More Reflections on Visiting St. Petersburg, Russia

In May 2013, I went to St. Petersburg, Russia for the second time in three years. In 2011, I spoke at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, a business-oriented event that focused heavily on natural resource extraction in Siberia but had a panel on protecting IP in the Internet era. They put 15 speakers on a 75 minute panel, a ridiculous set-up by any measure. (This year, my session had 9 speakers over 3 hours, also ridiculous but in a different way). I enjoyed the trip to St. Petersburg but came away from the trip with subdued enthusiasm.

This time, I was invited to speak on Internet regulation (I presented my “Safe Harbors and Immunities” paper) at the St. Petersburg International Legal Forum, which drew 2,500+ attendees. Having just been to St. Petersburg less than 2 years ago, and recalling the numerous hassles of traveling there, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.

As it turned out, I had a fabulous trip! St. Petersburg still poses challenges to the independent tourist, including the onerous and expensive visa requirements (which actually got worse in the last 2 years), the long flight time, the difficulties with speaking English, the crowds, the high cost, the characteristically lax attention to scheduling details (such as the fact the organizers rescheduled and extended my session time without telling me) and the limited vegetarian support (although this has improved). So why the difference on this trip?

The Food. Last time, I barely ate anything for the week. This time, I actually found decent vegetarian food in St. Petersburg. See my separate blog post on the St. Petersburg vegetarian scene.

Location. On my first visit, the organizers housed me at the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya on the west end of Vasilyevsky Island—a mediocre hotel, with few nearby amenities, and a good 40+ minutes from the heart of town. This time, the organizers placed me in the Hotel Astoria, located at St. Isaac’s Square right in the heart of town. The central location made it easy to walk to restaurants and the major attractions in town.

All Expenses Paid. The organizers paid for virtually everything in Russia: airfare, hotel, ground transportation, most meals, and numerous tourist excursions. It turns out I enjoy things more when they are completely free.

Private Tours. The organizers arranged private tours of many key attractions, including after-hours tours when the crowds were gone. The Hermitage is great no matter what, but it’s even better when there are no crowds and no lines.

In other words, St. Petersburg is a fantastic tourist destination when you get free and special access to its best resources.

I also had comparatively nice weather. I had one day of torrential rain, but the remainder of the time was sunny with temperatures over 70 degrees. In the sunshine, St. Petersburg really sparkles.

Tourist Destinations

Yusupov Palace. St. Petersburg is filled with palaces, and Yusopov Palace lacks the brand recognition associated with the most famous. It was never occupied by legends like Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, nor was it ever a royal palace. Indeed, had it not been included in one of the free conference tours, I probably would not have put it on my destination list. Still, it turned out to be a fine tourist destination. It is a well-preserved palace with many of its original decorations and objets d’art still there (see 1, 2). I was most impressed with the 160-seat private theater, impeccably restored and still in use today—but now open to the public, as opposed to a venue for private performances as initially constructed.

Kronshtadt. Kronshtadt is an island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland—a key location for defending St. Petersburg and other Russian interests on the Gulf of Finland from naval threats. It was so important to the Russian military that it was closed to outsiders until 1996. It’s still a major military town, but now the doors are open to tourists. It’s far enough off the beaten track, however, that not many tourists go, making it an intriguing destination for adventurous tourists looking for something different. (Still, because of its military importance, it’s not a good destination for independent tourists—I recommend a guide).

Six factors detracted from my visit to Kronshtadt:

1) Late start. Typical of Russian scheduling, we left nearly an hour late.

2) Cancelled boat ride. The tour promised we’d travel by boat. Instead, the tour guide said that an impending storm made it possible we wouldn’t be able to get back by boat, so we bussed there instead.

Though Kronshtadt is an island, it’s been connected to the mainland by “dams” that act as wave-breakers to keep massive Baltic Sea waves from pounding St. Petersburg. The dams, however, make the seas between Kronshtadt and St. Petersburg pretty glassy, so I am skeptical about the explanation. I suspect bussing instead of boating saved the tour organizers a fair amount of money. While the drive to Kronshtadt was interesting enough, a boat ride would have been more fun, and the ugly traffic getting over St. Petersburg bridges meant a very long delay getting back to the hotel.

3) Closed attractions. One of the main advertised attractions was the Naval Church, an impressive and beautifully restored church. However, due to renovations, it was closed during the week and only open on weekends. Surely the tour operators knew this, or could have found out…?

4) Unknowledgeable tour guide. Our tour guide knew some about Kronshtadt, but it clearly wasn’t her expertise. She was fumbling around asking for directions, surprised by what was open and closed, and generally not very knowledgeable. Ideally you would get a tour guide who is intimately familiar with Kronshtadt, not just a general St. Petersburg expert.

5) Weather. As feared, the clouds moved in while we were in Kronshtadt, casting a gray pall and sending us for umbrella cover.

6) Uninspired co-travelers. Our group included three French members who pooped out after just a couple of hours and started bitching that they wanted to go back to St. Petersburg, forcing us to turn around earlier than advertised.

Despite all this, Kronshtadt was mildly interesting. They were organizing for a celebration the next day, so we saw numerous naval ships in the harbor on display. We saw abandoned military installations. We also saw a quiet residential community—disorienting after the hustle-and-bustle of St. Petersburg—that was oddly segregated: young male soldiers working by the water, female significant others (some with babies) and older residents strolling and conversing in the residential interior. We also saw a nicely restored Orthodox church with a private tour by one of the priests. Perhaps with a more knowledgeable tour guide and more energetic traveling companions, we could have even seen more interesting things. Otherwise, this was an expensive tour for what I got.

Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin. One of Catherine the Great’s palaces, Pushkin is the home of the notorious Amber Room: a room covered virtually floor to ceiling with amber decorations. The Amber Room was looted during the WW2 German occupation and the original decorations have never been found, making it one of the most mysterious lost artifacts of the modern era. The room has been recreated and is a nice room, but after all of the hype, perhaps I had built it up to impossible expectations.

Otherwise, the palace is similar to other royal palaces. I think it’s unfair to say that if you’ve seen one Russian palace, you’ve seen them all. Each of them has their own mind-boggling hubristic aspects that need to be seen to be believed. Still, if I had to choose between seeing Pushkin and Peterhof because I didn’t have time for both, I think Peterhof gets the nod due to its ocean-side setting and its interesting fountains and gardens.

Other Destinations. Other places I visited on this trip (see my earlier post for reviews), all paid for by the conference organizers:

* Hermitage. It will take many visits to exhaust the exhibits there. This time, the tour guide focused mostly on the architecture. The peacock clock is still amazing.

* Church on Spilled Blood. Still spectacular. An exquisite restoration.

* Peterhof. I still didn’t get into any of the buildings or the upper gardens, but the boat ride to Peterhof was glorious this time (super weather) and the fountains remain amazing.

* Boat ride on Moika Canal. I enjoyed the canal ride a lot more when I wasn’t paying for it and the weather was delightful.

On my own, I went to a celebration at New Holland. New Holland was the original harbor for St. Petersburg, and for 300 years it was closed to outsiders. It’s not fully open yet, but it’s undergoing renovations and is now opened part of the year for celebrations. I went late on a Friday evening with good weather, and the young crowd was engaged in all kinds of games (basketball, Frisbee, ping-pong and much more), lots of drinking and plenty of flirting. The buildings themselves are ominous and foreboding, but the public still doesn’t have great access to them. My hope is that the redevelopers will find a way to make New Holland into a bona fide tourist attraction. It has the potential to be really great.

On my own dime, I also went up St. Isaac’s colonnade for a birds’-eye view of St. Petersburg. On the clear day I had, it was easily worth the $5 entrance price, though with less visibility it wouldn’t be worth it—and the $10 price for evening admission seems pretty steep.

I also tried to watch the bridge raising along the Neva River. As usual, the Russians provided unreliable scheduling information, so I didn’t get to see this spectacle after waiting quite some time.

Perhaps the most stunning street-sight was the Friday evening discovery of a full and quite talented orchestra, with a choral section, performing a symphony for free from the back of St. Isaac’s cathedral. The whole situation was a little silly, as the crowd was on both the near and far side of the street as cars noisily drove between them. Not the best acoustics, but the price was right. As usual, it made me wish there was some way I could have gotten the scheduling information so I could have planned this into my schedule, but therein lies one of the common frustrations of an English-speaking American trying to navigate St. Petersburg.

The Hotel Astoria

The Hotel Astoria is a nice hotel. Its most remarkable feature is its central location, across the street from St. Isaac’s cathedral and just blocks from the Neva River and Nevsky Prospect. You pay a premium for that kind of location, but a prime location is crucial to enjoying the city.

The other standout “feature” of the hotel is its high prices. My room cost $400/night, presumably a discounted rate for the conference organizers. Internet access cost over $25/day (they had two old computers in their business center that I used instead—I never had to wait for one). Afternoon “tea” was about $40. The breakfast buffet (included in my room rate) was an astounding $40. The hotel provided room-temperature bottles of drinking water for free, but cold bottles of water in the mini-bar…well, I don’t even want to know how much mini-bar items cost. The hotel obviously catered to a different economic class of customers than me.

About the breakfast: In the Russian tradition of luxurious excess, the buffet literally was a caviar and champagne buffet. Even more conventional offerings, such as fruit and bread, were better than typical European hotel breakfast fare (although still reflecting the supply challenges of being located at the 60th parallel). I especially liked that they offered soy milk so I could enjoy a bowl of cereal. As hotel breakfasts go, this was one of the nicer ones I’ve had. However, there’s no way I would pay $40 out of my own pocket for it.

My room was decent-sized, with a king bed, a sitting chair, a desk and a decent-sized bathroom. I didn’t ask for a non-smoking room, and there was an ashtray in the room, but I didn’t notice any cigarette smell in the room (and I’m sensitive to such things). The room’s single window looked onto the busy square, but two double-paned windows successfully blocked out most of the noise.

Although there are other first-class hotels in St. Petersburg that might be nicer (the W stands out in my mind), the Hotel Astoria is an excellent choice….if someone else is paying the bills.