We have always had reservations about travelling to Russia in part due to its lengthy visa process and of course all the negative press the country receives especially regarding current political issues. But after hearing so many people rave about it we simply knew we had to add it to our list of places to visit before we moved back to Australia. After a relatively comfortable overnight bus from Helsinki (see here for more details), we arrived in St Petersburg at 5.30am to cloudy skies and empty streets. We immediately headed to the train station to withdraw some cash and headed to a parked taxi where the young driver who didn’t speak any English refused to take us to our hostel (probably because it was only a 10 minute journey). We quickly figured out ‘Plan B’, walked into the nearest metro and decoded the name of the station (in Russian) by comparing it to the metro map we had downloaded onto our phones earlier. After purchasing tickets, we scanned through the barriers and hopped on the train. After two stops we realised that we were in fact heading in the wrong direction, got off and ran over to the opposite platform towards the train heading the other way. Eventually we made it to hostel located in the popular Nesky Prospect district and went straight back to bed eventually waking up at 11am!
Now before I go on to describing all the wonderful sites that this city has to offer, I must tell you about a rather frightening experience we had on our first day exploring the city. As we attempted to board a metro train, I noticed a lot of people pushing and shoving as they were leaving the train, assuming that it must have been quite a packed train when in fact it was completely empty. Next thing I see Jason grab a large Russian man and push him off the train. I had no idea what was going on until the doors closed and we were on the train. It turns out 3 large men were attempting to block Jason and steal his wallet from his front jeans pocket. It was only his quick thinking and the fact enough that he was strong enough to push them off that he was able to prevent them from actually getting away with anything. Needless to say we were both shaken by this incident but did not want it to mar our experience. It has just made us super cautious with our belongings.
Moving onto the city itself. It is a surprisingly very colourful city with buildings painted in a multitude of pastel colours. The streets are wide, the people dressed quite modernly and there are no high-rise buildings anywhere in sight which is fantastic. All the signs are in Russian which does make it a little difficult at times and really only young people working at places targeting tourists can speak English. Now the Russian demeanour is an unusual one; they don’t generally smile and aren’t particulalry friendly, but at the same time they are not rude. This is just their culture and what they are used to which meant we had to quickly get used to it too.
We dedicated 4 whole days to Russia’s most cosmopolitan city, so what did we get up to during this time?
St Petersburg Free Walking Tour
As usual this was our starting point to get our bearings around the city. Our guide ‘Vlad’ was fantastic and took us on a 2.5 hour tour of this incredible city. The city of St Petersburg is named after both Saint Peter and Tsar Peter the Great who was the man who founded the city and commenced building it in 1703, prior to this it was only a collection of a few small fishing villages. It was Russia’s Capital during the early 18th century for nearly 200 years but of course was demoted once Moscow took the crown.
Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace
This was the formal Royal Palace of the Russian dynasty and was designed by an Italian architect. The Tsars used it as their place of residence during the Winter months. It was commissioned by Empress Elizabeth who unfortunately died before its completion which took 8 years in total. It was Empress Catherine who took her place and who was a huge lover of art and had a large private collection of artwork which back then was not open to the public. She named the collection the ‘Hermitage’ because she considered it her own little private retreat. Now it is the ‘Hermitage Museum’, hosting one of the world’s largest art collections wiht more than 1000 exhibits on display.
We spent more than 2 hours here which is pretty good for people who have very little appreciation of art. We specicially chose to see the most popular exhibits which had been clearly marked on the map. To say this place is huge is an understatement. The corridors seem to go on forever and the tourists look like ants from a distance. I can see how an art enthusiast could easily spend 3-4 days here going through the exhibits but also admiring the beautifully decorated ceilings in each room. We personally enjoyed the contemporary exhibit located in the building across from the Winter Palace as it had pieces which more reflected the current times.
Fun Fact: There are approximately 50 cats living in the basement that take care of any rats. The cats often end up having kittens which are adopted out to local residents. Once a year in April the basement is opened up to the public to meet the cats.
Check out our blog on ‘How to avoid the queues at the Hermitage museum‘
This is a victory monument located in Palace Square and is dedicated to the Russian Tsar Alexander the First who defeated Napolean whose armies were not prepared for the harsh Russian Winter. The architect of the monument deliberately made the column a few centimetres taller than Napolean’s monument in France just as a final kick in the guts. It is 47 metres tall and is made of a single piece of granite. It took 300 men to make it and it is not actually fixed to the ground but has been standing for over 180 years!
Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood
Probably one of the most unique buildings in this city, the church is built in a Russian Revival Style and is famous for its colourful domes and spires. It was built in memory of the Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated by a radical right wing group on the cobblestones that the church has now been built on top of. The exact site that he was killed on has still been left untouched and can be seen in the church as exposed cobblestones surrounded by a shrine. The interior of this church is one of he most beautiful we’ve ever seen; it is completely covered from top to bottom in colourful mosaics which if seen from a distance can easily be mistaken as paintings. Entry is 250 Rubles before 6pm.
St Isaacs Cathedral
This was the main Cathedral during the Russian Empire and the one that is here today is the 4th version of it (after being reconstructed 3 previous times). It is dedicated to the Patron Saint of Peter the Great and is the 4th biggest domed cathedral in Europe with a capacity of 15,000 people. It took a total of 40 years to complete and was designed by the same French architect who did the Alexander Column. Legend has it that this architect had been told that he would die in the same year the Cathedral was completed, so he deliberately delayed the completion of the building. He died a month after the grand opening.
We decided to climb to the roof for the panoramic view rather than go inside the actual church (having seen far too many churches through our travels) and are so glad we did this. The walk up is 42 metres and over 200 steps and is well worth it for the extensive views of the city. It actually is quite difficult to comprehend just how big the city is until you see it from this perspective. Tickets cost 200 rubles.
Peterhoff Palace (The Summer Palace)
Located on an island just over 20km away from St Petersburg is the spectacular Peterhoff Palace. Known for its immaculate gardens and incredible fountains, it was built with the idea of ‘Versaille’ in mind. We took the 45 minute hydrofoil (enclosed speed boat) (700 rubles each) to the island and wondered around for several hours trying to figure out how on earth could someone have been so wealthy to have been able to afford all of this! Definitely worth checking out!
State Museum of Political History of Russia
This has got to be the most underated museum in St Petersburg, probably because it is not located near the other major attractions. It delvs into much of the Soviet history and even covers up to the point Putin became President. It’s a very modern and interactive museum and a great one for the history buffs. Entry is 200 rubles and audio guides are also available.
So that’s a wrap. St Petersburg … wow! We can certainly see why everyone on the web recommended over 3 days here! It’s a huge city with plenty to see. Despite a bit of a rocky start we still managed to make the most of the city and its certainly has given us a better perspective of the country. Would certainly recommend this city for anyone into history and the arts.
Till next time
Ann & Jason xo