We originally planned to visit Russia because we wanted to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. We added Saint Petersburg, which isn’t technically on the Trans-Siberian Railway line, because we would already be in Russia and everyone we talked with that had been said it was great. We had no idea we would end up staying for seven days.
Views from the Summer Gardens — one of the many beautiful gardens that we visited during our stay.
But a couple things happened, one that we underestimated the importance of and one we didn’t expect: money and beer.
First, the rouble (Russia’s currency) is near an all time low against the dollar. It’s roughly half the value it held just over two years ago, around the time of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. We knew that would make things cheap, but we didn’t realize how cheap. We opted for fancy dorm beds that cost $5 each per night (which included curtains around the beds, clean and plentiful toilets/showers and free laundry!). Beer is relatively cheap too, which brings me to beer.
Well, not just beer. Also food.
St. Petersburg has interesting and affordable food and beer. Our hostel host recommend a place nearby with fancy pizza and craft beer. I love that the term “West Coast IPA” is recognized in Russia.
Pretty quickly we realized that we could do this for a while. And did I mention that it is cheap?
New York helped us regroup on the stuff we’d be carrying and other errands where being in the US was helpful, but we needed some time to simply relax and to plan the next leg of our journey. Saint Petersburg was perfect because there were plenty of interesting sights that we could visit for part of the day and still have time leftover for ourselves. Because of this, we rarely packed our day full of sights and ended up backtracking and going back to certain areas because we hadn’t pre-planned a “perfect/efficient” itinerary. This was especially true in the central Saint Petersburg area. On our last day, we had a couple final “must see” sights that we wanted to hit up, only to discover that they were literally around the corner from spots that we visited on our first day…
Some of our favorite sights included (grouped by location, not our haphazardly planned visits):
Central Saint Petersburg
The Hermitage Museum
We have spent a lot of time in museums so we don’t seek them out for the sake of visiting a city’s “best” museum, but the Hermitage is not to be missed. It takes most of a day.
The Hermitage has an impressive collection, putting it in the same league as the Prado, Rijksmuseum, Uffizi, etc. (well maybe not the Prado). A series of Rembrandts was my highlight. But our favorite part of the museum was that the art is it hosted in amazing rooms, some set out as they were used by the Tsars.
While we visited, the Hermitage had a special exhibit featuring a Russian fashion designer. In typical designer fashion, the designs seemed a bit over the top.
A quick note for visitors: leave plenty of time (and hang on to your ticket) for the remodeled General Staff Building across the plaza. Most of the building isn’t filled yet, but Impressionists have been moved. Your ticket for the Hermitage is also good for the General Staff Building a few other sights around town — but only if used on the same day! This was tough for us because we got a late start at the Hermitage because we went to Parkrun that morning (the subject of another post).
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Tickets for the interior and to climb stairs and walk around the outside of the dome are separate. We have seen plenty of church interiors and will see plenty more, so we went up the stairs. The view is worth it.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Built on the site where a terrorist killed Tsar Alexander II, this is a must-visit inside (fee) and out, because it looks like this:
Museum of Soviet Arcade Games
Somehow this place has assembled a couple dozed arcade games, ranging from pinball to shoot the polar bear. It’s located in a plaza across from the Spilled Blood, and is quite entertaining for a visit. Admission includes 15 coins (old Soviet kopeks) — most games cost one. It’s a bit more of an old-school arcade than an actual museum, but we found it a fun break from the city’s many museums and churches.
The museum also hosts an old soda machine. We tried the “green soda.”
North of the Main River
Museum of Political History
Most displays were in Russian so we may have missed out, but still some interesting materials. The layout of the museum was pretty confusing. It routed us up and down multiple staircases — all the way up and down the building rather that showing one whole floor then the next. We aren’t certain that we saw the whole museum, but we were there at the end of the day and were two of the last people out.
Conclusion: skip-able. If you want the history, read a book.
Peter and Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress is considered the location of the birthplace of Saint Petersburg — it’s the sight of Saint Petersburg’s first structure (although it never really served as a defensive base). It’s across the Neva River from the Hermitage and other central Saint Petersburg sights.
Free to walk around but a fee to enter any sight, we opted for a ticket that only covered the cathedral where the Romanov Tsars and family (including Tsar Nicholas II and family) are buried. The view from atop the walls may also be worth a visit, but we were in a hurry so we skipped it.
Around St. Petersburg
Two of Saint Petersburg’s most popular (and palatial) sights — the Pushkin (home to Catherine’s Palace) and Peterhof — are beyond the reach of the Saint Petersburg Metro. We took marshrutkas to both sights, which are small buses/large vans running a route. Prices are typically posted inside and destinations painted on the outside. Just be sure to know how to spell the destination in Russian — using Russian Cyrillic characters —because not all have the tourist attractions written in English (although most do). The buses were dirt cheap — no more than 70 roubles each (about $1) for a 45 minute ride.
Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin
The palace and grounds can be a full day visit. The palace had probably the best interiors we have seen on the trip! It’s very busy so get in line early. Except not too early, individuals not on a tour have limited visiting hours. When we visited we could only go into the palace after noon. We didn’t realize that the line would end up taking 1.5 hours to get inside (because they only allow a certain number of people enter every 15 minutes), so when we arrived at 10:30ish we decided to spend a couple hours walking around the gardens and eating lunch. Alternatively, if we had taken a tour we might have avoided the line and potentially been able to visit additional/different rooms (it appeared that organized tours could visit more rooms, and we couldn’t figure out how we could get to those rooms).
The gardens are enjoyable too but not as impressive as the Peterhof gardens.
Situated on the water with a view of St. Petersburg in the distance, the Peterhof hosts the best gardens. Some tours go to the interior of Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin and then the gardens at the Peterhof. We can’t blame them. The lower gardens are expensive (700 roubles/ $10+), but worth it. The upper gardens are free, but not as impressive. We ended up walking 8 kilometers around the gardens (yes I put it on Strava).
Our other two main activities in Saint Petersburg, a 5k run with Parkrun and a day trip to Vyborg, are the subject of other posts.
While a well-planned trip could see most of this in less time, there was plenty to keep us busy for an easy-going week.
Random Travel Notes:
1. Young people (30 and under) tend to speak some English. Otherwise, Russian is hard and the fact that they use Cyrillic characters doesn’t make it any easier. Russians are often good at communication without a common language (such as pointing where you go or making decisions for you) but we have found that some shopkeepers don’t care to try. When we expected that there might be a communication barrier (such as purchasing our train tickets), we found that writing our destination or main item on a notecard went a long way.
2. Saint Petersburg also has a great Metro system, with many beautiful stations and trains that arrive every two minutes, so you never wait long. The stations are located super-deep underground, so you have to leave extra time just to get down to the platform.
3. There are frozen blintzes at the supermarket and they are tasty. We enjoyed being able to easily cook up a favorite from home at the hostel for only a couple dollars. It really is the simple things that can make travel for us super enjoyable!
4. There are brides everywhere! Apparently, couples go on all-day wedding photo shoots at the major sights around the city. We assume that this isn’t done on their actual wedding day (we saw a couple getting off a bus to meet their photographer at the Peterhof…). It wasn’t unusual to be able to turn around in place and see two to three wedding photo shoots going on at the same time.
[We’re making yet another attempt to get caught up on our blog posts. This post describes our visit to Saint Petersburg, Russia between September 8-15, 2016.]