If someone had told me one year ago that I would be in St. Petersburg today, I would’ve been hard pressed to believe them. Without considering the convoluted relationship between the US and Russia (especially currently) logistically, traveling to Russia is complicated to say the least. My grandma once told me about an ill-fated trip she and her friend attempted to Russia years ago, in which they never made it out of Alaska! My grandma thinks that on a previous trip her friend was accidentally blacklisted without her knowing it so when their visas didn’t come through, their travel group left Juneau without them. This isn’t to say that’s a likely situation to find yourself in, but it does require quite a bit of planning to get the visa required even for a short 3 day stay.

When I heard that it was possible for me to get around the visa requirement by taking a ferry through Finland, I jumped at the opportunity and I’m so glad I did. I feel like growing up in the US there is so much unconscious stigma toward Russia as a whole, not just politically but culturally as well. Instead of being fed everything through the bias of some media outlet or another, it’s refreshing to think about politics and consider a country in the context of actual individuals, people that you can talk to and a place you can visit. Obviously politics were on my mind some of the time especially while entering Russia and at times like when a guide mentioned Putin, but just exploring and learning about the city was an amazing chapter of my study abroad.

What I did take away from the three days I enjoyed St. Petersburg was the grandeur of the city. I was told by many people that compared to the rest of Russia, St. Petersburg is a very European-style city. I definitely did notice that, however to me the scale of the streets, plazas, buildings, and basically everything was twice that of the other European cities I’ve visited.

Add to that the Russian’s love of gilt, I was impressed by the architecture. The canals, palace lined streets, and golden domed churches adds to the winter fairytale vibe, and almost made me forget the cold gray weather and the trials of finding vegetarian food. Visiting the Hermitage museum (part of it is housed in the resplendent Winter Palace, and it’s the second biggest art museum in the world following the Louvre), and touring the Yusopov Palace and site of Rasputin’s murder were inspiring and fascinating. All in all, I felt like the dazzling art, architecture, and history was just a glimpse of what a huge city in an enormous country had to offer.

Admittedly, traveling with a group of exchange students is probably not the most immersive experience but considering the circumstances I though it felt and was safer to be with at least a few people at all times, and the experiences I had when breaking off into smaller groups and exploring the city were great.

With this trip I barely got my feet wet, but I was inspired to add Moscow to the list of cities I plan to visit, and I know to keep an eye out for further opportunities to explore Russia.