Now that you’ve read an introduction to St.Petersburg, including tips for pre-departure, acquiring a tourist visa, transportation, first impressions and a recommendation of where not to stay, let’s move on to the actual itinerary of my 3-day adventure in Mother Russia. Question: why is it Mother Russia when countries like Germany are referred to as the Fatherland? Anyways, here goes.
As we left our hotel and made our way along the embankment, the first thing of interest we stumbled upon (after getting accustomed to the fact that nearly every building looks like a palace from the outside) was the Bronze Horseman and St.Isaac’s Cathedral. The statue depicts Peter the Great and was a gift from Catherine the Great who inscribed it with the words “From Catherine the 2nd, to Peter the 1st, 1782”. The statue was also the inspiration for Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman” written in 1833.
After making our way past Peter, we headed into the historic heart of the city via Alexander Garden, where I stopped to grab some delicious cinnamon covered almonds – Russian street food – yum!
We then veered towards Nevsky and making our way towards the Kazan Cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, patroness of the city of Kazan, a world heritage site.
Exploring Nevsky Prospekt, we sauntered in and out of side streets that hosted buildings ornate with multi-coloured facades like the blue and orange pictured below! Many of the buildings were run down and completely gutted on the inside, but from first glance it is easy to see the opulence that once flooded the city of St.Petersburg.
My absolute favourite sight during our stroll downtown was the Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood. The onion domes topping the church were, for me, the embodiment of Russian culture and design – so needless to say, this particular stop made my trip! The church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. The church was closed during Bolshevik reign and boasts beautiful mosaics throughout the interior.
After visiting the Church, and then grabbing a delicious bite at a lovely cafe, nestled among canals, we decided it was time to take to the water! So, we boarded a boat and headed for a cruise along the Neva river.
The cruise was the perfect respite from the heat and was a great way to gain a better understanding for the layout of the city. We started by weaving our way in and out of the canals, encountering some enchanting bridges along the way, and ended with a full view of the hermitage and an introduction to the Peter and Paul Fortress (which we were glad not to have reserved half a day for as it seemed much less spectacular than monuments closer to shore).
One of the most interesting bits of information that we picked up however (in addition to passing by the many palaces dedicated to ancient poets and lovers of Catherine the great), had to do with the evolution of the Russian flag. Apparently, Peter the Great, enchanted with the Dutch, decided to model Russia’s flag along very similar lines. In fact, if you just rearrange the order of the colours as seen in the Russian flag, it quickly becomes the national flag of Holland. Who knew?
After touching back on land, we headed straight for another cultural sight: the Mariinsky Theatre, the most famous of famous theatres in all St.Petersburg, with roots dating all the way back to 1783. We nearly booked a show at the Mariinsky but we were pretty set on seeing Swan Lake at the Hermitage (a definite highlight of the trip!).
Mariinsky Theatre is in fact, located in Arts Square where visitors are majestically greeted by a statue of Alexander Pushkin (adorned with pigeons). The square also hosts the Russian museum, said to be one of the best museums in the city (we had only time enough for one museum in the city, but were I planning a return visit, this would be top of my list) and framed by the legendary Mikhailovsky Gardens.
After perusing around the most creative square in St.Petersburg, we grounded ourselves with another visit of Holy sorts. Said to be the most beautiful cathedral in St.Petersburg, and loved by the locals, Nikolsky Cathedral, built in 1762 was an inspiring sight, painting in blue and white with gilded rays reaching to the sky.
After a full day of walking around with only a brief lunch tying us down, we were starving! So, we headed in search of authentic Russian cuisine. As it turned out, we ended up parking ourselves at a Georgian restaurant, recommended by Lonely Planet.
While none of us were the “follow the guide book” type generally speaking, we figured that since we’d heard questionable reviews about bad restaurants in Russia and since one of us (ah-hem) was 5.5 months pregnant at the time, we’d stick to something relatively safe. Well, the good news was that the food, was safe; the bottled water, however tasted like dish soap and the “lemonade” was an unnaturally bright green syrup. We’re still not really sure what happened there.
After enjoying Khachapuri to start (Georgian cheese bread) I dug into my first serving of Borscht and it was delicious! I was surprised to find out that my borscht wasn’t the deep, dark purple, beet laden borscht I’d eaten back at home. This borscht was much lighter in colour, with onions and beef and topped with herbs. After mulling it over, I guess it only makes sense that the recipe for this Ukrainian dish,after having been adopted by so many central and eastern European countries, varies from place to place. It was a delicious end to our first day in the city.