Our first view of Russia, from the air, was of frozen lakes, beaches covered by ice from the freezing sea and a bleak never ending landscape. That changed as the runway of St Petersburg airport came into view as the BA pilot landed (with a bump) and we taxi-ed to the terminal. After a short walk through the terminal we joined the passport control queues that were barely moving – each passport, regardless of country, was inspected minutely with magnifying glasses, repeated checks of names and details with their computer and intent staring at our faces – people with glasses, hats and beard/no beard were stared at with even more suspicion. Finally we got through, found our bags which had been merrily going around and round the luggage belt and found the taxi desk to pre pay for a journey into the city centre.
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Our receipt showed the licence plate of our allocated car and we followed the short instructions out of the airport to what we assumed was the taxi rank. A short wait later and a slightly battered taxi arrived with a child seat in the rear seat meaning that we had to squash together in the two remaining seats. The driver spoke to english and seemed a little lost as to where we wanted to go – the receipt was in english! He figured it out and we sped off along the wide road which, although it had lane markers, was seemingly a free for all. He punched a few things into his sat nav and spoke, in russian, to Google maps which presumably found where he wanted to go and he finally relaxed – after a weird slight diversion off the road, a u-turn and back onto the same road that we had just left.
For those who haven’t spent hours watching the slightly funny, slightly terrifying Russian driving videos, check out this one which should give you some idea of what our airport transfer was like!
After driving through some narrow roads tightly packed with cars and through what looked like the red light district, we emerged onto the wide Nevsky Prospekt which is St Petersburg version of Oxford Street (for those non UK readers, that is London’s most famous shopping street). We soon spotted our hotel, the Corinthia and the driver pulled over with a slightly juddering brake. Grabbing our bags from the boot, we walked towards the entrance where we were politely greeted by a smart doorman and a uniformed guard with a baton hanging from his belt.
We walked into the lobby with its vast ceiling, huge stairs and long reception desk. It was lit by massive chandeliers and candles in glasses and scented with hundreds of orchid flowers.
After some brief confusion about the room we were given (twin beds instead of king and no city view instead of a city view), we checked into a good sized room with a large king bed over looking Nevsky Prospekt. Its not the best city view we’ve stayed in but it does show the bustling street, grand looking buildings and the constant slightly mad traffic.
The lengthy passport control queue and slow traffic had completely thrown my itinerary out of the window so we quickly dropped our bags, took off our coats (it was warmer than expected) and headed back out. We walked along Nevsky Prospekt through the crowds of people over several of the large and detailed bridges that are scattered all over St Petersburg across the many rivers and canals. On each bridge, there were several people from various travel sales people waving clipboards with images of river tours, some shouting into loudspeakers and others next to mobile desks. Oddly though this was all in Russian and there was no attempt to sell to foreign tourists – this was the same in nearly all the buildings, palaces and museums that we went into.
After a 30 min walk, we started crossing another bridge and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood came suddenly into view. Despite seeing many photos, it is an awesome view and one we never tired of seeing multiple times during our stay. Its onion domes, striking colours and finely detailed structure are incredible to look at. The gold domes shone in the sunlight and made the colours even more vivid.
By bad timing we got to the ticket booth at 1703 to find that it closed at 1700 and the church closed at 1730. Worth noting that here, amongst many places in Russia, will accept the ISIC (International Student card) which can save you some serious money. Some places you have to be a little firm and insist that they accept it but in general most places happily took it, including food places.
We decided to re-trace our steps and carry on down Nevsky Prospekt, passed various pretty talented street performers, mimes and general weird characters which most Russians barely batted an eye lid at. Like this tall chap!
After a short stroll pass we turned right off Nevsky and along a side street towards a large archway built at nearly a right angle thus hiding the view until the last minute. That view was of Palace Square which is described as one of the most beautiful squares in the world – it’s certainly hugely impressive when you walk out onto it with the Winter Palace facing you and its huge column in the middle – mind blowing fact about that column is that the column itself isn’t attached to the based at all. It sits there purely by weight and gravity alone. Think about that when you go there on a windy day! The square was full of mainly Russian tourists; girls taking selfies or posing for friends (they take posing to the next level compared to British people!) and yet another talented musician surrounded by a fairly large crowd who seemed to know most of the worlds to his songs.
As time was ticking on and we were hungry and tired from a long day travelling, we headed back to the hotel to change and freshen up before heading out to dinner. Slightly oddly in St Petersburg, there was a vast number vegetarian restaurants which also happened to be some of the best restaurants in the city – that suited me perfectly! We decided to head to Botanika which is a really laid back mainly vegetarian restaurant half way between our hotel and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It looks a little like someones living room and isn’t particularly well sign posted when you get to it – in fact there is a much more modern looking place right next door which I’ve no doubt many people have gone into by accident. It’s here that we discovered that Russian’s don’t really wait to be taken to a table and simply go to one that they like the look of (or in some places, do a full circle of the restaurant before picking their choice). The waiter looked a little bemused when we asked if they had a table for two and simply pointed at the numerous tables behind him as if we were idiots! The menu was very varied with a strong Indian influence, a decent wine and beer list and some great sounding deserts. After a good meal at a really decent price for a large city, we headed back to the hotel, skipping our plan to see the Church at night, for a quick (but very expensive) cocktail and vodka – worth noting that unless requested, hotels will (oddly) give you foreign vodka unless you request proper Russian stuff!
The next day, after a bit of a lie in, we woke to torrential rain. Nevertheless we chucked on our rain coats and headed out. Our first, and most urgent stop on our itinerary, was to get breakfast and I had found a delightful looking place called Teplo near to Saint Isaac’s and a few other places so we headed in that direction. By the time we had found it (hidden through an arch way with a little sign above your head) we were pretty drenched. We followed a Russian family through the door to be greeted by an apologetic waitress saying that they didn’t open until 11am (note that online times aren’t always accurate). The place looked charming, full of little nooks and rooms all decorated in different ways with a book case separating two areas so we headed back out to waste some time for half an hour. Just down the road is Yusupov Palace (also closed until 11am) so we circled around the block to take in the view of Saint Isaac’s in the pouring rain.
Walking back into Teplo, we were greeted by another baffled looking waitress when we asked for a table (we still hadn’t learnt by then) who gestured around the completely empty restaurant and said we could sit anywhere. We picked a snug table in the corner with lots of cushions, pulled off our soaking wet coats and immediately felt better. We both opted for pancakes with honey and a strong black Americano for myself. The pancakes came on a cute plate with a tiny bowl of honey. They didn’t last long as we were both famished by this point! We had already clocked the cake looking items in the next room so asked the waiter what they were – he took us into the bakery (next door from the restaurant) and went through all the options carefully and in detail. After munching our way through them, we took our nearly dry coats and headed back out into the rain. We walked past Yusupov Palace and crossed over one of the canals before heading down a long road using the slightly raised board walkways under construction work which gave us some shelter for a few moments. At the end of the road, the striking ice blue and white colour of St Nicholas Naval cathedral could be seen emerging from the grey rain. A long term favourite of locals, this beautiful cathedral is just off the beaten track so when we pushed open the heavy wooden doors, there was only a small handful of locals (mainly for a christening) inside. We ducked under the single rope dividing the church in half (no idea why) and listened as the intoning and chanting of the two priests filled the inside. It was a deep and beautiful sound and although we had no idea what they were saying, you could feel the deep passion and belief in each word.
After exiting, we headed out of the back gate, across a small grass area and crossed the road to a bridge. From this point it is possible to see 7 bridges – the most you can see at any point in St Petersburg. With the rain absolutely chucking down by now, we hurriedly walked back to Yusupov Palace and joined the small queue (outside with the wind now picking up) to get entrance tickets. Again our student passes worked a treat here. After going through another heavy wooden door, through metal detectors and dropping out soaked coats off at the left luggage (free – follow the signs downstairs), we picked up audio tours and, as we started to warm up and dry off, slowly made our way around the palace.
As with everything in Russia, it is a huge building with high ceilings, large windows and never ending rooms. Carefully designed, each room was finely detailed and decorated in a beautiful way. I must admit that the audio tour started boring us towards the end but there is some interesting stuff in there – though we are still totally baffled as to why you shouldn’t spend too long in the small room with the angel of death. Or why this information wasn’t given until the end of that segment!
We were lucky to catch the end of a song by 3 deep voiced smartly dressed men with only a handful of Russian tourists. As in the cathedral, we have no idea what they were singing but their voices filled the large room with ease and it was beautiful to listen to.
After getting our nearly dry (apart from the arms – eurgh) coats, we faced the elements once more and made our way quickly to Saint Isaac’s. By this point the rain had turned to hail so we quickly skipped the small queue and used the automatic ticket machines to get entrance to both the inside and to climb up to the dome. Although you can see how big the dome is from the outside, that didn’t prepare us at all to the sheer size of the cathedral inside with every single wall, ceiling and pillar decorated in stunning images, bold colours and mind blowing sculptures – if you go, look up at some of the curved walls; the statues come out of the wall (in 3D), at a steep angle and I’ve no idea how they could possibly fix it to the ceiling yet alone get it up there in the first place! Oh and look up when standing in the middle of the highest dome. Look right up towards the silver object in the very top.
After taking a million photos, we climbed the narrow spiral stair case up to the dome outer ledge which meant crossing from the top of the cathedral to the dome via a metal staircase. The wind was literally howling by this point and it was impossible to keep the camera still to take any photos – I’m amazed that it was still open. In the slightly more sheltered ledge that runs around the outside of the dome, the views are incredible – on a sunny day I can imagine that you could see right across St Petersburg in all directions. We ran out of time the next day but if you have time, and the weather is against you the first time, I’d definitely recommend going back on a better day.
After ducking into another cafe (Le Pain Quotidien – really good) to dry off yet again, we went back to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, quickly and easily got tickets from the one of the numerous ticket booths outside the front and headed inside. Pushing through another heavy wooden door, we walked inside to see another beautifully decorated and hugely detailed interior. As with all churches/cathedrals we had seen so far, it was, again, totally different from all the rest. This one had a more matt type finish compared to the shiny glossy feel in St Isaac’s. It’s not the right word to use but it felt less shouty, maybe in remembrance as to why the church was bit on this spot and how it got it’s name.
That night we ate in Oh! Mumbai which is without doubt the best Indian I’ve ever had (yes ever, although it’s a close call between that and one in Cambodia). Run by several young and modern Indians (who spoke fluent english as well as Russian and no doubt Hindi and more), they combined some of the traditional dishes with a modern touch, new ideas that I had never seen before and a smartly decorated restaurant with a nod to its origins. Try their own named beer and share some starters – they are all different and all delicious. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped in Borodabar for a cocktail – the knowledgeable bar tender took time (luckily in english) to go through each drink and helping us make a decision. The bar is somewhat hipster like with a single speed bike hanging from the ceiling, exposed bricks and a casually dressed clientele. It’s easy to walk past it outside in the dark as the windows are tinted making it look closed.
The next morning, after a lazy start, we grabbed a coffee and pastry from a Starbucks (don’t – go somewhere else. It was expensive compared to other places and nothing special at all) and headed towards Peter and Paul fortress, diverting slightly to look at Palace Square one more time and following the edge of the Winter Palace before crossing a bridge with massive columns at one end. The view from the bridge towards the fortress with the St Petersburg mosque in the distance is worth stopping for. The fake pirate ship with restaurant and gym onboard, not so much! Peter and Paul fortress is one of the most touristy places in St Petersburg that we had been too but it’s a large space and you didn’t feel crammed in at all. Some of the churches and other places (such as the walls) are chargeable but the rest is free to wander around as you please. The inside of the church is worth a visit, if only to see the weird green colour that appears in all photos though your eyes only see white!
After walking around the outer wall to take in the view both inside and outside of the fortress, we exited via the rear gate, crossed a few roads and headed through a small park to St Petersburg Mosque. Built in blue with finely detailed curved pieces, it’s well worth the 30 – 45 min walk from the centre. We timed it badly by arriving just as a wedding party did but normally, if you ask the guard nicely, they’ll happily let you inside. Just remember to be dressed appropriately and for ladies to cover their heads and shoulders. We then walked briskly (having mis-calculated the time) back to our hotel to freshen up and take our bags from the room before our late 3pm check out.
We got a quick lunch in a nearby restaurant and then headed towards the bridges where the various boat trip hawkers were based. Oddly they virtually ignored us when we walked towards them and ended up going to the ticket offices instead. After deciding against one route, as it didn’t go past the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, we got tickets on a boat starting on the smaller canal just down from the church and made camp at the rear of the boat outside with 3 blankets over and around us for warmth. After having our photo taken (not our decision) by the onboard photographer, the boat set off. After 5 minutes the russian only speaking tour guide said something in a more urgent voice and the whole outside of the boat got up and hurriedly made their inside the boat. A bit baffled, we started following them before realising that the boat was barely going to get under the next bridge. The first ticket office has said something about high water which we hadn’t really understood. We did now! There wasn’t enough time for all of us to get inside the boat, so we ended up sitting on the floor and keeping our heads lower than the outside seats. The boat got through with barely a cm to spare – the skill of the pilot must be incredible though the helper sat outside with us laughed in a pretty nervous way when we eventually got through! So much for a romantic cruise! It lasted about an hour and did a good loop of several small canals and the big river which we had crossed earlier to get to the fortress. Worth getting but bear in mind that most are in russian only so don’t expect an english audio tour.
The boat finished its loop in the starting place which was just down the canal from Kazan Cathedral and I had read about a bar/restaurant nearby that had a view from an outside terrace over the top of the cathedral. It’s somewhat hidden inside a shopping type centre but keep following the signs into the lift and you’ll soon come out into the entrance to the restaurant which was much bigger than expected with a long open kitchen, piles of fresh vegetable and fruit displayed and various seating areas split into areas neatly dividing the space. We originally came in for the view and a hot drink but a few hours later left after having two cocktails (try the lychee one), a white pizza each each and a desert (try the date filled meringue) each! The menu was big (choice wise and actual size!) and the service was great with the waitress trying out her english on us as much as we tried our russian on her.
We then headed back to the hotel to collect our bags and chill out for a bit before heading to the nearby train station to catch our over night train to Moscow! The train journey can be seen here and the Moscow write up can be seen here.