St Petersburg, Russia
Earlier this month I was lucky enough to go on the most wonderful trip to St Petersburg. While Russia has a lot of bad press at the moment, and I’m certainly not a fan of their politics, this did not take away from the startling beauty and cultural wealth that St Petersburg has. What I loved most about the city was the immense role that water plays, something I had completely underestimated. Peter the Great built the city in 1703 on marsh land, so most of the land was reclaimed. Located on the Neva River and at the head of the Gulf of Finland, St Petersburg is comprised of about 42 islands. I loved all the canals, lined by beautiful 19th century brightly coloured palaces and stately homes. I can totally see why it’s called the Venice of the North.
We stayed at the stunning Belmond Grand Hotel Europe – a cultural landmark in St Petersburg and the oldest five star hotel in the city. Taking over the whole length of a street, the location is fantastic, just off the Nevsky Prospekt and walking distance to many of St Peterburg’s best sights. We were so lucky to stay here for four nights, and I especially enjoyed their amazing food and beverage (more on this later), the service (best in the city) and their empty gym!
Peter and Paul Fortress
You can see the bright golden cupola of the Peter and Paul Cathedral from quite a distance, sparkling in the sunshine (I appreciate how lucky we were with the weather, and that the sun does not often make appearances). This is the original citadel of St Petersburg, and was the first brick and stone building of St Petersburg. It is wonderful to walk around Mint Square, and I loved walking through the cathedral, observing all the tombs of the Romanov dynasty (everyone from Catherine the Great to the last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II and his family). The cathedral is an imitation of a baroque cathedral, and there was so much gold and details it was hard to know where to look. I was also very amused by the fat resident cat, guarding these sacred tombs.
St Isaacs is the largest orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. It was certainly one of the most impressive sights we saw and I found it as awe-inspiring as St Peters Basilica is in the Vatican. The immense work and money that went into the restoration (it was badly damaged during Bolshevik years and the Second World War) is astounding. The detail is stunning.
Winter Palace/Hermitage Museum
Probably St Petersburg’s most famous sight, the Winter Palace (which is now the Hermitage Museum) is worth at least a day of your time. Apparently if you spent time looking at each painting and sculpture in the museum you’d be there for 9 years! It really is vast, so you need to choose what you want to see. I loved the Rembrandt room (they have an incredible 26 Rembrandts, including the very moving Prodigal Son), the corridor which is a copy of Rafael’s Logia in the Vatican and the incredible gold peacock clock (given to Catherine the Great by her lover Gregori Potemkin).
St Nicholas Cathedral – Off the beaten track
This is not usually on the tourist trail if you’ve only got a couple of days in St Petersburg, but it is definitely worth while. It is the only cathedral that was left open and functioning as a cathedral during the Soviet Era. We went in and had a quick look around and we treated by the the most beautiful voices of the choir. A number of locals stood around listening. It felt like we were let into a very special moment.
Cathedral of St Savior, Church of the Spilled Blood
This is St Petersburg most iconic sight, the most unique Orthodox church which is on practically every promotional poster for St Petersburg. And rightly so, because it is quite spectacular. Built by Alexander III in memory of his father Alexander II, who was killed by terrorists on the spot where the church was later built (hence the name). The inside is as spectacular as the outside: it is completely covered in mosaics. The church was totally destroyed after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and also bombed during WWII. After the war it was covered up, and in the 1970s the huge restoration program began which was finished in 2003.
St Petersburg Metro
It might not compare to the Metro in Moscow, which is meant to be even more beautiful (not sure how that’s possible). But I would recommend that everyone get on the Metro as it is a fantastic experience (and could not be further away from a ride on the London Underground). Admiralsky Metro Station is the deepest int he world at 150m under ground. Avtovo Metro Station is the most stunning.
We were lucky enough to go to the Mikhailovsky Theatre to see a very special ballet production (it filled up completely, the photo below was when we arrived). We would have gone to the Mariinsky, the most famous theatre in St Petersburg, but it was closed for a few weeks in September. This was definitely one of the most memorable experiences of the trip, and a definite must-do.
One place I did not make it to was the Shuvalovsky Palace which is where a brand new Faberge Museum has just opened. It’s meant to be stunning so I really recommend it.
FOOD & DRINK
Well, we all know what Russia’s famous for in the drinks department. Vodka. Of course. And I was not let down. We had shots of the purest and cleanest vodka I’ve ever had before most lunches and every dinner. At first I was a little daunted by the thought of vodka pre-dinner, but by the end of my trip I was getting quite used to knocking it back! Russia is not known for its food, and I wasn’t overly impressed on the whole but we did go to a few really good, atmospheric restaurants. Service wise, have low expectations. Smiling is not what the Russians do best.
My favourite restaurants/bars are follows:
L’Europe Restaurant, Belmond Grand Europe €€€
1/7 Mikhailovskaya street, Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg, 191186
Probably the best food we had during our time in St Petersburg. My favourite dish was their famous ‘Egg in an egg’, which was scrambled eggs with truffle oil and caviar, in the shell of an egg. So delicious. The Caviar and Vodka bar next door is also very special, and a real treat.
The Russian Empire Restaurant €€
Nevsky Prospekt 17
We came here for a late dinner after the ballet, and had the whole restaurant to ourselves. The restaurant is in the Stroganov Palace, which is steeped in history and it is one of Russia’s most famous restaurants. It felt like we were eating in 19th century St Petersburg, in a private room with thick velvet curtains and panelled walls. The food (Russian) was good though not delicate, as was the vodka, which came in a horn shaped goblet which reminded me of something out of Game of Thrones.
2 Ulitsa Glinki
As Russian as it gets, it genuinely feels like you’re having dinner at someone’s house. The decor is a little dowdy but it really adds to the experience. It is the ambience here that really makes it worth going to. A lady played the piano throughout our dinner, and was accompanied by a little bird in a cage who gave us a song once in a while. The food here was not refined but I enjoyed it, we had salmon steaks for our main course which made a difference to the usual Chicken Kiev…
Emb. Reki Moiki, 82
I was recommended this by a friend as well as by our tour guide Maria. This is a famous restaurant amongst expats and arty locals (apparently a lot of ballet dancers from the Mariinsky come here after performances). This restaurant and bar has so much character, I instantly liked it. It is stuffed full of quirky tricks – a bust of lenin, Dostoevsky books (the restaurant is inspired by him after all), embroidered chairs and comfortable sofas to sink into. We just came here for drinks so I’m not sure what the food is like, but the drinks were certainly interesting! I ordered a ‘Bloody Misha’, which was a variation of the ‘Bloody Masha’ (Mary) but with an egg. Big mistake but an experience none the less.
Outside St Petersburg
If you’ve got time, I would highly recommend travelling out of St Petersburg to visit some of the Romanov palaces in the countryside.
The most impressive is Peterhof (sometimes known as the Russian Versailles), built by Peter the Great, and where he retreated to escape St Petersburg’s summer heat. Peter the Great loved being by the water, which is why the palace was built on the Gulf of Finland, and you can reach it by hydrofoil from St Petersburg (which I recommend). It is most famous for its fountains (around 150 of them). The lower gardens are fun to walk through too, with trees spouting water and other fun fountains.
St Catherine’s Palace (built for Peter the Great’s wife Catherine) and Paul’s Palace (built for Catherine the Great’s son) are also definitely worth while seeing if you have time. Both were completely restored after being damaged during WWII. Apart from walking through the palaces, their gardens are beautiful and very well maintained too. The Amber Room in Catherine’s Palace is very famous but I fell in love with the huge and very lovely blue and white ceramic stove/heaters. Paul’s Palace is more Italian in style, both inside and outside, and was less busy than the other palaces.