I had forgotten how beautiful St Petersburg is. I last visited in 2012, when mum and I went on a cruise around Scandinavia and the Baltic. We spent two days in St Petersburg, but it was really just one day in the city. The other day was spent at Pushkin, the area formerly favoured by the last Russian royal family. However, having three full days to explore the city – and a bit of time either side of this – was a real treat.
Moscow was the first stop on my trip, to visit Sapphire, Charlie and Alexandra. I spent three days there but didn’t really do anything very touristy. We went for a wander through the old Arbat, visited the art shop at the central children’s store, and returned to the Hermitage Gardens. I also got a stunning view of Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The absence of St Nicholas’ rib-bone meant I could get a lot closer, but it was shut by the time I got there. This was the cathedral I spoke about in my earlier post on Russia, where the last Romanov’s were canonized.
My flight to St Petersburg was on the 8th of August. I’d spent the morning racing around apartments with Sapphire and Alexandra, and then sprinted to my cab. Of course, we hit massive traffic on the way to the airport. It took me one and a half hours to get to Sheremetyevo. The line to the bag drop moved incredibly slowly. Thirty minutes before my flight, I dropped my bag off and ran to the gate. I wondered whether my bag would make it to St Petersburg. Spoiler alert: it did not.
Luckily, my transfer at Pulkovo waited for me, and I filed my lost bag report before heading to the hotel. The hotel was lovely, and the staff helpful. With toothbrush, comb and not much else, I checked into my room. Exhausted, but in desperate need of clean clothes, I headed down to Nevsky Prospekt. Nevsky Prospekt is the main drag of St Petersburg, lined with beautiful palaces, buildings, shops and restaurants. The scenery is so pretty, I got delayed several times. The walk from the hotel took me past the Rostral Columns, over the Palace Bridge and past the Winter Palace. With the sun setting, the light was lovely. After much frustration, I finally grabbed some t-shirts from Zara, went to the supermarket for emergency socks, and got an Uber to the hotel. Alexander didn’t speak any English, and I spoke no Russian, but I made it back – and for only 175 roubles.
Getting up the next morning to no bag – surprise! – I determined I would do my best to enjoy myself. I had pre-booked a ticket to the Hermitage, the massive museum complex in the Winter Palace. It looks big from the outside, although not as big as I expected, funnily enough. But inside? Massive. It cost $20USD for the advance ticket – as opposed to 700 roubles on buy on the day – but it was well worth it. Instead of waiting an hour, I waited ten minutes to get in. Interestingly, you enter from a different place if you pre-book tickets. This meant I had several rooms – mainly Greek antiquities – to myself. By the time I located the popular Russian palace interior rooms, however, it was getting busy. I saw St Georges Hall, the former throne room and site of the opening of the first ill-fated Duma. I saw the famous Jordan Staircase, the main entrance to the palace. The Malachite Room was less impressive than expected but historically important – it was the seat of the Provisional Government in 1917. The adjacent dining room was where its members were arrested. The Nicholas Hall was, sadly, obstructed by a modern art exhibition – I would have loved to have seen the sheer size of it. It was converted into a hospital during World War One. The palace was enormous and didn’t really seem to follow a logical pattern. I skipped large tracts of it – mainly foreign artworks – and still spent about four hours wandering through. I had walked over eight kilometres by the time I left. Every single room – and there are 1500 of them, though I’m not sure how many are open to the public – seems to be different. This is a remarkable change from most palaces I have visited. It was quite hot, and I imagine it’s absolutely freezing in winter. However, it is well worth a visit. There is so much history in the palace. While not everything is annotated in English, you can read up about many of the rooms online. The State Rooms are highly recommended.
I took the quieter back road to the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. It is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever visited. Mum and I saw the exterior in 2012, but didn’t enter the church. I was glad I had the opportunity to this time. The church was built on the spot where Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, was mortally wounded on his way back to the Winter Palace. The People’s Will, a political terrorist organisation, threw a bomb under his carriage, damaging but not destroying it. However, Alexander made the mistake of climbing out of the carriage to check the damage. A second terrorist threw a bomb directly at the Tsar, blowing his legs off and his stomach open. He died a few hours later, in front of his son – Alexander III – and grandson, Nicholas II. This may explain why the progressive policies of Alexander II were not continued to by his son or grandson. If you saw that granting rights and freedoms to your people gets you blown up, you might have been a little hesitant, as well.
The church is designed in a traditional Russian style. The inside is full of beautiful mosaics, and like the cathedrals of the Kremlin, every surface of the building is covered. The ceilings are amazing. There is a small shrine built over the actual spot where the bomb went off. While busy, it wasn’t unbearable, and I only waited about 10 minutes to get in. It is one of the must-see sights of St Petersburg – or, in fact, Russia.
I browsed the little souvenir markets along the canal – all hideously overpriced, and no one was very willing to haggle! Instead, I wandered down to Griboyedov Canal. Coming across the famous Singer House, I found the same prints on offer for 400 roubles at the outdoor market for 38 roubles each. Seriously, avoid that place. I was getting pretty hungry by this stage. Luckily, Sapphire had introduced me to a delicious Russian chain – Dve Palochki – that offers a three-course business lunch, Monday to Friday, for 370 roubles. Best of all, it has an English menu, and you can pretty much point at what you want. Fantastic. There are a huge number of these stores throughout St Petersburg. I actually went back to them for dinner that night at the Galleria Mall, and it was still very reasonable – about 800 roubles.
Russia pretty much has the worst toilets that I have ever seen. I remembered that my ticket to the Hermitage had also included a ticket to the General Staff Building. So, I decided to wander back towards the Hermitage, because I figured the toilets would be better than the public ones. I had no intention of actually going to the museum. When I got there, however, I decided to have a look around. It was actually very cool! A lot of the exhibitions were modern art, but I stumbled across an exhibition on Faberge, a number of refurbished Empire rooms, and some very famous paintings. I spent about two hours looking through the collection, which was – blissfully – air-conditioned. It was also about ten times less busy than the Hermitage/Winter Palace, so a good respite from the crowds.
By this stage, I’d rung my hotel to confirm whether my bag had arrived… it had not. So I wandered to the metro station Admiralteyskaya and caught the metro – 45 roubles, and they still use tokens – to Ploschad’ Vosstaniya. On the walk to Galleria, I saw the Leningrad Hero City Obelisk – erected on the fortieth anniversary of the Red Army’s victory in World War Two. Leningrad was the name of St Petersburg from 1924 – 1991, when it was under Soviet rule. Over 1 million Leningrader’s died during the dramatic Siege of Leningrad, where the Germans (and Finns) blocked all entry routes into the city from September 1941 to January 1944. In Palace Square, I also saw a number of military vehicles that took part in the siege, some of them recovered from the depths of the Neva. I managed to find a few items of clothing at the mall, caught the metro back towards the hotel, and wandered back to my room.
The hotel I stayed in – the Solo Hotel Sokos Palace Bridge – was actually very nice. While located slightly away from Nevsky Prospekt, it’s a lovely walk into the city. It also is in a great site for walking to the Fortress of St Peter and Paul. The breakfast was delicious, and I loved the Russian pancakes. I ate dinner one night at the Mediterranean restaurant, and ordered room service one – both were very good, if a little expensive. It also apparently has an amazing pool area and spa. The front desk staff spoke excellent English, and kept me up to date on the state of the missing bag. They rang the airport several times for me to follow-up with Aeroflot. I’d highly recommend looking into staying at the Solo Hotel Sokos Palace Bridge, if you are heading to St Petersburg.
The next day, I decided to take it a bit easier. After breakfast, I wandered towards St Isaacs Cathedral, passing the Admirality Building. I saw the Bronze Horseman, a massive statue of Peter the Great. The stone it stands on – the Thunder Stone – apparently is the largest individual stone moved by human hands. It is one of four massive statues to Peter the Great in the city. After this, I headed into St Isaacs Cathedral. Like the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, I had seen this from the outside only on my last trip to St Petersburg. I actually feel it’s not a particularly attractive building from the outside. Inside, it is far more ornate, filled with mosaics and sculptures. It was also a lot bigger than expected. I decided to get some exercise and climbed the 262 steps to the colonnade, which offered a great view of the city.
After visiting St Isaacs, I wandered past the equestrian statue of Nicholas I and the Hotel Astoria. Hitler apparently planned on hosting a bash at the Astoria to mark the surrender of the Russians during World War Two, even going so far as printing invitations. They obviously weren’t utilised. I then decided to test my luck at the Central Post Office (great success!) before heading to Cats Republic, a cat café.
In all my travels, I’ve never actually been to a cat café. Since I was on my own, with no allergic-to-cats-husband in tow, I was determined to visit one. I found Cats Republic near the post office and met a lovely girl who spoke excellent English. I paid my 300 roubles, washed my hands and put on the (very Russian) shoe covers, and waited my turn to enter. After saying the not so secret password… meow meow meow, which apparently transliterates well – I wandered into kitty paradise.
There were 24 resident cats, and a young Russian guy who spoke excellent English told me all of their names. He had information on all the different cats and their breeds. There was such a variety! Abyssinian, Bengal, Munchkin, Persian, Sphynx, Rex, British Blue, Maine Coon and general moggy. All of the cats were very well cared for, and you could tell they were loved by the way they responded to the staff. The general rule was to let the cats come to you instead of bothering them, but they were all a chilled bunch. I spent time with Charlie – a Sphynx – and Maru, who was previously a mouser at the Hermitage. A little munchkin I have forgotten the name of loved having his tummy rubbed, but he was so cute. I spent a very enjoyable hour playing with the kitties before heading on.
I then wandered down to Yusopov Palace. This palace was the site of the murder of Rasputin, a Siberian peasant turned holy man who managed to obtain the favor of the last Tsar and his family. Those of a certain age may remember him better thanks to the Boney M song. It was at the Yusopov Palace that Rasputin was fed tea cakes laced with cyanide. When he didn’t succumb to these, he was shot and thrown in the Neva. His autopsy revealed that he actually died of drowning. When I visited the palace and asked for a ticket to the room where Rasputin was shot, I was told to return at 5pm for the reenactment. I was a little concerned that I would end up in some awkward room with lame Russian actors, so decided to pass. I walked past the Marinsky Theatre (covered in scaffolding) and back to Nevsky Prospekt. After a tasty late lunch of soup and Russian dumplings at Katyusha, I headed back to the hotel, and fell promptly asleep.
The next day, I woke up again to no news on the bag. After being put on hold by Aeroflot for 20 minutes, I went down to reception to find it sitting there! Hoorah! It had arrived at 1am. In a much-improved mood, I walked to the Peter and Paul Fortress. This large defensive fortress on Zayachy (Hare) Island was one of the earliest developments of the city. I firstly visited the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul. This is where many famous Romanov’s – including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Alexander the II and III – are buried. In the annex is the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, along with the bodies of some of their retainers. Well, apparently. The bones have been buried and dug up three times for confirmation that they are the royal bones. For some reason, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t agree with the DNA evidence proving their authenticity. They sit in a small annex, their tombs under the floor. It is a bit of a sad sight, really.
It was a very hot day, and as my entry ticket included a range of museums, I figured I’d visit to get out of the heat. When I bought my ticket, I wondered why the woman was so rude to me and didn’t give me a map. I had stood in the sun for about ten minutes and was feeling a bit grim. Instead of saying spaaseeba – thank you – I actually said хрю-хрю, khryoo khryoo. That basically means oink oink. Oops. I watched the cannon be fired from the Naryshkin Bastion and the changing of the guards, and visited the slightly dull museums of St Petersburg and the Neva Wall. I also saw the fantastically creepy statue of Peter the Great, which apparently gives an exact rendition of his proportions. If so, that man had a pin head and freakishly large hands. After downing a $1 hot dog (surprisingly good), I visited the Trubetskoy Bastion. Here, I saw the cells where some famous prisoners – such as Aleksandr Ulyanov (Lenin’s brother) and Leon Trotsky – were held. It was also the prison where many people connected to the royal family were held during the Russian Revolution, such as Anna Vyrubova.
On the way out, I also visited the Museum of Cosmonautics and Space Technology. While not a patch on the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, it was still a neat visit. The main discovery I made was that cats have been launched in rockets. I am not kidding. I had no idea! There was a picture on the wall of a kitty called ‘Felicette’. That night, I did some googling, and found out that the French Space Programme launched two kitties into space in the 1960s. One didn’t survive, and poor old Felicette was put down after several months so the French could examine her brain. Poor baby. At least she did better than Laika. Thankfully, the other astro-cats on the programme were retired and adopted out. If you want to watch a rather strange French video on Felicette’s odyssey, look no further.
While finding out about the existence of space cats was a definite highlight of the day, I then walked to the Russian Museum of Political History. Unknown to me prior to my visit, it is located in the former home of Mathilde Kschessinska, a famous Russian ballerina. She was also well-known for having a fling with Tsar Nicholas II. In 1917, Lenin purloined her mansion for his use, and it became the Bolshevik headquarters of the city. This museum was an interesting one. While some of the exhibits were a bit specialised, the main exhibits were honest in a way I hadn’t yet seen in Russia. They frankly described the trials of life under Soviet rule. If you have any interest in Russian political history, this modern museum is certainly worth a visit. The permanent exhibitions have English translations available in each room. Just down the road from the museum is the beautiful St Petersburg Mosque, if you also want to quickly take a look at the exterior.
Next on my list was the original cabin of Peter the Great. This was a bit deceiving. I had read it was a little wooden shed, but I arrived to find a stone building. Hmm. Once inside, I realized the stone building was built OVER the wooden structure. This protected it from the elements. It certainly isn’t an impressive cabin. To me, that anyone planned a city as grandiose as St Petersburg from a shack is incredible. It only took about 10 minutes to look at, but I was delighted to find more kitties to play with in its gardens.
Wandering across the river and through the Field of Mars, I then head to the Faberge Museum. I passed a tiny bird statue (Chizhik-Pyzhik), with dozens of people trying to throw coins at it. I also passed St Michaels Castle. This castle was built for Paul II, who was concerned with the safety of the Winter Palace. Ironically, he was murdered 40 days after moving into the finished castle. It later ended up housing the St Petersburg engineers college.
The Faberge Museum was pretty cool. While small, it had a range of Faberge items. As Faberge was around in the late 1800s and early 1900s, much of his work related to the last Romanovs. Most of all, I visited to see the beautiful Faberge eggs on display. I’ve always loved those eggs and the history behind them. While I saw a few of them in the Kremlin last month, several of the most beautiful were on display at the museum. I also saw many other trinkets and items designed by Faberge, and enjoyed a delicious late lunch of Borscht and Honey Cake at the café.
On my last day, it was raining. I thought I would visit the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Upon inspection of the very long line, I determined this was not a good idea. I instead went to the Zoological Museum. The shorter line should have been a hint. Along with the fact that many of the items were stuffed in the 18th and 19th century. Have you ever heard of the Gripsholm Lion? Basically, a lion passed away and was sent to a taxidermist, but all that remained were the bones and pelt. The taxidermist did his best, but the result was hilarious. This museum was kind of like that, but 4000 times repeated. Some areas were fine. Whoever stuffed the birds did okay. However, most of the larger mammals had weirdly anthropomorphized facial features. It had far too many dead baby penguins for my liking. It also had what I believe was half a woolly mammoth. The Russians loved the place. So many proud selfies. If you were following on my Snapchat story that day, you were in for a real treat.
And with that, I concluded my time in St Petersburg, flying home on Emirates who, thankfully, did not lose my bag! If I was to suggest a three-day itinerary to see the sights of St Petersburg, I would suggest:
Day One: pre-book and visit the Hermitage Museum. Wander through Palace Square to Nevsky Prospekt, grab some lunch. Walk down past the markets to the Church on the Spilled Blood. Head back to the General Staff Building. Head back down Nevsky Prospekt and see the Singer House, Stroganoff Palace and the Kazan Cathedral.
Day Two: Walk past the Rostral Columns to Peter and Paul Fortress. Visit the Fortress, including the Cathedral and Jail. Watch the cannon and the changing of the guards at 12pm. Grab a snack for lunch or visit Koryushka, the popular restaurant facing the city. Wander to the Political History Museum, see the St Petersburg Mosque and visit the Cabin of Peter the Great. You may also like to visit the Aurora Cruiser.
Day Three: Visit one of the surrounding towns – Pushkin or Peterhof. You can tack on a visit to the Faberge Museum onto any day, as it often opens late.
Hotel: Solo Hotel Sokos Palace Bridge, Birzhevoy per., 2, Sankt-Peterburg. From 250AED per night.
Visit: See links throughout the article. There is just so much to do!