It’s amazing that a city can be so compellingly beautiful while as overwhelmingly dwarfing. St Petersburg is a magnificent testament to the pomp, grandeur and single-minded ambition of the mighty Emperor Peter the Great (the city’s not named after him apparently, he just happened to share his name with the patron saint that he named it after). It appears that he (the emperor) is also considered one of the good guys, but there might have been some disgruntled opinion to the contrary from the thousands that broke their backs and gave their lives building this city on the swamps by the banks of the Baltic Sea. A city that was meant to be reminiscent of Amsterdam, on the whim, fancy and will of said emperor. About three centuries later, the inhabitants and visitors stand to gain. There is no nay-saying its charm, with its many rivers, canals and bridges, its candy-coloured, icing-edged buildings, domes, spires and sweeping avenues; but it is mostly immense – everything has a larger-than-thou aspect to it that first commands awe and worship before you ease into familiarity.
It is not a bad idea to brush up on your Cyrillic script before heading to Russia. Most signs are unapologetically in Russian and though people are by and large helpful (don’t judge them by their reluctance to smile), the language barrier still exists, unless you can pinpoint the university student or tourist-caterer. At the very least, it is singularly helpful if you want to identify the metro stations, or street names, or comprehend that something advertised as POÐ¯A is nothing more risquÃ© than ‘royal’. Language aside, getting around in the city is simple enough. It has a most efficient metro system that is worth a visit in itself. Due to the fact that it brushes up against the sea, it descends into the very bowels of the earth and, like the monuments above, are deep, vast and grandiose below. There are also the buses, trams and the trolleybuses but, with these, you should pretty much know where you are going.
A single ticket should cost you in the region of 15 roubles (1 rouble=â‚¹1.5 approx.). You can normally find various deals, like the ‘120 roubles for ten trips on all public transport’ cards.
As for cabs, just about every other car is one. But you quickly get used to identifying them. Put your hand out or even just look significantly at the cars rolling past, someone will stop. A destination, an agreed fee (within reasonable distances between 100 and 200 roubles) and off you go.
While I didn’t partake of the famous ‘white nights’ (where the sun never sets), I did have a benign August, where it would have been a shame to do anything but do what I did for the most part–walk, stroll and ramble through the city.
What to See & Do
There will always be the dilemma of what one did do, could have done, should have done (and variations on the theme) in 48 hours, but you have to trust me here – even just two days in St Pete cannot disappoint. I did have the weather gods on my side in August of 2009–perfect temperatures, some negligible warm drizzle, the sun glinting off the waters and shimmering off the golden spires on the long, long hours of sunlight, far too glorious to entertain confined activity. I shall hang my head and admit I did not feast my eyes on the manifold wonders and collections housed in the Hermitage Museum – good intentions were swiftly compromised by long queues (should have bought tickets in advance at hermitagemuseum.org; from $17.95).
I trotted off instead with a map to various sights. (I did not have a fixed plan, which might be a good thing to have in advance over 48 hours.) Starting at long, wide, central Nevsky Prospekt Avenue is a good bet. Then whether you swing left or right, you will cross monument after cathedral after park after museum, bridge after bridge.
Admittedly, sightseeing here is a bit of a pain in the neck – literally. Impossible to take in from close quarters, the towering monuments have doors that would have admitted giants. At some point, you need to feel lofty too – get thee to St Isaac’s Cathedral and feast your eyes on the panoramic view. A good second option for a less lofty view – but the possibility of a restorative coffee with cookies – is the terrace cafe at the Moikazz Kempinski hotel. As for museums, there is such an embarrassment of choice: museums of Bread, Erotica, Toys, Dostoyevsky or Freud. Or the Naval or Artillery or one of many other museums housed across the Neva river in the Peter and Paul Fortress with its signature golden dome and spire and clock tower.
If you are not into solitary rambles through parks and across bridges, with a monument every stone’s throw away (figuratively – you really don’t want to mess with anything the size of what you get in Russia, from things to people), get with the programme on offer. There’s none better, apparently, for the English-speaking visiting masses than the walking and biking tours of the city (from approx. $20; peterswalk.com). Or succumb to one of the many wielding their megaphones, wooing you a wee too loudly into their special tour down a canal for trips ranging from 20 to 100 dollars. How far wrong can it go?
One of my personal favourites is The Church of the Saviour of Spilt Blood. If the nomenclature does not work for you, the colour should – far from being bloody, it is a psychedelic winding candy-striped chorus to jubilatory exultation. If that sounds excessive, take a look at the photograph; the architect was tripping more than I was. There’s a market across from the church, which would be dismissed as a tourist trap by most, and which is a perfect joy, because it has all the things they knew you would want to take home: from babushka dolls to sinister magnets, glittering necklaces to shot glasses – every kind of proof that you went to Russky-land.
On my walking trail, everything begins and ends at Nevsky Prospect, the principal avenue and tourist centre. Parks abound in the city. A stroll in the Primorsky Victory Park will take you past the villas and mansions of the well-heeled in Krestovsky and Kamenny. For the perfect photo opportunity, go (like every newly married couple) to the strelka of Basil (Vasiliersky) island.
If mere gourmandising and revelry does not drive your evening, you could dose yourself with some fine culture with a ballet at the Meriinsky Theatre (from $6; www.meriinsky.ru). For theatre events, consult the English St Petersburg Times (www.sptimes.ru).
Where to Eat & Drink
You could, of course, be sitting in one of the many luxury hotels of the city and sipping champagne and dipping into some succulent caviar or you could be having that same caviar and vodka shots at a dive. Well, a relative dive–this is a cultured party town. If you want a throwback to decadent Russia with servers in wigs, gramophone records and traditional fare, go for Russkaya at Ryomochnaya No. 1. For a more intimate setting or a vegetarian meal, try the Idiot at 82, Moika Canal (metro: Nevsky Prospekt). The menu includes a “large gentlemen’s kit” speciality meal (a dinner, a litre of vodka and a taxi to the hospital).
It appears that Russia’s best-known dish owes its provenance to impoverished and hungry students. A generous aristocrat, medical students near his palace in Odessa, an improvising cook to feed the increasing and untold numbers – voila, beef stroganov. While the Stroganov Palace is well worth a visit, the best of steaks are to be had at Stroganoff Steakhouse (metro: Sennaya Pl.).
If you do not stop at Stolle (stolle.ru) at Vasilievsky Ostrov (metro: Vasiliostrovskaya or Sportivnaya) for at least a takeaway, you would have missed out on one of the finest offers. Just something as simple as a slice of green-onion pie is so delectable as to be reason enough to return. Time and again.
Then, there’s Rubensteine Street with many options from the Italian Trattoria to Thai food. Or the Georgian restaurant Cat on Stremyannaya Street. Of course you can have borsch (beetroot soup) or pelvaeni (dumplings) or pick up kartoshka (literally, potatoes; a sweet that comprises crushed cookies and rum) just about anywhere. All of this obviously goes down well with a shot of Marusya or other such vodkas.
If you want to do the bar run, head straight to Dumskaya or Lomonosova streets. Start with Dacha or Fiedel and go on for the fun after-parties (4-6am) to Central Station. That last is a gay bar, by the way, which you should know if you’re gay. Or homophobic Amusingly, though, the cover charge for a woman is about four times that for a man. Whatever happened to equality?
A word of advice (that I ignored to my detriment). Pay some attention to which side of the bridges you’re partying on vis-Ã -vis your bed for the night. Somewhere between 1.25 and 5am, the 13 bridges over the Neva rise to let ship traffic pass. You could be in for a long wait if you’re on the wrong side.
Where to Stay
Like everywhere else, there’s the full range of possibilities. One of the better websites (maintained by locals) to run you through the range from hostels to luxury hotels is waytorussia.net. Also useful is inyourpocket.com.
At the higher end, you have hotels like Nevsky Palace Hotel with rooms from $780 (nevskypalace.com) or Grand Hotel Europe with rooms from $300 (grandhoteleurope.com). Middle-range Nevsky Inn from $65 (www.nevskyinn.com) or Randhouse B&B Chains (www.randhouse.ru) from $35 are perfectly acceptable stay options too.
This article was first published in the May 2010 issue of Outlook Traveller