St Petersburg | Russia
St Petersburg | Russia’s Opulent Second City
As a child, my earliest knowledge of Russia were news stories and documentaries of Soviet defectors looking for freedom and success in the west. I recall watching with absolute intrigue as reporters and filmmakers followed defected sports stars, spys, dancers and musicians as they wondered through European and North American cities wide-eyed with a new sense of freedom and wonder. Why don’t these people have the liberties that we enjoy? And why are they guarded so strictly while abroad? These were the questions my younger self would ponder. Awe-struck and captivated, I watched as they began their new lives, and I would wonder if, as an adult, I would ever get the opportunity to visit this vast, intriguing country secretly guarded behind the impenetrable Iron Curtain. This was a long time ago, of course, and things have changed significantly since then.
Although it’s only 3.30 in the afternoon when we arrive in St Petersburg, it is already dark. The December chill I left behind in Hamburg seems positively balmy compared to the Russian cold which bites at my cheeks and prickles in my lungs.
St Petersburg, or Peter as it is affectionately called by locals, has a conflicting cityscape. From the airport, we head towards the city centre, passing imposing Soviet era government buildings and war memorials all as great in stature as Russia itself. In the centre though, you are transported into Tolstoy novels and Pushkin poems.
Built on the brisk Baltic sea, St Petersburg is the dream made manifest of Peter the Great who envisioned a Russian city to rival the best of Europe. It is a menage of the Canals of Venice, the sophistication of Paris and the shipping harbours of Amsterdam (he even named his shipyard New Holland). The Neo-classic and Baroque style architecture in edible fairy cake pastel shades, flank wide boulevards and plazas. Gilded dome churches sit handsomely on canal banks, ornate palaces and museums are plentiful and will pique your interest for days if not weeks. St Petersburg is the stuff of Anna Karenina, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. And everything here is on an epic, expansive scale. A European city and then some.
In my mind’s eye, Russia has always been about hardy people, hearty food, dancing Cossacks and plentiful vodka. Some may prefer the endless white nights of the northern summer months, but I prefer St Petersburg’s winter vesture. To me, it just says Russia. It is vibrant and invigorating, and although Peter’s Baltic winds may nip at you on the first encounter, it then gently caresses you in its wintery embrace, and you feel blessed to have made its acquaintance.
Just off the famous Nevsky Prospeckt is this restaurant serving authentic and incredibly delicious traditional dishes from Georgia, Imereti, Armenia and more. I chose a creamy walnut soup with boiled chicken, and my companion decided on a curious dish of porridge oats (eaten in the evening here too!) with herbed curds and slices of local cheese. Quite unlike anything I have eaten before, but very tasty and satisfying.
Petrov-Vodkin Russian Tapas & Vodka Bar
Wash down Russian style tapas, most of which are topped with caviar of various types, with a flight of carefully selected vodkas as you are entertained by local Gypsy musicians. A little touristy perhaps, but lots of fun when in good company.
Museum of Russian Vodka
This is a must see when in St Petersburg, not only for the history lessons and tasting of Russia’s national drink, but also for the intriguing traditional Russian food on offer at the adjacent restaurant. Interestingly, the museum is inside the Stroganoff building from which the famous dish was named.
Dusks/Dreams Restaurant & Bar
One of many trendy restaurants and bars in St Petersburg. If you are in the mood for something contemporary, with great food, fantastic cocktails and stylish decor then head here.
Church of the Saviour of Spilled Blood
A short walk from Nevsky Prospekt is this uniquely beautiful Russian Orthodox church, built by Alexander III as a memorial to his assassinated father Alexander II. The inside of the church is as impressive the outside, which is decorated in 7500 square metres of mosaic tiles depicting biblical figures. For me, this stunning church was high on my to-see list.
The State Heritage Museum at the Winter Palace
Founded by Catherine the Great, the Heritage museum has the largest collection of paintings in the world, and occupies six buildings which make up the Winter Palace complex. The artefacts on display at the museum are said to be so vast in number it could take over a month to see them all. If you don’t have a month to spend perusing this museum, then you might want to take a strategic approach to your visit and plan ahead.
Known by its moniker “The Russian Versailles” Peterhof (German for Peter’s Court) was modelled on the French Palaces of Versailles which Peter the Great visited. The foundation of the Palace is in the Petrine Baroque style seen throughout St Petersburg, the symmetrical grounds and gardens are famous for their impressive gilded statues, Grand Cascades and Samson water fountains. Unfortunately, they are only on display during the warmer mouths.
Kupetz Eliseyev Emporium
Positioned on Nevsky Prospekt, the exterior is a wonderful Art Nouveau design with full glass frontage in coloured stained glass, and has a movable display of The Nutcracker in the window. The inside decor continues in the Art Nouveau theme, and is full of glass cabinetry filled with sweet and savoury delicacies, and shelves packed with sweets, chocolate, pickled walnuts and caviar displayed to entice. Stay for lunch or afternoon tea and you’ll be enchanted and entertained by the residence pianola player.
Singer Book Store
Built in 1902 on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Griboyedov Canal, the Singer Sewing machine company purchased this site for its new Russian headquarters. The stunning exterior was an innovative design for Russia at the time, and used metal frame-work more commonly used in the U.S. which made the building of high-rise skyscrapers possible. Although the interior is not as elaborate as the exterior, it is worth a visit to pick up some famous Russian literature. The literary cafe on the first floor is an ideal spot to take a window seat and watch people on the Prospekt float by.