• Spike

Saint Petersburg - Russia

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Russia had been on my list of countries to visit for some time. Having spent a few years learning the language and being interested in some of the culture, I felt it was finally time to visit Mother Russia.

The visa was not the easiest to obtain, it was actually harder than applying for a visa to China. I actually had to visit the Russian visa centre in person, and it was far from cheap. I think it came to around £150 in total, the visa, an invitation letter and a company to double check everything was correct before visiting the visa centre. If your information is incorrect, you'll still be charged the visa fee but have it rejected, so I advise having an expert check it beforehand. It can be processed in a few days for an even higher price, but I decided to settle for the standard 4 week waiting time.

The easier way to visit Saint Petersburg without a visa would be as part of a cruise. Provided you're staying in the city for less than 72 hours, a visa isn't required. However as part of a cruise I don't think you'd have enough time to truly see the city properly.

I have read that recently Russia are relaxing visa rules for several countries which makes it a lot easier to visit the country. The United Kingdom is not on that list of countries unfortunately.

I decided to visit both Saint Petersburg and Moscow, visiting the former first as the flights were cheaper that way around.

The two cities are very different, and it's hard to say which I preferred. Saint Petersburg is a much more relaxed and chilled out city. It's full or huge buildings, many of which are former palaces. The scale and style of the buildings actually reminded me a little of Vienna, but even Vienna was not at grand as Saint Petersburg.

There's a lot to see in the city, and it is certainly a large city! The metro system is fairly easy to use, and a couple of the stations are so ornate that they are a tourist attraction in themselves.

Many people seem to worry about Russia being dangerous, but Saint Petersburg felt very safe even when walking around alone late at night. I can't say that I even noticed any tourist scams. Obviously keep your head about you just in case, but it felt like walking around any other popular European city.

As Saint Petersburg is so huge, it will be very difficult to fit everything into a short trip. I saw as much as I could, but I have to admit to having aching legs on my final day of exploring, which is something I don't feel too often on my travels. I'm used to walking all day, but it was a big city to walk around.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to see Peter and Paul Fortress, Mariinsky Theatre or Catherine Palace, and I'm sure there were many other sights I missed. However I did manage to fit in a hell of a lot during my short time in the city.

State Hermitage Museum - The Winter Palace

The State Hermitage Museum is spread over six different buildings, the largest of which being The Winter Palace.

It was originally the official residence to former Russian Tsars, up until 1917. Nowadays this huge building houses the State Hermitage Museum, the second largest museum in the world, and housing the largest collection of paintings in the world. It would take months to be able to see everting in this museum, so I'd consider what exhibits you'd like to see before your visit and to try to find them without getting lost. Getting lost is easy in this place, even with a map!

You could also consider arranging a guided tour, which would mean you'd be taken to the best parts and won't have to worry about getting lost. The only downside to this would be having to keep up with the tour and not being able to explore at your own pace.

Whilst the outside is impressive in it's size and green, white and gold colours, many of the rooms inside are simply stunning! It's not only the beautiful artwork and exhibits you'll be admiring, but many of the rooms are so beautiful and ornate, I think it was the most beautiful palace I've ever visited.

The highlight for me was the Peacock Clock. At over 250 years old, this mechanical clock is an amazing sight! You can see it any time the museum is open, but once per week the clock is turned on and you can see the peacock come to life, along with it's animal friends which include an own playing the drums. You can check online for the time and day it's switched. Make sure to arrive at least half an hour early for a good spot to view it, it gets very crowded.

General Staff Building

Located opposite the Winter Palace on the Palace Square is the General Staff Building. On the top of this impressive curved building sits a statue of the Goddess of Glory in her Chariot of Victory.

The Western wing is currently home to the Western Military District. The Eastern wing is now part of the Hermitage Museum. Whilst only housing a small collection in comparison to the Winter Palace, you'll find paintings and sculptures from the impressionist and post-impressionist era on display here.

Saviour on the Spilled Blood

Built in the style of many traditional Russian churches with it's rounded domes and bright colours, the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is a must see whist in Saint Petersburg. The church was built to honour Tsar Alexander II, who was killed at the spot where the church now sits, hence it's name.

At only a few pounds for a ticket to view the inside, I would definitely recommend doing so. There are beautiful mosaics adorning the walls and ceilings which are simply breathtaking.

Bridge Raising

From between around 1am and 6am the raising of the bridges begins. There are 9 bridges which regularly raise in order to allow cargo ships through the Neva River. The bridges raise at different times, but there's no way you could see the raising of each of these in one night, you'll have to visit over several nights to see them all.

The most impressive in my opinion is the Palace Bridge. This will likely be the most crowded, but the atmosphere of the people cheering as it raises to the music and lights is a great atmosphere. It's then possible to quickly rush from the Palace Bridge to the Trinity Bridge to see that one raise.

I suggest looking at an up to date schedule which you can find on google, and make sure you arrive at the bridge early to get a good spot.

The only words of warning I have is that you have to be careful where you are when the bridges raise. If you're on the wrong side of the river when the bridges are up, then there is no way back until morning. There's a chance you will be stuck there. Make sure wherever you are after 1am, you'll be able to get back to your accommodation.

Peterhof Palace

Not to be confused with the Summer Palace, but Peter the Great's Summer Retreat. This was one of my favourite palaces to visit in Saint Petersburg and although it's quite far from the centre, this is a must see! You can arrange a tour to take you there, or take the metro to Avtovo and then take a minibus from outside the station.

I suggest getting there for when it opens, as this will give you a good chance to look around before the crowds arrive.

At 11am the fountains will switch on, which is fun to watch. Music will blast out and one by one the fountains will start to flow. By this time however, the palace is packed with tourists.

I stuck to exploring the gardens, which are huge and will take some time to explore properly. I didn't actually visit inside the palace, I think it will be quite stunning inside, but to visit the interior and the gardens would require several hours.

The gardens are truly magnificent, filled with several fountains, mazes and golden statues of the Greek gods and goddesses. It was here that I really noticed how grand a scale the architecture is in Russia. For me Russia certainly stands out above most other countries with the shear size and spectacle of it's architecture.

Kvartirka Soviet Cafe

I enjoyed this restaurant so much that I visited twice. There are several sections inside decorated as if in different Soviet households to give you a feel for what it was like during the Soviet era. The menu consists of traditional Soviet dishes such as pelmeni, borscht, herring under a fur coat and Napoleon cake.

The food here was delicious, all except the borscht. I've always had a hunch that I'd not like it, but I felt I had to give it a try being in Russia. I'm sure it's delicious for most people, but it wasn't my cup of tea. Next time I will stick with pelmeni, which was probably the best pelmeni I've ever tried!

Nevsky Prospekt

The main street running through Saint Petersburg is Nevsky Prospekt. It's filled with beautiful buildings, squares and bridges. It's an area known for shopping, sightseeing and dining, so you're bound to spend some time here whilst visiting the city. Most of the major tourist spots can be found just off of Nevsky Prospekt, so it may be an idea to stay in a hotel near here, although I'm sure staying on Nevsky Prospekt itself will be expensive.

The street runs from the Admiralty to Alexander Nevsky Monastery, and although it's often busy, it's a nice walk to take to get a feel for the city.

Kazan Cathedral

You'll see this beautiful cathedral as you walk along Nevsky Prospekt. The curved colonnade encircles a small garden, where I unfortunately witnessed a seagull decapitate a pigeon and eat it. Russian seagulls are vicious!

The cathedral is named after "Our Lady of Kazan", whom represents the Virgin Mary as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan.

I didn't enter the cathedral, but I have been informed that people don't like you to talk inside, so try to avoid doing so, or keep your talking to minimal whispers.

Fabergé Museum

One part of Russian culture and history that interests me is the Romanov family. The last Imperial family of Russia before Socialism began. It's quite horrific what actually happened to them, but there's a lot of mystery surrounding the family when it comes to Rasputin and the possibility of Anastasia having escaped and survived. There have been many women claiming to be her, including some very convincing claims. But I'm of the understanding that they've all been debunked.

The House of Fabergé were famed for creating expensive and beautiful jewellery, but also for creating jewelled Easter eggs. The eggs were created for the Romanovs to give as Easter gifts to their wives.

There are 46 surviving Imperial eggs and this museum houses the largest collection of them, with around 15 on display in total. Each of these eggs is unique with a special present or trick to it. There are some with clocks inside, some with photographs that pop up, and some with tiny ornaments inside. I found them really quite amazing to look at and would love to be able to see the other remaining eggs, although I think they are scattered around the world, with some in private collections.

There are of course various other items on display here, including many gold and silver items, ornaments and paintings. It may not be for everyone, but if you are even the slightest bit interested by the eggs, pop your head in for a quick visit.

John Lennon Street

It took me quite some time to find this street dedicated to not just John Lennon, but The Beatles. You actually have to enter the Art Center on Ligovsky Avenue to access the small street. It was actually created by a local Beatles fan who was unable to get the city authorities to agree to a monument. So he designed a street sign and placed it over an archway with an arrow pointing up. Apparently this means it does not fall under the jurisdiction of officials as the street is not running along the ground. You'll find various murals such as the Yellow Submarine and a temple dedicated to love, peace and music. It wasn't quite as amazing as I'd hoped as it's really quite small. But if you're passing by and are a Beatles fan, it's worth a quick visit.

Chizhik Pyzhik

This tiny little bird statue can be found on a tiny plinth above the Fontanka River. It's said that if you can drop a coin onto his plinth, or even better his head, without it falling into the river, you'll have good luck.

You can get a good view of him from across the river on the embankment, but if you want to drop a coin on the plinth, you'll be able to do so from "1-Y Inzhenernyy Most".

Much to my dismay, I was unable to drop a coin on my visit. The road was blocked off due to roadworks.

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Due to time, I was only able to see the outside of this stunning building. This ornate cathedral has a huge gold dome and many beautiful statues positioned around it's facade. It still functions as a cathedral, but it's also used as a museum.

Once inside it's also possible to walk to the top of the dome for some amazing views of the city. During the summer months this is often open quite late so you can see the sunset over the city.

Rubinstein Street

If you're looking for nightlife then a good place to start is Rubinstein Street. The street is filled with bars and restaurants for everyone's tastes. There's a lack of clubs, but the bars will usually remain busy for most of the night.

It seemed to be a relatively safe area, and I felt safe walking around here late at night. I met lots of friendly people in the bars, some of which insisted on buying me drinks because I was English, and it got to a point where I couldn't drink any more. One of my favourite bars here was "Poison" a rock karaoke bar, but they have many other styles of songs to sing. One odd occurrence I came upon whilst walking along here, was seeing a girl riding her horse up and down the street.

Metro Stations

They're not on quite the same scale as the metro stations in Moscow, but there are a few beautiful metro stations in Saint Petersburg. Avtovo is by far the most beautiful, so I would recommend going via this station when travelling to Peterhof Palace. Kirovskiy Zavod, Narvskaya and Ploshad Vosstaniya are also beautiful stations to visit. There are sometimes metro station tours if they really interest you, but if you're hoping to simply come across them, some of them are quite far out of the centre. If you're visiting Moscow too, then you'll definitely see plenty of examples of beautiful and unique metro stations, but if you're only visiting Saint Petersburg, I'd suggest trying to see a couple of them.

Be sure to check out my guide on Moscow here.

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