Updated: Apr 28
While Moscow is decidedly Soviet, Saint Petersburg is undoubtedly European. With gloriously pastel coloured buildings and dreamy canals, one could easily imagine themselves in Austria, Germany or even Denmark. It is a vibrant, romantic city and it completely stole my heart! Here are some of the sights that made it such a stand-out city for me.
The Winter Palace/State Hermitage Museum
Originally built in 1708 for Peter The Great, The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Russian royal family from 1732 to 1917. Nicholas II was the last of the Tsars to call it home; before he and his family met their bloody Bolshevik fate. On 30 October 1917, the palace was declared to be part of the Hermitage Museum. During her rule (1762 until 1796), Catherine the Great acquired a great number of paintings which make up a large part of the collection. Along with The Winter Palace, the museum is composed of the Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, and Hermitage Theatre. It is endlessly grand, with each room more gorgeous than the last; and when I say endlessly, I mean it. This place is huge so bring your best walking shoes!
This was the final residence of Rasputin before he was lured away to his death. A little background on Rasputin if you haven't heard of him (or if you only know him from the classic Boney M song). Rasputin was a mystic and holy man from Siberia, closely involved with the ill fated Romanovs (the last royal family to rule over Russia - massacred during a Bolshevik uprising in 1918). Rasputin had allegedly healed the Romanov's youngest and only son Alexi during a severe haemophiliac episode. As a result, the Romanovs kept him close at hand. There were rumors of an affair with the Tsarina and Rasputin began to have a strong political influence as well. This didn't go over well for many and Rasputin was assassinated by a group of nobles led by Felix Yusupov in 1916. He was allegedly hard to kill; first poisoned, then shot, and finally thrown over a bridge to his icy death.
I arranged to see his apartment through an Air BnB Experience. Upon writing this post, it looks like this tour is no longer available through Air BnB but there are still excursions available to visit the apartment. It is now part of a kommunalka (communal housing left over from the Soviet Union) and maintained by a local man who provides the tours. During my visit I learned that people used to come from all over to see Rasputin for healing purposes, and they would be lined up outside the door. He received one final call to do his healing work by Felix Yusupov who claimed his wife had a horrible headache. This of course was an elaborate plan to lure Rasputin to his death. He most likely died from the gunshot wound, and the idea that he had been impossible to kill was a PR spin by Yusupov to paint Rasputin as some "Devil man" and justify the murder.I began the tour with the belief that Rasputin was a bit of a weirdo creep and left thinking he was probably still a bit of a weirdo but that he was a decent man who did his best to help others. Felix Yusupov got away with the murder and lived out the rest of his days in France.
Pyshechnaya (on Bolshaya Konyushennaya)
Pyshechnaya literally means "donut shop" and this is the best one in Saint Petersburg. Built in 1958, it still holds onto its Soviet kitsch. The place was heaving with people sharing giant plates of pyshki (donuts) and milky tea and coffee. I ordered one pyshki to begin with, and the hostess gave me a doubtful look. After eating that melt in your mouth pillow of carb heaven, I ran back to get two more - much to the delight of that same hostess.
Experience a Banya
A banya is a public bathhouse where patrons first steam in a wood fired sauna and then dip in a pool of cold water. I was a bit nervous going on my own so signed up for a guided banya experience again through Air BnB. It was just myself and another girl, and our host Margarita who was an absolute gem. We went to Yamskiye Bani which was frequented by Dostoyevsky himself, as he lived just round the corner. There was a little shop at the entrance where patrons can buy a venik (a bath broom made from branches or leaves) and banya hats. The venik is used to beat yourself and your banya friends in order to increase circulation, and the hats are worn to keep your body heat up and get more of a sweat going in the sauna. Margarita had brought both for us so we didn't need to buy any. The rooms are divided by gender of course, and everyone gets down to their birthday suit. You can wear a bathing suit if you want, but none of the locals do and I wanted to embrace the cultural experience. It was a bit daunting at first but I got over it quickly! The sight of a bunch of naked ladies wearing felt hats was pretty hilarious to be honest, like giant lawn gnomes come to life but it only added to my love for the place. The women visiting the banya were in their element and they took great pride in looking after the place, taking turns to add to the fire in the steam room and pouring buckets of water over the floors and benches to keep the place clean. At first the heat felt oppressive and the cold water was a shock to the system, but by the end of our 2 hours, I felt completely exhilarated. My skin was splotchy pink all over and stayed that way for hours. Margarita said she tries to come to the banya at least 3 times a week, and I can't say I blame her! It's a safe space for women to come for a chat, relax and leave feeling completely rejuvenated.
Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines
This "Museum" is full of Soviet arcade machines that you can still play! It's a fully entertaining blast from the past. Admission is 450 rubles and comes with 15 tokens - real soviet coins! Along with the games they have some old fashioned drink machines that dispense, coffee, soda and kvas. Kvas is a malty flavoured drink, popular throughout Eastern Europe. Soviet coca-cola. They have a little cafe at the front entrance with the BEST honey cake, and the staff are super friendly. My favourite of the arcade was a battleship game where you had to look through a periscope and fire missiles. The museum is within walking distance of the Winter Palace and just around the corner from The Church of the Savior on Blood (another one of Russia's techni-color churches).
....And All The Rest
While I was in Saint Petersburg, it was during the "White Nights". These are the long summer nights where the sun barely sets (at midnight) before it rises again (at 2am). With the extra hours of sunshine, I ended up walking about 20km a day just wandering around, taking in the beauty of the city. A few honourable mentions include The Church of the Savior on Blood, The Vodka Museum , New Holland Island, a midnight river cruise to watch The Palace Bridge open and a visit to one of the bustling markets where you can try a million pickled things. Special shout out to Chickadee Hostel for it's lovely staff and delicious pancake breakfasts.