My parents have been visiting Finland these last few weeks and we had also planned to make the train trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. We road the fancy Finnish "Allegro" train which has been in service for a year or so now, and makes the journey all the way to St. Petersburg in a quick 3.5 hours. So, after filling out our Visa application and coughing up approximately 120 euros per person, we were ready to make the trip. A post Soviet world doesn't mean that politics are thrown out the window, because they are charging Americans more than 3x what they charge Finns for their Visa! Finns can make the trip on a mere 35 euro Visa. I cry not fair! But what to do, just suck it and try to not be an ugly American. :)
The second day of our adventure meant trips to the famous Hermitage museum and other random strolling around in the city. We also had the guide for and additional half a day and she made the Hermitage maze easier to navigate. The Hermitage is known as the second largest museum in the world, next to the Louvre in France. It supposedly would take about 8 years to see every piece in the museum. We weren't able to even attempt to see a fraction of the museum, so our guide Ania had a nice plan to see the main highlights in 3 hours time. It was a nice museum, but very crowded as you can imagine. Hard to compare it to the Louvre in Paris, but it definitely held it's own. It even featured painters from the impressionist and post impressionist periods as well as Dutch, Spanish and Italian masters. The museum itself is housed in the Winter Palace of the Czars and Czarinas and many rooms were gilded in gold. All in all, the Hermitage is definitely a must visit for art lovers and Royal family fans.
The afternoon was spent revisiting some of the sights that we saw on Friday with the guide, but didn't have a chance to actually enter. For example, we went inside 2 churches that the guide just pointed out the day before. We also strolled a bit down the flashy Nevsky Prospekt shopping street and again I wasn't all that impressed. I guess fancy shopping just doesn't appeal to me when I am visiting a new city. I like to get away from commercial aspects and take the time to actually soak in the city and the culture.
Back on the train was again a pleasant and hassle free experience. We arrived back in Finland around 11:00pm and were left with pleasant memories of a special weekend in Russia. Even as an American who must pay exorbitant amounts for the required Visa, I recommend a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. The city was easy to navigate on foot and it felt safe, even safer and friendlier than I had imagined it to be.