St. Petersburg is an fascinating city to see when you are in Russia. It has as much history and architecture as Moscow. My wife and I visited this city for only a day this summer. It wasn’t enough time, but we were able to see a lot in that short time regardless.
Our short stay was simply because of our time crunch. We were taking the Trans Siberian railway across Russia on our way to Mongolia and China. We had booked the cheapest flights we could find and our departure on the train meant we only had a few days to see both Moscow and St. Petersburg.
By the way, we also booked our trip through Travel To Russia. We contacted one of them and through email and Gmail chat had everything arranged. For our St. Petersburg portion they only booked our train tickets, but they provided us with a map and a walking tour we could do on our own. It suited our budget and what we wanted to do perfectly. They did have a variety of other options and will arrange whatever you want really.
An overnight train is probably the best way to get there from Moscow if you are in a crunch for time (like we were). Update: In August 2007 there was a terrorist bomb planted under one of the bridges that derailed one of these trains. The trains leave at a number of different times from Leningradsky station in Moscow. We took the 12:00 (midnight) train. It arrives between 7 and 8 the next morning in St. Petersburg.
The train is pretty nice. 2nd class is a room with two bunk beds. They provide clean sheets, a bottle of water, some pre-packaged breakfast food, and there is plenty of room to store your luggage. Unless you are sharing with a party crowd (Russian or foreigners), you will manage to get a good sleep as the trains run smoothly.
When you arrive the next morning you will be at Moskovsky Station which is along Nevsky Prospekt, which is one of the main streets in St. Petersburg.
Russia was one of the more difficult countries to travel in for the language. They do not need to cater to tourists as much as the developing world does so I felt there was a lot less desire for them to learn English
Their alphabet is cyrillic which means you can’t even pronounce words when you see them. I definitely recommend getting some audio books (like the Pimsleur series from the library to learn a few words and then purchase a Lonely Planet or other guide book that contains the pronunciation guide for cyrillic characters and practice. Spell out your name, the word “internet”, Lenin, toilet, restaurant, Moscow, and anything else you can think of. It is a great way to learn it.
Words like restaurant, internet, and toilet are pronounced the same as we do, but their are written in an alphabet we cannot read, so it is easy to not even notice them.
The ruble. Nothing too special about it. It was trading about 25 to 1 when we went there. So it was easy to do the math. 100 rubles is around US$4.
Note: I was not able to exchange for rubles in Canada anywhere. Apparently a lot of banks and exchanges will not deal with it. It took American cash and did it while I was there. There are exchange places on many a street corner.
Where We Stayed
We didn’t stay anywhere. We arrived in the morning on the overnight train from Moscow and we left that night on the overnight back to Moscow. We were well rested and had no problems getting the most out of our day.
I cannot give much advice here, because we walked the majority of it. If you have the energy you can walk from the train station to the main areas. You don’t have to back track much either.
We did use the Metro at the very end of our day too. It was raining hard and we wanted to keep out of the rain. There are a couple stops along Nevsky Prospekt, including the one at Moskovsky station. There is also a station by the Peter & Paul Fortress if you don’t feel like walking back across the river. It isn’t on the same line as Moskovsky though (you have to switch on an overlapping station to the other line).
This is a main street running through St. Petersburg. It runs right by the train station and continues until you get to the Hermitage and the river. Walking form the train station to the Hermitage will take you a little bit of time, but you will walk by a few sites and see lots of interesting buildings.
Along the way you will see or be one block from the following:
- Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan
- Anichkov Bridge
- Cathedral of Spilt Blood
- St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Cathedral of Spilt Blood
This is very cool. If St. Petersburg is your first stop in Russia, then this might be the first place you go. It is the site where Czar Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt. No chairs inside either. The walls and ceilings are completely covered in murals. There is a marker on the exact spot the assassination attempt happened as well.
You will be charged around 300 rubles to go in, but if you have a student card…take it! It is a large discount and you can get this discount a lot of places in Russia. If you want to take pictures you have to pay as well. I think it is something like 50 rubles, but remember to get it when you walk in. It is a sticker that goes on the outside of your camera so you can’t share. You actually pay inside the building too. I was confused as there is a booth outside, but we were directed inside to pay.
If you feel like some souvenirs, there are a few vendors just outside.
The Hermitage and Winter Palace
This is impressive. It is a massive square with the Hermitage sitting on the north side of it. This museum is absolutely huge! There is no other way to describe it. Even if you are not into museums, I would recommend going into this one at least. It is around 250 rubles too, but if you have a student card it is free. I think the first Thursday of the month is free for everyone too.
The square in the front is where Bloody Sunday happened and the Hermitage itself is also the Winter Palace where the royalty used to live before communism came.
We saw original art works by Picasso, Da Vinci, Cézanne, and others. There are sculptures, Asian art, artifacts, tapestries, and anything you can think of. There is even a giant “peacock clock” that actually works. It is hard to describe and you need to see it to understand.
We did it on our own and only spent a couple hours, but you could spend days here. There are tour guides lurking at the doors wanting to help you, but you can have cheaper group tours that run periodically throughout the day.
Check out the Hermitage Museum’s official site.
Peter and Paul Fortress
This is on the other side of the Neva river. You can walk across or take a taxi. You will know the fortress by the giant gold spire rising out of it. A definite identifying symbol for this city.
The bodies of the czar’s and their families have been buried here. There is also a cathedral in the center (the spire that you can see). There is no entrance fee and it is interesting to walk around.
Another museum I believe, but we did not go in here. Just sat by the fountains outside for a bit and took a few photos.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Another impressive cathedral. The front doors are huge with some serious carvings in them. If you pay to go in, you can get access to stairs that take you on the outside and quite high up the cathedral.
Just to the north-east of the Peter & Paul Fortress is an interesting looking mosque. Close by is the metro as well. A good opportunity to see it if you want to get back across the river.
St. Petersburg Metro
The metro in St. Petersburg (and Moscow) is just cool. Classic looking sculptures and some stations even have big chandeliers. You ride escalators that descend for quite awhile to access these subterranean stations. You will want to have a good map and know where the stations come up in the different parts of the city though.
We took lots of photos, but we also heard you can get in trouble if the police or other security catch you taking them. I think it might be a money extortion thing, but you never know. Just be discrete.