I have never been to Russia. Well, I had a stop-over at Moscow airport once, but I don’t think that counts. There are two main reasons why I haven’t been to Russia. The first one was because I didn’t want to travel there alone. I don’t speak or read Russian, and based on what I have heard, it is not really a place to go on your own. I like travelling alone, but Russia was a definite no-no for a solo trip. The second reason was the bureacracy. Europe and the Schenghen agreement have spoiled me and made me a somewhat lazy traveller and it felt too much of hassle to fill in Visa forms, pay extra fees and change currency. The Visa process also forces you to plan your trip in advance instead of just winging it. Anyhoo, a trip to Russia was long over due.
VR has a direct train route to St Petersburg (and to Moscow). Three and a half hours on the Allegro train heading east, with the proper travel documents, and you can hop off in St. Petersburg. My sister and I booked a three day trip through Matka Prima Tours.The trip included the train tickets, a pick-up from the train station on arrival and drop-off on departure, a sightseeing trip and a trip to the Eremitage. We stayed at the Hotel Moskva which was nice (clean rooms), but the breakfast was a bit of a dissapointment. I would recommend ordering a pick-up to your hotel or hostel from the airport or the train station as it makes things easier and you have one less thing to stress about.
I have lived and travelled in big cities, but the scale of St Petersbug is truly staggering. It’s like the whole population of Finland put into one city!
There isn’t such a thing as walking quietly along Nevsky Prospekt as it is essentially a shopping street with a motorway in the middle. The traffic is so loud it is difficult to carry a conversation. The streets are full of lovely and decorative paste coloured buildings for your eyes to enjoy while your ears suffer.
Surprisingly, the churches have an entrance fee (250 RUB). One of my favourite buildings was the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It was so opulent! Being used to Lutheran churches, the Russian Orthodox churches were almost too much for the senses. They were so decorative, finely detailed, brightly coloured and full of gold.
Around the church there were men who had live raccoons (or an animal like it) and owls with them and you could pay to take a picture with the animal.
The second church I visited was St Isaac’s Cathedral. A beautiful building with stunning iconostasis!
The main reason I wanted to go to St.Petersburg was the Hermitage Museum. The Louvre of the East was stunning. The building itself is gorgeous, let alone the artifacts in it. It would take a day to just watch the ceilings and the building and another to enjoy the paintings and statues.
I think I have as many pictures of the ceiling as I have of the paintings. The Hermitage is so big our guide showed us only a small selection of works and there was a lot more left to see.
The metro was a very pleasant surprise. We only used the metro twice during our trip. You can buy tokens from a machine and it is easy to use and clean. It was much nicer and the stations are better ventilated than the metro in Paris. Walking has its benefits as you get to see views like this.
For the generic shopping experience, head to Galeria or Stockmann (at the corner of Nevsky prospect and Vosstaniya Street). Both are close the metro stations and have the normal chainstores. If you like tea, try going to The Ounce tea store (there are two along Nevsky Prospekt. It is also a nice thing to buy home as you get it in a cute bag.
I usually try and eat local foods, but in St Petersburg I didn’t get to do that. There were lots of different restaurants offering Russian, Armenian, Georgian and other food, but the weather was too hot to enjoy a heavy meal. I tried to make a reservation to a restaurant that offers a Russian tasting menu, but their English website wasn’t working and I didn’t hear anything back when I made the reservation on their Russian site (with the help of Google Translate!).
The only proper lunch we had was at Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian (that is close to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood). We shared polenta fries, Italian nachos and a seasonal vegetable plank. The polenta fries were so good!
We managed by speaking English and pointing just fine. In a couple of stores the salesperson just slowly backed away when they heard us speaking English. I think it might be because they feel selfconscious about having an accent (but who doesn’t!). It is good to keep in mind that in Russia they dub tv-shows, so not all are used to hearing and speaking English. So, if you get service in English, make sure you compliment their language skills to encourage them to use it more and just go the extra mile to get understood (use simple vocabulary and sentences if the other person seems to me struggling with English). At the foodstore and in one cosmetic shop we were a bit lost, because everything was written in Russian and we had no idea what the ingredients were and what the product was.
I will honestly admit I had certain prejudice and misconception towards St Petersburg and Russia. That is why I love to travel, because you get to experience things firsthand instead of relying on hearsay and, most importantly, you get to change your opinion. I liked St Petersburg and it was a very positive surprise. Not once during our trip did I feel unsafe. They warn tourists about pickpockets, but I think I was much more wary when I was in Rome and in Budapest. The city was cheap, clean and friendly and I wouldn’t mind going there again.