Sometimes you think you are in Venice. The majestic palaces along the wide river, the art and statues that seem to be everywhere. But of course the gondolas are missing, boats are actually entirely missing, and when the chilly wind kicks in you know you are not in Italy but in Saint Petersburg.
The Russian metropolis is at least as overwhelming though, and takes quite some effort to discover. Almost four million people live in the delta region far up north, the home of president Putin. It has always been an international city, open to travelers, and one which you can even visit without a visum if you arrive by boat from Finland and don’t stay longer than 72 hours.
Three days though won’t do if you thoroughly want to explore the city. To get a feel for it, you should walk. A lot. Go past the beaten paths. But then you will be rewarded by having seen and felt the highlights and the shadow sides of St Pete.
The usual suspects
If you say St Pete, you obviously say Hermitage. The green building is a world of its own, including cats that walk around to catch the mice. The collection itself is so vast, even the biggest masterpieces will not impress you anymore after hours of strolling around.
Visiting it is probably best towards the end of the afternoon, as queues can get long. Buying online is an alternative, though tickets are slightly more expensive. There are also tickets for 300 rubel (around 5€) for buildings that belong to the Hermitage, but are on different locations. The General Staff Building, opposite the Hermitage, is one of them and definitely worth a visit. It houses contemporary art (well, mostly 18th and 19th century impressionists, but A LOT of it). The main attraction though is the building itself, as a recent renovation has added a glass roof over the inner courtyards and also some additional, impressive rooms with doors that almost reach the ceiling.
The Mariinsky theatre is another classic. It is one of the most famous opera houses in the world, the interior looks as if it hasn’t changed in the last century. Visiting it will also give you a glimpse of the Russian soul, as they absolutely love ballet and opera. The adjacent Mariinsky II is a new, huge extension. Tickets can be bought online in all price ranges, from around 10€ onwards.
To finish the tour of classic St Petersburg locations, walk down Nevsky Prospekt (Nevsky Avenue), the most famous and most expensive street of the entire country. It will take you along some impressive buildings, one of them being the Singer with a great book store in it. On your left side you will also see the Church of the Spilled Blood in the distance: the colorful five bulbs have become a landmark of the city. The adjacent Russian museum is also worth a visit if you are into history.
Slightly further away is the Smolny cathedral. The blue color gives it an impressive lightness. From there you can walk westwards, into the district of the same name.
You are far away from the tourist hordes here. It’s a fairly residential area, with plenty of restaurants and bars. Redrum is one of the better boozers here by the way. Walk towards the summer gardens and afterwards try to find the entrance to Golitsyn Loft. This hidden courtyard is full with dozens of small shops, offices, coffee shops and co-working spaces. This is where the young hipster generation gathers, with great views of Michailowski castle.
Talking about the young and funky: loft project ETAGI is even better-known and is located a bit more central, close to Moskovskiy station. Once you have ignored the HUGE Galerija shopping center (hypercapitalism has reached Russia a while ago…) you can find the entrance to the courtyard on the left side. An almost endless row of cargo containers contains small stores, from sneakers to vegan food.
But the main attraction is the former small factory, because it houses around 100 small shops and restaurants on five different levels. It even has two terraces, one on the 3rd floor and one on the roof with great views over the city. It#s easily a place to keep you busy for a couple of hours if you want to.
Another co-working space is Artplay. The brother of the famous Moscow venue for design companies and internet agencies is on the eastern bank of the Neva river, quite hard to find actually. The companies there are slowly taking up space there, as the building is still under renovation. This might though become another hotspot for an entrepreneurial generation.
For those into Soviet architecture, Moskovsky Prospekt is a must-see. The wide avenue runs from the border of the old city 8km down to the airport. When you exit Moskovskaya subway station (the stations themselves are a huge attraction by the way), you will see the House of Soviets. Walk up north and you will see many more examples of fine Soviet architecture, the Spire Building (now the Russian national library) being the most famous one.
Once you hit upon a big canal, you can quickly go right to find an art center (Lumiere Hall) and a concert venue (Bashni club) inside two dilapidated buildings.Once back on the Moskovsky Prospekt, take the subway to Vasileovstrovskaya subway station on the island of the same name. Walk westwards for twenty minutes to soak in the fancy and not quite fancy residential buildings before you arrive at the Erarta. This is definitely the best museum for contemporary art in St Pete, with good temporary exhibitions as well.
Fed up with art and beautiful classical buildings? It took them almost ten years, but the new Krestovsky football stadium on the island of the same name is finally ready. It is a magnificent flying saucer, with what looks like six rockets coming out of the roof. It will host a semi-final during the World Cup 2018, and is the new home of local pride Zenit, though they will have problems filling the 67’000 seats.
If you are on the island in the summer, make sure to visit the Divo Ostrov theme park. It has a couple of pretty impressive rollercoasters.
The big sport in Russia is ice hockey by the way of course. The local team SKA plays in the relatively new Hockey Palace, that can host around 14’000 visitors. That venue also hosts some of the biggest stars in pop music.
A piece of Holland
Still some energy left? Alright, make the walk to New Holland near the centre. This military base was closed for the general public for centuries, but thanks to financial injections from oligarch Roman Abramovich the small triangular island has now been renovated into a great playground for kids plus galleries, restaurants and much more. It has become a magnet for locals and tourists alike since its opening in 2016.
By that time we had walked 95 kilometres in almost fve days. And we still hadn’t visited the Kresty Prison, which is apparently also worth a visit, and the labyrinth of the Borey Art Center near Nevsky Prospekt. Maybe next time…