“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of mankind and life cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth for all of one’s lifetime.”
Visiting the birthplace of my Fiance was indeed a special experience. Sasha and I spent a total of three weeks in St. Petersburg during White Nights in June, where the sun seems to never fully go to sleep, keeping a lazy ray of light shining at all times, even at 12:01 AM. Even in three weeks, we didn’t even come close to seeing it all! I highly recommend at least one week here, which means that each day will be packed with museums and activities!
Here are 14 Things to do in St. Petersburg
1) Visit The Hermitage
The Hermitage is the creme de la creme of museums. Once the Imperial Palace, it is now the largest art museum in the world! People come from all over the globe just to see this incredible museum. We spent around five hours, which is considered a “quick tour”! Many people choose to come back over several days to complete it.
2) Visit the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
This church was built atop the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. His blood on the cobblestone street was never cleaned up, so it was decided that a church would be built over it in his honor.
As with many significant churches and buildings in SPB, this church was funded by the imperial family. Here is what the inside of the church looked like
*Tip for tall photos if you have a panorama option: flip the phone sideways and take the pano vertically instead of horizontally. This especially works well for tall buildings that are not in the full frame*
Make sure you go at different times of day to catch the lighting. The golden hour is incredible.
Saint Petersburg (or SPB for short) is known as the “Venice of the North” or the “Amsterdam of the East” because of all the canals. The wide and stately Neva river flows through the city and feeds into the gulf of Finland. SPB was once the capital of Russia, and, as Peter the Great called it, the “window to Europe”. There are lots of bridges here, and they even make a show out of raising the bridges at 1:30 AM each morning to let the large ships come through. If you can stay awake, it’s a sight to be seen!
3) Take a River Cruise
As with any city built on water, there are plenty of boat cruises during day or night time!
4) Take a Stroll Downtown and be Awed by the 18-19th century Architecture and Statues all Around!
Walking around the city is a fun activity in itself! Just be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes!
One thing I noticed is that Russian women don’t wear shorts. In fact, nobody wears shorts. If you wear shorts, you are immediately pegged as a tourist. Also, women wear stockings with everything, even under jeans! We were here during the month of June, which is summer but temperatures were still as low as 10 C at night and the warmest it got was 22 C, but average temperature sits right around 16 C.
The weather reminded me of Seattle; gloomy, grey, rainy and a bit humid. However, when the sun was out, it sure was spectacular! The difference here is, people actually use their umbrellas. And they’re really colorful!
(I may or may not have stalked this woman down a street corner to get this photo)
5) Take a Walk on Yelagin Island
The beginning of June is prime season for tulips! (Click on each photo to enlarge it)
6) Ride a Tandem Bike Through Sosnovka Park
Just a 15-minute drive from downtown is a beautiful and enormous park that just so happened to be right across from the family apartment we were staying in. There are all kinds of bike rentals here, kids’ playgrounds, etc. Also, this will be the only place you see women in fit wear in all of Russia. (My casual style doesn’t really fit in here.)
7) See an Opera or Ballet at the New and Old Mariinksy Theatres
I was classically trained in opera at the age of 13 but had never in my life up until this trip, attended an opera. Thanks to Sasha’s father, who took his students to many theatre performances, we got to join three operas, a symphony, and the 275th annual graduation performance from the Vaganova Ballet School. Ballets are typically held at the old Mariinsky Theatre, which still preserves its original interior and exterior (which meant that Sasha had to duck so he didn’t hit his head on the low ceilings!) Operas are held at the new Mariinsky Theatre, which was built simply because shows were always sold out and they needed more space! (An excellent problem to have!) Below is Italian opera composer Verdi’s “Sicilian Vespers”, a five-hour, five-act opera! I’ve gained some serious opera stamina after this trip! Translation is on the screen in both Russian and English. There is a balcony up top with a beautiful view of the city and river below. (Cost for the balcony entry is 100 rubles per person, just under $2 USD).
8) Alexander Park and “Mini Saint Petersburg”
Located near the zoo, this small park houses (in geographic accuracy), all of SPB’s most famous landmarks.
9) Visit the Island of Kronstadt
Located just a 45-minute Uber ride outside the city (over a long bridge, no ferry required), is the island of Kronstadt, originally the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet to guard approaches to SPB. One of Sasha’s Mothers’ good friends lives on the island so we visited her and got a local tour!
10) Visit Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral
Located inside the Peter and Paul Fortress, this Cathedral was the first and oldest landmark in SPB, finished in 1733. It sits along the Neva River and provides excellent views of the water. During summertime on a sunny day, you’ll get to see Russian sunbathing in full action. For some reason they think that standing up will get them a better tan! This scene absolutely cracked me up, as I had never seen anything like it!
And I’m the Hawaii girl here all covered up while everyone else is in bikinis and speedos?? 🙂 By the way, it was sunny but not particularly warm (around 12 C, or 53 F, which, I suppose is warm for Russians).
11) Go to a Dacha (Summerhouse) and Experience a Banya
You will only be lucky enough to have this experience if you have a family member or a close friend in Russia who owns or knows someone who owns a Dacha. This is where I experienced the cultural highlight of our entire three months of travel so far! Sasha’s family and I went to one of their friend’s dachas, which is a summerhouse. Most dachas are used only in the summertime or on weekends, but this couple lives here all year round because they love to be in nature. The dacha is about one hour outside of the city located in the forest by a lake.
We arrived at 3 PM and dinner (“abiet” in Russian) was waiting for us. They are wonderful cooks and made incredible traditional Russian food consisting of borsch (A soup typically made from tomatoes or beets that contains cabbage and some sort of meat. This one contained smoked meats from their local market, which only sells items grown within a 60-mile region.) That was the starter. Then we had chicken cutlets, potatoes, radish and green onion salad, and a homemade tomato sauce. Everything was completely local and straight from the farms or the lake if it was fish.
If you are well-to-do, you have your own private Banya (sauna) on the same grounds as your dacha. Inside the sauna fits around four people and there is also a shower and changing area as well as a connected resting area that leads to the outside so that you can cool off in between sessions. It is typical to go in and out of the sauna between four and six times in the span of a few hours. I had the incredible honor of being able to witness and be a part of the ceremonial leaf slapping/massage called Platza.
Our host collected birch and oak leaves from the forest and strung them together like two brooms. He soaked the leaves in hot water inside the sauna and when the person is ready to be massaged they go in nude and the vessel that holds hot stones is opened. Water mixed with essential lavender oil is poured onto the rocks and the leaves are shaken vigorously in the air above the person’s body to create steam and warm rain. They are then slapped like a hot (but soft) iron on the body, which is meant to release toxins and purify the skin. The temperature of the sauna was approximately 70°C. So you don’t stay in for longer than 15 minutes (there is a sand timer inside). I really enjoyed the massage experience. Sasha got it on the GoPro but since Americans tend to be overly conservative when it comes to displaying nudity, I’ll spare you and this photo will do. The Banya lasted around two hours and after that we relaxed and drank beer, wine and kvas, a fermented beverage made of Rye bread that tastes to me like a mixture between kombucha and prune juice.
The next day we visited the local market to see where all this amazing food was coming from. Russians LOVE their cucumbers and dill!
12) Get a Thai Massage
I don’t know how I managed to live in both Hawai’i and Seattle; two places with a fairly large Thai population, and never heard of Thai massage! This is my new favorite form of massage and I highly recommend that you try it here. Thai massage therapists use their entire body to really get deep into relaxing the muscles using their own body parts, including sitting on you (don’t worry, most of them are tiny but insanely strong enough to make you cry in good pain!) It’s normal to be sore afterwards, as that means they have done a good job. You can specify the level of pressure you prefer (light, medium, hard). I did medium-hard and was not disappointed.
Royal Thai Massage is a chain with three locations in SPB. They have a program where fully trained massage therapists come here after they complete their studies in Thailand. The massage therapists stay for one year and have the option to stay longer. I can’t imagine how much they must miss their home cuisine, as there is close to zero Thai restaurants in this area of the city. They also must think it’s soooo cold! The reason they choose Russia for the program is because Russians love their massage. Here is the facade of the building on Bolshaya Konyushennaya Street. It looks pretty rough from the outside, but the interior is clean and zen-like.
When Sasha changed into his robe, his massage therapist picked up his pants, and before folding them, held them up to her body and they started giggling uncontrollably because they went from her feet to her head!!! I wish I got a photo of that, but no cell phones are allowed inside the massage rooms. Instead, here is a photo with our two massage ladies and Sasha the Giant.
PRICING (as of June, 2017):
One hour traditional: 2,600 rubles (~$45 USD)
90 minutes: 3,800 rubles (~$67 USD)
120 minutes: 5,000 rubles (~$88 USD)
*TIP: On weekdays between 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM all massages are 30% off!*
13) Visit the Faberge Museum
For 300 roubles per person, this interesting museum is full of gorgeous jewels and eggs. Faberge was a household name, such as “Tiffany’s” is now. Faberge is known for his jeweled eggs, which were traditionally made exclusively for Czars to present to their wife on Easter. The eggs were made between 1885 and 1917, and 50 were made either by Faberge himself, or by his team with his supervision, and many are on display today inside the museum. They have now become a Russian souvenir and a popular decoration in one’s home.
You may have noticed that I haven’t included anything about food in this post. That’s because Russian food deserves its very own blog post with plenty of delicious photos to make you want to visit tomorrow. If you’d like to learn more about what kinds of foods to eat in Russia, you can find my blog post by clicking here: Russian Food & Language.
Whatever you choose to do in St. Petersburg, you are sure to be wowed by the beautiful architecture, gold-plated opulence, and rich culture!