The first thing that struck me about St Petersburg was the city’s sheer scale. It has five million inhabitants, and perhaps more surprising still, the unemployment rate is just 1%! There are no homeless people. There are no big skyscrapers either, and the city is characterized instead by long, broad boulevards.No point looking for quaint little cobblestone streets, but then that isn’t what anyone comes to Russia for.
The Russians are very proud of their national identity and their past. Some visitors consider them gloomy and rude, but to me, it seemed that they were uncomfortable about having to speak English. As if they know English, but would prefer not to speak it. If we spoke a word or two of Russian, however, they were very helpful. Even airport workers and cabin crew don’t speak English or, even if they do, answer in Russian if they can. After a while, you are forced to understand Russian, because there’s no other option. We met some young Russians dancing and singing in the street, and they weren’t gloomy at all. In fact, they were dancing with an electric iron, which I still don’t understand.
Over our five days in the city, we saw most of the main sights, but it felt like too little time. I’d definitely recommend taking a guided tour because there are so many tsars, tsarinas, palaces, churches, who was who’s wife, son, daughter, etc. that you’ll struggle to understand what was going on if you’ve only got your guidebook to help you.
Aside from the obligatory St Petersburg attractions, we also visited Peterhof, or Petrodvorets, as it used to be known, and Tsarskoye Selo in Pushkin. We consider both of these to be unmissable parts of any visit to St Petersburg. I was blown away by the amount of gold they used in the old imperial palaces and churches. It’s unbelievable the amount of money and energy put into the construction of these buildings. Some are scandalized by them for just this reason, but I liked them.
The currency exchange offices offer a different, worse rate after 7 pm, so be careful! There are a lot of self-service restaurants. The city doesn’t really start to wake up until about 10 am, but on the other hand, most shops stay open until about 10 pm.
“The sights in this city are so numerous that it would be difficult to list them. The four hours allocated to us on just one floor of the Hermitage turned out not to be enough. For entry, individual tourists have to wait in long lines, so it’s better to go as part of a group. The churches, cathedrals, (St. Isaac’s, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood…) the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Summer Palace (entrance 750 rubles, garden entrance 250 rubles and before it the cheapest, tackiest souvenirs) …… all have to be seen, and you can learn a lot of interesting things about Tsars, Tsarinas, Pushkin, Lenin, the Russian people and their lives.
There were surprising numbers of Chinese tourists in both cities. So much so that it's annoying. The herd rushes in all at once, stop for 5-6 seconds, shoot a couple of selfies and run on. It would be better to let them go around as individuals.
Another interesting thing is the way shops are organized. Smaller shops, such as a chocolate shop, close at 6pm, no exceptions. Six minutes before six, the lights were turned off and people were almost physically shoved out the door.
The other interesting thing is that alcoholic drinks can only be bought until 10 p.m. everywhere. Even though the supermarket in the mall is open until midnight, even I’m in the check-out queue before 10, but it's my turn at precisely 10 p.m., I can't buy it, I have to take it back. Rigor, order, discipline. It reminds me that I didn’t see trash anywhere on the street. Not a cigarette butt, not a Kleenex, nothing. Cleanliness everywhere. And of course Putin. Putin everywhere. In the waiting room at the valet service, in the hotel elevator, on the mugs, T-shirts, matryoshka dolls, and keychains of street vendors. Everywhere.
A special program is a visit to the vodka museum, where after a short briefing, the tourist can taste three types of vodka, accompanied by a salmon sandwich, pickles and pastries.
I didn't find the Russian people nice. Or even helpful. They’re living their lives, and you’re just an annoying tourist. That sort of attitude.” (2017)
“The people are helpful, but the inspectors and officials are tough. They give their orders in brusque Russian, gold teeth gleaming, and everything must be done as order dictates. Mostly we got by with hand gestures or google translate, but in the square in front of the Hermitage, two friendly young people approached us and told us about the main attractions in English. They seemed to want to practice their language skills. Anyway, unfortunately even the young people generally don't speak English, but those who do are happy to help.” (2019)
The tsars themselves are long gone, of course, but this magnificent city of smoky gold remains, where everything reminds you of the former tsarist empire. St. Petersburg is a granite city created with sophisticated taste, a great deal of money, and elegance, but there is also a warning: serfs and the downtrodden masses never benefited from this insensitive splendor and saw nothing of the life of Russia’s spiritual citadel. Today, this metropolis, teeming with palaces, art treasures, golden-domed churches, and paintings, is both unrealistic and very real. Behind the facades of the palaces lived people with tremendous will and power, bringing life or destruction to the city, but today it is difficult to say what their real motive was. Were they driven by megalomania, a mere desire for power? Was their lifestyle just a grandiose expression of that purpose? Or something more than that? Undoubtedly, they left a lasting mark, not least thanks to the masterpieces of German, Italian and Dutch artists.
Walking these streets, one feels that the buildings, bridges, temples, and granite columns are not simply symbolic representations or a kind of glamorous stage set, and still, less are they the products of wandering architects and artists. Instead, they very accurately express the underlying world that once existed in this place. These works were built over centuries, symbolizing the eternal Russian Empire as it moved through time. Enter a cathedral, a palace, or a museum, bow your head, marvel, and be humbled. And preserve the reverence and humility of your soul before the powers of heaven and earth. Your feelings for the white-bearded, solemnly dressed, gentle-looking priest and good-natured ‘little father’ tsar must come from the same source.” (2017)