We took a high-speed train (called Sapsan) from Moscow to St. Petersburg. This was by far the smoothest travel experience we’ve had, and at under $100 for a four-hour painless trip with Wi-Fi and comfy seats, it’s a great deal. A fun fact: the train departs from Leningrad Railway Station in Moscow (the old name for St. Petersburg, used from about 1924 until 1991) and arrives at Moscow Railway Station in St. Petersburg. This was also the first time I’ve been on a train and had to go through security similar to that of an airport… it’s always struck me as a rather glaring deficiency that I can just hop straight onto the trains in most of Europe. [As a side note, security in general in Russia was much higher than in European countries, with good reason. For example, in order to enter the airport, you must immediately pass through a preliminary security screening. You don’t have to remove liquids and laptops and all that jazz, but you do have to pass through a metal detector and have your bags x-rayed. This is primarily due to the suicide bombing in the Domodedovo airport in 2011.]
Upon arriving, we took a taxi from the train station to our hotel. This was another really efficient service – we used Welcome Taxi, which allows you to book in advance online, and you can request various things like a car with extra trunk space, a driver that speaks English, etc – and they meet you at the train with one of those signs with your name on it, which gives you that high-roller feeling 😉 Our hotel, the NasHOTEL St. Petersburg, was wonderful. It’s in a quiet neighborhood about ten minutes from a metro station, with really large rooms. Plus, when we arrived four hours ahead of check-in time, they gave us champagne as an apology for the room not being available. It wasn’t at all necessary, but we didn’t turn it down!
When planning the trip, Richie told me that I should focus on St. Petersburg, because Moscow would be more “his style” and St. Petersburg would be mine. It didn’t take long to realize this was totally accurate. Moscow was lovely and had wonderful things to see and do, but a lot of it centers around history and politics. And while I enjoy a good aerial view of history and politics… St. Petersburg is a city of beauty, music, fine art, and architecture, all things that I enjoy in depth.
Our first stop in St. Petersburg was Imperial Porcelain. Are you noticing a trend with shopping on day one? We’d stumbled across a store in Tallinn last year and found an adorable white poodle for my mom (we’re a family full of standard poodles), so we decided to try the store at the factory itself. While we didn’t come away with any poodles, we did pick up a few things to join our collection. As for dinner, the recommended restaurant we tried to visit turned us away (due to a “large number of groups”, which was confusing given the totally empty restaurant) so we settled for a nearby place that looked (as Richie described it) like a teenage girl’s bedroom. The food was delicious and affordable but, yes, a little bit girly. Sorry, husband ‘o mine.
As St. Petersburg stays light even later than Moscow, we had plenty of hours left to do a little sightseeing. Since most of the sights close for tourists around 5 or 6 pm, we opted to do a walking tour that the Lonely Planet guidebook suggested. We started at St. Issac’s Cathedral.
We passed the house where Tchaikovsky spent his final days.
We spotted this sign on the wall of a school, which the guidebook says has been maintained since the days of WWII and translates as, “Citizens! At times of artillery bombardment this side of the street is most dangerous!”
We passed under the arch of the General Staff Building to reach the plaza in front of the Hermitage.
Visiting the Hermitage was my most-anticipated activity. Spoiler alert: It didn’t disappoint. Details later.
We walked a little further to the New Hermitage, held up by these burly men:
And past some canals to get a glimpse of the Peter and Paul Fortress:
After much criss-crossing around canals and ruins of horse stables, we came upon the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Its exterior is modeled after St. Basil’s, but the interior is completely different. Again, we couldn’t go inside yet, so details later 🙂
We continued on to the Kazan Cathedral, which looked rather like a government building. Or A&M’s Academic Building. Either way, it was a stark contrast to the other churches we’d seen and was really interesting.
Finally, we ended up at the canal bridge with St. Petersburg’s famed winged griffins. I have to say, based on the photos I’ve seen, I was expected gigantic creatures… but the bridge was maybe 5 meters long? So these guys were not that impressive, size-wise. There must’ve been some Photoshopping going on.
The next day, we visited the interiors of the places we’d seen the night before. We started again at St. Issac’s, which has a separate ticket for the entry of the church and for the colonnade – aka walking up a lot of steps to the dome. The guidebook assured us that the views were worthwhile, so we trekked up the 300 steps. It was actually the most pleasant walk up 300 steps I’ve ever taken (and I assure you, at this point I’ve taken quite a lot). The steps were wide and shallow and they painted a number on them every 10 steps, so you knew how far you had left to go! Brilliant.
The interior of the church was even better than the views, in my opinion.
The church was massive, and it was covered with paintings, gilded icons, and bronzed doors with reliefs. As Richie could tell you, I love a good door.
Next, we returned to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The gruesome name is due to the church being built over the spot where one of the tsars was assassinated. The church interior is covered with mosaics, with such painstaking detail that we got aches in our necks from trying to take it all in. The walls, the domes, the columns… all of it is adorned with mosaics.
We spent a little time browsing the souvenir market behind the church (our guidebook said it was the best option in St. Petersburg, but it couldn’t compare to the Moscow Izmailovo market!) and then headed to the Kazan cathedral. Photos allegedly weren’t allowed inside, but I saw so many people blatantly photographing in front of guards that I snapped one myself. Like the exterior, this church was vastly different than the others – empty, unadorned, and silent – but it had by far the largest number of practitioners visiting it.
We took a lengthy metro trip across the river to get to the Peter and Paul fortress, but I was less than impressed. It had lots of activities for children, which would be invaluable as a touring parent, but as a non-parent, there wasn’t much to see other than a statue of Peter the Great with his misshapen head.
Our last day in St. Petersburg was dedicated primarily to the Hermitage, but first, I had a grave to visit as a lover of all things Tchaikovsky.
The cemetery was just outside of the Alexander Nevsky monastery, and several artists were buried there (including Dostoevsky, which would have been a great sight had I managed to ever read Crime and Punishment. [Note: my knowledge of Russian authors is so limited that I first thought he was the author of War and Peace. That would be Tolstoy…. Oops.]) The monastery grounds themselves were beautiful and peaceful, with another cemetery for various war victims and several churches.
And then it was time for the Hermitage. I had the highest of hopes for this visit, and they were absolutely not disappointed. The artworks are contained in several buildings, many of which were former residences of the royal family. Some of the rooms were maintained as they had been when the royal family lived there, with small temporary exhibitions, and others had sculptures and paintings covering the walls. Regardless, most of the rooms were so ornate that they could’ve been completely empty and still been fascinating.
After several hours, I managed to tear myself away. We actually managed to see almost everything we wanted – albeit at a breakneck pace. If you wanted to see each thing in detail with audioguide, it would take weeks.
And with that, our time in Russia was nearly over! We flew out the next morning to the next portion of our summer vacation – Reykjavik. Stay tuned!
More photos from St. Petersburg can be found here (on Facebook, but no account required to view).