Visa free in St. Petersburg
If you're an unlucky American like me, trying to visit Russia when hostilities are running high, there's a good chance you're visa will get denied. Or even...twice. (Can we get an eye rolling emoji in here, Squarespace?!) Instead of fighting that battle again, I decided to take the cruise ship from Helsinki, which allows you to enter St. Petersburg for 72-hours, visa free, provided that you have a tour guide set up for the duration (this has possible changed since I went -- check with the cruise line). You must take the St. Peter Line and they have pre-approved hotels that you can book through their website. Prices start from 185 euro. Even if it's not difficult for you to get a visa, it's an easy way to visit Russia if you're going for your first time!
St. Petersburg itself is a regal city, home to the famed history of Peter the Great, Catherine's Palace, and the iconic Hermitage Museum. The massive city also boosts a lively nightlife, with families and partiers staying up until all hours. It's really hard to compare St. Petersburg to any European cities, but possibly an equal mixture of Amsterdam and Stockholm, with a little bit of Paris architecture thrown in, and a dash of Berlin nightlife.
Visit The Savior on a Spilled Blood
This famous church is one of the staples of Russian and St. Petersburgian (??) architecture. It is also where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded, hence the name. Inside the church is a shrine to the Emperor, erected on the spot where he was fatally wounded during the assassination.
The Hermitage Museum is the top reason why I will continue to push for that Russian visa. With my tour group I was only able to spend about 2.5 hours in the museum, which could easily fill the span of 3-4 days. I was running around the museum, literally, just snapping pictures as fast as possible to look at later, since I have no idea when I'll return! The Hermitage rivals the Louvre and cannot be missed. The collection comprises of more than 3 million items, having the largest painting collection in the world. It was founded in 1764 during Catherine the Great's reign, when she was given a large collection of paintings from Johann Ernst Gotzkowsk. The museum opened to the public almost a century later, in 1852.
If you're going in the summer, which I highly recommend since St. Petersburg winters are notoriously brutal, you can also head out to the Palace in Peterhof. If you aren't there between May-September, head to Catherine Palace (you can do Catherine Palace in the summer of course too!). My best recommendation would be to taki a taxi/Uber there, since it is 30km outside of the city...we took a a metro and two buses and even if I had gone back the next day, I wouldn't have been able to figure it out! The palace was built in 1717 by Catherine I to be used as a summer palace. More than 100 kilograms of gold were used to decorate the outside facades -- I can't even imagine how much was used on the inside. The palace is seated in a large expanse of public gardens, which even boasts a mosque.
Take a river boat cruise
St Petersburg is made up of 33 islands, each with their own architectural highlights to show off. If you take the boat at night, the bridges open up at 1am (yes, leaving you stranded on the island you're on, so you better be in the correct spot!) and thousands of people stand on the river banks to drink champagne and watch the fireworks go off. It's quite amazing to see from the river.
See a ballet
I think this one goes without saying, but you can't visit St. Petersburg without going to the famous Russian ballet!
Eat at the traditional restaurants
My favorite meal I had in St. Petersburg was at the house of my tour guide's mother. Her mom made us a traditional meal, with multiple courses, and a healthy dose of liquor! I had no idea what most of the dishes were, but enjoyed the hearty use of cabbage. Russians are known for not knowing many foreign languages, but they are extremely friendly and do their best to make up for it with a lot of hugs and smiles! (If you learn a few words of Russian before going, it's extremely appreciated here).
Visit the metro stations
I'm not joking, they are gorgeous, like palaces in their own right. When they were built they were actually considered the "Palace of the People". Built in the early to mid-1900s, the stations were primarily used as propaganda purposes for Stalin's dictatorship. The metro system is also one of the busiest in the world and one of the deepest -- since the city is comprised of so many islands, it has seen a lot of flooding throughout its years. One of the escalators (I forget which station) took 3.5 minutes to reach the bottom! The top stations to see are Avtovo, Kirovsky Zavod (this one feels "extra Soviet", with a bust of Lenin in the corner -- the photo below was taken in this station), and Narvskaya (head outside the station to see the famous gate that was built for returning soldiers after their defeat of Napoleon).
St. Petersburg is an amazing city with an enormous wealth of things to see and do. I can't wait to go back someday and explore further!
If anyone has tips on visa acquiring, taking the Trans-Siberian, and/or what to do in Moscow, please send them my way! :)