St. Petersburg is a charmer from first sight. Pastel-painted 18th and 19th century buildings are like jewelry boxes begging to be opened.
Thankfully, we had five days and six nights to explore Russia’s second largest city of 5 million.
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, this once swampy, flood-prone land with access to the Baltic Sea became the emperor’s Naval headquarters and his grand experiment in building the city of his European travel dreams. Just stroll the streets and you'll see that he succeeded, thrusting Russia onto the cultural world stage.
Here's my snapshot of trip bests, eats and treats.
Faberge Museum. The Hermitage is a must-see museum, but don’t overlook the Faberge Museum, too.
Thanks to billionaire Viktor Vekselberg buying Malcolm Forbes’ collection of Faberge eggs and renovating a palace worthy of their display, you can see the greatest number of eggs made for the Romanof monarchy and many other nobles in one room.
There you’ll find the first and last egg ever made for the family. In all, the Romanofs acquired 50 eggs – sometimes at the rate of two a year for the wife and mother of Nicolas II. Each of these intricate, bejeweled eggs holds a surprise, ranging from family portraits painted on ivory to crowing rooters to clocks and carriages.
In addition to the eggs, you can explore thousands of Faberge- and other designer-made silverware, cigarette cases, snuff boxes, belt buckles and more.
There are plenty to see. We visited the winter palace at the Hermitage, Peterhof, Pavlovsk Palace, Catherine Palace and Yusupov Palace.
It's easy to get palace overload, so if I were to prioritize them, don't miss Peterhof, Catherine Palace and the winter palace. Peterhof is easily a favorite with its 200 acres of land and beautiful fountains.
Grand fountains burst at Peterhof
Intricate designs are still created in the amber room workshops.
Winter palace at the Hermitage
Catherine's son Paul's pad, Pavlovsk Palace
Elaborate dining service at Pavlovsk Palace
Take the hydrofoil to get to Peterhof for a ride through the Bay of Finland.
Architectural prowess. We knew the architecture would be impressive with most of the city built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The renovations are impressive, especially when you see the photos of ruins after WWII and consider the neglect during the Soviet times. However, many building are in need of much TLC. With that said, I had to keep reminding myself of the age of these grand Neoclassical, Rococo and Russian baroque buildings.
How many tourists visit this city. We're talking busloads at every major sight – and we thought we were traveling slightly off season in September.
The number of Roman Orthodox churches worth seeing. Don't miss:
- Saint Isaac's Cathedral's impressive dome, bronze doors, beautiful marble, malachite and lapis columns inside and out, and city views from atop
- Church of Spilled Blood's ornate onion-domed exterior and heavenly mosaic interiors
- Kazan Cathedral is conveniently located off Nevsky Prospekt and worth dropping by for a quick peek
Saint Isaac's Catherdral
Grand bronze doors at Saint Isaac's
Church of the Spilled Blood
Don't plan to wear your coat in the restaurant. St. Petersburg and Russia overall take their coat check service seriously. It's the first order of business at just about every restaurant.
Smiling is unnecessary. I didn't get a sense that Russians were unfriendly, but you won't find many smiling on the streets. They appear much more serious.
I read somewhere that if you pass a Russian on the street and they see you smiling, they either think something extremely funny must have just happened, you're drunk or you're crazy. I learned to curb my Midwestern friendliness during our trip.
Fearless walking. Terrifying as it seemed, if a street crosswalk wasn't marked with a streetlight, pedestrian right-of-way ruled. It was a true test of faith on the busy streets, sometimes earning a honk if you hesitated to cross.
Flower envy. Restaurants are well equipped with vases to handle the bouquets of flowers streaming through its doors. As I later read, flowers are a common gift in Russia. Just be sure to bring an odd number of stems – otherwise it’s bad luck.
Any chance I got to order a plate of "Russian pickles," I did. More than just the pickles themselves, which have the perfect amount of dillness and sourness to them, were all the other accouterments including sauerkraut, tomatoes, plums and apples.
We also loved the meat-filled pies, assorted polemy (dumplings) topped with sour cream, Russian salad of mayonnaise, peas and cubed ham, borsch with dollops of sour cream (this seems to be Russians’ No. 1 condiment), cream of cauliflower soup, stroganoff and chicken Kiev. This is hearty and delicious fare for the long winter months.
Best restaurant experiences
Gogol. In our dining room, a nonstop pianist churned out old Russian tunes with barely a break. She even outlasted the long-stemmed candle burning on our table. This charming, dimly lit restaurant is a must-do for Russian food. Be warned, you'll want to come hungry.
Happiness Cafe. This was the kind of spot I’d enjoy spending a lazy afternoon sipping coffee and reading the paper. Abundant natural light pours through the windows of this modern yet cozy establishment. We had a pastrami wrap with a pickle, sauerkraut and mustard mix that was unlike any other I've tried. It was fantastic. This place is great for salads, soups, sandwiches and desserts.
PMI Bar. Get your burger fix and enjoy city views. To fully enjoy some amazing views on the terrace, you’ll want to go on a warm day, but fortunately the high windows block most of the wind and heaters are available. There's only one burger on the menu, which includes lots of other good contemporary offerings, but that's all you need. That served with some excellent fries will satisfy your burger tooth.
Podvorye. We stopped by this wooden restaurant in the village of Pavlovsk on our way back from visiting Catherine Palace. It looks kitschy and touristy, but do not miss it. Though it resulted in a serious food coma the rest of the day, it was worth every bite.
You arrive to a table covered in Russian temptations including a bottle of vodka and Russian red and white wine. Pickles, sour cream covered beef, sliced pork, cheese-topped tomatoes and a basket of bread start your meal. Then borsch followed by cabbage rolls followed by blintzes with ice cream find themselves on your table. Resisting is futile.
Then the roving band of singers makes its way to your table. You'll be asked to join in and learn a traditional musical instrument. Don't worry. It's as easy as scarfing down the food around you.
You should then explore the grounds, which include of coop of fancy-looking chickens, seesaws and a farm animal-inspired carousel.
Persorco. I know many may scoff at the idea of eating at your hotel, but when you’re staying at a Four Seasons, it's always a good choice. We had one of our best contemporary Italian meals here. Not only does the decor take you into a beautiful, cozy world of high design, it feels slightly exotic and celebratory.
Sinhoto. Ditto on the decor of this Four Seasons restaurant. During our stay, they were celebrating the Harvest Moon with a special tasting menu. Every dish sent our tastebuds into salivation mode – and that wasn’t just from the spiciness. Each flavor combination built on one another.
The meal ended with a light and unique dessert of moon cakes, which were used in the sixth century to pass secret notes between Chinese soldiers during the Mongolian invasion. Message intercepted: Don't miss eating here.
Where to stay
Four Seasons Lion Palace is the perfect combination of history and modernity with its recent renovation and 2014 opening. The converted 19th-century Russian royal palace is centrally located and offers excellent restaurant options.
Most memorable moments
Looking up at all of the brightly colored mosaic walls and ceilings in the Church of the Spilled Blood. The church was built in honor of Alexander II, who was one of the most beloved tsars for his reforms that included the abolishment of serfdom.
Listening to an a cappella choir as we watched a Russian Orthodox Church service. During services, only standing is allowed by worshippers. A screen of icons, never statues that could lead to idolatry, separates the altar from the masses.
Standing in Palace Square to contemplate Russia’s history of tsars, revolutions, communist rule and turn toward democracy. Towering at just under 156 feet, Alexander Column, is affixed to its base via gravity, which also is hard to believe. It commemorates Russia’s victory in the war with Napoleon’s France.
Uber works like a charm in Russia. With language barriers, it makes navigating and communicating via GPS a snap. If you don't want to use your data roaming, just be sure to connect via wifi at your restaurant or a nearby cafe before selecting a ride and enter your destination before you leave.
Preparing for your visit
Read “Catherine the Great” by Robert Massie. This is now one of my favorite historical books and quickly draws you into the world of tsardom. It actually reads like a gossip column, weaving in historical details that stick with you and have you rooting for Catherine and her destiny to become great and one of the most powerful women in the world.
Disclaimer: allow some time to read it. I was only part way through as I wrote this but loved reading it during our travels. However, read it before if you can to make the most of your sightseeing.
Read “51 Ways to offend a Russian: An American Blunders Through Russia” by Marshall Lincoln. It's a breezy fun read about the cultural norms of Russia.
Watch the History Channel's "History of the Tsars."
Learn a few key phrases. Yes, they may smile as you politely butcher their language, but at least they know you’re trying. While difficult to remember, we at least mastered the basics. A great tip I got from our guide on saying thank you was to remember two English items, "spa" and "sea bass (the second word pronounced "ba"). "Spa-sea-ba" for that tip.
Don't forget to bring
Warm clothes. We were there in early September and I was so happy we brought warm jackets. Remember, this place gets quite a bit of rain and wind, so bring a warmer-than-you-expect jacket for the temperature. I later wished I had added a light sweater layer for our city walks.
Your preconceptions about Russia. Revert to your inner child. Bring your childlike wonder and innocence to take it in.
Your high heels. Even in the evening, you’ll probably be walking to dinner. If you do want to wear high heels, pack comfy, light shoes you can wear walking to the restaurants and then exchange them for heels packed in your purse. In general, this tourist town is casual. Even for our finest meals, dressy jeans would suffice.
What are your favorite things about St. Petersburg? What are your tips for making the most of a trip there?