I believe that now is the perfect time to visit Russia, and St Petersburg in particular, if you are looking for an exciting and romantic break. Certainly the welcome from our Russian colleagues reliant on tourism has never been warmer.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and as international tourist numbers to Russia dramatically subside – due to the escalation in old school Cold War relations – visits to some of the country’s most iconic cultural destinations have arguably never been better. The drop in tourist numbers has created an opportunity to visit locations which are normally swamped.
One example is St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum and Palace Square. These are classic examples of a destination worth making a beeline for. Both are remarkable, but without the crowds they are also a joy to wander through.
These images, all of which I took on a recent visit, show how spectacular this most iconic of destinations is, and how worthy it is of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Centre billing.
The State Hermitage Museum is one of the world’s oldest, dating back to 1764 when it was founded by Catherine the Great. My advice is not to get stressed by trying to see it all. The collection is so huge that if you were to spend a minute in front of every item it would take you over eight years, without sleep, to see them all.
Pacing among and around the world’s largest collection of paintings, antiquities and artefacts is a monumental task. It becomes more manageable if you concentrate on a selection within the huge complex of six historic buildings. Don’t forget to look out, as well as in. The views across Palace Square from the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and main Hermitage are superb.
Palace Square, which has witnessed many historic events – including the 1917 October Revolution – appears pristine, as if it has just emerged from a giant toy box. The white and azure blue/green baroque Winter Palace (housing the Hermitage Museum) stands as regally today as if the tsars were still strutting their stuff. Opposite, across from the centrally placed, granite Alexander Column, the Neoclassical 18th Century Victory Arch is flanked by the impressively bright yellow Guards Corps Headquarters.
If you do take a stroll you can enjoy the square as much for its meeting place and activities vibe, as for its perfect open-air concerts setting. It has been enjoyed not only by the upper echelons of Russian society, military brass and state dignitaries, but also the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Elton John and the odd Beatle or two.
So although large-scale tourism is having a tough time generally (in particular with the fallout from events in Paris last week and Belgium’s shutdown this week), visiting one of the world’s classic destinations, which is also experiencing a serious downturn in visitor numbers, can be more rewarding than it has been for years.