Updated: Nov 2, 2021
“You and Tim are going where?” my friend blurted, croissants flying everywhere.
“It’s his bucket list destination,” I shrugged.
“But it’s Russia? Won’t it be freezing cold, and aren’t the people unfriendly and just as cold?”
“Well, it’s visa-free,” I returned with a laugh, accustomed to strange questions when I mentioned our 10-day trip to St. Petersburg. It was my husband’s bucket list trip, and once I read my first travel guide book, I was hooked on the idea!
After a long 26-hour flight from South Africa via Rome, we arrived in the city of St. Petersburg on the 25th of June at the height of Russia’s short summer season where the sun barely sets and white light canvases the night sky.
Our hotel had arranged for a taxi to collect us, and the driver looked like Jason Statham from the Transporter. Piercing blue eyes, no hair, slick black suit and no English. The car wound through main interactions and busy streets as we drove towards the historic heart of St. Petersburg. Bright flowers cascaded from large pots onto the pavements.
Russia’s short summer season is celebrated with festivals and all-night parties, Russians and overseas travellers revel in the beautiful summer days that culminate with the Scarlet Sails celebration. A festival that features free concerts, dramatic fireworks shows and boats that drift on the river with bright red sails. We arrived a day after the festival, hoping to miss the busy bustle of the festival. We pulled up to our hotel, chosen because of its location on Nevsky Prospekt, the main avenue cutting through the oldest parts of the city.
Not only that, but we wanted the real Russian experience and chose our hotel to match that desire. Fake gold mirrors, embossed curtains, thick carpets, ornate furniture and over the top wall hangings.
We got it all!
Breakfast the next morning was filled with traditional sweet delicacies; cakes, doughnuts, and shortbread biscuits overtook the buffet offerings of scrambled eggs, bread and sausage. Coffee was served along with vodka, we passed on the latter before taking to the city streets for a casual stroll to walk off the jet lag.
Nevsky bustled with people! Buskers entertained the masses, people sat on benches in small leisure parks, children played with pigeons and underdressed tourists, like ourselves, stared up at the buildings.
A golden spire stretched up into the sky in the far distance, and we headed towards it. We passed more beautiful buildings, the official army barracks and one of the famous Russian theatre houses where women in evening gowns stood waiting to watch the matinées.
The smooth pavement ran alongside a wrought iron gate. An expansive park with tall trees stretched to our left. We breathed in the cool air rustling through the leaves and turned into the Mikhailovsky Park, which stretched out from the Michael Palace now housing the Russian museum. We noticed students painting watercolours of the many bridges and paths, couples strolling casually and others reflecting on park benches as we followed the path to the other end.
We stopped where the path opened up into a large square and a monstrous Russian cathedral stared at us. Gold overlaid the red building, blue-domed roofs resembling crowns looked like Lego blocks on top of one another.
Old Testament scenes and saints spread over the building; little did we know we were standing in front of the iconic Savior on the Spilled Blood Church. Few words can describe it, so we took pictures to capture its imposing form, shopped at the small market for a Russian doll and survived the pigeons, but just barely.
Our hotel organised a private day tour for us the following day with a guide to see one of Russia’s most spectacular sights, the Catherine Palace. Catherine the Great ruled the Russian Empire as a single empress for over 3 decades, making her the longest female ruler of Russia. She is absolutely phenomenal as a picture of female leadership and power.
Her summer palace lies within sprawling gardens, rich with lakes, bridges, pools, and smaller entertainment houses where she’d entertain her guests privately. The drive took over an hour from the city, and we arrived early, but not earlier than the 1500 people who stood queuing to see inside the opulent blue and gold palace.
Once we made it inside, we explored 20 of the palace rooms, furnished and beautifully restored after being badly burnt during World War 2.
Another car drive later and we arrived at one of the city’s most infamous sights, Peterhof, a hot spot for tourists in the summer months. Peterhof is known as the Russian Versailles, and it was built by Peter the Great as his summer palace. Much of it was bombed, and the beautiful palace we now enjoy is the work of restoration.
Much of St Petersburg holds this story and when appreciating the beauty of this Russian city, it can be easy to forget that it was besieged by the Germans and over 1.2 million people died in the city streets.
On the day we visited, Peterhof was filled with children and wide-eyed spectators enjoying the sight of Tsar Peter’s 70 fountains. We walked to the very tip of Peterhof and stared out at the grey sea and the Gulf of Finland. “St Petersburg is very European,” I remarked to Anton, our guide.
“Yes, it is not like the rest of Russia at all, Catherine the Great wanted to take Russia to Europe and Europe to Russia, and she did.” However, it was in fact Peter the Great's intention to have St. Petersburg as a "window to Europe". He founded the city and hired Italian architects and city planners to build the "Venice of the North". Catherine continued his work to become what it is today.
The touches of Europe are everywhere, but the Russian flavour overshadows it all, wonderfully.
Catherine the Great was a visionary, a collector of art, and someone strongly interested in culture and talent. It was her vision and investment that has gifted this glorious city with the world-famous Hermitage Museum, which attracts almost 5 million visitors each year.
After a day of resting, reflecting and sleeping, the following morning we wound up Nevsky, stopping to indulge in Starbucks and a sub until the cobbled road hinted at the nearness of the Hermitage.
The palace square opens up after a small narrow road and the vastness of this winter palace for the Tsars is enough to leave you wondering if opulence has an end. The green, white and gold palace extends over several buildings and of the 3 million art acquisitions held by the museum, only a few thousand are on display. Lovers of the impressionists, like myself, have your fill of delight at seeing Renoir right before your eyes.
The ultimate gem of the visit is found in a small square room where you’ll stand crammed between strangers to behold a gift to the empress in 1781 from one of her favourite suitors. The peacock clock is a moving work of innovation, a large golden peacock stands on a branch surrounded by two other life-sized birds.
The detail and intricacy of the work are profound and on a Wednesday evening, you can hear the beautiful music it makes while the peacock, rooster and owl move in different directions. Now, the rules have unfortunately slightly changed because of the coronavirus pandemic. They now play the clock at random times on a Wednesday to prevent large crowds - whoever is lucky to be passing by there at the time will get to hear it.
Hours and hours at the museum stimulate your hunger for art, culture and archaeology.
We always found fresh places to eat on Nevsky, with its towering cathedrals, trendy shops, restaurants, statues and old World War 2 siren still on the wall where it signalled incoming raids.
We divided our time carefully over our last few days of the trip, with canal rides, a trip to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, whose claim to fame is the exquisite view of the city from its domed roof. Not for the faint-hearted or those scared of heights! Bus rides to an old monastery, a golden-domed fortress and lots of writing in Mikhailovsky Park. Tim and I found ourselves falling in love with this city, and its romance, a word not many would use to describe the Russian Federation.
In contrast to the image’s films paint of Russians, the people we met were friendly and proud of their heritage. They enjoyed asking us questions as most of them had never met a South African before, and we formed connections through our laughter at our language differences.
St Petersburg fed my mind, my cultural heart, my love of walking and being outside, and it also fed my desire to learn about others. I saw a nation rebuilding and forming, and it welcomed us as warmly and as openly as I never imagined it would, and I took a part of it home with me, I was extremely grateful we had come.
Things to Know Before Going!
Book a day trip to Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof with a reputable company, these sights are highly recommended.
Purchase Hermitage Museum tickets online, you will skip the queues and enter at a side door leading you straight into the Egyptian wing.
Buy a hop on – hop off bus ticket which will include the canal boat tour. St Petersburg is known as the Venice of the North and the city is exquisite to view from the canals. The boat also stops at different places, so you can climb off and explore sights like the Peter and Paul Fortress, as well as the Faberge Museum.
You will receive a visa stamp at the airport, you do not need to apply for a visa before going (this applies to South Africans, so please check for your country visa requirements).
We enjoyed Italian food, street food, vegan food, Israeli falafels, as well as traditional Russian cuisine throughout the city, so do not worry about food, there is plenty on offer!
Tea is very much a part of Russian culture. At restaurants, there is a dedicated tea master and you will be given a meal menu as well as an extensive tea menu. The tea master will come round and offer you tea, even if you do not like tea, I highly recommend savouring some of the offerings. If you are a tea lover like myself, you will be in heaven!
Written by Lauren Jacobs
Lauren is a radio journalist in Cape Town, South Africa. She is also a multi-award-winning author, with a passion for women's stories and history. She's been travelling the globe since she was 14 and suffers from an incurable wanderlust.