One of the world’s most beautiful cities, Saint Petersburg is often referred to as an ‘open-air museum’, with so much artistry and history contained in its architecture alone. Of course, it also derives its reputation as an art and history lover’s paradise is a home of one the greatest museums in the world, the State Hermitage.
Still, as Russia’s cultural capital, there’s so much more to the museums of St Petersburg than its most visited attractions. This cosmopolitan city takes contemporary art and emerging artists seriously, home to a host of hip creative spaces and a vibrant, energetic vibe built on a youthful, newfound freedom of expression. Keen to explore St Petersburg’s darker, more unusual side? Start exploring the treasure trove of small museums sprinkled across the art-obsessed city. The below list should give you a good jumping-off-point from the must-sees to just a few of the St Petersburg’s hidden oddities.
1. The State Hermitage Museum
St Petersburg is a city full of cultural treasures, but the Hermitage trumps them all. One of the world’s greatest collections of art, only the Louvre in Paris and Prado in Madrid can compete in terms of historical importance and size. Some three million precious objects from the Stone Age to the 20th century are preserved here, including the largest collection of paintings in the world.
The museum itself is a sight to behold, made up of six historic buildings along the Palace Embankment. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, it has drawn countless visitors from around the world since it first opened to the public in 1852.
Of the six buildings of the main museum complex, five are partially open to the public: the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and the General Staff Building.
2. The State Russian Museum
The Russian Museum was opened in 1,895 by a decree of Tsar Alexander III, and as such was the first state-owned museum of art in Russia.
Housed in the Mikhailovsky Palace, the Museum houses nearly 400,000 exhibits and has a huge range of Russian art. The exhibits date from ancient icons to the 20th century and include many landmarks in the history of Russian art.
3. Saint Michael’s Castle
Mikhailovsky Castle is a former royal residence in the historic centre of Saint Petersburg, Russia. In the early 1990s, St. Michael’s Castle became a branch of the Russian Museum and now houses its Portrait Gallery, featuring official portraits of the Russian Emperors and Empresses and various dignitaries and celebrities from the late 17th to the early 20th century. The castle looks different from each side, as the architects used motifs of various architectural styles such as French Classicism, Italian Renaissance and Gothic.
4. Peter and Paul Fortress
A mere speck of land known as Zayachy (Hare Island) became the birthplace of Saint Petersburg when St Peter the Great founded his citadel on the Neva River in 1703.
Formerly a defensive fort, the citadel grew to include an enormous cathedral which now serves as a museum on the fascinating history of the fortress. Part of the fun of visiting the fortress is crossing the river over the wooden Ioannovsky Bridge, the city’s first bridge. Making your way across, you’ll be overcome with the feeling of being transported in time as you enter through Peter’s Gate and step out between the colossal curtain walls of the fortress.