I certainly was before I arrived), the sun doesn’t set during parts of the summer, prompting the idiom “White Nights.”

This time of year is considered especially romantic, and huge crowds—particularly of couples—gather to watch the bridges open and make wishes when they do. Boats crowd the river near those bridges, trying to cross under them at the precise moment they open, so that the wishes of those on board will certainly come true.

So amidst people dancing, a few musicians playing romantic ballads, and all kinds of street vendors, we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience…and then raced down the street to get back across the river before all of the bridges went up for the night!

The day after I moved in with my wonderful host mom, we travelled about an hour as a group to the nearby town of Pushkin, where we saw the Catherine Palace and extensive gardens that included a Turkish bath, a few chapels, and a beautiful building in which fantastic a cappella singers performed Russian folk songs every fifteen minutes.

It’s hard to communicate how entwined with history I feel in these places; even the archway where we met to go back to the bus was a part of the Lyceum where the Russian writer Pushkin attended school.

This smaller blue building had acoustics that seemed just made for singing.

The Baroque Grotto had acoustics that seemed just made for the singing inside of it.


These ducks were a refreshing change of pace from city life as well!

These ducks were a refreshing change of pace from city life as well!

It seems like every few days we have a new adventure planned, and that’s not counting our personal pursuits like my very emotional visit to the Dostoevsky Museum to see the apartment where my favorite author wrote The Brothers Karamazov, my absolute favorite novel. I’m trying not to think about how soon I’ll be returning to a place where you can’t order $10 opera tickets online and show up at gorgeous theaters. Every building here seems to have its own unique and critical role in history, and I hope I manage to get to know as many as possible before I leave!

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