I’ve always wanted to head off on a city break to St Petersburg, Russia. 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 St 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.
The biggest deterrent for many people considering visiting Russia is the elaborate Russian Visa Application process.
As a British citizen, you are required to complete a lengthy application form before attending a Russian VISA office in London, Edinburgh or Manchester. Here, after joining a queue you will submit your biometric data (fingerprints), pay the VISA fee (see below) and submit the application along with your passport. Your passport will then be posted back to you with the VISA printed inside within the agreed time frame (see below).
How much does a Russian Visa cost?
£185 for the 20-working days OR £285 for 4-working days.
For those in a rush or unable to visit a VISA application centre, there are many companies offering a speedy 2-3 day service but it comes at an additional fee.
This process means that a last-minute jaunt to St Petersburg isn’t possible and comes with plenty of pre-planning before heading to the city.
Having successfully obtained your Russian Visa, the next step of your city break to St Petersburg is to book your hotel.
Before booking our trip to Saint Petersburg, we spent a long time researching where to stay. There are a dizzying amount of hotels in the city and with many websites in Russian, it can be difficult to decide where best to stay. Eventually, we came across Hotel Pushka Inn, a fairly small, friendly and beautiful looking hotel, right on the bank of the Moika River. The hotel had received fantastic reviews, based mainly on the helpfulness of its staff, which for us is always super important (especially when you struggle to say ‘hello’ in Russian!)
Upon arriving at the hotel (after the frenzied taxi drive from hell), we were immediately relieved to be staying at the Inn. Housed in a beautiful mansion built in 1860, on a street lined with noble and pastel-coloured houses, the Inn is beautiful. It was a cold and misty afternoon when we arrived and the street, overlooking the river, had a real romantic feel.
Inside, the hotel is traditionally decorated, with beautiful tiled floors and an ornate glass lift. It had a small and intimate feel and is perfect for people who prefer to avoid the huge chain hotels. It also has a restaurant next door (that serves delicious traditional Russian food) where you also have breakfast. Take note: they serve cake for breakfast. CAKE!
As there were three of us (shout out to our long-suffering friend, Kirsty), we had booked into a family room in the ‘attic’. The room was enormous. With a kitchen area, TV area, and a separate room for sleeping, it was like we had our own apartment. It was bright and breezy, whilst quiet and homely. Perfect.
The location of the hotel is also perfect. You’re a short five minute walk from the infamous Hermitage Museum and the historic centre of Saint Petersburg, including The Church of the Saviour on the Blood. We imagine this is particularly handy during Russia’s colder months, when you don’t want to have to brace the bitter winds for too long.
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’. 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.
No city break to St Petersburg would be complete without a visit to the 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 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’ on a city break to St Petersburg 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.
No city break to St Petersburg would be complete without a visit to watch the Russian ballet. Whilst we were in the city, we put on our best dresses and headed to Mariinsky Theatre to watch The Nutcracker. This was a truly memorable evening, as we sat amongst St Petersburg locals to watch the dancers glide across the doll-house sized stage. For more information about watching the ballet in St Petersburg, Russia take a read of this useful guide.
Before arriving in Saint Petersburg, we hadn’t given much thought to the food that we would find there. We’d read that there was plenty of potato and meat (pickled cabbage, anyone?) but not much else. Once we arrived, however, we were wowed by the number of independent, quirky and cosy cafes , each offering an enormous range of delicious and varied food. Below are our favourite cafes that we visited, each as weird and brilliant as the other!
1) Zoom cafe
This cafe was our heaven. We love all things quirky and Zoom gave us just that. Stepping into this cafe is like stepping into a children’s room: teddy bears; board games; toys and strange unidentifiable brick-a-brack, fills every corner. It is bright, loud, colourful and eclectic. But what really makes it special is that as you slowly look around, you’ll notice that at each table, every adult is madly colouring and drawing away.
Sure enough, as soon as we sat down, we were handed a big piece of paper and a pot of pens, and told to let our creative juices flow free! Throughout our delicious meal, we scribbled, coloured and drew away. Granted, Laura has zero artistic skill, but it was still a fantastic evening.
2) Yat Restaurant- Buffet
We stumbled upon this cafe by chance, as it was right next door to our hotel. What seems a common theme with the cafes in St Petersburg is the cosy feel they all have. We imagine that during their bitterly cold winters, all the people of the city are tucked away in these warm and welcoming places, sharing cake, tea and vodka. This cafe served delicious food, including vegetarian food, home brewed honey beer and a wide range of vodka. Just to add to its appeal, there was even a room out the back with baby rabbits. Yes, we repeat, baby rabbits. We loved this place so much we came back four times. On our last trip here we enjoyed traditional ‘Russian Tea’, complete with homemade biscuits and jam.
3) CyACTbE Cafe (Happiness Cafe!)
Very aptly named, this cafe is a treasure trove of positivity. With soft white decor (think angel wings and chalk boards full of inspirational quotes) and complete with a delicatessen in the corner, this is a great place to come for something sweet. Although the mains were perfectly nice, the cafes real selling point is its menu of these treats. We treated ourselves to heart shaped jam biscuits, bear themed cookies and huge slabs of cake. Mmmm.
4) Eliseevskiy Store € € €
This is less of a hidden gem and more on an institution in St Petersburg. Built in 1902-1903 and housed within a beautiful Art Nouveau building, stepping foot in this store is like stepping back to Russia’s most opulent era. With twinkling lights, a self-playing piano and a giant palm tree in the middle of the store, this enchanting place is a sweet lovers’ heaven. We spent at least an hour walking and gawping at the amazing cakes, macaroons and candied fruit. It had a wonderful atmosphere and should be a definite must-see for anyone visiting the city.
The great thing about all of these cafes were their value for money. Even with a glass (or ten) of alcohol, and a main and starter, all meals were under £15. It’s one of the most economical cities we’ve visited to date. Yet, their cheap prices do not make for a cheap experience and we would urge anyone visiting Saint Petersburg to take the time to find a cafe, order some cake and take an hour or two to enjoy this wonderful aspect of the city.
Our city break to St Petersburg was a memorable and hugely enjoyable experience. With friendly locals; delicious food (try the sour cabbage soup!) and awe-inspiring architecture, St Petersburg makes for the perfect weekend break from the UK.
Just make sure that you get that Visa application out the way first.