Russia is a place we’ve always wanted to visit. Maybe we’ve watched ‘Dr Zhivago’ a few too many times, but for us, Russia has always represented vast snowy landscapes; glamorous ladies dripping in diamonds; opulent cities; graceful ballet dancers and mysterious Russian fairy tales. Of course, this version excludes an awful lot of tension, history and international relations, which we were most definitely mindful of when planning our trip.
And so, after a lot of research, it seemed that there was only one city in Russia that was not only tourist-friendly, but encapsulated all of the romantic and glamorous parts we had imagined: Saint Petersburg.
Saint Petersburg is Russia’s most European city, sitting just a stone’s throw across the Baltic sea from its neighbour, Finland. Built on a boggy marshland, the city was created by Peter the Great in 1703 and soon became Russia’s most golden and jewel-encrusted city.
Our first impression of Saint Petersburg was that not a lot has changed. This is a beautiful, beautiful city. Elaborate, pastel-coloured buildings line the many rivers and canals that divide the city; huge and almost surreal beautiful churches, such as The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, dominate its sky-line; and of course, the ever opulent palaces, such as the Winter Palace and Summer Palace, sit on what feels like every street corner.
After making it through Russian immigration (nerve-wracking) and surviving a taxi ride that felt more like a car-chase, we arrived at our picture-perfect hotel on the Moyka river embankment, Hotel Pushka Inn. We’ll be writing a review of this lovely hotel soon and would most definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the city!
Our first stop was an immediate beeline to the previously mentioned Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This is a very famous building and one that is unmistakably ‘Russian’. It is glorious! Built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was wounded and died in 1881, this is a piece of beautiful, intricate and brilliant architecture. The inside is as colourful as the outside; entirely covered in dazzling and vibrant mosaics. It really is breathtaking and you could easily spend an hour gazing up at its enormous domed ceiling. The Church, having been closed by the Soviet government in the 1930s, only re-opened in 1997 after 27 years of restoration. It seems they did a fantastic job!
Another highlight was visiting the renowned State Hermitage Museum. Before you visit, remember that this place is enormous. You could easily wander around this former palace for hours, possibly days, passing through rooms dedicated to ancient Egyptian mummies, Russian oligarchy and Renaissance art. The sheer amount of gold and general bling was e overwhelming! One thing that was becoming increasingly clear, is that Russians really do love a bit of sparkle. The Palace Square, outside the museum is equally as impressive and filled with lovely horse-drawn carriages. It’s especially lovely in the evenings, as the sun lights up the orange and yellow coloured buildings that surround it.
Reviewing every single tourist site in Saint Petersburg is impossible (there are just so many!) and so our last ‘must-see’ would be St Isaac’s Cathedral. Once the largest Cathedral in Russia, you can see its enormous, gold-topped dome all across the city. Inside, the interior is as much impressive as the Church of Spilled Blood; covered in colourful domes, paintings and mosaics. Laura accidentally wandered off into an Orthodox Christian Easter Celebration (panic), she was that distracted by its beauty.
What makes this Cathedral really special, however, is the view if you are willing to climb the nearly 300 steps to the top of the tower. After a slightly sweaty walk up the staircase, we made it to the top and were hit by panoramic views of Saint Petersburg. It’s easy to forget just how large this city is and just how many waterways feed in and out of its cobbled streets.
Although visiting the tourist sights is a definitely must, you should also take the time to wander more generally through the city and enjoy its amazing cafe culture and food. We’ll write more later about the cafe culture, but it was one aspect of this city that we definitely didn’t expect! We found so many cosy, unique and amazing places to sit back and enjoy a drink, and the food was delicious.
Lastly, no trip to Russia would be complete without vodka and each restaurant will offer a wide range of ‘tinctures’ or home made flavours. From experience, though? Give the horseradish vodka a miss. Claire’s throat may never be the same again. We did, however, enjoy a very exciting trip to the ballet off the back of a few shots and rounds of honey beer, which made for a slightly surreal night!
All in all? Saint Petersburg is an incredible destination. We truly felt like we were inside a giant fairy tale bubble for the entire trip. The people were all friendly and helpful (aside from the taxi driver, he definitely wasn’t mentally stable); the food was delicious (try the sour cabbage soup!); and the architecture was phenomenal. Just get that Visa application out the way first…..