We did a short and sweet four day trip to the city in December. Russia in winter, who woulda thunk it? This was our anniversary trip and we fell in love with the historic, vibrant culture.
Culturally, architecturally and historically, this city was everything we had hoped it would be. “The City of Czars” was beyond beautiful and distinctively different compared to a lot of other European cities, especially given how much more cheaper it was to get around.
If you are looking for a unique city that can provide a history lesson and satisfy your wanderlust, look no further than Saint Petersburg.
Itinerary breakdown: Day 1, 2 and 3 - Saint Petersburg
Day 4 - day trip to Peterhof and exploring the underground metros
Best time to visit
We decided to go in the winter because a country famous for it's extreme weather has to be witnessed in all it's glory.
Flights and Visa
We flew direct with Emirates. Visa - recently the country made it easy for citizens of certain countries to apply for a e-visa to the city. It was a very simple process, efficient. Got the visa in 24 hours.
You can apply for the visa here.
Russian is the official language - and despite being such a tourist hot spot, not many people spoke English. It is actually extremely frustrating especially when trying to order vegan/vegetarian food or trying to make your way through the metro but oh well.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel Insurance is always recommended. Russian Ruble is the official currency, carry cash if you plan to buy trinkets. If not, just use your card.
Where we stayed
Solo Sokos Hotel Vasilievsky in old Saint Peterburg. It was conveniently located next to a metro (short walk of 10 minutes). Plenty of grocery and vegan/veggie friendly restaurants as well.
Cost and getting around
I was surprised by how affordable and well-connected the metro was (in sharp contract to somewhere like Japan, where the metro was connected by also expensive). It is the best way to get around the city, if you are not a walker.
We only took the metro twice - once to head to Peterhof and the other time was a joy ride because of the fascinating, world-famous stations in the city. More on that later.
We didn't venture out to the unsafe areas. Overall felt safe. As soon as stepped out of the flight, we like we were in Russia - people don't smile at you, they don't greet you or small talk. It is truly a way of life.
As always, I did my research and used happy cow to find the best vegan joints around town. These are my top-picks: Market Place (like a food court), Hood (right next to the Savior Church serving totally LIT vegan burgers), Ukrup.
What to pack
Pack layers - thermal inner-wear, thick winter fleece socks, gloves, scarves, beanies, snow boots. Trust me, you're going to need this.
Day 1 - exploring Saint Petersburg
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, this city is now the cultural capital of the Russian Empire. We woke up to a snowy Saint Petersburg and this stunning view was just a few minutes away from our hotel.
First names Saint Petersburg in honor of the Apostle Peter, the city on the Neva changed its name three times in the XX century.
Peter and Paul Cathedral
Our first stop for the day was the Peter and Paul Cathedral. A long walk across the bridge takes us to our first stop for the day - the Peter and Paul Cathedral, an architectural dominant of the historical center of the city. It became a family vault of Russian Emperors.
This place served as a political prison for state prisoners and revolutionaries. In 1924, it became a museum. The bell tower of the cathedral is topped with a gold-plated spire with a "flying" angel, a symbol of Saint Petersburg.
Just a short walk from the fortress; you can go inside but can't take pictures during prayer times. Also said to be one of the largest mosques in Europe. I am all about nature and don’t usually enjoy architectural man-made wonders, but Russia made me stop and stare!
With the allegoric figures at the bottom symbolizes the great rivers of Russia: Volga. Dnieper, Neva and Volkhov.
Pretty Street Walks and Cafes
A walk about any city will always provide lessons in elegance, beauty and a peek into times gone. Don't miss the statues around the city - this guy was my favorite; look at that swag.
All of this took us around 6 hours to do, we were drained after our early morning flight in. So called it a night.
Day 2 - more Saint Petersburg Another snowy day - also our anniversary day. We took our time exploring more of the city.
First stop: Kazan Cathedral
This is a unique U-shaped building with tons of columns. This is the cathedral church of the city, where the icon of Our Lady Kazan is preserved.
Just down the road from the Kazan Cathedral is the famous Church of the savior Spilled Blood.
However, by the time we got to the church, the snow was really starting to come down though, so we could not go inside with the crowds. We clicked a few pictures and moved on.
Saint Issac's Cathedral
The cathedral is the second highest historical building of the city. The Saint Issac’s Cathedral is 101.5m in height, tiled with natural grey marble and its porticos are decorated with red monolithic columns.
It’s impossible to miss this iconic golden dome of the Saint Issac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. The base is decorated with female figures, symbolizing wisdom, strength, faith and justice. This is the view of the city from the roof of the Cathedral. Breathtaking isn’t it?
The cathedral is filled with nearly 400 sculptures. Though now it is a museum, church services are said to be held during orthodox holidays. It was my favorite monument in the city!
Our last stop for the day was the Palace Square
This is also home to the Hermitage Museum.
It started to snow again, so time for lots of pictures.
Founded in 1764, the Empress Catherine the Great purchased a large collection of foreign masterpieces. Today the building included five buildings - winter palace, the Small Hermitage, old and new Hemispheres and the Theater.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the famous Pyshechenaya cafe in the city center for a bit of the extremely popular Russian pastry treat - hot and pillowy soft, fried "psyki" sprinkled with sugar and best enjoyed with a cuppa. If you head to this cafe, be prepared to wait for at least 30 minutes.
Day 3 - some more Saint Petersburg On our third day, we took a long walk to the other side of the city. It was going to be a BEAUTIFUL sunny day; for the most part.
Once we got there, a long walk along the street from Nevsky Prospect to Vosstana Square ...
Planned by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg's main drag, running from the Admirality, with its unmissable gilded spire, to Moscow Railway Station.
At the end of the long stretch you will arrive at the Anichkov Bridge - famous for portraying the four stages of horse taming.
The State Russian Museum is a real treasury of the national art. Paintings, graphics, sculptures, a large collection of engravings, drawings, applied art and folk craft objects are exhibited in the museum.
Church of the Savior in Spilled Blood
Just as we walked out of the Russian Museum, the Church of the Savior in Spilled Blood burst into view in all its beauty. The Church stands on the very spot where the Russian Emperor Alexander II, was killed by a bomb.
Stunning mosaic paintings adorn the walls on the inside. The details are seriously mind boggling.
This is a huge garden, a great place to picnic in the summer - best to escape the touristy crowds in the winter.
New Holland Island
Sunset views at the island, which is a lot like the Christmas Markets in Europe. I believe these are open for people to party it up in the summer. In the winter, you can also ice-skate.
That wraps day 3. We took a night stroll in the snow and it was just mesmerizing. This is one of the many bridges across Malaya Neva river connecting Vasilievskiy Island and Petrogradskaya Storona. Despite the constant snow fall during our four day trip, we took the opportunity to explore this city by foot. I’ll be honest though, this city is deceptively huge but I can definitely recommend walking is the best way to experience the essence of this historic city.
Day 4 - day trip to Peterhof Palace It was a late start for us, took our time to enjoy breakfast. We wanted to experience the metros, so decided to take the train and then a bus to the Peterhof Palace, which is in a neighboring town. If you are taking the metro (like we did), go to the Avtovo Station and then from there you take a mini van - 639B.
Note: The "bus" is more a mini van - only accepts cash. It was privately owned (basically looked like it could fall apart any minute) but turned out it was reliable and extremely affordable. The ride costs 20 rubles per person and is 40 minutes. Best part? Drops you off right in front of the palace.
After about 45 minutes, we were welcomed by empty gateways and snow-covered everything. It was definitely cooler here than in the city.
This used to be the former summer residence of the Russian Emperors. Today it is a museum and park complex that impresses with its luxury and grandeur. Of course, visiting in summer is better - you get to see the fountains.
The park consists of two parts, the upper garden and lower park. If you don't mind the bone numbing cold, definitely worth exploring these areas.
At around 3 p.m. we made our way back to the city and headed on a mini-tour of the renowned metros in the city. The grand columns and marble interiors made us wonder if were back inside a palace.
There are a lot of beautiful metro stations but I would recommend at least visiting the Avtovo and Ploschad Vosstaniya. Each detail a true revelation into the heart of this magnificent country.
Winter in Saint Petersburg was unforgettable. Be ready for icy cold dark days and slippery roads. On the other hand, you will also be enthralled by unique sculptures. history, a city filled with enchanting canals, frozen fractals in lakes.. and on the rare occasion, beautiful winter sunshine with ombre skies.
A word of caution: this city is packed with museums, don't go crazy going to every single one of them (unless you have a week here) - a. because they are not free b. there is plenty to do outside the city as well. Choose wisely.
Russia in winter is a dream - where everyone is impeccably dressed in fur coats with rosy cheeks. It is not Moscow (or so I hear) - it is said to be European in nature, almost built as a window to the West; probably why it is the only region that freely allows tourists.
We visited in December, when it wasn't even peak winter - yet it was heavenly, exciting & exhilarating all at once. I hope I have convinced to visit this place.
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