St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 on marshland by Peter the Great. Just a little powerful-women-deserve-recognition tangent; Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, was one of two female leaders under whom the young city thrived. The Empress crowned herself at her own coronation, while Catherine the Great overthrew her own husband and became the longest female ruler of Russia.
In Russia’s “window to the West”, the architecture and street names read like a history book, revealing chapters of the young city’s loaded backstory. The site of assassinations, uprisings, oppression, and cultural revolution, there is a strong sense of collective memory amongst its residents. Russia tells a tale of two capitals: Moscow, the capital of the nation, and St. Petersburg, nicknamed “the cultural capital”.
On our first night, we shared milk-filtered Russian vodka with new hostel friends* and became acquainted us with the underbelly of the city. It was the first and last full night of sleep I got in St. Pete! Not a minute, museum, or meal was wasted. We never said no to nightlife. As a result, our mornings often came in two acts:
Act I, 3am:
Hoisting myself into the top bunk of my hostel bed, full-body exhaustion, full heart, head swimming in happy. This chapter of my morning hasn’t bothered to distinguished itself from the night before.
Act II, 8am:
Wake up, scrounge for free instant coffee in the hostel kitchen, down it. Get on the bus to the Higher School of Economics, where we were attending classes in Russian politics, history, and culture.
*My friend Kaity has been documenting her travels, soon to include the Trans-Siberian Railway that brought her to Russia, on her blog rhinetoreykjavik.wordpress.com !
We spent our 2 weeks at Baby Lemonade hostel. A little kitchy, but it’s definitely youth-oriented and designed to facilitate socializing amongst guests. The surrounding area is wonderful and walkable, and the kitchen in the hostel is *huge*, if you’re looking to save some $$ by eating in! High quality, clean accommodations.
I’ll give a bit of background on the highlights that everyone should see, followed with a brief list of other to-dos.
On the first day in St. Petersburg, we went to the Peter and Paul Fortress, and before I tell you anything about anything, I have to say this: we saw Vladimir Putin. I was within 25 feet of the man. My friend Maeve saw his bald head. There’s a ceremonial canon that fires at noon each day, but on this particular day, Putin was the one firing it!
The fortress is the original citadel of St. Petersburg, used by the Bolsheviks as an execution ground in the early 1920s. My greatest enticement to visit was the tomb of Nicolas II and his family at The Peter and Paul Cathedral. Their bodies were repatriated to the cathedral in 1988, 80 years after the 1918 murder of the Tsar, his wife, and his four children. The cathedral is also the final resting place of Peter the Great, the city’s founder.
Thinking about Russia and the Romonov family always ignited a curious fire in my mind, intensified when my grandfather told me that one of my paternal ancestors worked on the grounds of the Winter Palace, now serving as the main building of the Hermitage Museum. According to Grandpa, my predecessor saw trouble brewing (a la Rasputin) and relocated his family to Germany.
I was never really the “I want to be a princess when I grow up” type, that is, until I experienced the Hermitage. I visited at night, the scene illuminated by soft, warm lights. The palace is lichen green, and the decorative exterior appliques and jutting windowsills are plated with gold leaf. Soft snow falls and comes to rest on these ledges, overlooking the central grounds, where dark horses trot with carriages in tow. Like much of the Baroque architecture in St. Petersburg, it’s both gentle and grandiose.
The inside is marble, gold, cherubs and chandeliers. One of the greatest draws to the Hermitage is Catherine the Great’s Peacock Clock. The massive, mechanical rendition of this carnival of animals is revived every time the clock strikes. The peacock rears its head, an owl spins, even a dragonfly is charged with keeping track of the seconds. Now, it’s so fragile that it is only set to strike twice a month.
Da Vinci’s “Madonna Litta” was displayed in the study of Nicolas I. I gawked at the portrait of Tsar Nicolas II. (I’m trying to rid myself of my crush on him since he was such an objectively crap leader.)
A group of us felt inclined to attend a Russian Orthodox service, as the religion is so integral in both the Russian past and present. Get this: there are no pews in Russian Orthodox churches. You stand for the entirety of the service, anywhere from 1-3 hours. After attending a traditional, standing service at St. Nicolas Naval Cathedral, we were just walking distance from the Mariinsky Theatre, where we saw the Nutcracker Ballet ft. Xavier Parish as the Nutcracker Prince. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Mariisnky Theatre hosts one of the most globally-renowned ballets. Definitely worth booking tickets for in advance!
Other must sees:
- Udelnaya Soviet Flea Market (for USSR memorabilia and unexpected goodies! I got my brother a Soviet-era Naval officer cap. Note: you will not be able to get the very cool antique bullets through airport security.)
- Yelagin Island Christmas Bazaar (if the season is right! Blow kisses to real live reindeer. Brace yourself against the cold with some warm honey mead, Medovukha, in hand.)
- The Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. This church was renovated into a public pool when Communism reigned and religion was banned in Russia. Now again an active Lutheran church, you can venture into its burrows and see painted murals, which illustrate the history of Soviet-era desecration.
- The Memorial of the Siege of Leningrad. It’s easy to consume St. Petersburg’s elegance, but I think making the stop to recognize the tragic history of this siege is a must. It yields a lot of insight to a collective Russian memory that shapes the character of the city and its people.
- Dostoevsky’s Apartment! It’s cheap, even cheaper if you’re a student, and you get to explore the final residence of the famed author, including his writing chambers.
The absolute loveliest, sweetest, most hospitable human on the planet, Gera, happened to work at the front desk of our hostel. Frankly, eating vegan in Russia was not easy. But it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I expected. I ate primarily a beet, peas, and pickles salad dish (actually delicious) and buckwheat without milk. However, my program took care of food accommodations for for breakfast and dinner, which was actually pretty restricting for me. If I had been traveling entirely on my own itinerary, I would have sought out specialty spots; St Petersburg is a young city and veganism is more and more common! I didn’t get to experience all of these eateries, but for those travelling on a plant-based diet, here are Gera’s recommendations!
- Ukrop Vegan Cafe
- Co-op Garage
- Kazbegt (Georgian food)
- Camorra Pizza
For food featuring an immersive historical experience, go to Gogol 19th century peasant dining. We’re talking character costumes, piano man, and “ring the bell for service”. We paired appetizers with Georgian wine and Gogol’s specialty, traditional flavored vodka, which is nothing like what you’d expect. They’re almost syrupy, infused with flavors like black currant + mint. (This is what Maeve got and was by far the best!) The serving was small and sweet, but packed a punch.
We also popped into Julia Child cafe! It was a weird thing to find in St. Petersburg, Russia, but she’s a Smith alum so we had to pay homage!
Gera pointed us to a few local bars. His recommendations are low-key, casual, comfortable spots to grab a drink with friends. We only made it to Pinch, for gorgeous (albiet pricey) Mai Tais! If you want a more relaxed night on the town, make your way to one of these St. Pete bars, highlighted for their specialties:
- Bukowski (beer)
- Sidreria (cider)
- Pinch (cocktails)
- Farsh and bochka (beer)
If you’re looking for something a little classy but still well within affordability, check out Dead Poet’s Bar. It features the best sour beer I’ve ever had in my life, Barbe Ruby, which I think is German! I can’t find it anywhere in the States!
Okay, so you’ve had your casual cocktails and classy bar experience, and you’re looking for something more… intense? It’s Central Station. It’s a gay bar with great music and a very European indoor smoke room, and if you stay late enough… well… I feel like I’ve been sworn to secrecy about what I witnessed there. But it’s worth sticking around for. It gets especially saucy around 3am.
Speaking of something… more… I left Russia with the keepsake of a lifetime, a one-of-a-kind tattoo from Baraka Tattoo’s Igor Kori. If you’re the type to ink up on a whim, this shop is clean, courteous, and incredibly affordable for the quality of work. Find Igor’s work on his Instagram, @korv_kori.
St. Petersburg is a city to get lost in! Uber and Lyft are both accessible and very affordable, but the metro is an experience and a half, easy to navigate and costing close to nothing. Plus, the underground of St. Petersburg is a museum in itself. During the Soviet Era, the metro stations were considered the “palaces of the people”, thus were intricately designed and are well-preserved!
Being in Russia with friends and integrating education into my trip completely changed the way I approach travel. I missed Russia before the plane took off. The man I sat next to offered me some words of wisdom, as strangers on planes often do: “I don’t regret the things I failed at. I only regret the things I didn’t do, for fear of failure”. A fitting conclusion.