When I got off the plane, I thought “finally, I did it, I took the leap and decided to embark on this adventure of a lifetime!” The adventure started as soon as I arrived when I was trying to get from the airport to my hotel. The help desk at the airport advised me to take a bus from the airport to the city centre. This seemed straight forward and easy enough. Now, in my head a bus is usually quite big and you cannot really miss it. Clearly I misunderstood what to look for because I kept walking around in search of a big bus which I could not find. What the helpdesk employee was referring to was what they call in Russia “Marshrutka” which are small shuttle buses where they cram as many people as possible into it. It’s quite an experience and definitely recommend everyone to go in these shuttle buses at least once because they are super cheap as well.
I got dropped off near a metro station in the city centre and the next part of the challenge began: The Russian underground. Unsure of how I was supposed to get through the turnstiles in the metro I just stood in a corner watching people and seeing how they did it. Apparently they were throwing some kind of coin into the turnstile slots which then opened and then let you through. The coins I found out later you had to purchase at the ticket booths.
I got through and went down the escalator. The escalators in Russia are like theme park rides: never-ending and the drop is insane! The escalator ride takes you about a good 3-4 minutes before you actually reach the bottom so please do not be in a hurry because you will be on there for a while. Another thing is positioning yourself on the escalator. They are particular about this and adhere strictly to the rules: left walk and right still. Walking around with my big backpack meant I had to stand in an awkward sideways position so I did not block the left side, and standing like that for 3-4 minutes was quite a challenge.
I arrived at my hotel called Hotel Grifon located just off the Nevsky Prospekt main street in the centre of Saint Petersburg. It’s a great location since you are able to walk to all the tourist attractions easily from there and many hipster fusion restaurants and bars are located in that area. Definitely recommend it! One thing to note is that the hotel does not have an elevator… so I walked about 5 flights of stairs with my 15 kilo backpack! The staff were very friendly and helpful. They gave me a form that stated I was staying at this hotel between certain dates and they said I must carry it around with me because the police stop tourists randomly and request this information (I never had this happen while I was there so it is more of a precaution). Climbing all those stairs with that heavy backpack definitely stirred up an appetite in me and the receptionist advised me to eat at a nearby restaurant called Leica. Such a cosy restaurant and the food was great, I ate to my heart’s content. I ate typical borscht soup which is a pink soup because it has beetroot in it and also chocolate cake and bruschetta which are two foods that are not typically Russian but I wanted to celebrate my holiday with a treat-yo-self moment! They were very generous with the amount of wine they kept serving me in a glass shaped like a goblet. It gets even better, on your table there was a mug with colour pencils and you could colour in your placemats. Needless to say I was having a great first night in Saint Petersburg.
The next day I had booked a free-walking tour starting at 10:45 am. I met a fellow traveller Vini (whom I still follow on instagram!) and ended up spending the whole day with him discovering what Saint Petersburg has to offer. He gave me great tips since he was on the last leg of his Trans-Siberian trip but instead of going from Saint Petersburg towards the East, he was starting from the opposite direction and ending this trip in Europe.
Great tips from Vini:
- Download maps.me before going to China because Google maps is banned in China. Maps.me lets you still navigate easily using GPS on your phone with no extra costs 😉
- The Google equivalent in China is Baidu, so don’t worry you can still look up things there.
The walking tour taught me some very interesting facts.
Did you know?
- The Hermitage is guarded by 50 cats and there is a special day where people can come and adopt Hermitage cats to try and keep the amount of cats a bit on track.
- Peter the Great was obsessed with Amsterdam and modelled Saint Petersburg after it.
- Another interesting fact about Peter the Great was that he was a dentist and enjoyed pulling teeth for fun. A bit strange…
After the walk we stopped by the iconic Saviour of Spilled Blood Church and then headed to the famous Marketplace on the main street (Nevsky Prospekt) which is a food court with good food and very cheap as well for those of us on a budget. While lunching with others I met on the free walking tour I learned that they had all quit their jobs to go travelling for a few months to basically escape the routine days and get a change of scenery. Ultimately it is something we are all after, escaping reality for a few brief moments and immersing yourself in another one.
After these interesting conversations and a hearty meal myself and Vini set off to get the metro to Atovo Station where we could then hop on a Marshrutka to Peterhof.
Intermezzo: Metrostations in Russia are a sight in themselves and Atovo Station had glass pillars, it was like walking into a palace.
Peterhof was beautiful to walk around and definitely worth a visit. This palace is painted in gold, had ginormous fountains, miles of gardens and marble tiles. It screams wealth. Be prepared to walk around the gardens for a couple of hours because it is unbelievably huge.
The Palace banks on the Baltic Sea so if you have never touched this sea, this is a prime opportunity to do so.
From Peterhof you can take a Ferry back to the city centre of Saint Petersburg and it takes you about an hour. We took the ferry back at the end of the day and were able catch the sunset. It was breath taking looking at the sky which was painted with streaks of pinks and blues and the silhouettes of sailing boats in the distance.
For dinner I headed to a place called The Clean Plates Society restaurant which was about a half an hour walk from my hotel. The setting was cosy and clearly a happening place to be. I ordered a spinach and cottage cheese soup as a starter. For my main I ate Blinis (pancakes) with cream and caviar (A DEFINITE MUST TO TRY!). Saint Petersburg has quite an European feel and holds cuisine in very high regard and this city has a lot of different fusion foods to offer. When you visit remember to spend some time enjoying the restaurant scene as well because it does not disappoint.
My third day in Saint Petersburg was spent in the infamous Hermitage. Thinks to consider when visiting this Walhalla of treasures:
- It’s huge, I mean like GINOURMOUS…wear comfy shoes and carry around some water and snacks to top up on sugar because you will be walking around the whole day.
- It’s busy, all day and every day with people. Lots and lots of people.
- Buy your ticket online because then you can skip the long queues and there are some days where entrance is free so check the website : https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/tickets
I escaped the crowds by heading to the Asian art collection on the top floor. The Rembrandt room is mentioned everywhere as a must see and so I walked through the room but it did not really speak out much to me compared to the Asian art collection on the top floor. The art that is stored in there is incredible.
You must see the infamous golden peacock clock which is definitely a sight to see when the clock strikes and the whole thing springs to life. The grand peacock clock I did not really find but just stumbled into the room by accident so I cannot tell you for the my life of me where it is located. The whole building felt a bit like a maze so I recommend just get lost in there and you will just naturally walk through all the rooms.
After walking around for hours (I still did not see everything by the way) I headed to the General Staff building next door to see the famous Faberge egg.
I needed to process all I had seen in the Hermitage whilst having a nice Finnish fish soup at the Marketplace again. I had reached a point looking at all the treasures that I just could not absorb any more of it because it was just so impressive to see all of it and somewhat surreal at certain points.
The Singer shop on Nevsky Prospekt is also worth a quick walk through. Singer is brand I know from my childhood days in Sri Lanka since my aunt had a sewing machine from that brand so it felt like familiar territory. This shop was transformed into a book shop so if you are looking for some interesting souvenirs this is a good place to go.
Everyone wants to see the infamous Faberge egg in the in the General Staff building but there is also a complete museum dedicated to these eggs with all of them on show as well. This museum is located just off the Nevsky Prospekt street. I definitely recommend coming here because of all the other eggs on display and it is extremely quite (I was shocked that no one seemed to know that this place existed!). I actually enjoyed it more than the Hermitage (can you believe that?!). The level of detail in those delicate eggs and craftsmanship was impressive. It also screamed a lot of hypocrisy since these few wealthy families had so much wealth to throw around that they commissioned artisans to create these priceless kinder surprise eggs to be made from gold and precious stones in times when there was so much famine and poverty ravaging the country.
This museum had another room which featured more treasures like these Bibles that were inlaid with pearls, silver and semi-precious stones. Needless to say practicality was not the focus here. Here less is not more instead more is definitely more!
That evening I was heading for Moscow which is the second stop on my journey. When I got to the train station at Saint Petersburg I stood in front of the board displaying the train times but I could not make out what it said because everything was in Cyrillic and nothing seemed to match what was on my ticket. I stood there for a good 10 minutes trying to decipher it when a person came up to me who only spoke Russian but they pointed to my ticket and looked at it and then looked at the board and they grabbed my hand and literally walked me to the correct platform I needed. I said thank you in Russian (one of the few words I knew) and they waved my goodbye. I made it to my cabin which I shared with 3 other people. These were sleeper trains so you had two beds on either side, two on the top and two on the bottom. I met a couple sharing my cabin and their names were Roman and Ana and they spoke limited English but enough for us to have a bit of a conversation going. The fourth person in the cabin spoke no English and so politely avoided speaking to me. Roman and I were laughing at how similar our names sounded. This was my first experience in a Russian sleeper train so Roman and Ana showed me the ropes. There are all these compartments where you would never think there would be compartments. The sleeper beds on the bottom are also sofas, so if you are going to share a cabin definitely go for the top bunk beds since you have less of a chance of being disturbed or stepped on by the person on the top bunk when they climb down.