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Exploring the Culture of St. Petersburg

Bridge St.Petersburg Russia

A City With Many Influences

To appreciate St. Petersburg, it helps to familiarize yourself with the variety of cultural influences that have impacted the city over the centuries.
Soviet Architecture – As with anywhere in Russia, you’ll see vestiges of the communist era, when the name of the city was changed to Leningrad (it was changed back to its original name in 1991). One of the most prominent symbols of this period are the many statues of Vladimir Lenin around the city. One of the most famous of these is at Finland Station.
German Settlement on Vasilevsky Island – Germans played a large role in the early days of St. Petersburg, with numerous people emigrating from Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the largest settlements was on Vasilevsky Island where you can visit the Zoology Museum and the Academy of Sciences.
French in St. Petersburg – French culture also had a huge impact on the city’s culture. As novelists such as Tolstoy chronicled, Russian aristocrats often spoke French as a second language. While the French influence has declined considerably since the Imperial Era, there are still remnants of French Culture in St. Petersburg in the arts and architecture of the city. For example, there’s a substantial collection of French art at the Hermitage Museum.
The confluence of cultural influences has produced a city that’s at once Russian and European. The unique ambiance and mixture of old and new make it an unmatchable place to explore the arts, literature, and history.

Explore the Metro

One of the best ways to experience St. Petersburg is to travel by metro. The St. Petersburg Metro is one of the most beautiful in the world. Each station is like a room in a museum, with a variety of architectural styles, ornate decorations, and extensive historical information. In a city as large as St. Petersburg, the Metro is often an efficient way to get around. It’s also a prime example of the city’s artistic style.

Take a Literary Tour

Many of the great Russian novels of the 19th century, such as Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, are set in this great city. There are, of course, many more recent books set here as well. One of the best ways to get yourself in the right frame of mind for your journey is to read (or reread) some great books set in the city.
Volkovskoe Cemetery -This famous cemetery has a special section reserved for famous writers and other celebrities.
Literature Museum in the Pushkin House – This museum is devoted primarily to the writer Alexander Pushkin but also has artifacts and exhibits dedicated to other Russian authors.
Nabokov Museum – This museum is located at the birthplace of modern Russian author Vladimir Nabokov.
More literary destinations – You can also do your self-guided tour and follow in the footsteps of your favorite Russian literary characters or visit the sites of authors’ homes. For inspiration, Russia Beyond publishes a map of 10 Key Places from St. Petersburg’s Literary Map.

Museums and Historic Buildings

Here are a few of the great museums not to miss when in St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage Museum – Created by Catherine the Great in 1764, this is one of the iconic attractions of St. Petersburg. In addition to having a great art collection, it also houses the Winter Palace, where the Tsars of Russia lived. It is one of the world’s oldest, largest and most comprehensive museums, where you’ll find exhibits covering art from classical to modern times.
State Russian Museum – This is another very large museum that is dedicated to Russian art. It includes several buildings including the Mikhailovsky Palace, the Marble Palace, the Stroganov Palace, and the Benois Wing. Some of the most crowded exhibits are those dedicated to popular Russian artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich.
Peterhof Palace and Gardens – Peterhof Palace is about half an hour out of the city but it is a day trip well worth taking. The summer palace of Peter the Great, this impressive structure was inspired by Versailles in France. The grounds contain numerous beautiful gardens, paths, sculptures, and fountains. There are also great views of the Baltic Sea. You should have at least a few hours to stroll the gardens at a leisurely pace.
Mariinsky Theater – This is the place to come for a traditional St. Petersburg experience of theater, ballet, or opera. Open in 1860, many of Russia’s top plays and concerts have been performed here. The building itself is a work of art on both the inside and outside with its neoclassical design and huge stage and auditorium. It’s best to buy your tickets as far in advance as possible (you can order them online) as performances are often sold out.
Fabergé Museum – This is one of the world’s greatest museums devoted to decorative arts. It’s located in the beautiful Shuvalov Palace, which is itself a work of art. Among many other holdings, the museum has the world’s largest collection of Fabergé eggs. This is a great place to get a feel for the wealth and opulence of 19th century St. Petersburg.

Churches

St. Petersburg has some of the world’s most beautiful churches. While the Russian Orthodox Church was an offshoot of the Greek Byzantine Church, the architectural styles of St. Petersburg churches are quite distinct from those you’d find in Orthodox churches in Greece or Turkey, with a variety of influences.
Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood – One of Russia’s most ornate churches, but not one of the oldest, having been built in the early 20th century on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The church was closed during the Soviet era and converted into a museum. Aside from the remarkable architecture, you can spend hours appreciating the incredible mosaics.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – The largest Orthodox cathedral in the world, Saint Isaac’s is officially a museum rather than a church. However, services are still held here on major holidays. The church is beautifully decorated with paintings, an ornate stained glass window portraying Resurrected Christ, and mosaic icons. You can get spectacular views of the city if you climb to the top.
Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul – St. Petersburg’s oldest cathedral, consecrated in 1704, shortly after the founding of the city. The architecture of the church reflects the eclectic influences apparent throughout St. Petersburg. The overall style is Baroque, with elements borrowed from Dutch Protestant churches. One of the highlights of any visit to the cathedral is the Bell Tower. If you climb to the top, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the city. The fortress walls are also quite impressive.

Experience the Vibrant Culture of St. Petersburg

We’ve covered some of the ways to experience the unique and diverse culture of St. Petersburg. Few cities have aesthetic values built into so much of everyday life, from the buildings and squares to the Metro. You can spend many days or weeks exploring this large and multifaceted city. While you can visit St. Petersburg as part of a wider tour of Russia, make sure you leave yourself enough time to take in some of its unrivaled charms.

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5 Ways to Be Intentional and Have Your Best Vacation

Living your best life is an idea with growing notoriety, yet we seem to think that a vacation is a vacation and there isn’t a right way to travel and recharge. Wrong. Almost every seasoned traveler has done it – you experienced an otherwise fantastic, amazing,wonderful vacation only to come home uninspired, unrested and feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation. Well, no more. Follow these tips to get your mind right and be intentional about your time off so you really can have Your Best Vacation while in pursuit of living your best life.
A recent business trip, turned vacation was just the opportunity to field test strategies for making the most of my vacation time away from home. Here are the top five:

1. Decide You’re Worth It and Leave it at Home (or the office)

You’re busy. I’m busy. We’re all busy! Busy, busy, busy. Managing households, kids, school, work, businesses, employees, deadlines and on and on. We’re all so busy we just need a vacation to keep from losing our ever loving minds. Unfortunately, we keep taking all of these problems with us on vacation. We come home unfulfilled with even more to do’s and dreaming of the next time we can just go on vacation, repeating this self-defeating cycle.
It’s time to remember why you’re taking a vacation in the first place. Why spend thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on a vacation only to bring your problems and workload with you? Here’s the deal: you’re worth it. If you don’t invest in a little R&R to recharge your batteries, you won’t be able to achieve what your capable of in the long run. You need to realize that without a break – a real break – you can’t operate at 100%.

Leave Your Baggage at Home

So make the decision that you and your potential are worth investing in. Book that cruise, resort, tour or round-trip ticket, but then make the commitment to get your non-negotiable responsibilities addressed and completed before you leave so you can leave that guilt at home and enjoy your time away. Make no mistake though, this is 90% attitude and 10% action. Just accept the fact that you aren’t that important and the world will still be turning when you get back.
Not only should you enjoy your vacation – you need to enjoy your vacation, and all of those important people in your life – your spouse, children, friends, co-workers, and employees – they need you to really and truly enjoy your vacation even more than you do. If you don’t, they’re the ones who pay most. Once you accept this reality, you’ll see that bringing your problems with you defeats the entire point. The only baggage you should bring on a vacation is the kind that you can put a luggage tag on.
Best Vacations - Remich flowers in alley

2. Be Intentional – Have a Goal

Great, so we all know truly investing in our sanity is a worthy undertaking. Now we need to consider what we’re trying to achieve. Setting goals are important in every aspect of life, so why not vacation time? Think about it, what are you trying to achieve? What do you need?
Whether we admit it or not, most Americans should realize just how good we have it. Just about every American is the envy of the majority of the world’s population. Travelling simply to better appreciate what you have and where you live is a worthy goal itself.
Maybe you feel like daily life is drowning you? The to-do’s and deadlines increasing at an incessant pace. Maybe for you travelling to be able to step back and prioritize what is most important in your life is a great goal.
I can’t tell you what your goal should be, that’s for you to discover. I can tell you that if you take 10 minutes, go into a quiet space, close your eyes and really think about what is frustrating you most in life, then think about that through the lens of travel, you are likely to uncover a mighty fine goal for your next journey.
Best Vacations - Small boat on the Moselle River

3. The Company You Keep

Vacations are (usually) about shared experiences and it almost goes without saying that choosing your traveling companion(s) wisely is key, yet time and again I hear of people in need of a relaxing getaway or an exotic experience for self-reflection choosing to hit a “popular” vacation spot with their kids or a rowdy group of friends. To be fair, I have nothing against these kind of trips. In fact, each year I aim to take the family somewhere incredible so the kids can experience something new and to schedule at least one guys’ weekend to meetup with old friends. These are important and you should try to do them, but let’s be honest, just because your employer counts them as paid time off doesn’t make them vacations.
Match the purpose for your vacation with the people you want to share it with so you can achieve your vacation goal. This can even be a solo trip. There is no rule that says you have to travel with someone else if your travel goal is really about self reflection – you may need some alone time and that’s okay.
Beg, borrow or steal baby-sitter time so you can go on an adventure with your spouse (for as long as you can, but it’s okay if it’s just for the weekend) or try proposing a new, slower kind of trip to your friends. You never know, they may be up for something new too.
Best Vacations - Remich Jillian on side street

4. Have a Plan, Allow for Margin, and Actively Seek Small Surprises

Isn’t it so romantic to say that you’re just going to buy a plane ticket somewhere, anywhere, and then just wander? Sure is. Know what? It is also stupid. Believe me, I’ve done it, twice. Sure, it is fun and sexy and makes you feel like you are really living, but that’s just the travel equivalent of pheromones talking. Just like a romantic weekend fling as a 22 year old, it all comes to an abrupt end and leaves everyone feeling slightly hurt. On both occasions I came home feeling like I wasted my time, like I missed something, like I should have seen this or experienced that. Why? No goal and no plan!
I’m not suggesting you have an itinerary broken into 10 minute increments like my Uncle Ken (true story), but there’s a happy middle ground.
Once you identify the goal for your best vacation, have a plan to do things, visit places, or meet people that will serve the goal.

Allow for Margin

Plans are made to be broken though, or at least bent. So the most important aspect of any itinerary planning process is to build in margin – free time. You will discover something, likely lots of somethings, that you simply must do while you’re there. Great, that’s the really fun part of travel. Unfortunately, if you have an itinerary with no margin, you’ll be forced to choose, and in choosing, you’ll be necessarily disappointed.
Using the margin that you build into your itinerary is the perfect opportunity to really and truly enjoy travelling and all of its small surprises. Here’s a silly example, but for me, one that is very real. My wife and I are about to board a river cruise departing from Remich, Luxembourg. We arrived by plane at 10 AM. The ship doesn’t leave until 4 PM. My instinctive response is Hey, that’s 6 hours, let’s shove as much crap into the itinerary as we can so we don’t miss anything.

Seek Small Surprises

Fortunate for me, I was testing this strategy to build in margin and we just spend a few hours talking, relaxing, walking, and seeing what the sleepy riverside town on the Moselle River has to offer on a random Thursday afternoon. Jackpot. In that few hours we discovered an epic tree-lined riverside walk, the largest leaf I have ever seen, and a beautiful row of cafes that called to us to enjoy a coffee together.
Unique? Not really. The most incredible travel experience? Not even close. Worth writing an article about? Nope, sorry. A chance for my wife and I to really connect, to really slow down for a few hours, to get our minds right to enjoy our trip? Bingo.
Plus, I mean, look at this leaf. Ridiculous.
Best Vacations - Jason Block and the giant leaf

5. Get Local to Really Create Memorable Travel Experiences

Mental state, goals, traveling companions (or not), and a matching plan – all check. I think you’ll find that almost any vacation goal is compatible with this fifth strategy. I used to shun the idea of getting up close and personal with real, live locals. However, the more I travel the more I uncover the most memorable, genuine, and gratifying experiences when I have the chance to interact with real people who live, work and play where I am visiting.
Appreciation for other cultures, understanding how I can be a better person, or just relaxing without pretense all can be accommodated by getting local. What’s great is that it’s easier than ever to meet local people. There are a world of small group and private tour offerings to choose from that cover just about any interest. In fact, I have an upcoming column about local food scene tours in Florence and Rome that was put on by Eating Europe – simply fantastic. See some more ways to live like the locals in Germany.
Even easier, the next time you’re traveling, venture away from the hotel, find a local restaurant, and talk to the server or bartender. 95 out of 100 times they are thrilled to share something interesting about their lives, their country, and their culture or just to answer a question that may be on your mind for how locals live. Book that local tour or step out of your comfort zone, ask a question and see where it leads.
I promise, you’ll come home with a smile and an appreciation for life that you didn’t have when you packed your bag.
Best Vacations - Shopping and cafe in Trier Germany