Day 5: Train to St. Petersburg
It is said that if Moscow is the head of Russia, then St. Petersburg is the heart. Having seen both cities, this is a fundamental Russian truth. Although you’ll find that capitalism and political affairs belong in capital, the city that epitomizes the soul of the country is without a doubt St. Petersburg.
The train stations in Russia are named for their destination, so if you’re going to St. Petersburg, you’re going to Leningradsky Vaksal (Leningrad Station, after the former name of the city). Make sure you confirm the route to the stattion with your cabbie because ours took a longer than expected route and the price went from an estimated 600-700 rubles to 1,025. Not a huge issue in retrospect, but worth checking to avoid being gouged. Also make sure his/her meter is on – it may be built into their GPS unit/tablet.
The Sapsan high speed train is a really easy and convenient way to get from Moscow to St. Petersburg and vice versa. The journey takes 4-4.5 hours depending on the direction and if you upgrade to Economy+ Class, you get a little more space, a free meal, and an easy ride. If only the Aeroflot flight was so comfortable! My recommendation: buy online in advance, save a PDF to your Dropbox or email, and print out a copy. This will make your boarding experience so easy!
Upon arrival, we took a private car to W St. Petersburg hotel, which the hotel staff had arranged for us. They charged us 2,600 rubles for a 15 minute ride, and in retrospect this was excessive since a cab charges 550 rubles to take you the same distance! The main street of St. Petersburg is the Nevsky Prospect, which is a business, shopping, and historical boulevard on which many major landmarks sit. We arrived at the W and this hotel has few rivals in terms of comfort and location. The staff here was super friendly from the moment of arrival, especially the bellman who told me stories of living in New York and working at Coney Island for two summers. For a million dollar (ruble?) view, head up to the top floor and take the stairs to the rooftop deck. this is what you’ll get on a nice night.
I took a short walk and found the Gostiny Dvor, a massive shopping center that sits on Nevsky Prospect and contains nearly 200 stores in a three-sides, one-kilometer long building. If you’ve been waiting to buy your Russian souvenirs and goods, come here. Clothing, porcelain, tea sets, plates, feberge egg replicas, etc. You’ll find it all here. The pic below is the walkway outside that lets you walk around the entire place…notice how it appears to continue on forever?
I am slightly ashamed (read: not ashamed at all) to admit that I stopped in a McDonalds for a snack, where a few funny things happened: 1.) The server, upon hearing me speak English, handed me a menu with everything in English. 2.) A random dude decided to seat himself at my table next to me, apparently not recognizing the need for personal space. That was only slightly awkward. 3.) I got charged for ketchup. Really?
After wandering and shopping for a few hours, I came back to the hotel for some much needed rest. If by this point in your trip you’re seeking a little variety in your cuisine, as we were, consider visiting Tandoor, an Indian restaurant located around the corner from our hotel. A friend whom we met up with in Moscow suggested it and it was nothing short of a great meal. The butter chicken and jeera rica (jasmine with cumin seeds) were sooo good. Rich and light at the same time. And the service was possibly the best restaurant service I’ve had abroad.
If you come to St. P in the summer, you will be treated to a phenomenon called White Nights in which the night sky ranges from a touch of faint sunlight to full blown daylight. Did you know St. Petersburg is on the same latitudinal line as the state of Alaska? This means from June to July, St. P’s northern position gives it nights that resemble days. Note the photo above of the spire in St. P taken from the W – this was taken at 9:30 PM!
Day 6: St. Petersburg
Moscow Walking Tours has an aptly named sister company called St. Pete Private Tours and we decided to take a walking tour of the city just as we had done in Moscow. The one add-on we made was a ticket to the Hermitage, and this is a MUST DO if you plan in seeing the museum. A bit of background: The Hermitage is the state museum founded by Catherine the Great in the late 1700’s and houses one of the most spectacular collections in the world (also the largest collection of paintings anywhere). It’s composed of six buildings, including the Winter Palace which housed the Russian tsars. To walk into this building is a breathtaking experience, and if you choose not to join a tour, you will wait in a line like this one to get in:
We estimated at least 700-1000 people were in this line when we came out of the museum, and our tour guide got us in through the tour entrance (on the backside by the river bank).
The art on display here spans centuries, cultures, and geography and it is worth spending at least a couple hours wandering here and taking in all of the splendor (and opulence). If you’re a big fan of the Impressionists, you must walk across the Palace Square to the General Staff Building (that massive, yellow building across the square) and see a calmer, modern and yet still elegant part of the Hermitage.
Lest you think all we did in St. P was to wander, we did indeed stop for lunch at some point:
Day 7: St. Petersburg
We followed up our walking tour of St. Petersburg with a car tour that took us to Peterhof and Catherine Palace. Peterhof was our first stop and was constructed by Peter the Great in a style that was supposed to remind people of Versailles. If your jaw doesn’t drop from the gilded edges on the buildings, then the interior will shell shock you.
Pay particular attention to the Chesma Hall, in which a series of large paintings depict the Battle of Chesma from the Russo-Turkish War. Supposedly Catherine blew up a frigate so the artist could have a better understanding of what an exploding ship looked like. That’s a pretty dramatic way to give an artist inspiration! There are no pictures allowed inside Peterhof, but make sure to get your fill at the fountains outside or on the sprawling grounds around the palace itself.
If you’ve not been overstimulated with reconstructed lavishness, Catherine Palace will probably tip you over the edge. Constructed as a Summer Palace by Catherine the Great, the palace will likely make you gasp when you see the ballroom with its high ceilings and plentiful natural lighting, the hallways that appear to never end, and the famed Amber Room, which was reconstructed after the Nazis looted and destroyed most of the building.
Day 8: St. Petersburg/Moscow
For my last day, I decided to take in the interior of St. Isaac’s Cathedral before ascending (by foot) to the colonnade for one of the best views in all of St. Petersburg. Completed in 1858, the cathedral’s size and scale cannot be truly grasped until you head inside.
Despite massive damage to the city during the Siege of Leningrad, the building never fell and its golden colored dome was covered to avoid making it the target of Luftwaffe bombing runs. Once you ascend to the colonnade, the sweeping 360 degree views of the city let you take in all of St. Petersburg’s beauty from on high.
Our last day in St. Petersburg took us back to the Moscow Train Station and in a pleasant surprise, we returned to 75 degree weather and glorious sunshine. With one last beautiful to explore the city, I returned to Red Square for nighttime photos of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, and the city did not disappoint.
Day 9: Moscow
If you’re coming to Moscow for a trip and don’t yet trust picking up a taxi on the street, you can do what I did and hire a car. A hotel-arranged private car from the Palace Moscow hotel would have cost around 2500 rubles, but Moscow Private Tours has a link to a car hire page and for a price of 1600 rubles, you can get to the airport in safety and comfort.
Note that Aeroflot is particularly stingy about baggage weight and I came home carrying a lot of souvenirs, so they made me check my roll-aboard bag. They told me about 10 kilograms was the max, so just be ready for this! I took in the hospitality of the Blues Airport Lounge at Sheremetyevo Airport, and don’t let its name or that of its sister lounge (named Jazz) deceive you – both of these places are definitely not sexy or chill hang out places. The food here was worse than when I was in college making myself sandwiches with whatever was handy. And as a fellow guest said to me, “this could be the worst wine I have ever had.” A quick sip confirmed her opinions as fact.
And with that, I returned home to the United States full of borsch, belmeni, and a plethora of memories of beautiful architecture, the history of war, and tragedies that have befallen the Russian people. Some people asked me why I picked Russia and to be fair, the price of the ticket drove a lot of it. But Russia is the kind of place that does not always rise to the top of a travel list unless one has family roots here. That said, Russia is a country full of citizens who are deeply proud to be Russian. They have a heritage that they want to display and return to its former glory. And while I am no fan of missiles warming up in their silos, I look forward to the day when Russians can share their history and pride with more of the world.