The lovable city of Saint Petersburg. The jewel of Russia its culture, arts, location, architecture and bohemian attitude are all attributes that the capital Moscow lacks but Sankt P, as it’s affectionately known by the locals, has in abundance.
Getting around St Petersburg is simple. The metro goes everywhere with the maps being written in both Latin and Cyrillic. Exiting from Gostinyy Dvor metro station the streets of Nevsky Prospekt are draped in Christmas splendour. The city, even at this time, is one of the most vibrant in Europe. Checking in at 07:30 at the Apple Hostel our girl on the desk is kind enough to offer us our beds straight away. Declining we decide to head straight out to the streets after our tantalising first taste.
There’s so much to keep one occupied for days, from churches to galleries, museums to nightlife. Obvious to the fact that not everything could be seen in our five days with New Year’s Eve in between following for your ease (or for our writing ease) are our highlights.
Seeing the sights
Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood
2, Naberezhnaya Kanala Griboedova
If you haven’t been to St. Basils in Moscow then this is right up there with it in the strange use of colour and style of architecture which we found better. A striking contrast against the clear blue skies it’s built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II (the Liberator) was assassinated in March 1881. If you think the outside’s impressive wait until you get in. Handing over the RUB250 entry we follow the queue inside.
The walls, ceiling and floors are covered in intricately pieced mosaics that at first look like paintings. A closer look reveals the painstaking detail that each piece, not more than 1.5 centimetres squared, combines into these religious masterpieces. It contains over 7,500 square meters of mosaic, according to its restorers more than any other church in the world. Be sure to check out the shrine at the altar as it’s the exact place that Alexander II was killed.
Museum of Soviet Arcade Games
A working collection of Soviet arcade games that you can play! The girl at the desk spoke great English as she helped us through the instructions of various games. Shooting games, basketball, ice hockey and submarine-blowing-up-ship games (Soviet remember) our RUB450 each gave us 15 game tokens resulting in over an hour of fun. Some of the machines are still under repair and our host tells us that most of the machines are ripoffs of American games of the time.There’s also an old school Kvas soda machine so sipping on the ‘bread drink’ (RUB50) we grab a few of the free props and take some shots in the old school photo booth (RUB100).
Stroll along Neva Embankment from the South Bank
Walking along as chunks of ice flow down the Neva, colliding into one another as you gaze over to the Peter and Paul Fortress is special. The reflections between the ice flow makes for a different angle on the impressive fort. Pop into Taiga Space for a creative buzz and some unique clothing, jewellery and interior design shopping. Further along there’s the pair of Rostral Columns traditionally used as a symbol of Victory by the navy in ancient Greek and Roman times.
Climb the tower of St. Isaac’s Cathedral
4, Isaakievskaya Square
For a commanding view over the entire city of St. Petersburg a full 360 degree walk around the tower will give you a perspective of this sprawling city. Climb those 300 steps! From the dockyards to the Church of Our Savior of the Spilled Blood you can see it all for just RUB150.
The Hermitage and Winter Palace
Palace Square, 2
Started on the 1st Floor to take in the over-the-top yet breathtaking Palace Interiors. Scattered throughout these rooms you’ll find works of art by famous painters such as Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, in fact the only Ninja Turtle you won’t find represented here is Donatello. We found it entertaining to plan how we’d use each room during a music festival and managed to plan one hell of party (if only). Skipping through the French rooms we took some time wandering through the Russian Culture rooms (well worth it, you are after all in Russia) before realising time was almost up and headed to the Ground Floor which we had all to ourselves.
Covering Siberia, Central Asia, Greek, Roman, Eurasian, Caucasus and Egypt we were surprised there was nobody else here. We found some of these rooms the most interesting, especially some of the artifacts from ancient Siberia, far older and more advanced than you’d think, including tattooed mummies. A small room tucked away at the back also holds the fascinating ‘Art of Arms and Armour in the Near East 15-19th cc’, with some incredibly artfully decorated guns and other weapons. You could spend hours in this museum, and we did, eventually being kicked out when the doors closed at 9pm.
Saint Petersburg Mosque
Kronverkskiy prospekt, 7
Didn’t know that there is a massive mosque adjacent to the Peter and Paul Fortress? Neither did we. You’re allowed to go inside even if you are a female though, as usual, no photos please. It’s free and with the huge chandelier and mosaics it’s impressive to see both inside and out.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Once a former prison for us the complex wasn’t as impressive as we thought it might be. There’s a few museums within which we weren’t bothered about and you could walk along the walls for a fee (walking the grounds is free). The red brick construction is nice though and the Peter and Paul Cathedral with its huge spire is impressive. The view back to the main part of town as the Neva River was beginning to freeze over was worth the jaunt over the bridge. Sarah even became instafamous.
Museum of the History of Religion
14, Pochtamtskaya Ulitsa
Whilst a greatly appointed museum it lacks any explanations in English which by the end made us a little bored. But lack of English aside there’s some interesting things to see grouped into different rooms by religion. Well worth a visit just to walk the darkened corridor to the elaborate ‘Sukhavati – the Pure Land of Buddha Amitabha’ (The Buddhist Paradise) and if your Russian is up to scratch.
Bronze Horseman Monument
An impressive monument built to Saint Petersburg’s founder Saint Peter the Great it’sone of many bronze statues you’ll find around town. But worth a visit just to say thanks for founding (in our view) Russia’s best city.
Meeting the locals
Tucked behind the McDonald’s Beer Geek is down a flight of stairs and houses around 12 beers on tap and plenty more in the bottle. A good place to meet other people too and we ended up continuing on with a few of them, even meeting the most famous Russian gay celebrity couple on the way.
Пивная Диета (Beer Diet)
Nevskiy Prospekt 130
Again tucked away in a courtyard basement this place is much like the rest and has a good selection of both draft and bottled craft beers exclusively from Russia. Matt particularly liked the fact that the barman had hip hop playing via the Brooklyn Radio website. Being Aussie we also like that they had a beer called the Tasman Diablo IPA and another Black Rye IPA called the Gryzniny Morris.
l . Gorokhovaya 34
Being New Years Eve we just had to drop in here as we passed for a, guess what? Jagermiester. Washing it down with Maissels Weisse beer we then popped into the supermarket across the road for five bottles of USD$2 champagne.
Happy New Year!
Kazanskaya ul., 26
After getting inked it’s tradition for us to grab a beer and Strika 40 was on the way back to the hostel. Walking in you’d be forgiven for thinking the place is a laundromat full of hipsters talking beards and home brewed beer. Nope. The odd drunken crazy gets in here too. One offender was asked to leave, came back in, abused the barman while showering him with spit then left again, standing out the front drinking his own beer from an old plastic bottle. Things die down then all of a sudden an armed police officer enters with his Uzi at the ready. Finding the guy still out the front he promptly puts him in the back seat and hauls him off to the drunk tank.
‘This is Russia’
the barman comments as the DJ cranks up the tunes and the bar gets back to business. Craft beer and cocktails are the choices here.
Stolovaya or Soviet Kitchens
These are super cheap eats and depending on how busy they are food will be constantly fresh. Everything is laid out in front of you for you to choose so no having to decipher confusing menus and you’re served immediately so no having to wait for your order to arrive when you’ve overindulged with the locals at one of the venues above.. Below are the best ones we visited.
- Bistro Apple (Bistro яблоко, Pochtamtskiy per., 6) – Super cheap business lunches though the green interior could send you loopy after a few visits. You could always try to red room opposite.
- Stolovaya No1, (Столовая No.1, All over town) – Favourites of locals and tourists alike. Best range and in the half dozen times we dined here the food was super fresh.
Getting some new ink!
Art Of Pain
Main Studio at Lenin 43A
No, not a dungeon full of the S&M fetish freaks, that’s another story. This is a tattoo studio where we decided to get a memento of St Petersburg because we loved our time in this city so much. The Studio was kind of closed for the holiday period though one of the staff from Apple Hostel works the desk here part time so got us in. The guys are super professional and friendly so Sarah ended up with a Russian doll and Matt with an anchor, fitting for a port town like Sankt P.
And don’t forget…
Due to embargos by most of the Western world Russian banks are sticking it back up at us. In the 30 days we spent in Russia the highest amount of cash we could withdraw from an ATM was RUB10,000 (roughly £100 or USD$150). Most times the limit was 5,000. Our suggestion is to bring GBP, EUR or USD cash or use your credit card as much as possible thus avoiding unwanted ATM charges.
nab. Reki Fontanki, 21
Unfortunately for us there was only two English tours left for the day and we had an appointment to get tattoos. Go early to ensure you get a tour in English.
The Cuba Hostel
Kazanskaya ul., 5,
We moved here for New Years as a private room was the cheapest in town and it’s got a great central location. Though we did like the Apple Hostel very much. The lounge area was nice and large, the staff friendly, the kitchen and dining area well equipped and spacious. The only downside, the bedding was a little small and people would smoke in the stairwell (standard Russian practice) which would eventually drift into the hostel and our room.
Buying train tickets out of St Petersburg
You can check Russian train timetables, availability and prices in English on RZD’s website. You can also buy tickets online though we found the amount of conditions and jargon a little daunting so preferred to buy at the ticket offices in person a couple of days ahead. Just write your destination, preferred time and class in Russian and hand it to the cashier with your passport and a smile. Works a charm every time. Don’t forget to check your departure station too, in big cities there’s usually more than one.
And so concludes our five days in Saint Petersburg. We’re sure you’d be able to fit more than this in though with New Year’s Eve in there we had no chance. We hope you love this city as much as we did. It’s a shame Russia only gives Australian 30 days as we’d have spent another five days.
Thanks for reading. For more pics of Russia check out our Flickr page.
Tips for Saint Petersburg
- If arriving for the first time into Russian on an overland route make sure you get your Russian visa registered at your first accommodation. Some hostels, like Apple, will register your for your entire stay saving you time and money down the line.
- Train travel is fun. Don’t know what it is but be love it. A few tips from us…
- Third Class (Platzkart) is the option we prefer and not just due to the price. The ventilation in these carriages is far better than 1st or 2nd class. The beds aren’t as long as the upper two classes and if you at least six feet tall you’ll constantly have your feet bumped. To get around this get a bed parallel with the corridor.
- Second Class (Kupe) if others want the compartment door closed you’re at their mercy. The attendants must sleep in less that warm compartments and crank the heat up to cremation temperatures. But the beds are longer and you’ll have a higher degree of privacy.
- First Class (Spalny Vagon) you’re able to get at a really cheap price at times and if you and your significant other want some privacy or you want to have a beer with mate book one of these.
- Check out http://www.saint-petersburg.com/ for more information that may be of interest.