St. Petersburg, Russia

Going to St. Petersburg is like stepping into a time machine, then having it crash somewhere between the historical and modern worlds. The grand palaces and lavish gardens are interspersed with neon lights and fast cars.

What I Saw

Hermitage

Hermitage

Created by Catherine the Great as a means to store her growing art collection, the Hermitage is now one of the largest art museums in the world. Comprised of five different buildings, the Hermitage publicly displays only a small portion of it’s three million plus item collection. The largest building is the Winter Palace, once the winter residence to Russian nobility. Highlights of the collection include works by three of the four ninja turtles – primarily 2 paintings by Da Vinci and an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo.

Canal Cruise

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Though technically this falls under a “what I did” category, a canal cruise through St. Petersburg is a great way to absorb all of the city’s sites. The big city is made small when cruising through the famed canals. Reserve a boat in advance or flag one down on the spot. There a lots of independent operators throughout the city ready and willing to give you a once in a lifetime ride.

Church on Spilled Blood

Church on the Spilled Blood

Officially known as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, the church was built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The actual spot where he was attacked remains preserved inside, though that’s not the primary draw. Once inside, tourists are bathed in mosaics. All artwork that adorns the ceilings and walls are mosaics depicting various Bible passages and saints. Looted during the Russian revolution, the church also served as a morgue during WWII and a vegetable warehouse.

Future Destinations

  • Peterhof Palace and Garden.  Sometimes called the Russian Versailles, these landmarks are another lesson in Russian opulence. Fountains are scattered throughout the lush gardens and some were constructed with the purpose of sprinkling guests.
  • Return to Hermitage. Like the Louvre, it’s impossible to take in all the artworks at the Hermitage in a day, let alone a 2 hour guided tour. If possible, try and come on an off day to avoid the crowds.

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Hosts to the Nobel Prize, Stockholm offers travelers an opportunity to immerse themselves in modern Swedish culture. Though the city does have it’s fair share of old world charm, many historical buildings were torn down in the 20th century to make way for newer ones. If you’re a history buff, fear not, as there are still some interesting historical tidbits scattered throughout.

What I Saw

Östermalm Food Hall

Östermalm Food Hall

Located near the city center, the Östermalm Food Hall is a must see destination for food lovers. Completed in 1888, this food hall one of the oldest in the world and offers a wide selection of Swedish delicacies. The prices tend to run a bit on the high side, but that’s the fare paid for the quality of the goods sold within. The tour I joined included a tasting at one of the stalls. Pickled herring, salmon, meatballs and local cheeses were included in the offering. Easily, the most popular selection of the group was the tender and slightly tart pickled herring.

Waldemarsudde Estate

Waldemarsudde Estate

The residence of Prince Eugen is a must see sight for art lovers and furniture buffs. Though born into royalty, Prince Eugen was never a contender for the throne. In turn, he studied art and became a prolific painter in his time. Paintings of his are scattered throughout the house and in the adjacent gallery. However, the most interesting part of the estate is the preservation of the first floor. The bottom level of the house remains unchanged from the days of Prince Eugen and allows any visitor to transport themselves back to simpler times. Equally entertaining are copies of famous statues scattered throughout the gardens.

Future Destinations

One of the problems of going on a tour is the inability to wander around cities at your own pace. While we did stroll around the city as part of the tour, the only museum we went into was the Waldemarsudde Estate. Stockholm has more sights to be seen and visitors should allot themselves more than a day to see them all.

  • Nobel Prize Museum: Offers guided tours throughout the day. Exhibits focus on past winners and their contributions.
  • City Hall: The annual Nobel Prize banquet takes place here. Short of being invited, the cellar restaurant offers the previous year’s menu for visitors. A guided tour of the building is also available.

My First Trip to Europe

Hello! The following is a guest post by Neotera sharing her experiences for her first European adventure. Enjoy!

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Prior to traveling to Europe for the first time, I read dozens of travel articles online and interviewed my friends about their experiences. I also selected touristy cities to make planning easier – London, Paris, Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, and Rome.  Here are some takeaways from my experience.

Transportation & Getting Around

Transportation

Pay attention to the airport locations of domestic airlines

I chose easyJet over Ryanair for my trip as it flies through major airports such as Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and Venice Marco Polo (VCE).  For these cities, Ryanair flies out of airports that are somewhat far from where you probably want to be (48 miles from CDG and 20 miles from VCE!).

Don’t always book your trains on raileurope.com

Raileeurope.com makes it easy to book your trains throughout Europe, however, the listed prices will be higher for US residents.  I booked my rail through eurostar.com, trenitalia.com, and italotreno.it.  The last two sites may seem a tad confusing to navigate at first, but you’ll definitely save some money by booking there.

Download the Pocket Earth app to your phone

A LIFESAVER in Europe.  Most tourists walked around looking confused with huge paper maps while I simply tracked my location using the app.  The app works offline and displays major sights, landmarks, restaurants, and public transportation options (even bus schedules!).  You can also create routes while on Wi-Fi for use when you’re no longer connected.  Make sure to download all of your city maps on Wi-Fi before leaving for your trip.

Packing

Packing

Get a ‘selfie tripod’

A selfie tripod saves you time since you don’t have to ask strangers to take (and retake) your pictures.  It might seem silly at first, but I saw tons of tourists using it.  Side-tip:  Bring an iPad and camera-to-iPad adapter so that you can transfer your pictures nightly.

Bring a 360-degree suitcase vs. a backpack

A lot of travel advice I read recommended backpacks to make it easier to navigate the cobbled streets and bridges in Europe and appear less like a tourist.  No matter what, you are going to look like a tourist.  And unless you’re actually backpacking through Europe (hiking, trails, etc.), bring a regular suitcase. I made the mistake of taking a backpack, and although I packed lightly, it still made me uncomfortably warm and was a nuisance when putting it on and taking it off.

Sightseeing & Observations

Florence is overrated

Florence v. Cinque Terre

I might be in the minority on this, but if you’re not into Renaissance art, Florence is a bore.  Day tripping to the coastline or to wine country is a better idea.  I spent three days in Florence, one of which was spent on a day trip to the Cinque Terre coastline.  It was a guided tour of the five villages which included transportation – a round trip shuttle, a train ride, a ferry – and ample time to relax and roam about in Monterrosso (the largest of the villages).

Visit the Sacre-Cœur in Montmartre vs. going up the Eiffel Tower

Sacre-Cœur in Montmartre v Eiffel Tower

While in Paris, I visited the Sacre-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre.  Per the church’s website, it is the highest point in Paris after the Eiffel Tower.  The view was incredible, not to mention free and with no long lines as is the case with the Eiffel Tower (which you can also see from SacreCœur!).

Eat at Alfredo’s Fresh Pasta To Go in Venice

You go into this tiny “kitchen”, order a meat, a sauce, a pasta type (fusilli, rigatoni, alfi, or fettuccine) and specify how you want it cooked – choose al dente to be a true Italian. Your pipin’ hot and fresh pasta meal is served through the kitchen window, in a Chinese food carryout box with a long spork.  Delicious, and so inexpensive (~6 euro) that you’ll want to try all of the combinations!

Other Tips

Don’t stress about your phone usage

You are likely not going to be making calls or texting friends back home.  Don’t purchase international plans.  Don’t unlock your phone so that you can get a Europe SIM card.  Simply turn off ‘Cellular Data’ and ‘Data Roaming’ on your phone.  Then, use your phone to access free Wi-Fi at hotels and elsewhere to check email or catch up on Facebook.

Pickpocketing isn’t as common as you think

The advice I read on Europe travels recommended money-belts, neck wallets, bra wallets, and other ways to trick pickpockets.  Just leave your valuables (i.e. passport) at the hotel safe, don’t carry a bunch of cash, and pay attention to the people around you.  Carry a cross-body bag and keep the bag in front of your body at all times.  But really, it’s not as bad as you’re made to believe.

Travel Diaries

There is no shortage of travel articles arguing when the best time to travel is, where to go, and how to best experience each location. While there is some truth to these pieces of advice, the fact of the matter is that the quality of any experience is dependent on what you make of it.

Travel Dairies

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be presenting a series of travel diaries – contributions from friends, as well as stories from our own travel experiences.

Speaking from personal experience, is there nothing more aggravating than looking back at travel photos and not being able to recall where a certain picture was taken.  While I’d like to believe that I have memory like an elephant, this was a dilemma I wanted to avoid for this trip. With an itinerary of seven cities in ten days, I was bound to forget a landmark or two.

Travel Dairies Supplies

My solution was to keep a travel diary. The goal was to jot down highlights of each city and interesting facts learned. To solve the picture dilemma, my Instax Mini camera came into play and postcards were number one on the shopping agenda.

Initially, the plan was to bring the diary around with me and document on the go, but the notebook became bulkier than expected quickly. So instead, I updated the journal at the end of each day. Faux-laroids and postcards were attached to pages using washi tape and paperclips.