On our last day in St Petersburg we visited the Hermitage art collection. Started by Catherine the II (the Great) as her personal art museum in a structure linked to the winter palace it now covers the entire palace area. The collection is the best I have ever seen (yes including the Louvre). The only reason it isn’t known by most people in the West is due to the Soviet era restrictions and you still have to jump through hoops to get a visa (however it is worth it for this place alone).
The paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci are worth a look, but so too are the sculptures and state rooms. I was very impressed. The palace square was also stunning; Peter the Great had a great vision for this city when he created it. In the afternoon we left for Novgorod and on arrival did a city tour. Highlights include the Millennium Monument (for Russia), the Kremlin fort, and St Sophia Cathedral, which is the oldest in Russia (but was having reconstruction work done). Novgorod was initially the big city in Russia. Ivan the IV (the Terrible) however almost destroyed it completely due to their independence (and democracy arrangements). During World War II the town was occupied by the Germans and in the fighting the town lost over 250,000 residents which are more than the current population.