St. Petersburg is the forward thinking “second capital” of Russia. Its citizens think of themselves as Europeans and reach out to the world, instead of secluding themselves and shaking their fists at it like their inland comrades. This city has been bullied by the 20th century and received treatment that it largely did not deserve. St. Petersburg, tenderly called “Piter” by its inhabitants, has been bombed, starved, occupied, and underwent all sorts of torture but none of it broke its spirit. Then the mafia got its paws on it, due to neglect from the side of the Soviet government. Fortunately, the 90s heralded a new era for this extraordinary metropolis. It was free to get back on its feet and regain something that it might’ve lost along the way.
My all-time favourite Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky adequately described St. Petersburg as the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe. Commonly known as the “Venice of the North” St. Petersburg started out as a swampland, where Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential and despite all the negativity decided to build a visionary city that could leave Moscow far behind and become the new Russian capital. Venice of the North isn’t just a nickname, the Hermitage (Winter Palace of the tsars) and other palaces were designed by Italians, numerous canals and neoclassical architecture make it hard to distinguish between these two cities. Well, maybe apart from the weather and gondolas since St. Petersburg is lacking in both of those departments. It has always been a city of revolutionists; its inhabitants incited both the Russian revolution and pushed for democracy when times changed. Due to its Northern geographical location the sun does not really go down in the end of June. That is the period of White Nights (Beliye Nochi) when the nights are very short and stay bright. It creates a unique vibrant atmosphere and it is like the city and its people come to live after waking up from a long winter sleep. The high culture scene is prevalent in St. Petersburg. The Museum of Non-Conformist Art is holding a multitude of wacky, yet always interesting art, while the Mariinsky Theatre offers the best ballet performances in the world. In addition the city hosts uncountable bars, posh night clubs and a great food scene.
What would I start with? I would sink into the city metro like a true spelunker, it’s similar to the one in Moscow, as in each station is a work of art, a gallery of sorts. It’s also the deepest complex of its kind in the world, even deeper than the mines of Moria! They had to go deep enough to pass all the swamp the city is set on. Keep in mind that St. Petersburg is huge; it’s not a very walkable city. I would ride those grim tunnels to one of the many museums this city has to offer. In addition to the almost obligatory Hermitage tour many tourists pay also visit to the Kunstkamera, aka the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. The Kunstkamera was originally built as a library and was the first Russian museum with anatomical theatre and an observatory. Nowadays it houses the collections of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Peter the Great exhibited in his time everything, including the rarities collection of Frederik Ruysch, who he bought after his second visit to Holland. Peter the Great attracted visitors with free vodka to come inside the museum and see this special collection. The remains of his rarity cabinet can still be viewed, including a three-hundred-year-old foetus and the consecrated head of a brother of a mistress of the Tsar. Many visitors also come to see the heart and skeleton of Peter the Great's personal servant Bourgeois, a 2,27-meter-long giant.
The Hermitage, a former winter palace of the Russian royalty is now the largest museum in the country, with one of the most impressive art collections in the world. Katherine the Great acquired most of the stuff in bulk. It is also an iconic site where the October Revolution began in 1917 when a legendary warship Aurora fired a blank, signalling the Bolsheviks to begin the assault on the Palace, which thankfully ended without any bloodshed. You can easily spend days in the many halls that are located in several locations: so plan your time carefully. The largest part of the museum complex is located at the Palace Square and includes 365 halls in the Winter Palace, the small, the old and the new Hermitage. Most visitors visit only the Winter Palace where you will find the most famous collection. There you can find stunning European art pieces including the work of many famous Italian, Spanish and Dutch masters, Greek and Roman antiquities and richly decorated rooms from the time of the Tsars. To avoid the long queues at the entrance you can consider ordering your tickets online, although they come at a higher price than when you would buy them at the desk office.
If you did not have enough of museums you can also visit the Russian State Museum, the largest museum of Russian art in St. Petersburg. It also features a rich collection of foreign painters and other artists and can be a good alternative to the Hermitage when you would find it too big or too busy. The original collection was part of the Hermitage collection, the Alexander Palace and the Academy of the Arts of Saint Petersburg. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, many art collections of wealthy individuals were also confiscated and allocated to this museum. A large collection of icons from the eleventh century and later is one of the exhibits of the museum. But you will also find many other religious arts, arts and crafts, jewellery and folk art, sculptures and paintings by Ivan Aivazovski, Ilja Repin, Karl Brjoellov, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich.
The Peterhof Palace and its garden were commissioned by Peter the Great. The huge palace and garden complex at the Gulf of Finland can be easily reached by fast-speed boats (hydofoils), departing from St. Petersburg centre. Peterhof, often referred too as the Russian Versailles is a wet-dream of any wannabe teenage princess. Jokes aside, it is very impressive; the gardens are stunning and masterfully maintained, while the interiors are breath taking. Everything inside is golden. Russian people are a victim of the stereotype that they’re daub, over-the-top colourful and love to show off. But I think it’s that former splendour and glory in their genes. It also explains why Russians and Italians can get along with each other so well. They both have more in common as one would expect, such as a taste for expensive and flashy things and a deep-rooted urge to "dress to impress".
If you would have time for another day trip outside the city I would highly recommend Tsarskoje Selo (Tsars Village). It is the former residence of the imperial Russian family 24 kilometres south of St. Petersburg and now part of the city of Pushkin. Sights include the Pushkin Museum, the Alexander Palace and especially the former summer residence of the Russian Tsars, the Catharina Palace, a baroque creation of Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The Catharina palace was built as a summer residence for the Russian Tsarina Catharina the Great. During World War II all buildings were deliberately destroyed by German soldiers when they retired after the unsuccessful siege of Leningrad. Luckily prior to the demolition most of the valuable equipment was already put in safety, except for the world-famous Amber Room, The Amber Room, a chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors, was evacuated by the Nazis and has since disappeared. After the war, the palace was gradually rebuilt and the famous room was reconstructed. The Alexander Palace was built by Catharina the Great for her grandson Alexander I. The last Tsar Nicolas II and his wife Alexandra were forced to stay here from 1904 to 1917 after the Romanovs have been arrested. Several rooms, including the Nicolas II study room, a drawing room and a reception area, have been restored and can be visited. The palace gives a good and even moving impression of how simple and sober the last Tsar family lived the last days of their lives. At the end they were transported to Yekaterinburg, where they would be brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in the night of 16–17 July 1918 and 300 years of Romanov power came to an end.
Most of the architectural gems, upscale shops, restaurants, and nightlife are located on the Nevsky Prospect, Saint Petersburg’s main street. "There is nothing finer than the Nevsky Prospect, at least in St. Petersburg." begins Nikolay Gogol his hymn on Russia's most famous boulevard and Petersburg's lifeline that never sleeps. If you complete it completely from the Alexander Nevsky monastery in the east to the Admiralty on the Neva River in the west you will have walked close to 5 kilometres. On either sides of the promenade you will find many of Petersburg's attractions such as the Kazan Cathedral, the beautiful Art Nouveau building Dom Knigi with Russia's most famous bookstore and the luxurious Gostiny Dvor, one of the world's first indoor shopping malls. Also give yourself time to sit down on a terrace and enjoy the outdoor theatre with the homeless and street artists, the city’s nouveau who park their expensive cars pontifically on the sidewalk and the city's most beautiful women who do their catwalk here.
Another must-see near Nevsky is the colourful church Spas Na Krovi (or simply Spas). It was built at the place where Tsar Alexander II was killed in 1881. His successor, Alexander III, wrote a contest for designing an appropriate memorial. The winning design was from Alfred Parland and Ignati Malisev, and is highly inspired by the famous Basilius Cathedral of the Red Square in Moscow. Due to its onion domes, the church is a typical exponent of the oriental inspired orthodox architecture. Due to its exotic appearance and lush decoration, it is one of St. Petersburg's most striking buildings, and it strongly contrasts with the more European neoclassical and baroque architecture in the area. It is wonderful to walk around the church at the Griboyedov canal but be sure to take a look inside as well to admire the colourful mosaics.
I have long track record when it comes to exploring local culinary scenes and I can assure that restaurants in St. Petersburg will blow your mind. There is a huge variety and I would even go that far by saying that you have even more choice than in an average big city in Europe. One of the pleasant things of visiting cities Russia and Ukraine is that you are actually stumbling over the Caucasian, especially Georgian restaurants. And a visit to St. Petersburg is not really complete if you have not tried this delicious cuisine, which is unfortunately rather underrepresented in most European cities. Whenever I am in Moscow, Kiev or St. Petersburg I cannot wait to visit a Georgian restaurant and stuff myself with khachapuri: bread filled with baked egg, cheese and butter, lots of butter. The cuisines of other former Soviet republics such as Armenia, Azerbaidzjan and Uzbekistan which are also incredible rich in fresh ingredients and spices are also well represented in St. Petersbug. Some restaurants worth visiting in that respect are Baklazan (Uzbeki), Erivan (Armenian), ChaCha (Georgian) and Tefsi (Georgian).
And let’s not forget about the local Russian kitchen itself, which is heavily underestimated to my opinion. To have a good impression of what the national cuisine has to offer you should visit the Idiot. This restaurant named after Dostoevsky's famous book is located on Moika River Embankment 82, between the St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Yusupov Palace. Idiot is an evergreen and always packed with tourists, expats and locals. Many guests stay for hours to play a game of chess or backgammon and it is a good place for both business and family celebrations. The four rooms form a colourful mix of books, antiques, oil paintings and bric-a-brac stuff. In order to activate the appetite, each guest gets a shot of vodka as a welcome drink. ikra (caviar), blini (Russian pancakes), pelmeni (Russian ravioli), borsjt (Ukrainian beet soup): basically all classics of Russian cuisine are there. Make sure you leave some space for the delicious deserts of the house. Idiot has plenty of vegetarian meals and St. Petersburg doesn’t lack in the vegetarian segment anyway. My favourite is Botanica, the oldest vegetarian-dining cafe in town. Many recipes have an Indian touch. But there are also great veggie dishes from the Russian, Italian and Japanese cuisine. Salads, snacks, hot main meals and desserts: only natural and organic ingredients and the microwave has been declared taboo. There is also a varied offer of children's meals and on weekends there are vegetarian cooking classes. Botanica is on Pestelya street 7 within walking distance of Nevsky prospect and near the famous Summer Gardens.