Russia, and especially St. Petersburg, is full of exciting cultural experiences waiting to be discovered. In St. Petersburg it seems like around every corner there is something new to see or do. Although we were there for three weeks, I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer and I’d love to go back someday.
Palavani: This place is a Georgian restaurant and wine bar with deeeeelicious food. I honestly still dream about it. If you go you have to get the khachapuri, oven baked bread stuffed with cheese. It’s to die for. The rest of the food is equally delicious and so are the Georgian wines. We tried to go back for a second time on our last night and it was closed for a private event. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so disappointed.
Stolle: We ate here for lunch one day after we went to the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. It’s just a short walk away and it’s a good, budget friendly café. They serve different types of Russian pies, both sweet and savory (we got both).
Rada-k: This vegetarian buffet was just a block over from our flat so it was a perfect spot for a quick and easy lunch, that also happened to be darn good food. Also, very good price for a good amount of food.
You must make sure to try the famous Russian blinis at one of the many shops around town - they are everywhere, you can’t miss them!
After a frantic scramble to find a place to stay (after we were already in St. Petersburg) with a kitchen and internet, we ended up with this great airbnb flat. If you need something for a longer stay, like we did, or you like to have a kitchen to cook in, this is a great option. It was spacious flat with all the amenities and close to the center of the city, which was exactly what we needed.
Hermitage Museum: A must see when in St. Petersburg. It’s one of the oldest and largest art museums in the world; you could spend weeks in there and not see everything. Not only is there exquisite art in the museum, the rooms themselves are works of art. Everything is so ornate you will be left in awe. Entrance is free for students and children and free for everyone the first Thursday of every month.
Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre: One of the things on my must-do list, while in Russia, was to see a ballet. The Mariinsky Theatre is the most famous historic theatre in St. Petersburg, which holds ballets, operas and orchestra performances today. We saw the Shurale ballet while we were visiting and it’s was absolutely amazing. The theatre is gorgeous, I felt like I had stepped back in time. If you can afford it, I’d suggest sitting in the first row of the dress circle right next to the Czar’s box. You will have a great view of everything and will not be disappointed!
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood: The first night we arrived in St. Petersburg, another student took us on a walk around the center of town. It was already dark and we had no idea where we were going so when we turned the corner down one street and looked up to see this magnificent church that we had seen so many pictures of, we were stunned. Obviously, it’s much better to see it during the day time when you can really take in all the bright colors and get the full effect of its fairly tale-like nature. The inside is just as amazing, if not more, than the outside. It’s covered, wall to wall, with mosaics. If you have time, I’d recommended taking a peek inside.
Summer Garden: This garden is just a short walk from the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. It’s worth taking at least a short stroll through to see all the marble statues. If the weather is nice, it would be a great place to stay and relax for a bit outside.
St. Issac’s Cathedral: Another magnificent cathedral that’s just as breathtaking outside as it is in. If you’d like, you can also climb to the top for a panoramic view of St. Petersburg!
Peter and Paul Fortress: Peter the Great established this fortress to protect the capital city from Swedish attach during the Northern War. Lots to see around the area!
Pushkin: We took a day trip to Pushkin and it was perfect - it’s definitely worth a trip. If you want to go into all of the palaces and churches, you’ll probably want to get there early morning so you can do it all. To get there from St. Petersburg you can take the purple metro line (line 5) to the Pushkinkaya stop. From there you will walk about 5 minutes to get to the Tsarskoye Selo Railway. The train costs about 40 rubles round trip, from St. Petersburg to Pushkin. A bonus is you’ll get to ride in the oldest public railway in Russia. The railway station itself is a site to see. If you’re wanting to just stroll around the town, like we did, you don’t need to worry about leaving so early in the morning because after 6:00 pm Catherine’s Park has free entrance.
If you’re looking for something to take home with you, the Souvenir Boutique has lots of good quality options. There are other souvenir shops all of over town, seriously everywhere, but I thought that this one seemed to be much better quality, since most of the items are handmade.
Pushkin, what a enchanting little town. It is named after one of Russia’s most famous poets, Alexander Pushkin, who spent many years studying there. The town itself is full of history, palaces and parks. We took a day trip from St. Petersburg on the oldest railway in Russia and spent our time wandering around, admiring the colors and grand buildings, on the most perfect fall day. As we were strolling around one of the parks, we started to notice everyone carrying around bunches of leaves. Soon we saw that they were using them to make autumn leaf crowns to celebrate the season. It’s not a holiday or a formal celebration, just a fun activity that people like to do during this time of year. One nice woman made our day by letting us try on her crown for just a minute! It’s the little things in life. And I'm easily amused.
Our trip to St. Petersburg came about through my teaching practice. Our partner university is in Russia, so the program was designed so that our second practice would take place there. I found out about this trip at our first program meeting when we got to Finland. It had been a crazy, whirlwind of a week trying to get settled in a new country so I was a little taken aback when I heard about it (and not in a good way). I wasn’t even used to this whole idea that I was going to be living in Finland for the next two years and you’re sending me to Russia?? Needless to say, it was just my overwhelmed, irrational self that freaked out a bit in that moment and I soon built up lots of excitement about the trip.
I’m a planner at heart. I love looking forward and making plans about what we’re going to do, where we’re going to go and how we’re going to do it. Checking things off my to-do lists - yep, it’s the best. I realize that sometimes I do this to a fault and this was one of those times that I was forced to learn that lesson the hard way. I was ready to start checking things off my list in January (and we weren’t going until October), but some of the other people, the ones that could make things happen, did not seem to share my urgency. In fact, they had quite the opposite plans. They were going to wait until the very last minute to issue all the paperwork so we could apply for our visas. It stresses me out just thinking about it again.
So there we were, a little over a month away from our trip, applying for our visas in Helsinki. And we were prepared. From previous experience with visa applications we knew that we needed to double and triple check all the required documents so that everything would go smoothly, and we did. We’re standing there, in the application office, in front of the woman carefully checking all of our stuff, holding our breath. Then it came - ok, everything is ready, your visas will be sent to you be next week. What WHAT!! We left the office, fist pumping the air and high fiving like we had just won the lottery. We did it, we’re going to Russia!! Then reality quickly set in and I realized that we had left our passports in the office. So we casually knocked on the door and informed the lady that we had accidentally left our passports with her. Yes, and I will send them back to your next week. Hm. Now that’s going to be a problem. You see, we are leaving tomorrow on a little trip to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England and Ireland…and I think they’re going to want us to have our passports. And just like that we were walking out, with all of our documents in hand, and told to come back when we could leave our passports. All our hard work right down the drain…at least for another month.
Obviously, because I am writing about our trip, we were successful in finally getting our visas and everything else slowly but surely fell into place. The three weeks we spent in St. Petersburg were full of all kinds of confusing, unfamiliar, and unforgettable moments, but my favorite one of all was eating with babushka. One Sunday afternoon one of the girls in my program took us to her grandparents flat outside of St. Petersburg for a traditional Russian meal. I was pretty pumped about the whole thing because I love trying local cuisine, especially when it’s home-cooked. On our bus ride there, we were warned that her grandparents didn’t speak any English. The only words I knew in Russian were hello, thank you and goodbye, which wasn’t going to get us very far. When we walked into the very small, modest flat, we were immediately greeted by a huge smile and lots of words that we didn’t understand. She ushered us into the living room which clearly had been set up with a nice table setting just for us. The conversation started slow, with introductions and basic questions you ask when meeting someone new, and my new friend translating everything we said to each other. And then came the food, and with that a flood of conversation and laughter around the table. Babushka (Russian for grandmother) led the conversation and instigated fits of laughter with everything she said. At one point she asked Scott what he did for a living and he responded, not going into detail, that he worked with computers for a U.S. company. Soooo, you’re a spy?! she asked, with a sly smile on her face. Babushka!! - my friend immediately scolded her and we all had a good laugh. By the end of our time there we had accumulated hand knit socks, a traditional Gzhel ceramic horse and one of her beloved postcards of Russian art. It was so special. I will never forget how warm and generous she was, inviting strangers into her home and spoiling us with delicious food and showering us with gifts. And I will always think of her when I am curled up on the couch in my multi-colored socks.