October in St Petersburg, Russia

Boasting wide avenues lined with stately buildings, world class museums and performances, international restaurants, romantic canals and some of the most over the top cathedrals and palaces in the world, St Petersburg is worthy of a visit. The problem is everyone knows it, making it essential to plan your visit and manage expectations.

I visited St Petersburg in August, peak tourist season, and again at the beginning of October. As you can imagine tourist crowds during the summer are near unbearable for those who despise long lines and packed venues. Early October offers some relief but not as much as I was expecting. It is still important to buy coveted tickets in advance and time your visit to popular museums.

Hermitage in Early October

I don’t know how deep into winter you have to go to get a peaceful visit to the Hermitage. Despite the change in the weather, in early October the tourist season is still going strong. By now everyone has read every trick to try to minimize crowds – coming early or late, at lunch time – but it just doesn’t matter. It’s a popular museum; there will be crowds. I do think, however, the numbers are fewer than they were in August. It’s just still full, very full.

That said this world class palace and art museum is worth the effort. The grand scale of sumptuous rooms dripping in ostentatious decoration combined with important works of the world’s top artists needs to be experienced.

In October the queues were definitely shorter. We started at the General Staff Building, buying tickets there for the whole complex. Note that the General Staff Building is the yellow building at the south end of the Palace Square. The main Hermitage collection is housed across the square in the mint green Winter Palace.

Queues at the General Staff Building

The first line, out of the front entrance, is the security line to get into the building. On our Thursday morning visit shortly after opening there was a 10-15 minute line to enter the building but no line to buy tickets. They have an automated kiosk as they do in the courtyard of the Winter Palace.

After a leisurely visit of the 4th floor Impressionists and Post Impressionists, (see post) we headed over to the Winter Palace just after noon.

Queues at the Winter Palace

With tickets in hand, we bypassed the ticket line. Although the line to buy tickets was not nearly as long as I had seen in summer, I would still buy tickets at the automated kiosk rather than waiting in line.

The biggest headache of an October visit is the line to the cloak room as it is mandatory to check heavy coats. We saw them turn away a number of people trying to get through security with coats and scarves.

Although there are a number of counters in the large hall for checking coats and bags the hall is narrow and crowded. We headed towards the back, counter 6, and found a shortish line, about a 15 minute wait.

The security line went more quickly, about 10 minutes, mostly due to the number of people being turned away with coats on. Despite the no cameras sign they let the camera in my bag go through without issue.

Exploring the Hermitage Galleries

Once finally inside the galleries of the Winter Palace there are lots of people and tour groups. Granted it wasn’t as bad as the day I tried to go in August, and is manageable if you set your expectations accordingly.

The complex is an immense warren of interconnecting palaces and galleries. Therefore I highly suggest following some kind of guided tour. We used the Rick Steve’s self-guided tour from his book. It’s a great write-up with interesting historical facts and stories about the palace as well as more in-depth discussions on key works in the museum. It definitely helped me focus on the museum and not on the people.

Faberge Museum

Dripping with the excesses of the Romanov period, this medium sized museum situated in the Suvalov Palace, a lavish restored mansion, houses not only the famed Faberge eggs but other works from the imperial jeweler and other examples of Russian artisanship. Rooms are divided by types of works such as imperial gifts and trinkets, elaborate icons, paintings, porcelain, silver and gold work.

This is a beautiful and well done museum worth a visit even if you only have a passing interest in extravagant treasury.

Note that the hours of the museum have changed and it is now open every day from 10AM to 9PM.

We arrived on a Friday morning at 10:30. There was no queue to buy tickets and the museum was busy but not crowded. However, the number of visitors picked up during our hour long tour of the museum. Other than a general description of the room there are few descriptions of works given in the museum, so if you don’t plan on doing the museum guided tour but are interested in the details it is best to get the audio guide.

The State Russian Museum

This huge and overwhelming museum houses Russia’s largest collection of Russian Art. The Rick Steves guide, however, leads you through the maze of rooms on a manageable and fascinating tour of the evolution of Russian art – Early Russian Art, Historical Portraits, Russian Abstraction, Socialist Realism, etc.

Situated in the Mikhailovsky Palace, the museum’s many rooms are difficult to negotiate without a map. Be sure to pick one up before starting your exploration. We used the entrance, mentioned in the Rick Steves guide, located in the back right corner of the palace’s courtyard. (There is also an entrance on Griboyedov channel embankment that takes you directly to the special exhibition hall.) From the courtyard entrance follow the signs, buying your ticket first then dropping off your coat before heading up stairs to the gallery rooms.

After touring the museum exit through the Mikhailovsky gardens for a stroll through these beautifully treed grounds. Exiting on the west side of the gardens will lead you to the Church of Spilled Blood.

During our October visit the crowds in the museum were manageable with only the Ilya Repin special exhibition packed. The number of visitors and tour groups, however, did increase later in the morning.

Church of Spilled Blood

Here an October visit minimized the ticket queue, we were the second person in line on Thursday at 3. Inside, however, was still filled and during our visit even more tourists groups showed up. The large space can handle a lot of people but it does lose its sense of majesty.

The striking interior is covered in colorful mosaics, mostly stories from the life of Christ. The impact is so overwhelming it’s hard to know where to focus. The domed ceiling, Christ looking down on you, for instance. My favorite detail was the gilded door to the marble partition with its colorful inlay.

Isaac Cathedral

One of the largest churches in the world, on a clear day the views from the top are worth the climb. Note that tickets are sold separately for the interior of the cathedral and the “Colonnade”, the viewpoint in the colonnade of the dome.

After two days of rainy weather the clouds started to break up creating a perfect moment to visit the viewpoint. Unfortunately we were not the only ones to have this idea, but with 360 views the dome can handle quite a few visitors. Sun on the changing foliage and distant stormy clouds added to the drama.

The interior is a grand space with adorned walls covered in frescos completed in the mid-19th century.

Summer Garden

St Petersburg’s Summer Garden sparkles with fall foliage in early October. Crowds aren’t too bad either.

Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theater

Swan Lake is the most popular ballet in town, especially for tourists, with good reason. The swans are amazing. The flocks of ballerinas effortlessly fluttering about the stage is a delight to experience. The rest of the show is good as well. The main characters were incredibly talented.

Knowing the story ahead of time makes watching the performance more enjoyable as it is difficult to follow from just watching the dancers. Of course it’s a love story. The prince must find a bride, but falls in love with a maiden who has been placed under a curse. She is a swan by day and a maiden only at night. Complications ensue. Wikipedia has a good write-up with an interesting list of the various endings over the years, everything from all the main characters die to everyone becomes good friends and lives happily ever after.

For tips on buying tickets see the post on Mariinsky Theater Ballet.

For photos from my August trip see the post August in St Petersburg.

October 2-6, 2019

For links to all the posts in this series see the Russia page.