When I told people I was going to St Petersburg, in Russia the general response seemed to be “Is it safe?” (Generally the follow-up was whether I was going for the World Cup, which, considering I didn’t realise the World Cup was even happening this year, made me laugh). I’ve been staying in St Petersburg for a month now as a solo traveller, interning at the Hermitage Museum, and it has honestly become one of my favourite cities in the world. Being an intern has been a great opportunity to meet people, so even though I am a solo traveller I haven’t really felt like I have been alone, and the city overall has been incredibly warm and welcoming.
It’s hard to describe St Petersburg, it’s nothing like I expected. Rather than the expected grey weather, there has been a heat wave the entire time I’ve been here, and the sun has made the whole city dazzle with its canals and golden spires. The parks and wide shaded streets mean light is filtered through trees and speckled over the crumbling facades of aristocratic palaces and soviet communal buildings. History is everywhere; layered under renovations and re-namings.
(View of the city along the Moyka River)
St Petersburg is known in Russia as the city of culture, and there are endless palaces, museums, and theatres to visit. Obviously I am biased, but the State Hermitage Museum is a must-visit. The Winter Palace (the building the museum is located in) is a building so central to Russian history that you feel the building itself is an artefact, and just as fascinatingly beautiful as the endless masterpieces inside. Honestly my best advice is to just wander and get lost, tours tend to go on quite a restricted and fast-paced route, so instead just spend the day exploring. The queues can also get pretty long, so visit on Wednesday or Friday when the museum’s open until 9:00 PM. The same is true of the Russian Museum (which is open until 9:00 PM on Thursdays). Also avoid the First Thursday of each month like the plague, as this is when entry is free to Russian citizens, so the lines for tickets can last up to four hours.
Remember to go to The General Staff Building; though it’s part of the Hermitage museum complex and located opposite the Winter Palace, it is often forgotten and is less visited by tourists. It is where the 20th century and contemporary art is housed, and there are beautiful works by Matisse, Picasso, and Monet.
I also recommend going to the Mariinsky Theatre; you can buy tickets for as little as £15 (they’re even cheaper is you buy them far in advance) to see some of the most breath-taking Russian ballet.
Finally, definitely go up to the viewing platform on Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. It only costs 150 roubles and it gives you panoramic views of the city.
(View from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral)
Best Places to Eat in St Petersburg:
This is a simple but stylish Asian restaurant with great vegetarian and vegan options. The entrance involves walking through a flower shop, so it feels like entering a hidden oasis of greenery and white mosaic floors.
Mickey and Monkeys:
One word: Milkshakes. Seriously Google it, you won’t believe your eyes. Honestly this place is worth it just for the Instagram opportunities of their ridiculously amazing milkshakes. But the space itself is also great; located on the second floor of the building, the windows are always thrown open with tables overlooking the canal. It’s also a great place for brunch.
Oversize Pizza Club:
I mean it’s in the name really… oversized Pizza, what’s not to love?
The Ginza Project:
The Ginza project is an online collection of high quality international, Russian, and Georgian restaurants across St Petersburg. The food is on the higher price end, but they are some of the best locations in the city. The restaurants Katyusha and Baklazhan are great for traditional Russian food.
New Holland Island:
New Holland Island is a great place to go to avoid tourists. It’s a revitalised old naval base, which is now a park and event space. Check their website because in the summer they do outdoor screenings of films and documentaries. The main building has a circular courtyard where you can sit out and eat anything from Mexican, Vietnamese, and even traditional Georgian food. I also recommend Surf Coffee, which is located there, as their Ice Coffee is heavenly. Make sure to go the second floor of the circular building as they have the amazing Garage Bookshop, and boutiques of local St Petersburg designers.
Speaking of Bookshops, I can’t go abroad without visiting at least some, so here are my two favourites:
Dom Knigi (House of Books) is the biggest and oldest bookshop in St Petersburg. Located opposite Kazan Cathedral and with amazing Art Nouveau architecture, the bookshop is over three floors and contains a wide range of Russian and international books in a variety of languages.
Podpisnyye Izdaniya is smaller and more independent bookshop. It has amazing floor to ceiling bookshelves stacked with books, and a large section of picture books on art, fashion, photography, and design. They have a very small café at the front of the shop, which I really recommend. It is a great little nook for reading or working.
I thought I’d end with some quick tips:
- Don’t drink the tap water- the pipe system in St Petersburg is old so its always safer to drink bottled water.
- If you are staying for longer than a week definitely get a Podorozhnik travel card- it works like an oyster card and is easier than trying to buy individual tickets for the metro and buses.
- Use the App Citymapper to get find public transport links.
- Learn at least some basic phrases in Russian. English is fairly widely spoken amongst the younger generation but a lot of people will only try to communicate with you in Russian.
- Thank you- Спасибо (Spa-see-ba)
- Sorry- Прости (prostee),
- Please- Пожалуйста (pujal-ista)
- Can I?- Можно? (mojna) Can be used generally for lots of situations, from ordering food to asking if you may sit somewhere.
- Ok/good- Хорошо (harashow). Use to show you understand and agree to something.
– Molly Thatcher (photos her own)