ST. PETERSBURG TRIP, Melih Bildiren | 04.09.2014

Bank holiday was approaching, yet we had not planned anything. While my wife and I were pondering where to spend the holidays, we decided we wanted to see St. Petersburg, the imperial capital of Russia, as a last minute decision. The historical feel of the "White Nights" alone was enough to get us excited.

We arrived at Pulkovo Airport 3 hours after taking off at 13:20 from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines' St. Petersburg flight. The signs that welcomed us at the airport were completely in Russian, and this was almost like a preview for us, in terms of the navigational challenges we were about to face. We exchanged some money at the currency exchange on our way out of the airport and headed to our hotel.

If you want to get to your hotel by cab, arrange one at the desk next to the exit gate and ignore those cab drivers who try to seem as if they are offering you an affordable fare; we were offered 2,200 RUB for a ride that would normally cost 900 RUB. You can also get to your hotel by public transportation at a more reasonable price. Buses leave from in front of the airport that will take you to the nearest subway station in 15 minutes. Remember to get on the bus at the back door and exit from the front, and make your payment on the way out (30 RUB). When you reach the station, just take the train that will easily take you to wherever you need to go (28 RUB).

Our hotel was on the liveliest street, Nevsky Prospect and this location turned out to be a great advantage for us throughout our trip. You can find small and affordable hotels around Nevsky. This district, meaning the surrounding area of Nevsky, is suitable for those thinking "Why would I pay a certain amount of money in a city that never sleeps?"

After checking into our hotel and having a rest for a while, we met with a friend who lives in St. Petersburg to catch up over dinner and to get some tips on the city at a sushi restaurant called Dve Palochki. St. Petersburg has a great number of sushi restaurants; you could be forgiven for thinking you are in Tokyo. You can also have many other dishes at this restaurant as well (the prices on average are 300–700 RUB). If you are a sushi lover, definitely try this place.

After a long, lovely dinner, it was still not dark outside. You can easily lose track of time due to the fact that it does not get dark before 23:00. This creates an odd sensation at first; however, it turns out to be great advantage for sightseeing. We walked around Nevsky Prospect a while and then went back to our hotel as we realized it was almost 02:00. We had to rest – there were so many streets to walk, so many places to see.

The second day of our trip was dedicated to the city center, museums, and a canal bridge tour. We started the day with a breakfast at Teremok, the most popular fast food chain that specializes in crepes. It wouldn't be far wrong to say that people here live on soup and crepes. The meal starts with soup and continues with crepes of many ingredients, and thus turns into a feast. Lunch and dinner are also the same. Just to give it a try, we ordered 6-7 kinds of crepes, ignoring the puzzled looks on the cashier's face (each cost 140 RUB) and also ordered 2 drinks called Kvas and Morc. It was hard to order though, since there are few people who can speak English despite the city being highly touristic and popular. We had chosen Kvas because we thought it would be interesting and likened the taste to beer, but left it on the table after just 1 sip; however, just as Russians do, we loved Morc, a cranberry-flavored drink. Having eaten our tasty crepes, we were then ready to start our 15 km journey.

We first took a glance at Kazan Cathedral, located on Nevsky. It really is enormous and magnificent. Right opposite Kazan is the famous Singer House, which now serves as a bookstore and cafe; you'll love it. Afterwards, we began walking towards St. Isaac's Cathedral. Since you need to walk along Nevksy Prospect to get to these places, you lose track of the distance and never get bored.

When we got to St. Isaac's Cathedral, we found a building with golden domes and magnificence of scale. You can enter and tour the cathedral, or climb up one of the towers. You need to pay approximately 350 RUB to enter. The city view from the towers is just amazing. Located on the square in front of the cathedral is the well-known symbol of St. Petersburg, the Bronze Horseman.

Before seeing Palace Square, we felt a little hungry and decided to take a break at a pastry shop called Bushe, about which we had heard good things. Everything they had was incredibly tasty, also very affordable... We just loved it! I definitely recommend this place.

After this delicious break, we reached yet another historical symbol of the city, Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad). This square, which has witnessed crucial historical events such as the October Revolution, is amazingly wide. Right in the middle of the square stands Alexander Column. The square offers a wide range of entertainment and activities; you can travel on carriages or "gingers" (segway), take pictures with people dressed as Peter and Catherina, or listen to street musicians. The famous Hermitage Museum is located here, so it's also known as "Hermitage Square." We didn’t have the chance to see the Hermitage Museum because we did not have the time; however, I must note that art lovers should make the effort to visit.

We then passed by the Marble Palace and arrived at one of the places we wanted to see the most, Church of the Savior on Blood. The church located next to the Griboyedov Canal is just amazing. You can visit St. Petersburg just to see this building.

There are souvenir shops around the church. We bought our gifts from these shops upon recommendation from a friendly Azeri salesman called Vasif. Spot him there and you can do your shopping conveniently.

The park next to the church, the Mikhailovsky Garden, is also ideal for short walks and some fresh air. You can see Hummers and Escalade limousines waiting around.

We were really hungry and had run out of recommended places to see, so not wanting to leave it to chance we had something to eat at Subway. You can find fast food chain restaurants such as Subway, McDonald’s, and Burger King on every corner in St. Petersburg. For those who do not want to take risks, these places are a lifesaver (and the prices are pretty much the same as in Turkey).

St. Petersburg has many canals and resembles Venice in this sense. You will see agents organizing boat tours on these canals, offering a variety of choice. They are generally 2 different types of tours. Canal tours that last 1 hour and that are available the whole day; and bridge openings on the Neva River that cast off at midnight. We decided to join the midnight tour that lasts 2 hours to see the bridge openings (600 RUB). We had an amazing time.

After a long day that involved lots and lots of walking, we came back to our hotel at 02:30. The crowd on the 24/7 lively Nevsky Prospect, where the activities never stop and shops never close amazed us once again. We couldn't help but wonder how these people manage to get up in the morning and go to work.

To sum up, our day was full of walking (almost 15 km), lots of pictures, magnificent buildings, and a spectacular boat tour. Yes, we felt exhausted but we got to know St. Petersburg so well.

One of the must-see places in St. Petersburg is undoubtedly the Peterhof Palace and Gardens. The enormous gardens, pools, and famous water jets of the palace, which is situated next to a lake, make it an ideal place to spend the day. For this reason we decided to spend our third day around the Peterhof district.

You can get to Peterhof with daily tours organized by agents, or independently. We thought it would be more fun and more affordable to tour this place on our own. For transportation, there are high speed watercraft called Meteor (Hydrofoil) that depart from the Hermitage. These high speed crafts take you to the Peterhof Palace dock (one-way is 600 RUB, round trip is 1,100 RUB). Once you get there, you need to purchase separate tickets from the ticket office for the palace and the gardens (gardens 350 RUB, palace 450 RUB).

The alternative route is to use the subway (red line 1), getting off at Antovo station and then using the Peterhof buses found outside the subway. This route takes approximately 1 hour and the minibus trip is particularly beneficial since it allows you to have an idea of where the residents live, buildings, areas of living, etc. We even witnessed a "One Peterhof, please" on the way just like in Turkey, which was hilarious for us. :) (Subway 28 RUB + Minibus 70 RUB).

On this topic, I must mention the workings of the  St. Petersburg subway. First of all, you purchase a coin from the machines or the ticket offices located at the entrance for 28 RUB. Then, you take the steep escalator that takes approximately 2 minutes. Once you get to the platform, your jaw drops. Every station is designed with chandeliers; gilded and arched ceilings. It’s certainly true if you visit St. Petersburg and do not see a subway station, you'll really have missed out. Despite all the fanciness, the trains are old-fashioned, probably as old as the earliest on the system. All in all, we loved traveling by subway in St. Petersburg; it's really practical and fast.

After spending 3-4 hours at Peterhof, we went back to the center and stopped by the souvenir stands next to the Church of the Savior on Blood I mentioned earlier. It wouldn't be right to travel that far and come home without gifts for friends and relatives. :)

It must be noted that souvenirs are not that cheap here. The matryoshka dolls are particularly over-priced. The smallest start from 15–20 TRY (300–400 RUB), while the best ones are around 1,000–1,500 RUB. Magnets, on the other hand, cost 100–300 RUB. You can choose according to your budget and taste.

We bought our gifts and toured a bit more, and then headed back to our hotel since we needed to get up early the next day.

On our fourth and final day in St. Petersburg, we went to have some breakfast at Du Nord, a French bakery, which has been offering great food since 1834. We chose Paris from the menu (390 RUB). I highly recommend it.

After a delicious breakfast we wanted to see the Peter and Paul Fortress, which was the last major sight we hadn't been to. The fortress stands magnificently on an island on the Neva River, and is home to an old prison, where during and after the Russian Revolution well-known people were kept. Thousands of tourists now visit the fortress every day.

We took the subway since we were exhausted from all the walking we did the previous 3 days. Getting off at Gorkovskaya Station on the blue subway line 2, you find yourself directly in front of the fortress entrance. As is the case with other sights, you can buy 4 separate tickets to enter. However, if you buy a combined ticket you do not need to buy the 4 separately (370 RUB). I must say that the cathedral section, as well as the prison section, is highly impressive. I also recommend visiting the Museum of Torture, located inside the fortress. You need to purchase an extra ticket to enter (250 RUB).

Having completed touring our final destination, we were ready to fly back to Istanbul. We packed our bags and headed to the airport by subway. We arrived at the Moskovskaya Station on blue line 2, and got on the bus waiting in front of the subway station. After 15 minutes, we were at the airport.

Pulkovo Airport is small and chaotic. The procedures at Russian customs take a lot of time, so the lines are never-ending. For this reason it’s advisable to arrive at the airport 2-3 hours ahead of your flight.

Four days, almost 35 km walking, tens of buildings, hundreds of people... We loved our trip. I hope this article helps those who are about to visit St. Petersburg.

Key things to do in St. Petersburg:

  • Definitely visit the Church of the Savior on Blood.
  • Tour the Hermitage Museum.
  • Visit Kazan Cathedral.
  • Spend some time at the Peterhof Palace and gardens.
  • Climb up the tower of the St. Isaac's Cathedral.
  • Go on a boat tour on the canals.
  • Trace the history of Russia at the Peter and Paul Fortress.
  • Go on a subway ride.
  • Taste the Russian crepes.
  • Walk on Nevsky Prospect.

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