Russia has long been on my list of countries I’d like to visit. Thanks to the visa-free scheme, I could get a glimpse into the world’s largest country via what has to be its most beautiful city.
I generally don’t do much preparation before I travel somewhere. It depends. If I’m going somewhere dangerous I prepare, or somewhere unique like North Korea. But in general I prefer to do the bare minimum. I like to arrive somewhere without having seen all the amazing things to see, and without knowing all the historical significance. That can all be read about later on, but first impressions only happen once.
As I left the port in the shuttle and headed toward the city, I was taken aback by how beautiful the city was. I knew St. Petersburg would be pretty, but I expected more Soviet-influenced drabness. Instead, the buildings and churches were colorful with beautiful architecture. There weren’t tall buildings, which was refreshing. There were, however, lots of extreme luxury vehicles on the road. It wasn’t hard to spot Maseratis, Ferraris, and the like.
I knew Russia’s churches would be beautiful and I do have a soft spot for those onion-shaped domes after seeing some in Kiev, Ukraine. The first one here blew me away though.
I happened to be there just before the summer solstice. The days were long.. very long. I was too jet lagged and sick to stay up, but basically the sun just dips below the horizon for a couple hours at night and then bounces right back up. I remember waking up at 3am to go to the bathroom and the sun was already well on its way toward its morning ascent. There were many events planned for what they call “white nights.”
There were canals throughout the city. They weren’t as plentiful as Amsterdam or Venice, but it was nice to take a small boat tour and see the city from the water.
One thing that surprised me was how fast everyone walked. I’m generally a fast walker, but I felt like a slowpoke there. Everyone seemed to move with a purpose. While I think the Russians are unfairly attributed with stereotypes noting their gloominess and poor customer service, I certainly saw much of this there. That said, customer service was nonexistent in Soviet times and is it really any better to be artificially treated well and smiled at in the U.S. by underpaid service providers? I don’t know. I feel like manners are one of life’s great lubricants, making life pass much more smoothly with manners than without. But then you lose some authenticity and create what psychologists call emotional labor (faking outward emotions that aren’t coherent with how you really feel). I guess if I lived there I’d get used to it, but please don’t misunderstand me. I did meet plenty of kind and smiling Russians while I was there and from previous chapters of my life.
The highlight in St. Petersburg is a visit to the Hermitage, one of the biggest and oldest museums in the world. You could easily spend more than a day in it, and it’s full of art and cultural artifacts. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time and, honestly, I don’t care much for art. I enjoyed walking the streets of St. Petersburg much more than I would have enjoyed spending a day walking around the Hermitage, at least I think that’s the case. There were some areas outside the city I wish I had been able to go to, like Peterhof, but again, I didn’t have time and getting there was complicated. Next time.
One cool museum I did go to was the museum of old Soviet arcade games. They have a big selection of arcade games from the 70s and 80s that you can play. When you pay the entry fee, they give you a bunch of Soviet coins (value of 15 Kopek if I remember correctly) to operate the machines. Most machines were operable, though whether they were playable was a different story. The instructions were all in Russian, so I’m sure I misunderstood the point of some of the games. But for others, like a car racing game I played, I literally just pushed the gas pedal and lined up the car where it should be and I didn’t have to do anything else the whole time 🙂
I didn’t have much Russian food while I was there. I’ve had borscht before, so I tried solyanka for lunch my first day. It was ok. But St. Petersburg was full of Georgian restaurants and I fell in love with Georgian food when I was there. So I had an Adjarian khachapuri for dinner my first night and for lunch my second day. I couldn’t help it! They are so good, though I wish I would have ordered khinkali for one of the meals, Georgian dumplings.