I had already fallen in love with St. Petersburg when I visited the city 3 years ago. My second trip, in late March of this year, proved that there was still much more to see and experience. Although I have decided that Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia’s two capitals, do not deserve to be compared and fought over, there really is something a little magical about St. Petersburg. It is whimsical, fresh, modern, classical, trendy and timeless at once. Stories of tsars and artists intertwine and diverge along canals and over bridges and you cannot fail to feel inspired by the beauty that surrounds you. On this occasion in particular, I was really able to appreciate the juxtaposition of modern life against the background of a city that truly breathes history.
Arriving by plane on a Saturday afternoon, it only took about 30 minutes by bus to get into the city. I stayed at a friend’s apartment, situated in an ideal location in the central district. Only a half hour’s walk from the main boulevards, we decided to go by foot to Nevsky Prospekt, possibly the most famous street in the whole city, stretching from the Площадь Александра Невского [Alexander Nevsky Square] to Александровский Сад [Alexander Gardens] and Дворцовая Площадь [Palace Square].
The best views that you can get over Nevsky are from above, and rooftop tours are becoming increasingly popular. After spotting a few people standing on what seemed to be a balcony at the top of a shopping centre [Атриум], we decided to go up and explore. This turned out to be a great spur-of-the-moment decision, as our instincts led us to a great viewpoint from which to admire the rooftops of St. Petersburg as the sun set.
That evening, we checked out Этажи [Etazhi – Floors], a loft-conversion art space, with various independent clothing and art boutiques and a handful of vegan food stalls. This place encapsulates youth culture and I would definitely recommend a visit if you are into all things arty, quirky and fashionable, with an ethical conscience. We tried out some falafel, fresh chips and fruit smoothies in the food court and left feeling very full and very hipster. One last stop was Думская Улица [Dumskaya Street], to check out some bars. Faced with a row of several bars and clubs, we decided on a lucky dip and ended up in a rock bar with reasonably priced drinks and a live gig. If you are looking to experience the city’s nightlife, this street is a good place to start!
The next day, we decided to head back into the centre and explore the other end of Nevksy, creating our own walking tour that included some of the main sights: Palace Square, the banks of the Neva, Isaac Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral. We stopped in an adorably quaint restaurant, Дачники [Countrymen] that was designed to look like an old Soviet teahouse. We spent a few hours here eating pelmeni and medovik [dumplings and honey cake], drinking tea and playing chess, as the chefs prepared grilled meat on an open fire in the corner and an old Soviet film played on the wall beside us. If you don’t feel like traditional Russian food, there are a wide range of cafes and restaurants to choose from, and many other traditional cuisines to try. Our food journey continued from falafel to pelmeni to khachapuri, as we chose a Georgian restaurant for lunch on our final day together.
You can spend days just walking around St. Petersburg, admiring architecture and visiting various cultural highlights such as the Hermitage, Dostoevsky’s house, St. Peter and Paul’s Fortress and the Peterhof palace and gardens, but on this occasion we eschewed such classical highlights and opted for the Erarta modern art gallery, a cinema night at a quaint old theatre on Nevksy, and a perusal of the boutiques hiding on quieter streets parallel to the main boulevards. My visit to Erarta was a definite highlight, which you can read more about here, and I really feel that I experienced the city on a deeper level on this trip. As opposed to my first time, which was indulgently touristic, and rightly so, I felt more free this time to really get to know the quieter areas of the city, to see how ordinary people lived here and understand the modern components of a city so steeped in history.
Whilst many people hold an impression of the city that resembles something from the murky pages of Dostoevsky and Gogol, or the grandness of the tsarist era, modern St. Petersburg offers so much more than its reputation. It’s cool, arty, hipster and feels more “European”, if you want to equate liberalism with Europeanness, than any other Russian city. It’s a city to revisit again and again, still evolving, and living.