I'm so there: St Petersburg, Russia

I'm so there: St Petersburg, Russia

Join us each week for a marvellous travel adventure. Today, we're going to unveil the secrets to having a great time in this Russian port city.

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Summer is a time of "white nights" in St Petersburg, Russia.
Summer is a time of "white nights" in St Petersburg, Russia.

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Peterhof is huuuuuuge - so bring lunch as you'll be there all day.
Peterhof is huuuuuuge - so bring lunch as you'll be there all day.

When I told my friends that I was going to St Petersburg, in Russia, for my holiday, there was a kind of awkward silence and then a few strange looks. Fresh topics were introduced and the conversation moved on. Maybe it was the underwhelming response that made me really enjoy the holiday. St Petersburg has a long and bloody history; GoT fans will love it.

Before you go

The city is really flat, so if you have a pair of blades or other light-weight wheels you might want to pack them. Cycling is easy and there are bikes for hire; no one seems to mind people whizzing past them while they are walking on the pavement.

Don't forget that the Russian alphabet is not the same as the English one, so if you are looking for certain places, it's a good idea to see what the name looks like in Cyrillic so that you can recognise it.

Change your money at St Petersburg airport; you can't get rouble in Hong Kong, and trying to buy the Russian currency in the city centre can be almost impossible.

Where to go

If you ask anyone what the one must-see thing is, it's The Hermitage, a massive museum of art. When I say massive, I mean three blocks long. I guess if art is your thing, you'll be enchanted, but around the back is where you'll find the horse carriages. You'll also find men and women dressed up as Peter the Great - they don't call him "the great" for nothing - and that brings us to the most obvious spot for selfies. Attention-hound Dennis could not get enough of them. While things are quite orderly during the day, it can get a little wild after hours. 

You can't go to Russia without watching a ballet; St Petersburg is home to the famous Mariensky Theatre, which is all about ballet, opera and theatre. Pro tip: make sure you know which theatre your show is at and how to get there. The Russians are not big on advertisements so there are few flashing signboards to guide you, and the theatre staff understandably make you wait for an interval before they let you in.

Two other places I really wanted to see more of - and highly recommended - were Peterhof and the Yusipov palace.

Must try

Because the city is so far north, during winter the sun does not set properly and midnight is a sort of twilight instead of "dark". This means that summer time is "white nights" and it seems the whole city turns into a one big party. So stay up late. Either check out the action behind The Hermitage, or on the waterfront on the island. Crowds dance to Latin American beats and the people-watching is worth it.

Russian food is surprisingly difficult to find without a concerted effort. But if you get the chance, give borscht a chance. The Russian variant is quite different from what we get in Hong Kong and more of a "meal in a bowl", with tender chunks of beef swimming in a rich broth that has been turned ruby red from the beetroot. For carnivores, you can't really go wrong with lamb shashlyk, juicy chunks of lamb served on a deadly weapon and set on fire in front of you - extinguishers optional. For dessert, I really tried to hunt down the almost mythical ptchiye moloko (bird's milk cake) and I finally found one in a bakery at the start of Nevsky Prospekt, but they wouldn't sell me just a slice. Hopefully you'll have better luck.

The Hermitage is impressive - but the "backyard" is where the fun starts.

 


Top selfie spot

It's not easy to choose just one or two places because opportunities abound for selfies. The Hermitage is obvious but to be honest the palaces in the city - and it seems everyone and their dog had a palace - are quite samey from the outside. Peterhof, the summer palace, on the other hand, defines the word "splendid". 

You can go by road, but why would you when you can take a hydrofoil from opposite The Hermitage - just look for the touts and mumble "meteor". 

Go early and pack lunch because you can't see all of Peterhof in a day. There are several palaces and the gardens are vast, well kept, romantic and it's a sin not to picnic in them.  

The second best selfie spot during summer is on the River Neva during white nights. Quick geography lesson: the city is built on the delta of the Neva where it spills into the Gulf of Finland. The Neva connects the Baltic Sea to the largest lake in Europe, Lake Ladoga, and is an important shipping route. St Petersburg has more bridges than any other city in the world. This means that ships cannot go up the river whenever they like; they have to wait for the bridges to open. This happens after hours, during the warm season, and the Russians make a party out of it - every night, it seems. 

Book yourself on to a river cruise and be part of it as hundreds of boats line up on the river and snap selfies as you celebrate the raising of the bridges, the white nights, the amazing river ... whatever, they just celebrate.

City surprise

There is lots to celebrate about this city, as Peter was an extraordinary man who really tried to bring his nation into the modern era. He travelled to Europe a lot and saw a range of very interesting, surprising and downright weird things. This inspired him to create Russia's first museum.

 The Kunstekamera is on Vasiliefsky Island and is not for the faint of heart. In fact, the Russians were too afraid to visit it, even after Peter tried to bribe them with vodka.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
St Petersburg, Russia

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