Russia

When We Went: September 17-22, 2008

Cities We Visited: St. Petersburg

View all of our posts about Russia here.

Where We Stayed:
Nevsky Grand Hotel
This isn’t a budget traveler’s choice, but since we were traveling with Jeff’s parents, we were able to stay here. Located just off of Nevsky Prospect, the main boulevard in the historic heart of St. Petersburg, it’s in an excellent location. We were able to walk to most major sites, and for outlying sites, we could easily walk to the Metro or a water taxi. The rooms were sparsely decorated but clean, and the bathrooms though small were spotless. A breakfast buffet was included in the price.

Notable Places We Ate:
Baku: Azerbaijani food. At first, we felt like they were taking us to be stupid tourists as their recommendations seemed to be that we order a lot of food (at least one thing from each section). We toned down their recommendations but stuck to the items they pointed out and were very happy. The saj (an ancient dish in which pieces of fried meat, aubergines, potatoes, cayenne, tomatoes, mushrooms, and pomegranate seeds are cooked in a flat pan over burning coals) and the veal takhta-govurma (pieces of fried meat with onion, water chestnuts, apricots, sweet pepper, and tomatoes under a crispy pastry cheese crust) were happily shared between all four of us. This isn’t a budget backpacker option, however, as each entree cost 1200 roubles. (Though again note that two entrees was sufficient for four adults.)
Website (in Russian)

Teremok: This is a Russian fast-food chain with outlets all over the city. Many are simply kiosks without seating, but there is one off of Nevsky Prospekt with plenty of booths. I had the mushroom blini both times, while Jeff tried a Greek one and a chicken one. As for the dessert versions, we tried chocolate and banana, chocolate, and berries and cream. We liked all of them. It’s good food at a good price, and especially convenient when you don’t have much time to eat.

What We Did:
Peterhof: Peter the Great’s palace, which bears a strong resemblance to Versailles, lies east of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland and is accessible by boat, train, or bus. We took a 30 minute boat ride, and then spent the entirety of our first day exploring the sprawling estate. We “toured” the Grand Palace, which really means just walking through it since the tours are only for Russians (though you can hire an unofficial guide, which we, to the deep regret of Jeff’s mom, didn’t do). I didn’t care one way or the other as it seemed pretty much like every palace I’d ever seen before. To me, the real attraction are the grounds, specifically the Lower Park and its many fabulous (and playful) fountains, and if I had been there on my own dime, I would have skipped the palace.
Admission to the grounds: 300 roubles for adults/150 for students
Admission to the palace: 520 roubles for adults/250 for students.

Peterhof

Hermitage: This grand (and ginormous) museum deserves at least a full day, and that’s just to get through the main building. For us, the building is just as splendid as the treasures held within, with beautiful ceilings and floors, gilded door handles, and other fancy touches. As for the collections, we most preferred that on the first floor—ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian items. Runner-up was the third floor, with the more modern art collections, including multiple works by Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, Rodin, Cezanne, and other famous names. The second floor was our least favorite as it seemed to be mainly art with classical and religious themes.
Two-Day Ticket Purchased in Advance on the Internet: $26

Canal Cruise with Anglotourismo: Touts on every bridge sing the praises of their canal cruises, but Anglotourismo is the only company that does English-language tours. We did the evening cruise (8:00 p.m.) and greatly enjoyed seeing the lights come on all over the city. The tour lasted about 1 hour and went through the canals and then out onto the Neva River. Our tour guide, Gabriel, spoke excellent English, and I learned a lot about the city. I highly recommend it as an introduction to St. Petersburg.
Adults 450 roubles/Students 350

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood: This is the type of church you expect to see in Russia: colorful with many domes. On the inside, it’s completely done up in mosaics—and I do mean completely. It no longer is used for religious services, but is instead considered a museum, thus justifying an admission fee.
Adults 300 roubles/Students 170

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad: For 900 days and 900 nights, from 1941 to 1944, St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time) was under siege by the German army. Millions died from starvation and in bombings as the city was completely cut off from the world. This monument—huge, gray, and very Soviet-looking—actually has a touching museum tucked away underneath it. Most of the material is in Russian, but the film is without words (and doesn’t need them). After spending a few days in the historic heart of St. Petersburg, visiting the area of town in which the monument is located was very interesting. It was much more “Soviet”—big, drab, rundown apartment buildings, etc.—and it gave us a little taste of how the majority of people in the area live. Also nearby Chesme Church (a tiny, little candy-can structure) and the House of Soviets (a huge, building very aptly described by its name) were interesting stops.
Museum admission: 50 roubles

Ballet at the Palace Theater: We would have loved to have gone to the Mariinsky Theater, the classic St. Petersburg institution, but its season had not yet begun when we were there. Being neither theater or ballet connossieurs, the Palace Theater served us well. We saw Swan Lake, and though we didn’t know the details of the story, we got the main idea and thought it was very beautiful. Seeing a Tchaikovsky ballet in St. Petersburg seemed almost like a requirement, and we’re glad we stopped by to ask about last minute tickets.
Balcony seats: 900 roubles

Cruiser Aurora: The ship that fired the shot that started the October Revolution, this cruiser is no longer in service yet remains the #1 ship in the Russian Navy. You can walk around on deck and then stroll through some exhibits underneath (all in Russian). Honestly, I thought it was pretty boring.
Admission: free

Peter and Paul Fortress: This is the original St. Petersburg, the area from which the city sprung up. The Commandant’s House contains a museum about the history of St. Petersburg, and the cathedral contains the remains of all the Russian tsars. There are also multiple buildings with small displays about historical St. Petersburg (feels a little Williamsburg-ish). You can also walk along the top of a city wall for great views acrosss the Neva. Unfortunately, the prison was closed while we were there; I think that would have been most interesting.
Combined ticket allowing admission to all buildings for 10-day period: Adults 250/Students 130

St. Isaac’s Cathedral Collonade: We didn’t bother going into this church, but instead headed straight up the 262 steps to the collonade, from which you can get a 360 degree view of St. Petersburg. We went up during the evening opening, and enjoyed watching the sun begin to set. There’s not a better view in the entire city.
Collonade Ticket (Evening Hours): 300 roubles. The rate is less before 5 p.m.

Russian Museum: Much more manageable than the Hermitage, you can conquer the Russian Museum in just a few hours. Of the Russian artwork featured, our favorites were the folk art and the avant-garde art. Unfortunately, the rooms housing the icons as well as the rooms housing the Soviet art were closed when we were there.
Admission: Adults 350 roubles/Students 150

Raising of the Bridges: Every night between April and November (I think it’s all frozen over the rest of the year) the bridges of St. Petersburg are raised. The first one goes up at 1:25 a.m., and they continuing rising in succession until 2:45 a.m. They then begin going down at 4:25, with the last one lowering at 5:45. Watchin them list is a popular activity, and the city at night is gorgeous.
Free

How Much Things Cost:
When we were there, the exchange rate was approximately $1 = 25 Russian roubles.
Metro Ride: 17 roubles
Mushroom and Cheese Blini at Teremok: 85 roubles
Chocolate Blini at Teremok: 45 roubles
Bottle of Coke from a Sidewalk Stand: 30 roubles
Last-Minute Tickets to the Ballet at the Palace Theater: 900 roubles
Hotel Transport from the Airport for 4 people: 1500 roubles

Notes

  • Having a student card can really save you a lot of money in St. Petersburg. And lets say that student credentials are not thoroughly checked, if you flash some sort of student IDish looking card, you are pretty much taken at your word.
  • English isn’t all that widely spoken. You can certainly get by, but often it’s through gesturing or through mixing a little English with a little Russian. It’s almost surprising how little tourist infrastructure there is for non-Russian tourists: only one canal boat company giving English tours, no English-language menus at many restaurants, including those listed in guidebooks, etc. The majority of non-Russian visitors seem to come with tour groups. It’s entirely possible to do on your own; it just requires a bit more flexibility and patience.
  • Getting a Russian visa isn’t as hard as people make it out to be. Book a hotel, ask them to provide you wtih visa support, fill out the forms from the Russian consulate site, submit forms with plenty of time, pay the fee, and wait. It’s worth it.

Leave a Reply