When an old friend suggests going to Russia, sometimes you just have to say yes.
So with newly acquired visas, a rudimentary knowledge of Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet and a couple of clean pairs of under crackers we set off. (Do your research on getting a visa, depending on the type of passport you hold it can be really straightforward, or a total faff)
St Petersburg is like no other European city you’ve seen before. It’s sometimes called the Venice of the North because of its canals and grand architecture. It has buildings in every style from Rococco, Art Nouveau, traditional Russian churches and palaces, through to vast soviet monolithic mega structures. The scale of the place and buildings will take your breath away.
How it all started
Around 1703 Peter the Great decided he wanted to create a European style capital city and navy. Not one to be wait about, he hired, European, architects, scientists and engineers, and enlisted 40,000 serfs to make this happen. The results are pretty impressive.
Catherine the Great and the Hermitage
Catherine the Great deposed her husband (and heir to the throne) in a military coup in 1762. She then declared herself empress and set about fancying up the existing Winter Palace which is now the state Hermitage museum.
Catherine also started a world class art collection, modernised Russia and introduced education for girls, so in fairness there was a bit more to her than being just a power hungry little minx with a penchant for interior design.
If your taste in art is more 20th century, then you should allow plenty of time for the galleries in the General Staff Building (across the mains square from the Hermitage Palace, but part of the same complex). The art collection has more Picassos’, Matisses’, and Kandinskys’ than you can throw a stick at. Honestly, it could eat and sh*t any gallery in Paris, London or New York.
You can buy tickets online to visit the Hermitage, and I would recommend this to avoid queues at busy times. Foreigners are charged more to visit the Hermitage. In fairness most Western visitors earn more than the average Russian, so I don’t have a problem with it.
An other fabulous building is the Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood. This might be most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. Surprisingly small inside, it’s covered in intricate mosaics that glitter in the candle light. It’s probably what heaven is like, if it didn’t have 40 tourists invading your personal space.
Honestly, the food was simple, cheap and basic with very little that jumped out, apart from one place. On a wet evening on Nevsky Prospect, mainly to get out of the rain we stumbled into Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall. Think of a Russian Fortnum and Mason, but in one of the prettiest art nouveau interiors you’ll ever see. Not especially cheap, but if you’re a foodie, you’ll love the selection they have on offer. I could have spent hours in this place.