St Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, who had a vision to turn a vast area of marshland into a vibrant city giving him a seaport to trade with Europe. The city has changed names from Petrograd to Leningrad and is now back to St Petersburg. Today it is the most Northern city in the world with more than a million people.
I visited St Petersburg in September 2017 and travelled from London Gatwick direct to Pulkovo with British Airways. The return flights cost around £275 with luggage and took around 3hrs and 20 mins. The Visa application cost around £115 and biometric finger printing is required for all visa applications.
Everyone visiting Russia requires a visa whether it is tourist, business, student etc. ( Full details on my other post and tips to navigate the application process. https://wp.me/p8JB3K-9K
Pulkovo, the nearest airport is located 23km south of Saint Petersburg and has no train connections to the city centre. The usual forms of transport are taxi, shuttle bus or local bus. The local bus does not go near the city centre and you will have to connect by metro. The city has a good network system but it can be confusing with four train stations in the city. Details on rail links St Petersburg.com
We stayed at a fabulous hotel called the Astoria which had the best central location next to St Isaac’s Cathedral and two streets from the Hermitage, also known as the the Winter Palace. All the latest facilities and mod cons in the hotel and bedrooms.
Keen to explore the city we immediately set of to visit St Isaac’s Cathedral, a stunning piece of architecture with 100kg of pure gold on its domed roof….
It is worth the climb to the viewing station but as it was September and a bit cold and drizzly, we opted for the rooftop bar overlooking St Isaacs which had heaters, blankets and the best cocktails….it’s called the W Terrace. We did go back the next day to see the interior of St Isaac’s.
The inside is adorned with angels, sculptures and incredible murals. This building would be on my top 5 attractions in St Petersburg and very easy to access. We did not pre book and simply paid the entry fee at the door.
The Winter Palace
The next day we started early to tour the stunning Winter Palace. This was the home of the Russian Emperors from 1763-1917 and today is comprised of 5 buildings that make up the State Hermitage Museum.
The rooms are exquisite with artworks from Rembrandt, Leonardo Da Vinci, Monet and Picasso. It is a non stop visual feast and you really need a tour guide to appreciate all that is available.
We only had 4 hours and it was well spent with our guide. Olga was amazing and had an incredible knowledge of the many State rooms and artefacts, as part of a private tour she guided as swiftly through the long entry queue and navigated us to the best parts of the museum, it could take at least 3 days to see everything in detail. There are 3 million pieces of art and world culture artefacts! A guide also lets you skip the very long queues and remember most of the tickets you book online need to be exchanged for bar coded tickets before entering.
The afternoon was spent on a boat tour of the Nevi travelling through 5 different canal routes, passing the Voronstov Palace, Bronze Horseman, Church on spilt Blood and many more architectural gems. We did not book the boat trip and just turned up at the Pier. The young guy was so chatty and helpful, we had a snack at the little cafe next to the pier, the Cafe Diner at 27 Nab Reki Fonatnki. This is also the meeting place for the free city walking tour daily from May 11th- sept starts at 10.30am. Details of the boat time table look up anglotourismo.com
Out in the middle of the river it is extremely cold, everyone gets a cosy blanket or the option of staying below deck. This would not be required in the summer months when it is much hotter.
Food and drink in Russia. The wine is super expensive and the food was good wherever we went. We did pre book restaurants for dinner but during the day, we just stopped if we liked the look of somewhere.
Luxury experience would be the Caviar bar at the Belmont Grand.
If you do not know your Beluga from your Sevruga from your Bester caviar, just look at the prices! When in doubt go for the sharing platter…this hotel does cater for gluten free, soya free, etc. If you get the chance try a cocktail….
All the young people were keen to speak or practise English and it was a really pleasant surprise, as we spoke no Russian and were relying on google and phrase books.
Other fabulous places to visit include: The Church on Spilled Blood which is both a historic monument and a work of art. This is the place where Emperor Alexander II was murdered. The site is marked inside by a special chapel, under the bell. The inside of this building is completely covered in mosaics.
Photo of Catherine Palace also known as Tsarskoye Selo. The Tsars Village.
I could talk all day about these places but instead I would suggest that you spend a day in the city centre and see The Marble Palace and The Yuspov Palace also known as the Moika Palace. Tickets for this are limited, we used a guide who sorted the tickets and access. The history is fascinating and the small Rasputin Museum will fascinate you.
Take a day to enjoy the shops and buy some souvenirs, the Russian Christmas baubles make a lovely inexpensive gift for family and friends. Of course you must buy a Russian doll set which children just adore. We were unable to visit the fountains at Peterhof but this place is definitely worth a visit and you can go by hydrofoil to add a bit more excitement to the day. Definitely go and see Catherine Palace, it is magnificent with beautiful grounds, a large pond and granite terrace and the Hermitage Pavilion. I’ts stunning.
Visit Vasilievsky island and the fabulous Mariinsky theatre. We had the most amazing night watching Romeo and Juliet.
Shopping: The streets are wide and pleasant to walk along, the main shopping area are Nevsky Prospekt, if you get the chance go to the Singer building. Bolshoi & Vladimrskyiy prospect.
Safety, money and tips
If booking a taxi it is advised to book at the taxi desk inside the terminal and pay then. This will eliminate any dispute over fares and cash. Alternatively book online in advance before departure. The currency is Roubles and other currencies are illegal. Most credit cards are accepted with the exception of American Express. The preference is Visa or MasterCard.
I enjoyed walking around the outside of the Winter Palace taking photographs and I did not feel threatened at any point or unsafe during the day. I had a big clunky camera and a cross over bag and kept my bag closed at all times especially when taking photo’s. We did not walk alone in the dark at night through St Petersburg unless we were on the main thoroughfare which is really busy. For all my photo’s of Russia click here. http://www.shutterstock.com/g/louarmor?rid=174789014
There are problems with pick pockets at the major tourist sites but it’s the same in the Vatican in Rome and on the Ramblas in Spain. Keep your wits about you. The person who is siddling up to your group chatting on their phone may not be as distracted as they appear to be…
Keep your wallets at the bottom of rucksacks and don’t flash bundles of cash in public. Ask the hotel concierge or locals what is the average tip as hugely over tipping attracts attention. We tipped 10% on average.
Best time to visit
I had a fantastic time in St Petersburg and I would definitely return. Visiting in September had the advantage of less crowds, cooler temperature and better hotel and flight prices. The Hermitage attracts millions of visitors but it was pleasant to tour in September. Late September and early October you will find many things have shut down for the season. This is the main reason that we were unable to see the fountains at Peterhof.
Families with children : pre school children, school age children and students with I.D are free of charge to the Winter Palace. Children will also love the museum of Soviet Arcade machines, near the Church of the Saviour on spilled blood. It also has a small cafe and English written instruction sheets. You get 15 old soviet coins to use on the machines, ice hockey, air ball games...discount with international student card.
Russia in miniature, kids will love the Grand Maket Russia Interactive Museum. Metro ride from city. 800 sq metres of the cities in Russia with moving cars and trains with special day and evening effects. Address: Tsvetochnaya St., 16, St. Petersburg 196084.
Have you been to St Petersburg, do you have any great tips?
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