Things to Do in Russia - page 3
The oldest cathedral in St. Petersburg and among the tallest orthodox cathedrals on the planet, the baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral sits on the grounds of Peter and Paul Fortress. The building is home to the St. Petersburg Men’s Choir and serves as the final resting place for many of Russia’s pre-revolutionary rulers.
Moscow’s iconic, brick-and-glass Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage was designed by avant-garde Russian architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov in 1926. By the dawn of the 21st century it was in disrepair but was restored by Roman Abramovich to house the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. That then moved and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center subsequently opened at the Bus Garage in 2012. Now firmly on all the tours of Jewish heritage in Moscow, it is dedicated to the backstory of Russian Jews from medieval times to present day, with displays walking chronologically through spacious galleries making clever use of the very latest technology.
Using personal narrative, film footage, holograms, multimedia touch screens and listening stations, this is a thoroughly modern museum with a surprisingly positive message. Yes, the subject matter deals thoughtfully with programs and the Holocaust but also dedicates space to the achievements of the Jews in Moscow and St Petersburg before World War I, when they successfully played a large part in civic and cultural life. There’s a small collection of Jewish ephemera and a permanent art exhibition as well as an animated 4D movie in the Beginnings Theater, which explains the beliefs fundamental to Judaism, but the heart of the museum lies with the panoramic film projected on to a massive, curved screen that combines wartime footage with testimonies from Holocaust survivors and deals with Jewish repression under Soviet rule.
The Tolerance Center is a place in which to reflect and look forward; it houses a children’s center and the Schneerson Collection, a library of priceless Jewish books and manuscripts.
The Admiralty building is one of St. Petersburg's oldest structures. It was built by Peter the Great and originally served as a dockyard. It once housed the Admiralty Board, which was in charge of ship building and eventually became part of the ministry of the navy. Some sections were built in the 1700s while other additions were constructed in the 1800s.
Unfortunately visitors today won't be able to see the building in its original state. Many of the statues were destroyed in 1860 when the Orthodox church declared them to be pagan. The building was also damaged during the blockade of Leningrad and was attacked by the Germans in World War II. The Admiralty building does still have lots of sculptures and reliefs to admire. There is also a 240 foot golden spire with its weather vane, a little ship, that sits on top of it and is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. The original is in the Naval Museum, so the one you see here today is a replica. The building now houses the naval college.
St. Petersburg’s preeminent opera and ballet venue, and home to the world-renowned Kirov Ballet, Mariinsky Theatre has long been at the center of the city’s rich arts scene. Built in 1859 by architect Albert Cavos and named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the theatre saw a host of prestigious performers grace its stage during its pre-Revolution heyday, including dancers like Vatslav Nizhinsky, Matilda Kshesinskaya and Anna Pavlova, and opera singer Fiodor Shaliapin.
The Mariinsky Theatre’s present-day building was restored in 1944, after being damaged during in the Siege of Leningrad, and features a 1,625-seat auditorium. Today, the historic theatre is accompanied by the Mariinsky Theatre concert hall, or Mariinsky II, an incongruously modern building that opened next door to the original theater in 2007.
Art enthusiasts visiting St. Petersburg will already have the State Russian Museum (Russkiy Muzey) at the top of their itinerary and the prestigious gallery doesn’t disappoint, with an incredible 400,000 exhibits dating back as early as the 10th century. This is the world’s largest and finest museum of Russian art, as well as Russia’s first state-owned art museum, and walking its halls is like taking a journey through the country’s art history.
The museum was opened in 1898 inside the grand Mikhailovsky Palace and its collection has steadily grown, amassing a large number of private art collections and religious art confiscated during the Russian Revolution. Today, the extensive exhibitions are housed in a complex of palatial buildings including the Benois Wing, the Stroganov Palace, St Michael's Castle, the Marble Palace and the Mikhailovsky Gardens. Highlights of the permanent collection include iconic paintings like Bruillov's “The Last Day of Pompeii” and Repin's “The Barge Haulers,” as well as works by 20th-century Avant-garde artists like Ravel Filonov, Kazimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky.
Suzdal is one of the highlights of the so-called Golden Ring around Moscow and makes for a long but viable day trip. The Suzdal Kremlin was founded in the 11th century and today includes the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral, a 13th-century cathedral notable for its blue and gold domes.
Not far from the Kremlin is the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life, an interesting stop to get a feel for traditional Russian culture and the life of Russian peasants.
Walking around Suzdal, you will see no shortage of churches, with many dating back centuries, including the Cathedral of Intercession, built in 1518, and the St John the Baptist Church, built in 1720. Climb the tower of the Resurrection Church near Torgovaya Ploshchad for panoramic views of the entire area.
Also known as Russian State Pushkin Academy Drama Theater, the Alexandrinsky Theater opened in 1832 and is the home of the oldest theater company in Russia. It is one of the most famous theaters in St. Petersburg, second only to the historic Mariinsky Theater. The theater building is also considered to be one of the finest works of architect Carlo Rossi. However, inside the theater, only carvings on the Tsar’s Box and a few other boxes remain from Rossi’s original design.
Named after Empress consort Alexandra Feodorovna, the theater was one of the largest in Europe when it opened, with space for an audience of nearly 1400. It has been the site of the premieres of many of the top Russian dramas, including the works of Alexander Griboedov, Alexander Ostrovsky and Anton Chekhov.
Built in 1777 under commission of Catherine the Great and featuring the works of architects like Charles Cameron, Jacomo Quarengi and Carlo Rossi, the stately Pavlovsk Palace (Pavlovskiy Dvorets) was a gift from the Empress to her son, the future Emperor Paul I, to mark the birth of her first grandson. A magnificent neoclassical complex set in an idyllic 1,500-acre estate, the palace is surrounded by landscaped parks and woodlands, and served as the summer residence for the Emperor and his wife, Maria Feodorovna, until his untimely death in 1801.
Today, the painstakingly restored palace is open to the public and provides an intimate glimpse into the life of one of Russia’s most enigmatic rulers. Visitors can peek into the chambers of Maria Feodorovna, where her personal items are still on display; explore the state rooms, decorated with an impressive collection of furnishings, fine china and paintings; and admire highlights like the lavish Throne Room, the grand Dining Hall and Paul’s Library, home to a series of tapestries gifted to the couple by Louis XVI.
Opened in 2003, the Izmailovo Kremlin on the outskirts of Moscow pays homage to the other kremlins around Russia. Built in a pseudo-Byzantine style, it was inspired by both Russian fairytales and the design of early Russian palaces. More than a half dozen museums can be found within the Kremlin walls, including the Museum of the History of Vodka, the Museum of Bread, the Museum of Miniatures, the Museum of the History of the Russian Navy and the Chocolate Museum. There are also a couple restaurants and a wooden church dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of arts and crafts. Visitors can also learn more about traditional Russian matryoshka (nesting) dolls and even try painting their own.
Adjacent to the Kremlin is the Izmailovo Vernissage, a large flea market where visitors can buy a variety of souvenirs and kitschy items such as fur hats, chess sets, Soviet paraphernalia and, of course, matryoshka dolls. Prices are generally lower than elsewhere in Moscow and bartering is expected; transactions are cash only. The Vernissage is open daily, but many vendors only come out on the weekends.
Smolny Cathedral (Smol'nyy Sobor) is a cathedral and convent located on the banks of the River Neva in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was built in the mid 1700s in a Baroque style, and it is one of the most recognizable buildings in the city due to its striking blue color. It was originally built to house Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. Since being denied the throne, she intended to become a nun. However, once her predecessor was overthrown, she was able to take her place as the Empress of Russia instead. Work on the cathedral was stopped when Catherine II came to power, and it wasn't until around 1835 when work started again. Due to this, the interior was done in a neo-classical style.
The cathedral is laid out in the shape of a cross with four smaller churches in the corners. Visitors can also see the detailed church spires and the clock tower which stands at 308 feet tall. Today the cathedral is used primarily as a concert hall. The surrounding convent buildings are used as governmental offices as well as faculty buildings for St. Petersburg State University.
More Things to Do in Russia
Fittingly for a drink that dates right back to the 12th century, the perfect place to sample Russian vodka is located in St Petersburg’s former military stables and is part of the Museum Quarter project to protect the historic buildings of the city center. Exhibitions at the Russian Vodka Museum (Muzey Russkogo Natsional'nogo Napitka) romp through the story of the spirit’s production and its cultural importance, detailing its rise in popularity and refinement from a drink for medieval peasants to the favorite tipple of the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century. Displays include shot glasses, an enormous collection of unusual vodka bottles, posters from previous advertising campaigns and ancient equipment used in distillation. All visits to the museum terminate with a tasting of several different flavored vodkas accompanied by Russian snacks known as zakuski – ‘little bites’ of caviar, salads, pickles, smoked meats or fish normally served with flatbread as hors d’oeuvres before dinner. Conveniently, the museum shares its home with a restaurant serving up specialty vodkas.
With an elegant Baroque façade that stretches along the Neva riverfront, the 18th-century Menshikov Palace is a striking sight. The building—which is one of the oldest in St. Petersburg and was once home to Prince Menshikov—houses part of the world-renowned State Hermitage Museum art collection.
A highlight of a visit to the Kremlin, the Diamond Fund shows off the most ostentatious of the Russian imperial jewels. Originally housed in a small room in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, the collection of jewels begun by Peter the Great grew quickly, especially after a large contribution by Peter’s granddaughter, Empress Elizabeth I. The collection moved to Moscow in 1914 to protect it from the Germans and was kept in a vault underneath the Kremlin.
When it was reopened in 1926, two-thirds of the collection were auctioned off (contrary to Peter’s instructions) to support the government. What remained was put on display for high ranking officials and dignitaries in 1967 and was only opened to public after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The impressive collection features Catherine the Great’s coronation crown from 1762, the world’s largest sapphire, the famous 190-karat Orlov Diamond, one of the world’s largest gold nuggets weighing 3.6 kilograms and numerous Faberge eggs.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1714, the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography is Russia’s oldest museum. Its permanent collection is made up of almost two million items and includes a fascinating mix of cultural artefacts, curiosities, and scientific marvels from all around the world.
The State Museum of the Political History of Russia covers a lot of ground, with exhibitions featuring everything from the Russian Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evolution of modern-day Russia. Each gallery offers a wealth of information, and multimedia and interactive displays bring history to life.
With its orange-brick façade and gilded church spire, hemmed in by the waters of the Fontanka and Moika Rivers, Mikhailovsky Castle (St. Michael's Castle) offers an enchanting first impression, but it’s the palace’s somber history that will stick in the minds of visitors. Built between 1797 and 1800 during the short reign of Emperor Paul I, the castle was the result of the enigmatic leader’s near-obsessive fear of being assassinated. Claiming that he was visited in a dream by the Archangel Michael and advised to build a castle on the site of his birthplace, the Tsar did just that – erecting a supposedly impenetrable fortress underlain with secret tunnels and protected by fortified ramparts, drawbridges and a moat. Somewhat ironically, fate stepped in, and just a month after moving into his safeguard the Tsar was murdered in his sleep.
Today, the beautifully preserved castle is a branch of the Russian Museum and hosts a number of temporary museum exhibits, as well as a permanent exhibition focusing on the building of the royal residence and the elaborate assassination plot of Paul I.
Founded in 1864, the Moscow Zoo (Moskovskiy Zoopark) sits in the center of Moscow, a natural escape from the bustling city streets. When it opened, the zoo covered 10 acres and held fewer than 300 animals. Continuously expanded over the past century and a half, the zoo today is the largest in Russia, covering over 50 acres and featuring more than 6,000 animals. The entrance, shaped like a large rock castle, is conspicuous among the modern architecture on the surrounding streets.
In the old area of the zoo, visitors can find animals such as bears, large cats and elephants, as well as the popular dolphin aquarium and penguin pool. A footbridge crosses Bolshaya Gruzinskaya street and leads to the new area, which is home to the primate house, the children’s zoo and several cafes. Renovations to the zoo in the 1990s added features like waterfalls and streams to give it a more natural feeling.
With an emphasis on the children’s education and entertainment, the zoo is an ideal destination for families visiting Moscow.
One of the few churches that survived the city’s Communist years, the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Epiphany) remains an impressive sight with its fairytale-esque white and ice-blue façade capped with five glittering gold cupolas. Commissioned by Empress Elizabeth in 1753, the cathedral’s fanciful Baroque design was the brainchild of architect Savva Chevinskiy and was named in honor of Saint Nicolas, the protector of the seamen.
Located at the heart of the 18th-century sailors’ quarter, the church was affectionately nicknamed the "Sailor’s Church" and served as an important naval center, from where pre-voyage prayers and blessings were made. Today, the two-story church remains a place of worship, as well as a popular tourist attraction, with visitors flocking to admire its magnificent paintings and gilded iconostasis, pay their respects at the memorials of lost seamen and take in the views from the belfry.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1710, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery is not just a tribute and final resting place to one of Russia’s great military leaders (and the patron saint of St. Petersburg), but to many of Russia’s most important cultural figures as well. The grounds comprise two baroque churches, a cathedral, and a pair of cemeteries.
No visitor to Russia should leave without experiencing a traditional Russian bathhouse, and the Sandunovsky Baths (Sandunovskiye Bani) may be the best place to do so. Founded in 1808, this bathhouse is the largest and most impressive in Moscow, with high ceilings, marble staircases and gold frescoes throughout the interior. It also features a beauty salon, restaurant and laundry service. Called the “czar of bathhouses,” the Sandunovsky Baths are frequented not just by tourists but by Russian businessmen and socialites alike.
To follow the traditional Russian routine, head to the steam room for about 10 minutes, then jump into a pool of cold water and then do it all over again. Take a break in between to have a snack, enjoy a beer or sip a cup of tea. You might also get “beaten” with birch twigs while in the steam room—another longstanding Russian tradition. The women’s side of the baths today feels more like a modern salon, with other typical spa treatments also available.
Guarding the western end of Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s busiest shopping boulevard, Anichkov Palace is one of the street’s oldest buildings, occupying a scenic spot on the Fontanka River waterfront, fronted by the landmark Anichkov Bridge. Commissioned by Empress Elizabeth in 1741, the royal residence was designed by architect Mikhail Zemtsov, and added to over the years by architects like Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli and Karl Rossi.
Despite changing hands many times throughout the years, Anichkov Palace remained a royal residence until 1917, when it was nationalized in the aftermath of the October Revolution and used temporarily to house the St. Petersburg City Museum. Currently, the palace is used as a center for children’s after-school activities and is closed to the public, although visitors can still explore the small onsite history museum or arrange a private tour.
With a prime location on the corner of Nevksy Prospekt and the Moika River Embankment, the Stroganov Palace (Stroganovsky Dvorets) is one of the oldest aristocratic in St. Petersburg. Designed by renowned Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the palace is one of the best examples of late Baroque architecture in St. Petersburg. The light pink main façade faces Nevsky Prospekt and features a large entrance arch supported by two Corinthian columns that leads to an inner courtyard. Oak gates feature carvings of branches and lion’s heads, while windows are framed by cupid figures.
Today the palace houses part of the collection of the State Russian Museum and several rooms are open to the public, having been restored to their late 18th century appearance. The State Dining Room overlooks both Nevsky Prospekt and the River Moika and features large mirrors opposite the windows to create the illusion of a room much larger than it actually is. The Large Ballroom is simply grand, with glittering chandeliers, parquet floors made of exotic woods, stucco molding and patterned balcony railings, as well as a large painting by Valeriani. The Mineral Study, restored in 2005, is considered one of the masterpieces of 18th century Russian architecture.
Russia’s rich cultural history and diverse heritage is the focal point of the Russian Museum of Ethnography, one of the largest of its kind in the world. With a gigantic collection spanning the 18th to 20th century, it offers fascinating insight into life in Russia through the ages.
Founded in 1862, the Russian State Library (Rossiyskaya Gosudarstvennaya Biblioteka) features more than 43 million items in more than 240 languages, including 17.5 million books. The collection includes maps, sheet music, newspapers and audio recordings, as well as at least one copy of every book published in the country between 1922 and 1991. With more than 170 miles of shelves, it is the largest library in Russia and the fourth largest in the world. The main collection includes more than 200 private book collections belonging to popular Russian figures in science, culture and education, and a collection of rare books has more than 300,000 volumes. The State Library also holds regular educational and cultural events and has more than 30 reading rooms available for visitors to reserve.
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