Home to more than 100 different museums, Saint Petersburg is one the world’s greatest repositories of art and artifacts. From breathtaking palaces packed with international masterpieces of painting and sculpture to private houses that interpret the lives of famous residents to the cabinet of curiosities known as the Kunstkamera, no city is so rich in collections and no visit is complete without taking in the treasures on this list.
The Hermitage is Saint Petersburg’s absolute, must see museum rivaled in breadth and depth of holdings only by the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid. Encompassing more than three million objects from ancient Egyptian and Classical Greek and Roman antiquities to Renaissance paintings and sculptures to Impressionist and Modernist canvases, the collection includes some of the most familiar and acclaimed works in the Western art canon. Displayed in a group of six buildings on the Palace Embankment including the magnificent Winter Palace of the Tsars in itself a don’t miss destination, with 365 individual galleries, spending an entire day or two appreciating the Hermitage is one of the greatest joys of visiting Saint Petersburg.
Containing the largest collection of native Russian art in the city displayed in a series of St. Petersburg’s most stately Imperial landmarks, holdings in the Russian Museum collection stretch from 12th century religious icons to iconic 20th century Modernist paintings. The Picture Gallery in particular, set in the Mikhailovsky Palace renowned as the city’s most beautiful neo-Classic building is a favorite of visitors and includes among its many standout paintings a group of masterpieces by Marc Chagall that dreamily evoke shtetl life and his Jewish roots. To wander through the galleries of the Russian Museum is to bask in the accomplishments of one of the world’s most artistically and intellectually vibrant cultures.
Those with a taste for the strange and unusual must head directly to the Kunstkamera to view the anthropological and ethnographic examples compiled by Peter the Great into his famed cabinet of curiosities. Opened in 1727 and considered the world’s first public museum, rather than traditional decorative art, the museum displays riches of the natural world including gems and minerals, samples of flora and fauna and first and foremost a huge grouping of human and animal medical abnormalities including scores of grotesquely malformed fetuses preserved in jars of formaldehyde. Not for everyone but enduringly popular and one of the city’s most visited museums.
Located within the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island where the city was founded in 1703, the St. Petersburg History Museum documents the town’s 300 year evolution from delta swamp into the city of canals and palaces known as the “Venice of the North”. View historic documents and architectural renderings that illustrate the city’s construction in the 18th and 19th centuries, dramatic and heartbreaking exhibits related to WWII and the brutal 900-day siege of the city by the Nazis as well as displays that explore the recent communist past and democratic present. Included in the admission price is access to the adjacent Peter and Paul Cathedral, the ornate Orthodox Church that serves as the final resting place for generations of Tsars and their families.
Tour the Dostoyevsky House Museum to understand the life and times of one of Saint Petersburg’s literary favorite sons, author of the Russian classics “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” The modest single family home outside the city center that served as residence for the writer and his family now houses a collection that includes original furnishings, books, photographs and manuscripts and even offers a look into his study where he created his vivid characters and composed his complex plots.
The former private apartment of one of Russia’s most beloved poets, the Anna Akhmatova Museum documents not only the life of an artist and dissident but powerfully evokes the repression of the Stalinist era. From this set of small rooms complete with their original furnishings and writer’s accessories, one woman stood up against the country’s most powerful man by composing inspiring verses that to this very day still touch the soul of Russia’s citizens.
Just outside of the city in the town of Pushkin lies Catherine Palace, country retreat of Catherine the Great and later of her daughter the Empress Elizabeth. Revel in the Baroque splendor of the Russian Royals who lacquered vast expanses of the residence in pure gold then finished its interiors with the finest furnishings and decorative objects. A tour de force of skilled craftsmanship and architectural extravagance, the Amber Chamber alone is worthy of a visit, completely covered in translucent paneling it is fabled as the single most beautiful room in the whole world.
At Peterhof on the city’s outskirts across the bay, Peter the Great created a stunning garden estate that’s come to be known as the “Russian Versaille.” Easily accessible by hydrofoil that docks at the embankment just outside the Hermitage Museum, visitors arrive to tour the palace and stroll the manicured grounds but especially to view the Grand Cascade, an enormous tiered fountain with 20-foot jets surrounded by gold statuary that is celebrated as not only one of the world’s most striking water features but a feat of engineering because it works without any pumps and only uses natural springs and the force of gravity.
With so many of humanity’s treasured objects found within its museums, the galleries of Saint Petersburg require a pilgrimage at some point in life. While the prime time to visit is during the “White Nights” of summer when the sun almost never sets and the city seems to never sleep, even in the dark, cold and snowy days of winter the museums of Saint Petersburg beckon as the perfect way to spend a day indoors.