St. Petersburg – Europe on Steroids

In winters the most depressing city in the world but the summers one of the most charming and vibrant – such is the diversity of StP. It boasts of so much to do, that 4 days were a little short. The city doesn’t even have a clear city centre because there are so many different places you can can call commercial centres. We stayed in the boutique place called the Domina Hotel stones throw away from St. Isaac’s Square and St. Isaac’s Cathedral and right in front of the Moyka river. The hotel was absolutely fabulous and probably remains the most luxurious room I have stayed at, in Europe. The rich velvet interiors, the huge size and just a very thoughtful warm design made it quite memorable. The staff was also uniquely friendly for Russia and this was our first experience of how culturally different Moscow and StP are. People in StP are way more warm, friendly and helpful.

We had arrived in StP in the 10 days of “white nights” where it never really gets fully dark and then school and colleges are off in preparation for the graduation night party for the city. Places were a little more crowded than usual but it was more the locals coming out to celebrate the long days and pleasant weather. Easily the best time to visit.

The first day, we did what was now becoming a habit, get into a Hop-on-hop-off and go around the town. The pickup point was very close at St. Isaac’s Square and the bus ticket also included a boat ride. There was going to be a lot to see and do. We saw the under construction stadium for the then upcoming soccer world cup from the boat, some lavish houses, bridges being built and just the beautiful skyline of StP. The bus ride gave us the good news that were were staying within comfortable walking distance of the Hermitage as well as Nevsky Ave, the central walking area of the city. We also realized that a number of large and small rivers/ canals criss-crossed the city and they would make for a great way to experience the city. However, there was so much else to do that we never got to this.

An amazing day trip from the city is the Palace of Peter the Great at Peterhof. It stands in direct competition to some of the legendary gardens of Europe. The easiest way to get there is by boat. A high speed hydrofoil takes less than an hour to drop you right at the gate. A bus or train can be cheaper, but this is really straightforward. You enter at the far end of the gardens with the palace right in front and the view is simply amazing. There is an array of fountains on the way and they are as glamorous as can be. The gardens are lush greens and the yellow palace blends in with the golden hues of the fountains to make for a magical walking experience. This place was completely bombed out in WWII and was subsequently reconstructed. The new construction still reflecting the old styles makes this place even more impressive. You could easily spend several hours here, so plan accordingly.

The trip I was most looking forward to was exploring the Hermitage, the second largest art museum in the World and one with the largest collection of paintings. We reached right when it opened, so as to miss the lines in the busy season. It was still a short line at the ticket window before we got into the world of millions of exhibits. We had only half a day and visiting all of the buildings including the Winter Palace would need several days. We stayed in the main Hermitage building and enjoyed a glorious collection of paintings, tapestries and sculptures. Russian history is so different and in some ways protected for all of medieval ages that the experience of seeing the evolution of art in that era is quite fascinating. I haven’t been to the Louvre, so this remains the best museum I have seen anywhere.

An easy trip from the hotel was a walk to the the St. Isaac’s square and climb atop the cathedral. It is a steep climb across multiple levels but when you get to the top viewing gallery, the view of the city is mesmerising. For anyone who has played Assassin’s Creed, I felt like an eagle, sitting atop the monument making a mental map of the area. The cathedral itself is totally majestic from the outside and definitely worth a visit.

The popular attraction of the city remains walking around on Nevsky Ave and indulging in some shopping and eating or drinking. The street was exceptionally busy with loads of college students out celebrating their graduation and preparing for what will be equivalent of prom parties. The cafes were crowded but still served some delicious food, once you could get in. I happened to be there with a friend who was a local and she got us into some really lovely local food places with the most amazing Borscht and Piroshkis. A short walk off the Nevskys Ave is the Savior on the Spilled Blood church – another colorful classic that looks more like a palace straight out of a Disney story. Maybe the inspiration was the other way around, but the church is architecturally unique and a masterpiece. Because of the peak season, there was a long line to go inside and so we decided to skip that part and enjoy some street side ice cream and other street food around the area. Good choice!

The other memorable adventure in StP was a night of bar hopping, something I usually don’t do, but this was just a different experience. On the night of 22nd, there was a massive party in the city with a huge music stage setup right outside the Hermitage and many other venues boasting of music and drinks. We had tired ourselves so much in the day that we crashed early and missed the midnight fireworks, which are apparently quite amazing. To make up for that I stepped out at about 11 pm with my local friend and we walked around the major party areas till about 3. We tried several bars with some fancy vodka cocktails, ran into a bunch of partying college students and got picks clicked with them and finally ended up at a small local bar where we watched a lot of locals play some pretty serious drinking games. My friend somehow convinced the bartender to let me bartend for a bit and make my own drink – a pic to remember, forever.

A city I fell in love with. The long walks around some amazing and colorful architecture, beautiful river with charming boats, high fashion streets dressing up some of the smartest people, great art and even better street food- how can one not fall in love?

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