When you think you’ve seen it all – visit Saint Petersburg and fall in love. It’s a city of many secrets, built with enthusiasm and passion (Window to Europe). It’s the capital of White Nights (from May to July) and elegant bridges (342+) inspired by the architecture of Venice, Amsterdam and Versailles (c’est vrai!). Its historical center has lived through the Romanovs, the Revolution, Bolsheviks, Stalin’s terror, a second world war seige and the fall of the USSR. But! Strolling down the Nevsky you could barely tell, St.Petersburg is as Imperial as ever.
There is more. While a trip to St. Petersburg will appeal to your heart and soul, it’s also a bargain. With the local currency (ruble) at its lowest rate for years, dinner at a posh restaurant feels like a family meal at a diner. Sounds awesome, right? Note these 5 important safety rules prior to traveling (I tried and tested them all):
- Money and passport – inquire at the hotel for a reliable money exchange provider. Pick pocket alert: leave your passport in the hotel room locker and carry a photocopy instead. Keep a hand on your wallet in crowded places and on the Nevsky.
- Carry a hotel business card with their address and phone number for emergencies.
- Download Uber and use it as it’s the safest way to travel the city. Figuring out local public transportation may take some time and there is none to waste. Don’t take random cabs on streets.
- Purchase tickets for sightseeing in advance (queues are endless and a waiting is a spirit killer).
- Download offline Google maps (you’ll thank me many many times!).
Well, now that you are packed with wisdom, let’s plan and explore!
The State Hermitage museum (a must-see!)
Open from 10:30am to 6pm, except Mondays and on Wednesdays from 10:30am to 9pm.
Hermitage is one of the oldest and largest museums of art, craft and culture in the world. Founded by Catherine the Great, today it consists of Small Hermitage, The Great Old Hermitage, The New Hermitage, The Winter Palace (all 4 are inner connected), The Hermitage Theatre, The General Staff Building, The Menshikov’s palace, Peter’s Cabin, Porcelain Museum and The Storage center. Uffff… they say it takes 15 years to review the whole collection if one spends more than 1 minute admiring every piece (plus travel time and lunch breaks as art watching always makes me hungry).
I advise to purchase 2-days ticket online (soft copy is enough) which allow you to skip a massively annoying line and to sneak through a special entrance, otherwise the wait is loooooong.
Start at the Main Hermitage Complex at the Palace Square (don’t miss the “Gold Drawing Room” in the Winter Palace), break for lunch and cross the Palace Square to continue at the General Staff Building where a mind-blowing collection of Impressionists, Cubism and works by Picasso are displayed. In the evening head out for a ballet at the Hermitage Theatre. While there, search for signs of ruins of Peter the Great’s former Winter Palace integrated into a new structure.
On the second day, visit Menshikov’s Palace, Pieter’s Cabin and the museum of Imperial Porcelain Art. Beware, this itinerary will require some serious fitness preparation, but if you are a determined art enthusiast you won’t curse me. Bring your camera to memorize all that your eyes couldn’t snap.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Open from 10:30am to 6pm and then from 6pm to 10:30pm. Wednesday is a day off. Online tickets
St. Isaac’s Cathedral took 40 years to build (1818-1858) but once complete, it became one of the most impressive landmarks in the city and a symbol of Imperial Russia. The cost of construction was as fantastic at 1 mil in gold rubles. St. Isaac’s dome is plated with pure gold and rises 105 m high. The structure rests on 10,000 tree trunks, and the building features 112 granite columns and accommodates around 14,000 visitors. Its interiors are lavishly decorated with mosaics, sculptures and icons. Walk up the colonnade (300 steps only) to enjoy a magnificent view of the city and to stay fit. Photography is permitted.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Open from 10:30am to 6pm and then from 6pm to 10:30pm. Closed on Wednesdays. Online tickets .
The Church of Spilled Blood (above) is a rare example of patriarch Russia architectural style with its mosaics, onion domes, bright paint and gold. From first glance, you’ll notice how closely it resembles the 16th century St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow (below). Do you agree?
The Church of Spilled Blood was commissioned to forever mark the place where Tsar Alexander the Second was fatally wounded in a terrorist attack. Funded mostly on royal money and donations from private investors, it took more than 20 years to build in the 19th century and around 30 years to restore in 20th century. Its picturesque exteriors and interiors are in great contrast with the neoclassical, monochromatic surroundings, giving an impression of deep nostalgia for the old, pre-Peter the Great Russia.
The Mariinsky Theatre
It’s as posh and Imperial as it gets. Built in neoclassical style, the theatre’s facades are monumental, sharp and aristocratically chilled. This impression changes as its interior decor turns into a sheer delight. Once in, you’ll notice yourself a part of a multicultural beau monde eager to be amazed. Just a few minutes into a performance you’ll see a change in the eyes and faces of people around you. A grumpy looking grey-haired man in a tuxedo will vigorously clap, exclaiming “Bravo, bravo!”, and a northern beauty with slightly cold features will gently smile through tears. It was here that famous prima-ballerina Anna Pavlova, at the age of 8, chose her destiny after watching “The Sleeping Beauty” for the first time in her life. And it was here where she danced her debut.
Book tickets for opera or ballet in advance as they are highly desirable and it’s very common to spot theatre-lovers desperately inquiring for an extra ticket at the entrance, just minutes away from performances.
P.S. I arrived in Saint Petersburg at the beginning of July. It was unusually cold, gloomy and rainy. The same evening, I realized that couldn’t imagine my life without memories from this beautiful at every angle city. Yes, it’s moody, with dark sides and puzzling, but with every uncovered mystery, with every discovered place or piece, a hunger for more and more develops.