St Petersburg is the former Leningrad. It is a majestic city with beautiful cathedrals, unique museums, and the immense art collection of the Hermitage in the Winter Palace. Being no art lovers, we wondered how we would experience the city of Tsar Peter the Great.
The Eurolines nightly bus drive from Tallinn to St. Petersburg is an unquiet one. The bus is full with a Russian basketball team, apparently returning from a victory. And at the border we all need to get out of the bus, for passport, visa, and luggage control. Exhausted we arrive at 6.45 AM in St. Petersburg.
Confrontation with Russia
Being dropped at the bus station, we are confronted with the Cyrillic writing. We practiced it in order to find the right metro line to the hostel, but we are too tired and stressed to find our way. Instead, we take a taxi, negotiate a price and we’re off. During the ride, the chauffeur shows a few highlights, like the statue of Lenin and the road to Moscow. But we are not really interested right now.
Being closed for foreigners for such a long time, not everybody knows about the beauty of St Petersburg. The city formerly known as Leningrad was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, and he was responsible for how the city looks and feels, even today.
The Tsar wanted the city to look like Venice and Amsterdam, and so it does. The islands, canals and bridges around the river Neva in the center make it a pleasant city to visit. Outside of the center, however, the site was built in Soviet times, and much less pleasant.
On their many travels, Peter the Great and his successors took a lot of souvenirs back home. Those souvenirs are now housed in different museums, which can be seen as the best in the world. Most famous is the Hermitage, a large collection of art, housed in the impressive Winter Palace.
There are many highlights in the city. Cathedrals, churches, palaces, statues, the works. You do not have to visit them to keep you occupied. You can easily spend a few days before you have seen only the exterior of all the amazing buildings.
Upon arrival in the hostel we hear that reception only opens at 8 AM. But we can go inside and spend an hour in the hallway, waiting for a bed. When the reception opens, there’s another disappointment, our beds become available in the afternoon. So we try to get some sleep in the common room, but decide to handle some formalities instead.
Our experiences with the formalities in Russia are subject to another page, but during our walk we are not very impressed about St. Petersburg. What we see is a gray city with broad, busy roads and large, gray buildings. When we return to the hostel our first impressions of the supposedly beautiful city aren’t very positive.
We take a short nap before we take another walk in town. And this time, it appears a lot friendlier. Possibly this is because we are successful in handling the formalities this time. But we also find a nice little shopping street, a bakery where we enjoy a cup of tea, and a Georgian eatery, where the personnel is very helpful, although they don’t understand a single word of English. All in all, we go to sleep in a better mood.
The next morning we meet an acquaintance: Linda from Australia who we met in Vilnius. Since we move to a dorm today, Sabine joins her and a few other girls in their room, and Patrick meets a few Dutchmen and a guy from Belgium. A lot of experiences are exchanged, and that’s what makes it fun to stay in hostels instead of hotels. Although this particular hostel is much bigger and less personal than the one in Vilnius.
Today we decide to walk the longest and most famous shopping street in St. Petersburg: Nevsky Prospect. First we head southeast, where Nevsky Monastery is located at the far end. This Monastery consists of different buildings, with a cemetery in the middle. A lot of famous people are buried here, among them the composer Tchaikovski. Everything is situated in beautiful surroundings with trees and a moat around the complex.
Heading northwest again and to the center of the city there are little places of interest until we pass the first canal. St. Petersburg is situated at the delta of the river Neva, that splits the city in the center into several islands. Further, a number of canals are dug, which is why some people refer to the city as the Venice of the North. To us, it looks more like Amsterdam. Especially a view of the buildings along the canals is very nice.
The Winter Palace behind the frozen river Neva in St PetersburgWithin the girdle of canals, the highlights are passing quickly. Cathedrals and palaces are trading places with shops and malls as we pass by. The winner of all the highlights is the Cathedral of the resurrection of Christ, with its onion-shaped towers in different colors. Behind it is a nice park where the youth has made a number of gliding tracks on the paths. We cannot resist them and glide along. Despite the low season, there’s also a souvenir market, with a lot of Matruschkas (a doll in a doll in a doll …) and fur hats. But we can resist the temptation to buy them.
We walk along Nevsky Prospect, which is crowded with traffic, until we reach the river Neva. Here is the imposing green-white Winter Palace. Seen from the bridge, with the frozen river in front of it, the name of the palace seems well chosen. On the other side of the bridge are the Admiralty (head office of the navy) and in the background St. Isaacs cathedral. All in all an impressive skyline.
We are no art lovers, but people say you just have to visit the Hermitage when you’re in St. Petersburg, so we reserve the next day for this huge museum. It contains the complete art collection of the Russian state and is located in the Winter Palace and nearby buildings. Foreigners pay the 20-fold of what Russian citizens pay, unless you’re a student, then the entrance is free.
Once inside, our mouths open with awe. In the most beautiful decorated rooms, enormous amounts of gold and silverware are exhibited, among which two golden carriages. The living rooms and library of the tsars are supposedly in their original state in all their glory. We are amazed, even before we reach the rooms with the actual art collections, arranged by the different countries and regions they come from.
The first rooms are filled with collections from the middle and far east, like woodcuttings and ivory. After that we reach the European art: sculptures and paintings. It is not really our cup of tea, but we search for the famous artists, and especially the Dutch paintings. There is a lot, and we have to move on if we want to see the rest of the rooms. In those rooms, the harnesses get our attention but we now especially focus on the rooms themselves. Each room is decorated differently with a lot of gold, silver, or silk, in one word amazing. At the end of the afternoon this is what sticks with us: you just have to see the Hermitage, if only for the interior of the Winter Palace.
Low Season at the fortress
Our last day in St. Petersburg we spend on the islands on the other side of the river Neva. We take the subway and reach the Peter and Paul Fortress via a bridge. Here we notice another aspect of the low season: this is the time for restoration. We have seen a lot of scaffoldings around some buildings, but this one takes the cake. From the Peter and Paul cathedral nothing can be seen, and most of the other buildings are in restoration as well. As a whole, it’s a sad sight and after walking through the fortress, we decide to leave this historic place.
When we walk on the bridge to Vassily island we hear a loud bang. It appears that every day at noon a canon in the fortress is fired, that’s a nice to know when you’re there…
The largest attractions on Vassily island are the museums, and because of the cold we decide to visit them both. The zoological museum has an enormous collection of upholstered animals. In the first part a number of them are aligned in a way to show Darwins theory. There are species that are alike, bones of extinct species and rare animals like albinos of different species. The descriptions are in Russian, but we think we understand what is meant.
The next part is a large number of showcases showing animals in their natural environment, very beautiful. On the other side of the room are another large number of showcases, with as many different species of animals that one can imagine. And in the middle are the bones of a huge mammoth, with an elephant beside it for comparison. Unfortunately, we don’t see the completely conserved woolen mammoth from the ice of Siberia that was supposed to be here.
The second museum is the one about Anthropology and Ethnography. Besides a number of rooms about the culture in different parts of the world, this museum consists of the personal collection of Tsar Peter the Great. This founder of the city was very interested in science, especially medical science. On his travels he frequented Amsterdam, where he received a number of study objects from the university doctors there. They consisted of conserved fetuses and body parts, especially deformed ones and, even better, Siamese twins. A bit gruesome, but interesting.