I’d always wanted to visit Russia’s second largest city, especially seeing as I missed out on a trip with friends from Bath last summer, but finally my time arrived! This is my post about our trip to St. Petersburg, organised by our university as an educational excursion. It was a great few days, filled with a ton of sightseeing and barely any sleep but the question is, how did it compare to Moscow?
Early on Wednesday morning (YAY for time off university) we met at the train station for the first leg of our journey – Voronezh to Moscow. This 7 hour day-train went super fast (even though I was sitting by Mike who thinks ‘What would you do if there was an octopus in your room?’ is an appropriate conversation to have at 7am when you’re sleep deprived) and before we knew it we were in the capital, grabbing some lunch and preparing to board our next train to St. Petersburg. For the second leg of the journey, we had a private cabin. It was a bit awkward when everyone wanted to sleep and we turned the lights off, only for 1 Russian woman to insist that it was left on so that she could read because the personal overhead light just wasn’t bright enough…..
My first opinions of St. Petersburg were super positive! We walked out of the station onto Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s busiest road. There were bright lights, loud car horns, hundreds of people and the atmosphere was amazing! One of the first things I noticed was that there was English written EVERYWHERE, which meant that my eyes would naturally drift towards the latin letters and away from the cyrillic… basically, Russian reading went down the drain for a few days – but hey, we deserved a break!
St. Petersburg definitely feels more westernised compared to other parts of Russia. We even celebrated Halloween whilst we were there and there were tons of people dressed up and singing/dancing/chanting on the streets – something that you would NEVER see in Voronezh! We personally spent our night at a chilled bar and although someone made a comment about being glad that there was no effort involved costume-wise, I secretly missed the fake blood and the university house parties! Until next year, my trusty vampire fangs.
Anyway, back to the city – our hostel was fantastic. It’s based around the hit TV show ‘Friends’ which means the interior decoration is super awesome. Plus, it’s right by Nevsky Prospect, filled with like minded travellers and great for those on a budget.
Here’s a super-duper quick summary of all the exciting things we got up to:
1) Kazan Cathedral
The Kazan Cathedral was literally on our doorstep – as soon as we stepped out of our hostel we could see it’s grand columns and bronze doors. My first thought was that it looked exactly like the Vatican and I soon found out that the architecture does have some Roman influences, but unlike the Vatican it’s an Orthodox cathedral. The design is truly beautiful but I couldn’t help wonder if the vast amount of gold, marble and velvet inside these places of worship accurately reflect the practices that religion preaches? It is hard to see so much poverty right outside of a building that has gold dripping from every inch and the idea of exiting through the gift shop whilst in ‘God’s sanctuary’ seems a bit muddled. I refrained from writing about this when I visited the Vatican because I knew it was such a controversial topic and, let’s face it, it’s only my opinion but it’s becoming hard to ignore!
2) Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
When you flick through a guidebook or Google image search St. Petersburg, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood will be one of the first things you see. I remember when I was younger I had absolutely no clue that St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow and this church in St. Petersburg were two different buildings. After seeing them both in person, I realise that they aren’t as similar as I once believed – St. Basil’s is more vibrant and takes centre stage in Red Square whereas the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (is there a shorter name for this?!) is tucked away behind some buildings and doesn’t really have the same wow-factor due to softer colours. That said, it was still an undeniably pretty sight and one of my favourite photo spots in the city.
3) St. Isaac’s Cathedral
The sun was setting over St. Petersburg, so what better than to admire the views from above? We climbed 200-odd steps to appreciate the cityscape from the very top and it was SO worth it! The sky looked magical and it was great to see so much of the city. We were surprised by how industrial it was – you could see factories and chimney smoke all around! We also visited the museum inside the church itself and ended up impersonating the portrait paintings – you’d never guess we were all mature 20-somethings…
4) City Tour
We visited St. Petersburg with our phonetics teacher, Anatoly. He’s super sweet but possibly the worlds worst tour guide. Of course it was good to be speaking in Russian, but when he repeats himself 7 times in a row and talks for hours about a simple stone or something you can start to lose your mind. Nevertheless, he took us on a (very longwinded) tour of St. Petersburg and we saw all sorts of things. It was great to get a feel for the whole city but I have to admit that I was slightly underwhelmed. I think too many people had told me that it was amazing and so, in my mind, I envisioned a gorgeous city with bold colours and fancy buildings. Whereas, I actually thought some parts were pretty ugly (dare I say, similar to Voronezh?) and the buildings were all quite small and unimpressive in my opinion. There were so many good parts though, including the views of the Neva river, the Peter and Paul fortress and a huge ship that was actually a gym!
5) Catherine Park and Pushkin
Catherine Park is actually outside of St. Petersburg so we had to take the metro to the end of the line and then hop on a 40 minute bus. This was one of my favourite days of the trip purely because the place was so beautiful. Plus, to make everything that teensy bit better; the grey skies had turned blue, the sun was shining but there was still a wintery frost in the air – my favourite kind of weather ❄☀. We strolled around the gardens and admired the views before standing in a queue to visit Catherine Palace. Although it was a pretty boring museum, the architecture inside was amazing and we got to see the famous ‘Amber Room’ (not that I’d ever heard of it before, oops). We were all feeling super tired afterwards and thought it would finally be time to go home, but no… our teacher had another museum lined up for us. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, I think I may just be super un-cultured, but museums send me to sleep unless they’re interactive, science related or about an interesting historical period. A museum dedicated to Pushkin’s education fits into none of these categories and I found myself trudging around and daydreaming about all the other places I would rather have been. I’m still not entirely convinced that museums are the best way to experience a city; I think true culture is only learnt when you’re in the heart of the action – but hey, each to their own! Whilst we were there, Jenny got her hair caught in the door and was stuck and Mike hit his head on one of the lights. Neither of these events were actually that funny, but the fact that we were all deliriously tired and bored resulted in a serious case of giggling fits, much to the disapproval of our stern Russian tour guide….
6) The Hermitage
Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, The Hermitage is one of the oldest museums in the world and it houses the largest collection of paintings (yep, that’s totally from Wikipedia). A trip to St. Petersburg would not be complete without a visit to the Hermitage and so I went along, despite my low tolerance of museums and galleries. When our teacher said that we only had 4 hours to spend there I couldn’t help but focus on the use of the word ‘ONLY?!’ but actually, we didn’t manage to see everything in that time and it wasn’t as boring as I expected it to be (big statement, I know). There were some amazing exhibitions but mostly we just enjoyed taking in the atmosphere whilst strolling around and chatting. Jenny managed to take a nap in the Hermitage without being told off and we both scored a list of poetry recommendations and a telephone number from a 60 year old museum attendant called Sergei 👍 What could be better?
7) Bike Ride
On the last day, we were given free time to do whatever we wanted to do. Jenny and I decided to leave the boys to their own devices and we enjoyed a morning of hot chocolates and shopping whilst they went to (yet another) museum. We also went on a private bike tour along the Fontanka river and learnt all about the different bridges of St. Petersburg. It was actually SO interesting and our tour guide was lovely but the weather proved to be a slight problem. As soon as the tour begun, it started pouring with rain, snow, sleet, hail – you name it – and it didn’t ease up for the 3 hours we were cycling, either. Luckily, we all had sturdy boots on, so our feet stayed dry as a bone plus we were equipped with hats, gloves and plenty of layers – No way were we prepared to let the weather ruin our glorious day off!
We also found time to reunite with another fellow Bath student, Sam, who is spending his semester studying at RLUS St. Petersburg. It was great to see a familiar face and have someone to tell us things that the guidebooks couldn’t. For example, did you know that the sculptor who created the horses on Anichkov Bridge depicted his enemy’s face where the horses privates should be? Well, now you do!
Sam also took us to some great restaurants and bars and introduced us to his Russian friends. I spent the entire night talking to a Russian girl who was studying Spanish and we only used a few english words as a last resort. This was a huge achievement for me and I was so surprised that my brain could handle 3 languages at once. I may have been mentally exhausted afterwards, but it was definitely the boost I needed to remember that I am a good linguist and I need to have some more faith in myself! We all do!
Overall, it was a fun few days and I’m really glad that I finally got to visit. I’m not sure I’d ever choose to go back when there’s still so many other Russian cities that I want to explore and, for me, the ‘magic’ just wasn’t there – so congratulations, Moscow, it looks like you’re the winner! I gotta admit though, the St. Petersburg vs. Moscow debate is a tricky one and there certainly isn’t a definitive answer. Ask a group of people which city they prefer and I can guarantee that there will be a 50:50 divide. So, I guess you will have to go and discover the answer for yourself!
I think you guys are now up to date with my Russian adventure so far, thanks for reading! I’m visiting an old school friend Vladimir this week so keep your eyes peeled for a new blog post about my time in the Golden Ring. Hopefully this time it won’t be 2 weeks late… До встречи!