St Petersburg, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Here’s how to spend 4 amazing days in this stunning city without breaking the bank.
Having heard much from other travellers along the way, I had been looking forward to the Hermitage Museum and the Peterhof Palace in Saint Petersburg, but soon after I arrived, it became clear that there was so much more this city could offer. In the end, four days were barely enough to get a complete experience of the city- the amazing sights, the illustrious history, and the colourful culture. It is a necessary extension/ detour for anyone travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway, as a trip to Russia will not be complete without checking out St Petersburg.
Day 1: Peter and Paul Fortress, Vasilievsky Island, Nevsky Prospekt
I continued my Russian/ Trans-Siberian adventure from Yekaterinburg with a one and a half day train ride to the cultural capital of Russia, St Petersburg. First looks in the city, along Nevsky Prospekt. Western media often paints Russia as some crazy place from another universe, but looking at this, if the haters are right, then London is probably in Andromeda. And yes, that’s Starbucks right in front (even Milan won’t get one till 2017).
I had some trouble finding the hostel, as it had shifted a couple of streets away but the address on the booking site was the old one. Rummaged through my emails and found one of them stating a different address. Didn’t have much of a choice but to give it a shot and glad I did. Left my bags at the hostel and I was ready to take on the city of St Petersburg!
Had a quick breakfast and decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the city on foot, first crossing the Neva river to the Peter and Paul Fortress, then over to the Vasilievsky Island, before looping back to the main island. Lots of interesting stuff to see, like real Egyptian sphinxes, to real submarines, spread around the city. Not to mention grand looking and well preserved architecture.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress was probably one of the earliest part of St Petersburg, established by Peter the Great in 1703.
Across the moat, the the Peter and Paul Fortress. Cathedral where many Tsars are buried, within the fortress. Too tall to fit in the photo. Enchanting melodies flitting across the square.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral has a stunning 123m tall bell tower, too tall to fit into my photos. I spent some time wandering around the fortress, immersing in the magical atmosphere (Occasionally broken by hordes of tourists from a country famous for disruptive tourists. Fortunately, they disappeared as quickly as they descended.).
After the Peter and Paul Fortress, I crossed a bridge to get to Vasilievsky Island, which forms a large part of the historic center of St Petersburg.
Crossing over to Vasilyevsky Island, couldn’t miss these impressive rostral columns. Looking across the Neva River.
It was nice walking along the Neva River, with pretty sights on both sides of the river.
3,500 year old artefacts from ancient Egypt on permanent public display. Not sure how they keep them in pristine condition though.
3,500 year old Egyptian (Thebes) Sphinxes, just like, sitting around. Used to sit outside some temple in Egypt, but probably opted for a change of environment around 200 years ago. Some sort of character in the architecture.
Continued wandering around the neighbourhood.
Back along the waterfront. There were many other historic and grand buildings on the island, including old churches and smaller palaces (not covered here).
Nice church with a black statue standing in front. And a (not yellow) submarine. (C-189)
From 3,500 years ago to something slightly more recent- Russian submarines from the Cold War era. The C-189 is actually a museum you can visit.
Another long bridge later, back on the main part of St Petersburg.
The historic Marlinsky Theatre, well known for opera and ballet. Would have been cool to catch a performance. Didn’t, anyway. Wandered into a chill park in the city.
After a day of walking, I was famished, and started looking around for something interesting. Found this shawarma shop on the way back, slightly off the tourist track in a slightly run down place. I think it’s along Sadovaya Street, at the Apraksin Dvor (facing the road).
Was glad to finally find someone who could speak English, the friendly Pakistani guy taking orders. The awesome shawarma. Writing about it is making me hungry.
t was really good, stuffed full with meat, with a cup of tea, for ₽100 (about S$2.50 then). Ended up having my next few dinners at St Peteresburg here. For the great food, great price, and the friendly Pakistani guy.
It was a good dinner. And then it was back to directed wandering around St Petersburg, this time towards some historic churches closer to the hostel. There was this guy busking along Nevsky Prospekt every evening I was there, going at classic after classic after classic, from Michael Jackson to the Eagles to ZZ Top and so much more. Kept me rooted for awhile. Realised he was playing the exact same set the next day (and the next), as it was near the hostel, but enjoyed it nonetheless.
Busker along Nevsky Prospekt. Nevsky Prospekt on a midsummer night. Quite different from when I arrived in the morning. Crowded but not overbearing.
I was in St Petersburg during the White Nights- a month in the middle of summer where the sun never seems to set, hence its name. The city was abuzz with life. I didn’t notice any special festivities for the season, but streets were packed as people seemed to be hanging around till late in the ‘night’, as it still seemed like it was during the day.
One of the last few stops of the day, the magnificent Kazan Cathedral, with elements inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Baptistry in Florence.
The Kazan Cathedral. Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Life as a Tsar is dangerous business.
And finally, the last attraction of the day, and one of the highlights of the city, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Tsar Nicholas II (who was himself assassinated)’s grandfather (Tsar Alexander II) was assassinated on these sacred grounds. The church also goes by many other names.
Honestly it wasn’t that dark then by my camera was struggling. Time for a camera upgrade maybe. But anyway, it was getting late (on the watch, not in the sky), and I headed back to the hostel. A couple more historic looking buildings on the way back, some of them here.
Spot the horseman. And finally, the slight sunset (probably past 10pm). Didn’t get much darker through the night.
Day 2: The Hermitage Museum
Spent the day exploring the Winter Palace, the main building of the Hermitage Museum. Spectacular art collection in an equally if not more spectacular palace.
Exactly same place, entirely different breakfast. I love the choices available at affordable prices at stolovayas. ₽154. Artists’ (or tourists’?) market. Trippy. One of the canals weaving through the city.
Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum. Historically and culturally significant square, with an imposing granite column almost 50m tall right in the center of the square.
Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum. Historically and culturally significant square, with an imposing granite column almost 50m tall right in the center of the square. Emblem of the Russian Empire. The triumphal arch joining the General Staff Building, a monument to Russia’s victory over French troops in 1812. The facade was a little humble in comparison to the lavish interiors.
London has the British Museum, Paris the Louvre, and Saint Petersburg the Hermitage. (and Singapore the National Gallery?).
Facade of the Winter Palace. Finally in the Winter Palace!
The Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum is an exquisitely decorated and well preserved palace, with lavish interiors and grand halls. “Beautiful” would indeed be insufficient to describe its beauty. The audioguide (450 rubles) was really helpful in understanding the vast and rich collection of artwork (including pieces from Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt- lots of it, and more) and the story behind the elaborate decoration in each of the grand halls.
The entrance hallway. The Jordan Staircase. Small throne room. The Armorial Hall. The Military Gallery, with portraits of generals in the Great Patriotic War in 1812. The St George’s Hall.
Pavilion Hall / Peacock Clock
The Pavilion Hall, with the famous Peacock Clock. The Pavilion Hall is probably one of the most intricate rooms at the Hermitage.
The Leonardo da Vinci room, with 2 works by da Vinci. Probably explains the crowd, but it wasn’t as bad as the crowd around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The Raphael Loggias, modelled after the Vatican Loggias by Raphael. Room with Italian stuff. Crouching Boy, by Michelangelo. Everyone wants a shot of him, no wonder he’s shy.
Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting. The Rembrandt Room, probably the most crowded spot in the museum. Serious collection of Rembrandt’s works here. The Main Staircase. Some ceremony going on on the Palace Square, as viewed from the museum. The Library of Nicholas II. Not sure what it’s supposed to mean, but translates to “criminal”. After almost a full day in the museum, back out to the Palace Square for fresh air.
Findings on food and findings on foot
I was famished by then (in the late afternoon/ evening, close to closing time), and immediately went looking for food. With my stomach satisfied, and with many more daylight hours to go, I went exploring the area near the Winter Palace. There were a couple of interesting buildings in the vicinity, such as The Admiralty and the St Isaac’s Cathedral.
Lunch/ Dinner, with no idea of what I was ordering again. ₽278. St Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the largest in the world. Monument to Nicholas I. Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, as viewed from Nevsky Prospekt. One of the four horse tamers adorning the Anichkov Bridge, along Nevsky Prospekt. Nevsky Prospekt, outside Ploshchad Vosstaniya.
Had a nice walk along Nevsky Prospekt back to the hostel to end off the day, people watching along the way.
Day 3: Art districts, Metro stations
Spent the day exploring some hipster art districts and the famed St Petersburg Metro.
Started the day with a different spread again. ₽221. Back on the road. Found an appropriate Singaporean thing to do, checking out malls along the way. ‘shadows settle on the place that you left, our minds are troubled by the emptiness
It was interesting just walking along the streets. Then again, it’s interesting walking the streets of almost any foreign land. Here, looks like someone just bashed his/her way through the back to the main street.
Loft Project ETAGI
First stop, Loft Project ETAGI – a multifunctional art space at an old bakery building in the heart of St Petersburg.
In the yard. Five stories of art and exhibition space, mostly contemporary stuff, a nice contrast to the collection at the Hermitage on the previous day. I guess that’s something I have to learn in creating stuff, having a story, or at least making it seem like there’s one. Different exhibitions at different floors. Most of the exhibitions can be accessed for a small fee. There was some sort of escape room game at the basement. The guy manning the area was enthusiastic in telling me all about the games, even though I was alone and clearly not really interested. Hipster cafe on the roof of the former bakery.
Slightly further down Ligovsky Prospekt, Pushkinskaya 10, another art space. Most of the stuff would only open later in the afternoon so I had a quick look round the place and left.
Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center. Performance arts space. The art center weaved around residential spaces, and I wasn’t sure which parts were the art center and which were the residences. Everybody loves the Beatles.
The morning spent at the art areas gave a me refreshing take on St Petersburg, a different perspective from the St Petersburg I had experienced in the previous 2 days and read about in the months leading up to the trip.
St Petersburg Metro
In the later part of the day, I headed off for a self guided tour of the St Petersburg metro. Metro stations in St Petersburg are known to be among the most beautiful in the world, so I had to check them out for myself, since I’m already here. The St Petersburg metro is one of the deepest in the world, and escalators take several minutes to get from one level to another. Not really ideal for claustrophobics, as escalator tunnels are narrow and the openings only come into sight near the ends.
Here’s the entrance of Ploshchad Vosstaniya metro station, one of the first stations of the system to open, in Nov 1955. The long way down. At the bottom of the escalator, this amazing sight greeted me. The Soviet era had left behind couple of really beautiful things, such as the metro system. The metro stations were the closest to anything out of this world I had seen in St Petersburg. Old but reliable trains serving the line. Hustling.
Vladimirskaya Metro Station
Vladimirskaya metro station. Probably the cleanest metros I’ve seen in Europe.
Baltiyskaya Metro Station
Many stations were adorned with art. Murals such as the one below can be found at many of the older stations, featuring similar themes from the Soviet era.
Mural at Baltiyskaya metro station. After 60 years, still looking amazing.
Narvskaya Metro Station
At Narvskaya, I took a detour to explore surface level sights between Narvskaya and Avtovo.
Took a little detour back on the surface. Narvskaya metro station. Once named after Stalin, now named after the Narva Triumphal Arch found outside the station.
Back On Terra Firma
Narvskie Vorota (Narva Triumphal Arch), built to welcome the triumphant troops from the Great Patriotic War of 1812, on the Narva highway. Narva is located in present day Estonia, near the Russian border. Administratsiya Kirovskogo Rayona (District Council).
Soviet emblems and architectural styles are more evident further from the city center in St Petersburg, in contrast to Moscow, where Soviet emblems and architectural styles are loud and clear within the city center.
Further down the road, passed Komsomolskaya Ploshchad, a historic square that is also a huge roundabout surrounded by distinctive Stalinist style buildings.
Residential complexes of Stalinist architecture at the Komsomolskaya Ploshchad. “Hi.”
Avtovo Metro Station
Then arrived at Avtovo, to head back underground.
Avtovo Metro Station entrance vestibule. Inside the vestibule. A surprise awaited at the end of the escalator. Avtovo, the most magnificent of the magnificent St Petersburg Metro, topped with chandeliers, finished with ornamental glass and marble, still stunning at 60 (at time of photograph). No detail was spared at Avtovo metro station.
Ok, not that much of a surprise since I had been reading about it. Nonetheless, still gasped upon seeing it in real life. It was mind blowing. See it (in real life) to believe it. Don’t know why they built it like that, or if anyone else will ever do the same, but the walk through the station was simply jaw dropping. Even the ventilation grilles are stunning.
Other subway shots
A peek into these little pieces of history (the train, not the people). Kirovsky Zavod, another very beautiful station. Reliefs on columns along the platform of Narvskaya station. Chyornaya Rechka metro station.
Chyornaya Rechka station. One of the the slightly newer stations (but still older than Singapore’s oldest line). I thought it’s quite amazing how they make huge underground structures like that without lots of support columns, so many years ago.
More streets and markets
Ended my metro tour at Sennaya Ploshchad. This square used to be a bustling market years and years ago. Now the market’s gone, but the square’s still bustling. Further down the road along Sadovaya Street, a historic market that’s still around (kind of). The stuff being sold at Apraksin Dvor wasn’t that interesting, but that it was hidden away from the main road made the place a little interesting to explore. Also, along the road on the outside, the shawarma that’s really good value that I had on the first day. I’ve had to have it again.
Sennaya Ploshchad. Apraksin Dvor. Another of the four horse tamers adorning the Anichkov Bridge, along Nevsky Prospekt. Another shot down Nevsky Prospekt, with the Admiralty Building at the western end of the avenue. Where the river flows (and the cold wind blows).
Made a turn at Nevsky Prospekt to head back to the hostel, this time crossing the Anichkov bridge on the other side, with a different sculpture on this side.
Day 4: Peterhof Palace
Took a day trip out of the city on my last day in St Petersburg to Peterhof (appears to be pronounced Petergof) Palace.
Simple breakfast for another great day ahead. ₽196.
Getting to Peterhof
Made a trip to Vitebsky Railway Station, slightly unfortunately, as it was the wrong railway station for trains to Peterhof. The rail terminal was an interesting building though, the first railway station to be built in the whole of Russia, and now preserving a very retro look after careful restoration. Would have been great for photoshoots. Found my way to the right station, Baltiysky Railway Station, not long after. Got my tickets (₽55 rubles each way), but no idea when my train was coming, or where to wait for it. Desperately attempted to ask for help but it’s hard getting around without knowing a word of Russian.
A nice old train station, unfortunately the wrong one. Happens sometimes. The right train station, also a nice old (pretty historic too) station.
Can’t remember what happened next exactly, but seemed like it involved following the crowd, getting off the train and on to a bus (₽28), and finding myself at Peterhof (Petrodvorets) eventually. About an hour of travelling.
Fountains and gardens greeting visitors to Peterhof Palace. “I can’t hear you!” A smaller fountain at the side.
Paid the entrance fees (₽250 rubles for entrance to gardens) and got into the famed gardens. (The area in the above photos are the free areas.) And wow, it was beyond spectacular. Just take a look.
I guess they didn’t call this the Russian Versailles for nothing. I haven’t been to the Versailles though, so I can’t compare, but the fountains were breathtaking, and I’m glad to have been able to see it for myself. Look at how they line up perfectly. Okay now I sound like I have OCD. Gardens at Peterhof Palace. Little fountain in the gardens.
Meticulously maintained gardens. Apart from the main fountains, there were little surprises spread throughout the sprawling gardens of the palace.
And slightly larger ones. Beyond the sea wall, the Gulf of Finland. And more gardens with huge fountains. Squirrels are like little monkeys, perhaps a little less scarier.
After a couple of hours roaming the sprawling gardens of Peterhof Palace (lots of other nice features/ touches not shown here), took one last shot of the Grand Cascade fountains before leaving.
The Samson Fountain and sea channel which leads out into the Gulf of Finland. All that glitters … is glaring.
Back to St Petersburg
Timing was pretty decent. All the remained back in the city was to get dinner, grab my bags, and head to the railway station for the train to Moscow leaving that night.
Following a short bus and train ride, back in St Petersburg. Baltiyskaya Metro Station. Still found the decorations in the metro stations amazing. Last ride up the deep underground metro.
And onward to Moscow
The Hero-City Obelisk of Leningrad, at Ploshchad Vosstaniya, and on the right the Moskovsky railway station, with train services to Moscow. Something was burning earlier. I saw smoke from all the way down the other end of Nevsky Prospekt. On to my final stop of this quest, Moscow!
St Petersburg budget
Actual travel dates: 24 June 2015 – 27 June 2015
Accommodation: ₽1550 (3 nights in a hostel, inclusive of visa registration)
Food: ₽1500 (a little on the budget side)
Attractions: ₽700 (doesn’t include entrance ticket to the Hermitage (₽200 rubles) – free for students, and probably the last time ever I got to use my student pass)
Transport (within St Petersburg and to Peterhof): ₽350
Total St Petersburg expenses: ₽4100 (~S$100/ US$75 at June 2015 rate)