St. Petersburg in all its Faded Glory

A trip to St. Petersburg deserves a week at the very least. Sadly, we only had three days but staying at a homestay apartment near the Peter and Paul Fortress we visited some of the main historical attractions in one of Russia’s most majestic cities.

St. Petersburg in all its Faded Glory

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

Almost every stop in St. Petersburg was a highlight for me and at each one I felt like I’d taken a step back in time. From our homestay apartment on Prospekt Dobrolyubova we were able to walk over the Dvortsovy Bridge every day and pass by the glorious State Hermitage Museum. The museum is an immense architectural wonder and trying to locate a particular artist is tantamount to looking for a needle in a haystack, making the visit an exciting and bewildering experience.

Walking down Nevsky Prospekt is a treat and an assault on the senses. There’s no shortage of people, action, and architecture and you need the will and energy to get through it. Along they city’s main thoroughfare you’re rewarded with views of the Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (a.k.a. the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood), the bright blue and white cousin to Moscow’s St. Basil’s. At the end of the road, we went on a treasure hunt of sorts at the Lazarev and Tikhvin Cemeteries at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, using our limited knowledge of the Russian alphabet to locate the headstones of Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky amongst others.

We enjoyed clear views over St. Petersburg from the imposing St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which reminded me vaguely of a more colourful version of London’s St. Paul’s and a trip to the nearby Yusupov Palace was also a highlight. Situated on the quiet Moyka Canal, the audio tour of this museum was very worthwhile, especially to see the beautiful and intimate home theatre. The grandeur of decor in the upper rooms contrasts wildly with the chambers where the grisly history of Grigory Rasputin’s last supper is laid out.

We also enjoyed some delicious Russian pies courtesy of Stolle’s. This small chain of old-world cafés is dotted around St. Petersburg and offer wonderfully warm pies with different fillings. It’s a great place to stop at for a substantial snack if you’re not in the mood for one of the many Starbucks look-alikes along Nevsky Prospekt.

Finally, we also enjoyed (if that’s the right word) watching a group of fearless senior citizens sunning themselves on the stone banks of the Peter and Paul Fortress before dipping into the frigid waters of the Neva, which at the end of April was still covered in large chunks of ice.${QuickSuggestions} We were incredibly lucky with the weather in St. Petersburg. Continuous days of sunshine and clear blue skies encouraged us to walk as much as we could, although to be honest, we would have been wise to take greater advantage of the city’s underground train system. Besides being a good way to cover more ground, it also gives you a break from the polluted city air, which was surprisingly oppressive when we were there and we don’t even suffer from any notable respiratory problems.

In terms of getting a Russian Visa, ours was expedited by an invitation from our homestay programme, HOFA, and we subsequently had no problem entering Russia from Estonia. I don’t know what it’s like trying to get a Visa by other means but I would totally recommend booking in advance with a registered hotel or agency as it made the whole process very painless.

Speaking of the homestay programme, if you’re keen to have greater interaction with the locals it certainly provides a more personal experience than staying in a hotel or hostel.

Also guidebooks recommend steering clear of drinking tap water so we kept stocked with bottled water during our stay.${BestWay} Walking the streets of St. Petersburg is an uplifting and humbling experience. Be sure to take a detailed map with you though as overshooting a turning or destination can involve a long walk back. I can definitely recommend walking by the Neva in April when fractured ice floes drift silently by. On either side of Nevsky Prospekt the narrower waterways are equally as peaceful, mirroring many of St. Petersburg’s magnificent palaces, churches and museums.

When the streets become too long and tiring, it’s definitely worth venturing underground. St. Petersburg has four metro lines with 56 stations. At around 46 cents a ticket, it’s also a fairly inexpensive way to get around. Tickets can be purchased at the stations and the lines are open from 5.45am until midnight.

There’s also an extensive bus, tram and trolleybus system in operation although we didn’t make use of this, which is too bad as apparently St. Petersburg has the most trams of any city in the world!

Host Families Association: Homestay Away From Home

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

Host Families Association (HOFA) was founded in St. Petersburg in 1990 and offers homestays and apartment rentals around Russia, Belorussia and the Ukraine. You can be matched by language so we decided to be somewhat unadventurous and asked for a host who spoke some English. There are other services that they offer, ranging from Visa invitations to language lessons to travel bookings as well as arranging a pick up to take you to the homestay accommodation.

We arrived by bus from Tallinn into Balticskaya station where our host Dmitry met us with his car to ferry us to an apartment he shared with his retired mother. He was a very timid but sweet 30-year old engineer and courteously offered us some tea and biscuits upon our arrival. He spoke very good English and we chatted with him for a bit before he showed us to our room. The apartment was extremely tidy and spacious even though it comprised only three bedrooms and a bathroom and kitchen. Our long, sunlit bedroom contained two single beds, and despite looking out onto the road, it was incredibly quiet both during the day and during the night. We also had a glimpse of the Peter and Paul Fortress, which was a five-minute walk from the apartment.

We didn’t see too much of Dmitry as he left early for work. He prepared a simple breakfast every morning and left out tea and other basic provisions such as bread and jam as well.

At around $68 for two people per night, the homestay programme may not appear to be as much of a budget option as one would expect. Breakfast is included in the cost and other meals can be arranged with the host for an additional fee but the homestay experience is one that can’t be bought at any other type of accommodation. To start with, it separates you from the tourists, which is a nice escape if you’ve spent most of the day dodging tour groups along Nevsky Prospekt or in the Hermitage Museum. In addition, you get a behind-the-scenes look at how Russian people live. Even if you don’t get to spend a great deal of time with your host it comes down to basic elements such as how they decorate their homes, the food they serve or the places they recommend.

Dmitry handed us an information sheet from HOFA and on the back was a list of local museums with prices and opening hours. He was kind enough to allow us to use their washing machine as we’d been traveling for a couple of weeks and desperately needed to do some laundry. Whilst this wasn’t on the optional services list, we paid him a small fee for the favour. The relationship with the host, albeit a brief one, I found to be very respectful and entirely non-invasive, which is something really important when you consider that you’re living side-by-side with a stranger.

The Stroganov Yard Restaurant

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

Being in the auspicious location of the courtyard of the Stroganov Palace we thought what a better place to try some Chicken Kiev? Okay so we weren’t in Kiev but it was Easter Sunday and after a long day of walking, it sounded like a tasty meal.

Just off Nevsky Prospekt, I got the feeling that any pretense this restaurant affected to being high-class was just that: a facade. We had a fine time there but slow service and a lackluster buffet bar were indications that operations at the Stroganov Yard Restaurant were in need of an overhaul.

The courtyard restaurant is actually a tall marquee tent with a large operational fountain and spiral staircase in its centre. Wicker chairs and round tables comprise the dining area while low lounge chairs help make up a bar area of sorts. Overall I got the acute feeling of what it must be like to crash an expensive wedding reception.

We passed on the dinner buffet, which was on the far side of the marquee. I didn’t get a good view but I had a suspicion that the food had been sitting out for a good part of the day. We picked dishes from a mostly Russian menu although they offered a few pasta and pizza dishes for anyone looking for something more familiar. I started with their borscht topped with a dollop of sour cream and my husband tried their creamy salmon soup. Both soups were pretty good although my borscht was a little more watery than I’d been used to elsewhere. The Chicken Kiev was served with french fries and béchamel sauce. It wasn’t bad but lacked any particular culinary flair that would have made it fit for royalty, or a glowing review at the least.

We washed it down with some Nevskoe beer as a jazz trio set up in a nearby corner. Despite the true cheesiness of this small band, we felt compelled to stay and watch them for a while, firstly we had little choice because we had a long wait for our cheque, and secondly, the keyboard player looked so sad and morose we wanted to stay and see if he would ever break into a smile. (He didn’t.)

The restaurant is also known for its collection of tableside telephones, which enable you to dial up fellow diners at a numbered table. We only spied a handful of the phones and none of them were in use. I wondered if they got a better work out late at night and if it was an effective way to find a date.

Before we left, our cheery server brought us a couple of brightly coloured hard-boiled eggs in celebration of Easter and perhaps by way of an apology for the slow service. Not that we had minded in the end as it had been an entertaining way to spend the evening, and fairly inexpensive at $13 per head.
Stroganoff Yard
17 Nevsky Prospect
St. Petersburg, Russia

Stolle’s Café: Pies a-plenty

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

We made a point of seeking out a Stolle café as it had been recommended to us by a St. Petersburg native, and because we enjoy eating pie! With only five shops in the city we were lucky to accidentally stumble upon one of their cafes opposite the Mariinsky Theatre. From the outside it didn’t look like much but inside we found a warm, peaceful environment that had more the appearance of an aristocratic wine bar than it did a pie shop.

Founded in 2002, Stolle’s chairman Alexander Bordug professes to wanting to recreate the flavour and atmosphere of early 20th century St. Petersburg. Not that I have a reference for comparison but the stately interior with its long bar laden with tray after tray of puffy golden pies certainly transported me to another era.

The Stolle Café at Dekabristov is accessible from nearby metro stations Sadovaya and Sennaya and certainly didn’t fail to impress in terms of Bordug’s vision. The long room was fairly quiet when we arrived. Long leaved plants on each windowsill filtered the early afternoon sunlight adding a rich glow to the red walls. The furniture was reminiscent of an old English pub with dark wooden low back chairs in the middle of the room and long banquette benches along the walls at either end of the café. Black and white photographs of bygone times were hung sparingly on the walls but the real centerpiece was of course the pie counter. Thick, picture-perfect pies of different sizes and fillings lined the counter, most topped with elaborate pastry motifs.

We ordered one green onion and egg pie, and one mushroom pie. The pastry at Stolle’s had the texture of a soft brioche-type bread as opposed to the drier, crusty pastry that I’m more accustomed to for savoury pies. Despite its moderate size, the pie was extremely filling and as much as I wanted to, I was unable to convince my stomach to try one of their dessert pies. Their menu extends to other food and drink items, including alcohol. If pies aren’t your thing I could equally recommend Stolle’s for an afternoon beer or relaxing morning coffee.

The staff at Stolle’s were extremely friendly and courteous, even pulling off the napkins that covered the pie counter so we could videotape the pies in all their glory! They must have thought we were a bit eccentric but we were so impressed by the overall presentation at Stolle’s that it seemed a shame not to capture the stars of the show whilst filming the café’s interior.

For two pies, two fruit juices, a tea and a coffee, our bill came to $14.78, which seemed reasonable given the tourist location of this particular café. At lunchtime it was fairly quiet but I’d imagine that it livens up in the evening as a convenient pre or post-show stop for anyone with tickets to the Mariinsky Theatre across the road.
Stolle Cafe
Konushenny per. 1/6
St. Petersburg, Russia
+7 (812) 312 18 62

Lazarev and Tikhvin Cemeteries

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

On the Russian Orthodox Easter Sunday, the Alexandr Nevsky Monastery (or Lavra) was a busy place. We arrived toward the end of the day, as last minute visits were being paid by young families and elderly babushkas. We wandered into the one church that was open, feeling somewhat intrusive as it was filled with Russians going in prayer. We did a very quick circuit and headed back out to the entrance of the Lavra, where we arrived just in time to gain access to the famed Lazarev and Tikhvin Cemeteries, which close around 5.30pm.

The monastery was founded by Peter the Great in 1710 and on this particularly holy day I could sense an overwhelming sense of community and belonging from the tides of people flocking in to worship. Walking towards its location at the southern tip of Nevsky Prospekt we hadn’t seen much indication of the crowds until we came close to the monastery’s entrance. There’s no entrance fee for the grounds in general but there is a small ticket booth along the walled lane that permits access to the two cemeteries. The system (if there is one) is somewhat confusing as the booth looked deserted when we passed by so we took the liberty of entering the Lazarev cemetery without paying but were soon chased down by an unimpressed lady who shooed us back to the booth where an attendant had magically appeared to take our money after all. The fee was small, about $2.30 per person. This didn’t include a photo fee but we took a couple of surreptitious snaps of two star attractions, the tombstones of Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky, as we wandered around.

Temperamental clerks aside, the two cemeteries are actually very beautiful and soporific. With tall walls, dwarf pine trees and narrow paths winding through plots bordered by wrought iron fences, I felt as if I was walking through a secret garden rather than a graveyard. We had been given a small map which indicated who was lying in which area, but with the large number of people interred here, it was still hard to locate them. Even the most recognizable names don’t necessarily have the grandest tombs.

The two cemeteries are fairly modest in size. The Lazarev cemetery is visually more dramatic, as headstones are packed in tightly and overall seem more indicative of the site’s antiquity. On the opposite side, Tikhvin comes off as the more organized and presentable of the two cemeteries and also contains most of the famous graves. They both possess their own charm though and even at closing time on Easter Sunday, drew in a decent number of people.

The compound is located close to the Ploshchad Alexandra Nevskovo metro station and there was very little to see between there and the Moscow train station so I would definitely recommend catching the metro if you decide to make an independent trip out to the cemeteries.
Alexandr Nevsky Monastery (Lazarev and Tikhvin Cemeteries)
Ploshchad Alexandra Nevskogo
St. Petersburg

Peter and Paul Fortress

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

Sitting on its own island, the Peter and Paul Fortress has come a long way since its inception by Peter the Great in 1703. On one particularly warm and sunny April day we found that the fortress had become a place of self-expression and recreation, a far cry from its roots as city garrison and political jail.

It’s free to walk around the grounds, which aren’t particularly extensive but definitely pleasant to stroll around considering its proximity to the city centre. The centrepiece of the fortress is the Cathedral. The brilliance of its golden spire stands out not only against the bare skyline of the north bank, but also within the Neva as it reflects the soaring needle in its waters. At 404 feet, the cathedral is also the highest building in St. Petersburg.

There’s a fee to enter the buildings, which include the City History Museum, parts of the former jail and the cathedral. We decided instead to head to the perimeter of the fortress and walk beside the river. There’s a small sandy beach and from here you get clear views of the Hermitage and a distant view of the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

We arrived in time to set up a video camera to record the daily firing of the cannon. Even though our guidebook advised that the cannon is fired from the Naryshkin Bastion at noon, nothing could prepare us mentally for the heart-stopping experience of having a cannon shot just a few feet over our heads. It was deafeningly loud and induced in us a sudden and unexpected outburst of expletives, which at the time aptly summed up our sense of shock, albeit in a very primitive form.

After our heart rates had returned to normal we followed the river to the east and came upon a sizeable group of scantily clad retirees sunning themselves against the perimeter wall. I only saw one bold soul actually take the plunge in the Neva although there are signs on the beach indicating that swimming is prohibited. I’m not sure what Peter the Great would have made of it all but despite the warm weather it was an odd sight given that the winter ice had barely started to break up.

Unfortunately for us our final experience at the Peter and Paul Fortress was a meal at the “Anarchist Restaurant.” This strange place was decorated in the loose style of a farmer’s cottage and was run by three reluctant teenagers. We ordered a sesame-seed encrusted chicken fillet and an exceedingly chewy lamb dish and waited a painful thirty minutes for the food to come out. Paying a highly inflated price for both dishes I assumed that their justification is the tourist location but I was left wondering if they were paying homage to the food once served to fortress inmates. If so, Dostoyevsky, Gorky, and Trotsky would be sad to learn that the quality has improved little with the passing of time.
Peter and Paul Fortress/Peter and Paul Cathedral
Zayachil Ostrov (hare Island)
St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Isaac’s Cathedral and The Admiralty Gardens

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

We took a walk through the very neat Admiralty Gardens. At lunchtime, the park was exceptionally quiet although there was proof that someone had been hard at work as numerous, small leaf piles had been arranged along the walkways as flowerbeds were readied for spring. We lamented the fact that we’d arrived too early to see the gardens at their best. In April the grass was grayish brown and the parks looked dusty and lifeless.

We watched a group of navy cadets jog by, passing in front of The Admiralty. The building was constructed in 1823 as the administrative headquarters of the Russian Navy and has served as a naval college since 1923.

A short walk from the gardens led us to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of Russia’s largest Orthodox cathedrals. It’s a bronze dome and red granite columns tower over Isaakievskaia Square, dwarfing the Monument to Tsar Nikolai I, which stands in its centre. Both cathedral and monument were designed by Auguste de Montferrand, a French architect who was refused burial rights in the cathedral because of his Roman Catholic birth. Considering the forty years it took to construct, and the magnificence of the finished structure, you can understand why he felt so strongly about spending his afterlife there too.

We bought a ticket to ascend to the colonnade, which costs around $4 for the colonnade only (the interior museum is additional). It’s not a particularly long climb, about 300 steps if you want to count, and you can peak through windows and see a part of the striking interior. Walking around the colonnade you get 360-degree views over St. Petersburg, including the Hermitage, the Admiralty and Gardens, and the Peter and Paul fortress across the Neva. At the time of our visit, photography was permitted on the colonnade but not inside the cathedral.

This immense cathedral, which can accommodate 14,000 worshipers, has served as a museum since the 1930s and services are held only on significant ecclesiastical holidays. It’s open from 11am to 6pm daily, except for Wednesday.

Regrettably we were pushed for time and didn’t venture inside but from the small peeks we did get, the famed mosaic work and paintings looked breathtaking and well worth spending the additional time and money.

I’d actually recommend dedicating an entire day to this area and taking in the Yusupov Palace in the afternoon, which is a fairly short walk south and then west along the Moyka Canal.
St. Isaac's Cathedral
Isaakievskaya Ploshchad 1
St. Petersburg, Russia

Yusupov Palace: A Palace of Grand Design

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

Palaces aren’t often at the top of my list of places to see even when visiting large cities but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the Yusupov Palace. Compared to many royal residences, this place seemed so modest in size. I could see from one end of the building to the other for starters.

The ticket office is open daily from 10.45am to 5pm and for $15.66 you get an audio tour guide of the Palace rooms. There’s an additional charge to go the murder site of Grigory Rasputin, and had the museum attendants not been so rude and frustrating, I probably would have shelled out the extra $10 to see that too.

This sand coloured building stands about three stories tall, and apart from six white columns flanking the doorway, I would have been hard pressed to tell that this was a palace at all. We entered into a grand lobby, where a sweeping white staircase draws your eyes skywards. A couple of twitchy attendants at the entrance looked thrown off as we were not part of the big tour group that had entered just ahead of us. They impatiently directed us left and right, first to buy our tickets and next to check our bags, which you’re obligated to do.

We were each given an English language audio guide which we dutifully strapped on and followed instructions to ascend the beautiful staircase to the first room. The incredible detail and spectacular craftsmanship of the marble staircase was just a small taste of what was to come. Barely a wall, ceiling or corridor in the palace has been spared from the skill and artistry that the glamourous Yusupovs commissioned in their many facelifts and refurbishments.

The Yusupovs bought the palace in 1830 and its best known for being the place where the monk Rasputin was poisoned by Viscount Felix Yusupov in 1916 and then unceremoniously dumped into the icy Moyka Canal. Shortly after, the revolution forced the Yusupovs into exile and they deserted the estate for the Crimea. Fortunately their namesake palace survived revolutions and wars and is now resplendent again as a museum.

We followed the engaging audio tour through room after room. Highlights were the imposing oak dining room and the prince’s study, which was also the library and had two levels of bookshelves and at one time contained around eight thousand volumes. The two standout features for me though had to be the exquisite Moorish drawing room and the Yusupov Palace Theatre. The Moorish room would be better described as a hamam fit for a king. It glowed gold in the lamplight, with gilt room partitions and narrow crimson floor rugs adding a Middle Eastern inflection. The diminutive theatre has to be seen to be believed, as its plush scarlet cushions and drapes are straight out of a Russian fairytale. They still use it for music recitals and I can only imagine that being in the audience is quite a unique experience.
Yusupov Palace
Naberezhnaya Reki Moyki 94
St. Petersburg, Russia

Central Museum of Railway Transport of Russia

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

As my husband and myself were about to embark on the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia I thought what better way to begin our journey than at the Railway Museum in St. Petersburg. I naively cast aside doubts that we would have a difficult time understanding the exhibits - our guidebook had sensibly advised that it’s a good idea to take along a translator if you don’t speak Russian. I wish we had taken that good advise because after our self-guided tour we were left bored and disillusioned.

Founded in 1813, the museum is one of the oldest engineering museums in the world and was established years before Russia even had its first working train. It contains many models of steam engines, carriages, bridges and other train paraphernalia and is mainly geared towards a younger audience of students, who the museum curators seem to welcome with open arms. When it came to two lone tourists though, their enthusiasm waned and they even seemed reluctant to sell us an English-language leaflet, which unfortunately wasn’t of much use anyway.

We wandered somewhat aimlessly from room to room, trying to make sense of the different exhibits, which at times seemed dislocated. None of the model trains we saw were moving and it appeared that there was only one area where such demonstrations took place. This was subtly roped off and when we enquired as to whether we could enter, we were met with a resounding “nyet”.

Our leaflet meanwhile provided only worthless captions such as “Mannequins dressed in different types of railway uniforms” and other equally obvious descriptions. We were beginning to feel that the true meaning or history of each display was a secret that the museum staff were intent on keeping from us.

The displays themselves were presented in a very clinical fashion that lacked any creativity or excitement and the silence of the place was overwhelming considering that trains and railways are all about movement, noise and the anticipation of the journey.

I can only imagine that a visit to this museum must be a completely different experience if you understand Russian (or go with someone who does) and/or you’re a hardcore trainspotter. If, like myself, you fall under neither of these categories then I wouldn’t waste the time going as it just about destroyed any sense of romance, mystique and nostalgia I’d previously associated with train travel in Russia.
Central Museum of Railway Transport of Russia
50 Sadovaya Street
St. Petersburg, Russia
+7 (812) 168-80-05

The State Hermitage Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by sararevell on August 6, 2007

As the premier attraction in St. Petersburg, The Hermitage Museum deserves a trip irrespective of whether you’re an art lover or not as its halls are as spectacular as the art collection it houses. Commissioned for construction by Empress Elizabeth in 1754, the Winter Palace is more commonly associated with Catherine the Great, who took residence after her coronation in 1763, and was responsible for starting the palace’s lifelong association with art. With a collection of around 3 million items, the museum is a triumph in terms of quantity as well as quality. The Hermitage has over 1,000 rooms although incredibly only half of the collection can be displayed at any one time.

The entrance hall at the Hermitage can be a little intimidating if you’re not part of an organized tour group and the sheer volume of people makes you feel like you’re in some level of competition to buy a ticket.

After dropping off our daypacks in the cloakroom, we spent a few minutes poring over our map. We already had an idea of what we wanted to see, namely the Matisse and Picasso rooms and the Iranian art, which were all located on the second floor but even the best laid plans won’t stop you from getting lost once or twice in this behemoth art gallery. I found myself wondering how communications worked in the time of Catherine the Great and that perhaps they could have benefited from modern day Global Positioning Systems.

On the first floor we wandered off course and then struggled to find a staircase up to the next level. However we happily stumbled upon the St. George hall, also known as the Large Throne Room. Like a set from a fairytale film, this room is outlined in gold trim across the ceiling and around the balcony. At the far end stands the scarlet podium enclosing the seat of honour and it wasn’t hard to imagine this long hall playing host to royal receptions.

Finally we found our way up to the second floor and the Matisse and Picasso rooms, which are side by side and have wonderful views through small open windows out onto Dvortsovaya Ploschad. We enjoyed works such as Matisse’s "The Dance". They also have several bronze sculptures by the artist. The next room contains from of Picasso’s earlies paintings such as "The Absinthe Drinker" and "Two Sisters". These rooms are understandably popular with visitors so you do have to exercise some patience when moving around.

If you want to get a sense of what’s on offer at The Hermitage, the museum has an excellent website that provides virtual galleries of some of the exhibitions:

In spite of the crowds, The Hermitage is a treat to visit. Searching for each piece of art is an adventure and in such immaculate and imperial surroundings there is a magical and remarkable sight to behold at every turn.
Winter Palace/State Hermitage Museum
Palace Embankment, On The Neva River
St. Petersburg, Russia

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