Saint Petersburg, or the Venice of the North, the heart and soul of the Russian culture, is one of those cities that leaves you standing in the middle of the street, with your mouth wide open and your eyes hopelessly darting around, attempting to take all of this beauty in and not quite succeeding. Because the magnificence of this city, born amidst the bog and built on the bones of those who brought it to life, is extremely hard to describe. That is exactly why I knew that I had to take my British-American-Russian family there. They had to see it with their own eyes.
After an amazing, sunny and warm day in Moscow (my blog post on how to have fun in Moscow even if you have just one day there can be found here), we jumped on board the Russian high-speed train, Sapsan, and headed over to Saint Petersburg, or, as it is often referred to in Russia, the Northern Capital.
The ride was a breeze, and the train was super clean and modern. In about 3.5 hours of reading, peeking through the window and enjoying the plush-green of the Russian countryside in the summer and playing iPad games with our boys, we have arrived at the Moscow Railway Station in Saint Petersburg.
By the way, I would highly recommend flying into Moscow, relaxing a little and then taking the Sapsan train to Saint Petersburg. Flying directly in Saint Petersburg will be considerably more expensive (I am talking thousands of dollars more expensive) than traveling via Moscow. Besides, you will also get a chance to check out Moscow, and it’s always a plus. You can find the schedules for Sapsan trains here.
We had done quite a research before booking our accommodation in Saint Petersburg. We were meeting my parents there, which would mean that we were looking for a place suitable for four adults and two children. Hotels proved to be extremely expensive (around 1,300 USD for 3 nights (!!!) – and that’s for one room) and charged per person. Considering the fact that we were traveling during tourist high season (June-July – the “White Night” season), we were looking at saying a bitter “ciao” to quite a lot of moolah. So, once the hotel option was out, we turned our attention to apartments. There is a plethora of companies that offer apartments for rent, some are better than others. We finally went with Peter the Great apartments on Nevsky and did not regret it (we booked it via Booking.com).
Our home away from home was modern, stylish, comfortable, located right on the Nevsky Prospect (which is the main artery of Saint Petersburg), and cost us 857 US dollars – for all six of us for 3 nights. Considering we were traveling to Saint Petersburg in peak season, it was a bargain. Plus, if you ever traveled with little children, you know that checking into busy hotels is always a pain in the hiney, which we managed to luckily avoid in this particular case. We actually walked to our apartment from the Moscow Railway Station (about 10 minutes), and it was extremely convenient. Peter the Great Apartments have a wide array of accommodations at their disposal, but if you would like to stay in this particular one, here is the actual address - Nevsky Prospekt 63, Tsentralny district, Saint Petersburg, 191025.
So, once arrived and settled, what do you actually do in the majestic Northern capital of Russia?
1. Walk Nevsky Prospect.
I have been to Saint Petersburg twice, and both times I ended up with blisters. Not because I had bad shoes, but because the way to see Saint Petersburg for real is to walk it! We stayed at the further end of Nevsky Prospect, and it took us approximately 35 minutes to walk from our apartment to the Winter Palace (the Hermitage), but the unforgettable sights that you will see on your way will make you stop in awe so many times, that it will probably end up being a much longer hike after all :). This wide and geometrically perfect street whispers the tales of yesterday, every stone breathes with history, and every house is hiding a mystery behind its walls. Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, Yesenin, and so many other great writers and poets brought Saint Petersburg to life in their literary works that you will feel as if you already know the city from inside out. With each timid step that you take, it opens up to you – vast, powerful, spine-tingling.
2. Take a boat tour by day AND by night.
This is an absolute must – and please don’t take this recommendation lightly. If you have not seen Saint Petersburg from water, you have not seen Saint Petersburg. If you have not seen the drawing of the bridges at night, you have not been to Saint Petersburg. There are a lot of boat tours out there – you can book them in advance or just hop on the first one you see. This was what we did, and it was a truly unforgettable experience. Gliding through the cold sparkling mirror of the Neva, filling your lungs with refreshing Northern wind and seeing the whole magnificent city opening up in front of you – believe me, there is nothing else like it.
The bridges are drawn from May 5 through November 20. You can find the full schedule here. The rule of thumb is to start heading out towards the embankment at around midnight. You can enjoy the view from the Palace Square by the Hermitage, or get on a boat tour pretty much anywhere alongside Nevsky Prospect. In any case, get ready to be up most of the night. You will be cold, you will be tired, but you will never, ever, ever have more of a magical time in your life.
As Chris and I were walking back to our apartment through the stillness of the empty squares and streets, lit up with shadows of 19th century street lamps, but already basking in the first rays of pink and lilac early morning sunshine drawing patters on the enormous Northern sky, I felt like we had our own private date with the city. It was just the three of us, and nothing else mattered. It was like the time had stopped, with all of its worries, ambitions and hectic plans, and we were there, in the moment, without the ever-persistent desire to be somewhere else – the plague of the modern day.
3. Take a hydrofoil to Peterhof (Summer Palace).
The idea to create Peterhof as a rival that could compete with the French Versailles was first conceived by Peter the Great. He did a pretty good job at it, since the Summer Palace ensemble with its fountains and gardens is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I have been to Peterhof twice – once on a train and once on a hydrofoil – and I can tell you for sure that the hydrofoil is the way to go. It’s fast, it’s fun and you will first see the opulent Summer Palace emerge in front of you exactly as it was initially supposed to – from sea. The Bay of Finland can get pretty rocky, but it’s quite fun, too :).
You can check out the hydrofoil schedule and purchase advance tickets here. You can also buy the tickets right there and then (the hydrofoils depart from the Palace Embankment by the Hermitage). I would recommend buying the tickets on the spot – we couldn’t get on the hydrofoil on our first day, because there were six-foot waves in the Bay of Finland, and we were told that the service was temporarily suspended. Lady Luck was on our side the next day, but what if it wasn’t? I am sure the tickets would have been refunded, but it’s just one more problem to deal with, and who needs problems when on vacation? Plus, the lines for the tickets were not long at all.
4. Visit the Hermitage.
And when I’m saying “Visit the Hermitage”, I mean “make sure you have a whole day to spend in the Hermitage” AND – Attention! – Do buy the tickets online in advance! My husband and I decided to “pop in” to the Hermitage while my parents were watching the kids in the park. :))) Ha! Ha ha ha!! We came, we saw the line, we left. To avoid this situation and the disappointment from being steps away from one of the most famous museum in the world and not getting in – please buy the tickets on the Internet. You can do it here.
5. Walk the Palace Bridge from the Hermitage across to the other bank of Neva River towards the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Yes, as I said before, you will have to do a lot of walking in Saint Petersburg, but you won’t regret it! See the Old Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange and Rostral Columns, visit the breathtaking Flying Dutchman restaurant ship perched on the side of the Neva and gawk at the unforgettable vista unfolding in front of your eyes, walk around the Peter and Paul Fortress where you can even dress up and feel like you are a part of the 18th century scene :) and then take a boat back across the river (you can do it straight from Peter and Paul Fortress).
Oh yes – I almost forgot – make sure you have charged all your phones and cameras, because you will be taking a lot of pictures!
I hope you enjoyed the recap of our little Saint Petersburg adventure. If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to add them in the comment section below. And if you have not visited the Russian Northern capital yet, start planning right this moment – it will be a trip of your lifetime that you will never forget.
PS. If you get a chance to visit Saint Petersburg close to the end of June, you will be able to attend the largest public event of the city, the Scarlet Sails. This beautiful tradition goes back to the years following World War II and symbolizes the power of hope and love. It is typically attended by over 3 million people and in the past featured such guest performers as Cirque du Soleil, Mariinsky Ballet and Antonio Banderas. You can check out the highlights of the 2015 show in this video. Enjoy the show!
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