Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Guest post written by: Chloe Fitzgerald
I spent three weeks in St Petersburg not too long ago and it was one of my favourite cities I’ve ever visited. It’s ideal if you enjoy a city break, because not only is it full of art galleries, museums and the like, it’s also not as expensive as many European cities. Not to mention that it’s absolutely beautiful and will provide Instagram material for months to come. I’ve put together a list of things that made the trip as good as it was.
St Petersburg is home to some of the most amazing palaces I’ve seen. I have also never seen so many palaces packed into one city – you can easily find an interesting one just by going for a walk. Many of these palaces are now also host to art galleries and museums, and so I’ve mentioned them below, but they’re also incredibly architecturally impressive. The Tsarskoye Selo is particularly memorable; it’s slightly outside of the city, as it was once the Tsar’s summer residence. Inside, each room is more elaborately decorated than the last, with the most exciting room probably being the Amber Room, which is entirely decorated with amber panels. Outside, the grounds sprawl for miles, and even feature several smaller chapels, temples, and monuments, in case there wasn’t enough going on inside the palace.
Orthodox churches can be quite different to what we’re used to in Western countries. A lot of the churches in St Petersburg are very intricately decorated; for example, the Church of the Saviour on Blood has paintings all over the walls and ceilings, not to mention having the trademark multicoloured domes outside. There’s also the more modestly decorated Peter and Paul Cathedral. This cathedral is very important historically: it is part of a fortress which was the original citadel of St Petersburg. The fortress went on to be used as a prison during the Soviet era, and is now part of the State Museum of St Petersburg History. When I was there, there was a free exhibition on forgotten Russian authors just outside the cathedral. However, the most famous church in St Petersburg is St Isaac’s Cathedral. Its golden dome is visible for miles around and its interior is so elaborate that it took 40 years to build. Nowadays the building functions as a museum.
3. Art galleries
As mentioned, many art galleries in St Petersburg are inside palaces. The most prominent example is the Hermitage, which is the second largest gallery in the world. It is one wing of the Winter Palace, an enormous palace in the centre of St Petersburg which used to be the official residence of the Russian emperors. It features paintings acquired by Catherine the Great in the 1700s, and most importantly offers free entry to students. On the other hand, St Petersburg also has plenty to offer in terms of modern art. Erarta is its most famous contemporary art museum. It features a broad range of exhibitions, although a common theme is what art means in modern Russia, especially in the context of moving away from the control exerted on art and artists in the Soviet era.
It’s said about St Petersburg that you could live there your whole life and still not manage to go to all the museums it has to offer. To be honest, I would have to say this is true; there were so many I would have liked to visit that I couldn’t fit in. This makes it important to look into what museums might interest you before you go. I can recommend the Pushkin Museum, which is in the building he lived in; they have recreated his flat exactly as it was when he lived there. There is also a similar museum in Anna Akhmatova’s flat. Special mention has to go to the Kunstkamera, however. Built in 1727 at the command of Peter the Great, it is mostly famous for being St Petersburg’s weirdest museum. In fact, some of its exhibitions are borderline disturbing – for example, the one on deformed body parts, which was intended at the time to illustrate that body deformities were natural and not the result of witchcraft.
5. Boat trip
Whenever I visit a city, I always try to go on a boat trip if possible. And I would have to say that the boat trip I took through St Petersburg was one of the best I’ve done. The city is built on canals (the architects based it on Venice) and so you first go through winding, beautiful streets, and then arrive at the vast Neva, where the view on either side of the river is incredible. The only downside is that it is very difficult to do justice to this view in photos, because it doesn’t all fit into one shot.
6. The arts
One of the best parts of my visit to St Petersburg was going to the theatres. I went to see Pushkin's Queen of Spades as an opera and to see Swan Lake as a ballet, and would definitely recommend both. Tickets are much cheaper than they would be in London, so an evening at the opera or ballet won’t set you back as much as you would expect. Not only that, but most opera theatres have screens with subtitles in both Russian and English, so it’s enjoyable even if you don’t have any Russian.
One thing you need to know about in Russia is the stolovaia. These are canteen-style restaurants which can be found all over St Petersburg and serve traditional Russian food. As a vegetarian, I had to be inventive about what I ate there, and after a few days I decided to branch out from my daily meal of mushrooms and buckwheat with a cranberry pastry. This led me to explore St Petersburg’s many Georgian restaurants – I’ve been told that Georgian cuisine is to Russia what Italian cuisine is to us. One of my favourite Georgian delicacies was khinkali, dumplings which are usually stuffed with meat, but I had them with mushrooms. I also can’t not mention khachapuri, which is literally cheese-stuffed bread. However, I’ll admit there were some days when I was feeling less adventurous and went to Starbucks, but even Starbucks were selling Russian delicacies such as syrniki, which are cheese-based pancakes.