How long is long enough to get to know a city well? If you’re not planning to apply for a proper visa, 72 hours is all that the Russian government will let you have to explore St Petersburg, and I wasn’t sure what to expect as we boarded our ferry from Helsinki.
Well, what I did not expect was waiting around 2hrs at border control, watching the guards apparently manually enter every single detail on every single person’s passports. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most glowing introduction to Russia’s bureaucracy.
Before getting into figure skating and having grown up in the West, my knowledge of Russia was limited to the Vitas album my parents had in the car (for some reason, he’s the idol for Chinese people who grew up in the 80s), specifically Opera N2, and the rest was straight from the ‘cultural stereotypes 101’ handbook: candy-spire towers, Putin, crabby babushkas in headscarves, something cold, brusque and overwhelmingly foreign.
Visiting St Petersburg was giving flesh and dimension to those stereotypes: the candy-spire towers at the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood were indeed geometric, bright and candy-like, but the main spire was under repair. The babushkas were largely brusque and unsmiling but lacked headscarves. We were shown to our hostel reception by a no-nonsense lady who looked and dressed like a supermodel, who processed our passports next to the Putin calendar on the wall. St Petersburg in mid-summer was 13C, grey and windy, and the cyrillic was indeed overwhelmingly foreign.
Of all cities in the world, St Petersburg’s vibe reminded me a lot of Beijing: opulence and excess in dizzying doses in its palaces, museums, vibrant commercial districts along Nevsky Prospekt and gigantic metro stations (I actually timed how long it took us to stand on one escalator that took us from the underground platform to street level and it literally took a full 3 minutes in one of the stations). Venture a little outside its glittering heart, however, and the more recent past still looms in gigantic, half-empty concrete buildings, now housing sparkling but also some slightly dated tourist merchandise, old apartment blocks that are half-blocked up and that curious combination of modern and old interiors that seemed to co-exist uneasily together at times.
But there was another dimension of Russia: figure skating friends who sent me painstakingly detailed recommendations lists for places to visit with overwhelming warmth and enthusiasm, ridiculously cool young people in stellar fashion, selling cutting edge clothing and pins at Loft Project Etazhi, two artists I saw painting the sunset plein-air by the Neva River, the Kazakhstan lady selling me headscarves who took the time to demonstrate several ways to wear it with exuberance. The fact that I could introduce Noora to takoyaki and enjoy a steaming bowl of fairly authentic pho in St Petersburg against the biting cold says volumes.
The future belongs to the youth, and many of the youth in Russia are as connected, passionate and active as any other, most notably with both Eastern and Western popular youth culture, if the clear Japanese and Asian influences are anything to go by.
While the most Russian I could manage didn’t really move beyond Спасибо (spasibo or thank you), I’m determined that the next time I go, I’ll be able to say a little more.
Eating in St Petersburg
Georgian food at Kazbegi - apparently eating Georgian food is something that a lot of people just ‘do’ in Russia… and hey, I’m not complaining. I recommend trying the khachapuri, which is a cheese-filled bread and Georgian dumplings, which are like giant xiaolongbao, soft dumpling skin filled with savoury soup and a meat filling.
Pyshki at Pyshechnaya (Bolshaya Konyushennaya 25) - Pyshki are essentially lightly fried doughnuts dusted with icing sugar, a St Petersburg tradition and so worth the line (you may even get a glimpse of the shop cat) at Pyshechnaya. If you’ve ever had Chinese you tiao or fried doughsticks, this is like an airier, lighter version of that. General foodie life tip: If you come across a store that looks like it’s been there for awhile with a long line that only serves one thing on its menu (along with coffee/tea), line tf up. There’s a reason it’s still here.
Blini and borscht at Teremok - this was one of the best meals I had, probably because I was both cold and hungry at the time, but also because there was an excellent combination of flavours in my particular blini. I also tried syrniki - fried cheese fritters - here but I couldn’t get used to it; it had the consistency of slightly curdled cheesecake and the sweetness seemed at odds with the more savoury taste of the cheese.
Civil Coffee Bar - unfortunately we didn’t get to try the food as we went past lunch hour, but the cafe is gorgeous - rustic and bookish, it feels like you’ve stepped into a fantasy land.
Pirozhki at Stolle Cafe - Absolutely recommend these intricately designed pies or pirogi, available with both sweet and savoury fillings and very reasonably priced. We got them in a hurry for the journey home but I wished I had bought more - I particularly loved the savoury one I had with rabbit and cabbage!
Bushe Cafe - comes recommended from quite a few different sources but we didn’t get the chance to personally visit.
Restaurants that are part of the Ginza Project - not personally sampled but recommended from a trusted friend.
The buildings along Nevsky Prospekt were teeming with intricate detailing, colour and vibrant World Cup activity. I think we were probably the few tourists who weren’t walking around with ‘official’ looking fan badges and the three days we were there happened to be days without any matches in St Petersburg so we avoided a lot of the football fever. I just found the streets fascinating to walk along.
Singer Building/St Petersburg Dom Knigi
Definitely go to this gigantic bookstore, if only to ogle at the iconic decor. Inside, you’ll find a lot of beautiful and relatively cheap postcards, which make great souvenirs especially since postage from Russia is also fairly cheap (at least compared to Scandinavia!), as well as all manner of souvenirs and, when we were there, official World Cup merchandise.
I also bought some traditional Russian headscarves for my grandmothers at Pavloposadskie Platki (Nevsky 87/2) - the shop owner was from Kazakhstan and didn’t speak a word of English but she powered on in rapid Russian at my stupefied, confused face and eventually found my phantomiming pathetic enough to pull out a Russian <-> English chart.
Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood
I could not get over how magnificent and intricate the detailing was and just as we got there, the sun suddenly came out from behind the cloud, illuminating the church so its colours popped. The line was way too long and, not being of Russian Orthodox faith, we opted out of going inside. But even just circling the outside, trying to drink in all the architecture detailing, was quite an adventure.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
Buy a ticket for the ‘colonnade’ to climb up to get a panoramic view of the city - my M.O when short on time when travelling - as someone who is agnostic at best - is to skip visiting the inside of churches but to climb to the top where there is a chance. There is a place where you can store (small) suitcases for free next to the ticket office. Wednesday is a day off.
The wind was no joke up here - so strong and cold I got both a headache and watery eyes from it and felt like I was physically pushed in one direction by the gale. But it was worth it for a view of the city, grey but multicoloured and bustling beneath us.
Hermitage & The General Staff Building
Braving the cold and 2hr line for The Hermitage was pretty worth it for a glimpse into its ridiculously opulent, traditional interiors that indeed gave Versailles a bit of a run for its money. If you’re not lining up before the museum opens, I would really not bother if you’ve only got 72hrs in St Petersburg because even for us, it took a long time to get in. What I actually enjoyed just as much as The Hermitage was the modern, newly renovated and Scandinavian-reminiscent art gallery of The General Staff Building (incidentally, one of the worst names for a gallery I’ve heard yet). In particular, I loved Van Gogh’s ‘Thatched Cottages’ (1890) and Eduoard Vuillard’s ‘Children’ (1909) and made a new discovery in Edmond Lempereur.
Loft Project Etazhi
The place where all the cool and trendy kids go. Come here to find boutique independent stores, secondhand and edgy clothing and a really gigantic bag store, along with a takoyaki bar, pho joint, photobooth and an alley of artists selling pins and meme stickers. There are also some bars and smaller cafes scattered throughout the area. I really loved the vibe here.
The Saint Petersburg Mosque
Again, due to time restrictions, we couldn’t go inside, but there’s so much detail and intricacy in the exterior that I was really content to just stare in awe as I tried to make out the Arabic writing, the vivid blue and figure out how they managed to get create such precise geometric structures. This mosque was opened in 1913 and was, at the time, the largest mosque in Europe outside of Turkey.
Other places and things to do recommended by friends that we ran out of time to do
Visit Vasilievsky Island and Kunstkamera Museum, famous for its collection of abnormal embyros etc. You can also then walk along the embankment of Vasilievsky Island, lots of sculptures.
At 1am, the Palace Bridge opens (the bridge closest to the Hermitage, that takes you to Vasilievsky Island. Do not cross to the island!!! Once the bridges open, you cannot get back to the city centre at they close in the morning.)
Petrogradsky Island (Peter and Paul Fortress)
Catherine Palace/Pushkin - 25km south of Saint Petersburg. It’s famous for its Amber Room.
Watch a ballet at the Mariinsky theatre - You can buy tickets at the theatre, city box-offices or online.
For nightlife: Visit Rubinshteyna street (Mollie’s and Poison are very popular, but there are so many bars to choose from).