St Petersburg has stayed with me. It got under my skin like a live ant burrowing, but less painful; more positive fun (lovely).
It’s still a city which only the more intrepid or the cruise-liners reach, and in this sense has proved me wrong. I thought it would be overrun by the mid-00s, hordes of western tourists descending and struggling with the plethora of Russian-only signs…
And there are still so many free things to do. Here are my top ten:
10. Visit Chesma church.
Good to do alongside #7 and #6! This bizarre candy-cane-coloured small church was taken out of use in 1923 and later became a naval museum. Today it’s a Gothic Revival crazy demonstration of over-the-top-yet-amazing architectural and aesthetic clashes which in many countries would draw huge crowds. In Petersburg, though, it was deserted when I visited, only a children’s slide out at the back showing its proximity to a residential community. It was odd, and surreal, yet endearing for its overstated strangeness.
To get there, take any marshrutka from Sennaya to Moskovskaya and get off midway between Park Pobedy and Moskovsky metro stations. Or take the southern metro line from Nevsky to Park Pobedy and walk. There’s a nice park nearby that metro station too, and Moskovsky Prospect itself is a powerhoused statement of architectural Soviet might.
9. Walk the length of Nevsky Prospekt
Nevsky is a jumble of a road – a wide boulevard stretching from east to west and spanning almost the whole of the historical centre. Locals both love and loath it – it has mixed tourist tat and beautiful bridges, statues, so much stunning architecture that a book could be compiled just on this one street, amazing shops such as Gostiny Dvor and a few pickpockets who gravitate towards the ‘rich tourists’. It’s no worse than in any other large European city, but be safe – don’t keep wallets in pockets or flash around large wads of rubles. It’s just silly. But the buildings are impressive, and the street is varied and walkable.
8. Pay a visit to the exhibitions at the Art Hotel St. Petersburg
This stunning hotel decorated with antiques is also an excellent exhibition space for some of the best contemporary art in the city. They have a blog at http://artway.tv which details some of the up-and-coming exhibitions at the hotel.
To get there, take any Nevsky bus a third of the way down the prospekt (facing the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and with Vasilievsky Island at your back) and get off outside the majestic Kazan Cathedral with its pillars and curves, then wander round the back of it. Their website http://hotelrachmaninov.com will tell you specific dates of free and paid exhibitions and display the interior of the hotel.
7. Wander the area around Sennaya Ploshad’ (Sennaya Square) which used to be a haymarket back in Dostoevsky’s day
This was where that eminent author wrote a lot of his novels including ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Gambler’, and where there is still an air of decadent delapidation – paint peeling from external walls – and beautiful, scrappy courtyards through rusted gates. This is the real St Petersburg: barely a stone’s throw from Nevsky Prospect and yet where real Petersburg residents dwell, there is still the air of seediness that pervaded the same streets Dostoevsky and his fictional Raskolnikov used to walk.
Plenty more information about Dostoevsky’s area is given at http://sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=3698 . It’s well worth a trip for those travellers who enjoy feeling a city.
6. Take a walk down the canals to Letniy Sad (Summer Garden) via loads of other amazing places!
A good one to twin with #7. Starting at Sennaya Ploshad’ metro and going along Kanal Griboedova (above) to the half-finished Kazanskiy Sabor (Kazan Cathedral) with its crazy half-moon pillar ensembles, you can then go via the Church on Spilled Blood (see photo below) before taking a right and wandering to the Summer Gardens which are both beautiful and restful.
‘Walking with friends’ is a hobby that so many Russian people say they have, and this is where lots of St. Petersburg residents go to chat, wander and chill. It’s stunning in autumn. There are classical sculptures hidden amongst the trees which lends Letniy Sad an air of old-fashioned glamour
5. Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
To get here, most travellers will have to take a bus/trolleybus/tram/marshrutka down the length of Nevsky Prospekt, or walk, both of which are sights in themselves (see #7)!
This is a working monastery which is holy and revered, so you should show respect for the religious beliefs and customs of those living there and of the many Orthodox visitors. Women should have their legs and shoulders covered and wear a head covering whilst in the Cathedral – a scarf is fine.
The monastery and most of the grounds are free, but the cemetery, where such figures as Dostoevsky are buried, is pay-to-enter (tickets from the kiosk as you enter the grounds)
The Cathedral is wonderful – a haven of peace in the busy city, and it is where many residents go to pray for ill relatives and friends. Its icons, thoughtful atmosphere and beautiful neo-classical architecture inspire tears in some visitors – best bring tissues too.
Also in this area is the St Nicholas Cemetery, (all beautifully overgrown, where lots of St. Petersburg’s Orthodox priests are buried) and the City Sculpture Museum which is effectively a collection of models of the sculptures which are scattered around St. Petersburg.
4. The Peterhof Gardens
The palace is pay-on-entry, but if you’re either on a budget or totally sick of seeing sparkly palace after sparkly palace, you can get into the beautiful gardens free. Take marshrutka (minibus-taxi) K424 from Avtovo or K-242 from Leninsky Prospekt metro stations. The fare is cheap: 35 rubles last time I went. These take you directly to the park gates and are a better option than the slower elektrichka train from Baltisky Vokzal which has a ten-minute walk to the park.
3: The Avrora battleship
There’s just something indescribably cool about getting to look at a power-monster of a boat even if you’re not bothered about ships. It’s free to get on and moored on an embankment near Gorkhovskaya metro. There’s a small museum on board which tells you about the ship and the part it played in the Russian Revolution.
2. Loft Etagi at Ligovsky Prospekt 74. (Metro Ligovsky Pr.)
Etagi is a great space, buzzing with up-and-coming new artists, a coffee shop and bar and a rooftop terrace. The art is what you go for though, and this place has really moved on since I first visited in 2007. Then, it was scruffy and run-down, art seemingly stuck to the walls in some pretty uninspired curating. Now though, it deserves its ‘cultural space’ tagline and has some of the newest installations, media pieces, drawings and paintings in the city filling its high-ceilinged rooms. It’s a chilled-out place to get a drink, too, though you’ll be lucky to get a table around lunchtime.
1: The Hermitage
Yes, you heard right. The Hermitage is free on the first Thursday of the month, though you’ll need to get there very early to get in without queueing for hours. Half an hour-ish before opening time should do you.
It’s a must-see, though I tended to find that the overdone opulence got a bit overwhelming after a few hours, and I couldn’t take any more art classics after that either. But then maybe I’m just an opulence-Scrooge.
Wear comfortable walking shoes and make sure you purchase a ‘photo-allowed’ ticket for about 150 rubles on top of your free entry before you snap away.