St. Petersburg is Russia's second-largest city with a population of over five million people. Still, almost everything you want to see is located in a comfortable distance from each other at the historical centre.
The city was built by Peter The Great in 1703 - right after it was conquered back from the Swedes. Peter, who grew up in Moscow and disliked his hometown, wanted to build a European style town in Russia. He was the first Russian Tsar to travel to Europe, spending over two years travelling around with his entourage.
He fell in love with Amsterdam, chose it as a model and came back with several European architects he had hired to design the buildings and his numerous palaces in the city. This is how St. Petersburg turned out to be the most European city in Russia planned and designed from scratch to resemble Amsterdam.
The Italian architect Dominico Trezzini, and the French Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond inked the blueprints of St. Petersburg, but this was just the beginning of a long list of architects who have left their mark there. The capital was moved to St. Petersburg from Moscow and all the Tsars of the Romanov family later lived there, till the end of the monarchy. The town was also the scene of all 3 Russian revolutions, from the bloody Sunday to the famous October Revolution which Lenin and his friends planned in the Smolny area of the city. The rest is history, and the town was then called Leningrad for decades.
Today, St. Petersburg has numerous universities and colleges which attract the youth from other parts of Russia, many of which stay to work after they graduate. There are also many residents from different ethnicities, making St. Pete a young and multicultural metropolis. Most significant sources of income are tourism and shipbuilding. IT and medicine are also growing industries.
Traffic in the five million city is constant and heavy, and it is said that on average residents need about 1,5 hours to get to work or back home regardless of means of transportation. The subway is, of course, the best way to move around the town.
The river Neva running through the city is 70 km long, 30 of which is in the city area. Start of the navigation season, i.e. when the ice had melted in the spring was cause for a great festival, celebrated since the early days of the town to this day. There are several bridges built over the river, and most of them are still drawbridges. These bridges, which are raised usually late after midnight at about 1:20 am, are tourist attractions and at the same time a surprise to those who did not anticipate this and have to get to the other side. The Palace (Dvortsovy) bridge and The Trinity (Troitsky) bridge in the centre are the most beautiful to watch when they are being raised. The opening times could be found here.
St. Petersburg does not have a designated centre, but the Nevsky Prospect (Prospect means avenue) and the connecting streets are where the action is. Both the Nevsky Prospect and the Neva river were named after Russian hero Prince Saint Alexander Nevsky, whom Peter the Great had high respect for. Famous Russian writer Nikolai Gogol also penned a story titled Nevsky Prospect. The introduction of the story describes the people and events in the street during different times of the day.
Other Tsars of the Romanov family also hired numerous European architects to build landmark buildings in the historical centre of the town. Plan to transform most of the streets to canals like Amsterdam did not come through, but there are still enough of the waterways for tourists to have a boat-ride on. The boat sightseeing, offered by several companies, is indeed worth taking, as the orders to the builders of the city were to make the facades facing the canals most attractive.
To get the best out of a trip to St. Petersburg, it is advisable to hire a guide. The history of the city, museums and the pieces of art in them are so fascinating and multilayered that simple browsing would be just scratching the surface. Our guide was Ekaterina Povalkina (Katia), an extremely knowledgable and energetic young lady wearing a constant smile. Without the brief, but comprehensive narratives from Katja about the history of the buildings, objects and paintings, the city would not have opened up to me to the extent it did.
How to get there
Until a few years ago, if you wanted to take a train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and back, your only possibility would have been the old Tolstoy train, which would stop at every town on the way and would take you to St. Pete in over 7 hours. This changed some ten years ago when The Allegro trains started running.
The Allegro train has four departures per day from Helsinki and St. Petersburg. The travel time between Helsinki and St. Petersburg is only three and a half hours! The train travels at speeds of over 200km per hour at the Helsinki - Lahti segment in the Finnish side.
Passport and customs controls are conducted aboard the moving train, and the authorities start inspections already after the train's departure from Helsinki or St. Petersburg and vice versa, so no need to wait or queue at the border, which you would have to do if you travel by car or bus. There is free Wifi available on the train, that needs a simple registration on the Russian side. I checked the Wifi speed on the Russian side, and it was a bit over 16 Mpbs, somewhat decent for a moving train in Russia. There is a restaurant coach, and a trolly with food and beverages moves through the coaches. The seats are very comfortable, and tables and electric sockets make it possible to work.
Allegro is, in my opinion, the best way to travel to St. Petersburg from Helsinki. The train takes you from the centre of one city to the centre of the other. Travelling by car may be less costly if there are 3 or 4 people or a family, but beware that driving culture in St. Petersburg is a bit on the wilder side and finding a parking place in the centre is almost impossible.
Allegro timetables change twice a year; once in March and then in October, and can be found here.
The old Tolstoy train is also still running, so if you prefer a nostalgic slow trip which costs a bit less, you still have a choice.
What to see
Located near the Fontanka river embankment, the Faberge is a private museum established by Viktor Vekselberg with the goal of repatriating cultural artefacts and specifically Faberge eggs to Russia. The first Faberge egg was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III for his wife, Maria Feodorovna. It is said the Maria (known as Princess Dagmar of Denmark before marrying the Tsar) used to receive easter eggs from her home country Denmark every year. One easter, Tsar Alexander III surprised her with the golden egg made by Peter Carl Faberge, and that was the beginning of a series of exquisite jewellery laden, and increasingly complex eggs, all made by or under the supervision of Carl Faberge between 1885 and 1917. The museum's collection contains the world's largest collection of works by Carl Fabergé, including nine of the famous Imperial Easter Eggs
Erarta Modern Art Museum
Erarta Modern Art Museum is definitely a positive surprise and worth visiting. This private museum in Vasilyevsky island was established in 2010 by Marina Varvarina, the widow of a famous businessman Dimitry Varvarin. What started from their own private collection, has been expanding to 2800 works by more than 300 artists. The variety and quality of modern art in the museum is impressive. To make sense and understand the background of the works, it is advisable to use a guide or the recorded explanations available. Remember to visit the gift shop, where you can find an array of attractive objects, made by the same artists whose art is on display.
Peterhof Palace and park
This complex of parks and palaces, sometimes referred to as the “Russian Versailles,” was commissioned by Peter the Great and designed by the architect duo Trezzini and Le Blond. The complex is located at the seafront, a short distance from St. Petersburg. It is definitely worth seeing, but you have to reserve at least half a day or more for the trip back and forth and walking around in the picturesque garden in addition to the palaces. It is said that Peter the Great loved clod and windy weather and enjoyed staring at the sea from the shores of these gardens.
Cathrine the Great palace and Pushkin park
This Rococo-style palace is located in the town of Pushkin, about 30 km from St. Petersburg. It was built as a summer palace for Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great, and later expanded by her daughter Empress Elizabeth. The complex has several halls built for parties and dances, an impressive chapel and the famous Amber Room which is extremely popular with Chinese tourists. It is said that during the busiest tourist season, queuing to the palace could take many hours due to the high number of Chinese tourists interested mainly in the Amber Room. The walls of this room are made fully from amber, decorated with gold leafs and mirrors. The walls are however mainly a reconstruction, as the Nazis took away the original walls, most of which never to be found.
This blue-green massive Baroque style building in the centre - which can not be missed - used to be the winter palace of the Russian Tsars. It was transformed into a museum after the October Revolution. The building is full of amazing pieces of art, including paintings by Rembrandt and Matisse. The peacock clock by James Cox is definitely worth seeing, especially if you can be there when they turn it on every Wednesday. A common mistake or better to say miss-planning by most visitors is that they spend so much time in the lower floors that they hardly ever get to the third floor where there are remarkable collections of Eastern and oriental paintings and sculptures.
Another spot in the Hermitage worth visiting is the Diamond Room, which requires a separate ticket. The room is full of ancient artefacts from different parts of the world. Many of the objects are unique.
The New Holland
This newly developed - and still under construction - island called "Novaya Gollandiya" in Russian is not far from the centre. The artificial island has become very popular with young hipster community of St.Petersburg. The area resembles a park with a stage used for concerts and events, a large playground for kids and several cafes and restaurants. The area also has a beautiful garden and many chairs and tables for people to use freely.
The main building, which is a round red tile structure, was originally built as a navy prison in 1828 designed by architect Alexander Shtaubert and was used as such for many years. The prisoners would use the round building for sleeping and work during the day.
The cells are now transformed into cafes and restaurants, posh boutiques and beauty parlours. Another building right at the entrance to the area hosts one of St. Pete’s most popular English schools.
St. Pete's Subway has five lines and can take you from any part of the city to another if you get to know how to use it. Especially the red line, which is the oldest one, is famous for the beauty of its stations and worth having a ride in, even just for the experience.
There are also buses and trams, although public transport is not easy for a tourist with no knowledge of the city and language to make good use of.
Taxis in St. Pete are relatively inexpensive compared to Helsinki; however, if you hail one in the centre or take a ride with taxis waiting for tourists in points of interest, they will try to charge you several times more than the usual price.
The best way to move in the city is defiantly Yango, an Uber-like app which works great in St. Pete, requiring that your phone is connected to the internet. The rides usually arrive in a couple of minutes; you can see the price before you order and you can choose to pay cash or let your credit card be charged if you have added it in the app. Even long distances would cost just a few Euros. One nuisance is that the drivers rarely speak English and communicating with them is difficult. On the bright side, just like Uber, you can always see who has been driving you, give feedback, and in case you leave something in the car, get it back.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels and hostels available in St. Petersburg with different star rankings and prices. I stayed at Sokos Hotel Palace Bridge, which is located at the Vasilyevsky island, just around the corner from the historic centre of the city, with the Hermitage, Palace Square and Nevsky Prospect all in walking distance or few minutes by car. The hotel has a great spa with a Turkish bath and different kinds of sauna, and a "snow experience" room to interval to. Plenty of budget hotels are also available, including several capsule hotels, all clean and comfortable.
Starting in October 2019, citizens of 53 countries can travel to St. Petersburg with an electronic visa which can be obtained online. Finland and many other European countries are included in the list. The process takes around four working days, and the visa is free of charge. The visa entitles the holder to stay up to 8 days in the St. Petersburg area, with no rights to travel to other parts of the Russian Federation. This is a long-awaited and welcomed development, as the ordinary visa required a personal visit to a travel agency or visa centre in addition to the paperwork, took several days and came at the cost of 80 Euros per person. That means a family of 4 would have spent over 300€ on the visa alone.
The use of the electronic visa is at the moment limited to the main road border crossings and the St. Pete's airport. It is not yet usable on the trains as apparently the equipment to check the e-visas is not yet available there. Authorities are working on fixing this problem. You can also visit St. Petersburg visa-free for 72 hours if you take the MOBY ferry from Helsinki.
St. Pete has a vibrant nightlife with plenty of stylish places. The city centre is usually very safe at night, and there are always many people around. Some bars and restaurants try to persuade tourists in using doormen and women. Some use a more innovative "honey trap" method on male tourists: You would run into a couple of young, friendly girls in the street. If you start a conversation and ask about the nightlife, they would tell you which bar or karaoke place is their favourite and offer to go with you. The bar will, of course, turn out to be extremely overpriced and mostly empty of other clients. These girls are not prostitutes and usually are local students earning a bit of extra money from the commissions. It's advisable to research and select places you want to visit beforehand.
There is a lot more to see and do in St. Petersburg and this article by no means attempts to cover all. Visit-Petersburg portal has plenty of useful information for travellers.
Text and images
Alexis Kouros - HT