Reflections on My Trip to St. Petersburg, Russia

[See my photo gallery for this trip.]

For people who came of age during the Cold War (like me), the idea of taking a vacation to Russia is intimidating and surreal. For decades, I was propagandized that Russia was The Enemy hellbent on destroying the United States and our way of life. And more than a century ago, my ancestors fled Russia to escape from anti-Semitism and war. Now the Russian government wanted to pay thousands of dollars of travel costs so I could speak less than 5 minutes. It took a while for me to wrap my head around this trip.

The Iron Curtain is gone, but Russia remains a hard place to get to. There are no non-stops from the United States to St. Petersburg, so it’s a long trip. Russia is an awkward 11 hours ahead of California, making real-time travel planning hard. Plus, Russia’s visa requirements are onerous bordering on ridiculous. To get a visa, I had to pay $250 and spend a half-day getting to the San Francisco consulate (including an hour wait just to drop off the application—which I was told is comparatively quick). The visa application asked unnecessarily invasive questions, and the visa is both date- and geography-restricted, precluding any spur-of-the-moment changes in travel plans.

Although the hurdles getting to Russia seemed very Soviet, once I arrived, the remaining Soviet influences were minimal. If anything, St. Petersburg has learned the virtues of a market economy all too well. I found very few bargains. Instead, everywhere I went, someone was trying to pull more cash out of my pocket. Large tourist sites like the Peter & Paul Fortress or Peterhof had a confounding range of optional admissions, each with its own price. St. Petersburg’s tourist industry needs to learn the merits of all-you-can-eat ticket options.

One of my guidebooks indicated that independent tourists need 24 hours to acclimate to St. Petersburg. A new visitor has to navigate at least three challenges:

1) the language. Most street and business signs are in Cyrillic, so they are effectively indecipherable for non-Russian speakers. Even when signs are in the Latin alphabet, they are still in the Russian language. English signage is rare. Some St. Petersburg residents speak English, but many do not; and even the best English-speaking Russians had a dicey grasp of English that created significant barriers to mutual understanding.

2) the water. The guidebooks indicate that the St. Petersburg municipal water might contain giardia and therefore isn’t safe to drink. It took me some time to come up with a cost-effective alternative hydration plan. On the plus side, many venues had free restrooms.

3) transportation. Taxis aren’t regulated, so every fare is negotiated, and taxi drivers love to feast on American tourists. St. Petersburg really needs to impose metered taxi fares. It would increase trust in the system and encourage more spending. The guidebooks recommend having your hotel make the taxi arrangements to increase safety, but the hotels don’t negotiate the rates when they make these calls, and the taxi drivers use that to their advantage.

Tourists who speak Russian might feel comfortable taking advantage of other transportation options, like buses, shared taxis (“marshrutkas”) or commuter trains. After I determined that taxis weren’t reliable, I used the subway. The subway is pretty cheap (25 rubles per ride, less than $1), trains came frequently, and it felt safe to me. The big downside was that the closest subway stop was an over 20 minute walk from my hotel, making it time-consuming for me to get into the central core. Note: the Metro stops at midnight and the bridges over the Neva River start going up as early as 1:30 am to let ships pass through, creating the possibility of getting stuck on the wrong side of the river. If you’re partying late, watch your schedule. Another note: because all of the subway signs are in Russian, the guidebooks helpfully recommend counting stops to your destination.

Because of the visa hassles and the steep acclimation curve, I can make a pretty good case that many short-term visitors to St. Petersburg are better off going through an organized tour than traveling independently.

Once you get there, the highlight is St. Petersburg’s city center–a UNESCO Heritage Site, and justifiably so. This is the result of three key dates in St. Petersburg’s history:

1) 1703, when Peter the Great founded the new capital city from a previously undeveloped swamp.

2) 1917, when the tsar abdicated and the Bolsheviks took over.

3) 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Russia started on the path back to a market economy.

(1941-1944, the Siege of St. Petersburg, is also a crucial milestone, but the siege was rarely discussed or even acknowledged in the touristy areas).

Because St. Petersburg was founded from the ground up, it did not have to work around an existing city layout or architectural style. Further, as the Russian empire’s capital and home of the royal ruling dynasty, from the beginning the city had significant wealth flowing into it from throughout the Russian empire. This resulted in a newly built city with enough money and power to afford world-class European architects.

Then, starting in 1917, the door shut on changes to the city center. Most investment stopped in 1917, so for 70+ years the central core was largely unaffected by the many architectural fads and mistakes of the 20th century.

Thus, the city center is like a time capsule of well-funded 18th and 19th century architecture. For block after block, the city presents architectural gems and an impressive degree of architectural consistency. Subtract the cars and the business signage, and many streets looked very similar to how they looked in the 1910s. This architectural consistency does come at a cost–it restricts the central city’s economic growth, as it suppresses new developments projects in the central city.

Peter the Great also founded the city as Russia’s face to Europe and thus as a “European” city. He succeeded wildly. In addition to the European architects he brought in, the city was built around canals that reminded me a lot of Amsterdam.

St. Petersburg has done a remarkable job cleaning up since the Soviet era. Many of its finest treasures have been restored after decades of neglect or mismanagement. However, St. Petersburg has a tourist “veneer.” Once tourists get off the beaten path, things can be in a pretty serious state of disrepair. For example, the west end of Vasilyesvskiy Island (where my hotel was located) was dominated by massive but run-down Soviet-era concrete block apartments.

As a prosperous capital city, St. Petersburg has a remarkable tradition as Russia’s leading city for arts, literature and intellectuals. I was surprised that the city doesn’t do more to recognize its classical musical heritage. The composers with ties to St. Petersburg is unbelievable: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Borodin, Glazunov and many others who I’m less familiar with. Collectively, these composers fill a few dozen hours in my iTunes. I would have loved to better understand what made this community tick and why it was so successful for so long.

Although the Soviet era is clearly over, its most obvious legacy was overstaffing–everywhere. I couldn’t believe the conference staffing; over dozen staffers were in the room for our 75 minute panel. They were running around looking busy, but I have no idea what most of them were doing. Every tourist attraction had many staff members doing nothing but sitting around watching things. In some cases, like in the Hermitage, that made sense from a security standpoint. In other cases, it seemed to be pretty clearly make-work. Despite the glut of human capital (or maybe because of it), Russian customer service was stereotypically indifferent, if not downright unfriendly. My singular memory of my visit to the city was the many times I was told a terse “nyet” by a dour Russian.

St. Petersburg weather in mid-June was stereotypically marginal. I had 2 half-days of mostly sunny weather. The rest of the time alternated between cloudy, drizzly and occasionally rainy. Temperatures were mild: low 60s to low 70s.

Due to its Northerly location and the scarcity of fresh produce combined with the language barriers, St. Petersburg poses big challenges to vegetarians. I went to three restaurants:

* the Idiot, which numerous guidebooks recommend and was recently written up in the New York Times. It’s easy to see why it gets the raves: it’s conveniently located, it is extremely atmospheric, it caters to American ex-pats, and it offers complimentary vodka shots. Nevertheless, I thought this place was overrated. First, the restaurant has more vegetarian options than many Russian restaurants, but it’s not actually that vegetarian-friendly. Second, my meal was unremarkable. Finally, prices are not cheap. Grade: C.

* Tandoor on Voznesesky Prospect right by St. Isaacs Cathedral. Northern Indian food with numerous vegetarian options. The food was surprisingly good for a city at the 60th parallel; it was competent by my standards. Also not cheap. Grade: B.

* Cafe Botanika on Ul Pestelya near the Summer Gardens. One of the few bona fide vegetarian restaurants in the St Petersburg metro area, and easily the best meal of my visit. I had 4 small blini with honey (delicious), a bowl of borscht, and a soy wrap sandwich. Cost for the three dishes was 660 rubles (about $24)—not cheap, but it kept me full for the day. The interior decoration was hip and modern, and there was a separate two-level play area for kids. This place could relocate to California and compete there successfully. Grade: A.

Tourist attractions and grades:

* Hermitage. Grade: A-. The Hermitage bears many commonalities with the Louvre. It had an amazing mix of depth and breadth in a palatial setting. For me, the deep and high-quality collection of French impressionist paintings were the highlight. There would be an entire room of works by a brand-name artist, and then, whoa! Another whole room of nothing but that artist’s work. Of the many other cool items there, the peacock clock stood out the most. Notes if you go: you have to check your bags, and they charge extra (200 rubles, over $7) for the right to take photographs. One sour note: many of the paintings were visibly damaged (such as significant cracks in the paint), perhaps from being hidden from the Nazis and perhaps from mismanagement. The Hermitage doesn’t seem that careful about managing climate control in the rooms.

* English-speaking canal boat tour from Anglotourismo, located on the Fontanki canal right by Nevsky Prospeckt (Nab. Reki Fontanki 21). Grade: C. I normally take boat tours at the beginning of my visit as a way to get my bearings. Taking it at the end, like I did this time, means that I’d already seen some of the sights. The tour guide’s narration was uninspired, although her English was excellent. It didn’t help that it was raining (a common occurrence), so we couldn’t seen much through the window. I thought this was overpriced.

* St. Isaacs Cathedral. Grade: B. Many official St. Petersburg tourism photos showcase this icon. In addition to its beauty, it earns bonus points for sheer size. I loved the malachite and lapis columns inside the building. We didn’t go up to the colonnade (an extra charge, naturally). You might visit the bar at the top of the W Hotel for a very similar city view without the lines.

* Church on Spilled Blood. Grade: A. Another St. Petersburg icon even though it’s a knockoff of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. It’s a traditional Russian Orthodox church with onion domes done in crazy colors and patterns like it was tricked out by a Disney imagineer. This church was exquisite both inside and out. I was especially impressed with the renovations, which were masterfully done. This place has been spiffed up and perhaps has never looked better. The mosaics were beautiful, but I was even more impressed with the carvings of marble and other precious rocks, some of which were so well-done that I nearly cried. When you’re inside, look all the way up the domes for a friendly surprise. This place is worth the extra investment of an audio tour or a guided tour.

* Peter and Paul Fortress. Grade: A-. The original heart of St. Petersburg, the fortress was filled with interesting sights and had spectacular views across the Neva River to the Hermitage and other mansions along the Neva’s south bank. It was bizarre to see people sunbathing on the island’s “beaches”—and even more bizarrely, swimming in the Neva—on a mild summer day. This was another attraction filled with an overwhelming number of a la carte payment options, so everywhere you turn there is another ticket office.

We made it to the cannon firing at noon (free). This was quite popular, so if you want unrestricted views, get there early enough to be at the front of the line, or pay (yet another a la carte option) to walk along the redoubt’s top and watch the proceedings from on high. For at least 20 minutes, we were entertained by a military band playing Russian national tunes, a rifle company showing off their synchronization and various tricks with their rifles, and the march of a flag company up and down the redoubt. I understand that such displays are designed to inspire patriotism and nationalism, but both my co-traveler and I thought it was another example of overstaffing. It was especially shocking to see the soldiers march into the square doing a variation of the goose-step and doing an arm salute not dissimilar to the Nazi’s salute. Seriously? A tip about the cannon firing: the shooting cannon is on the redoubt’s top–it’s not from the cannons you can see in the square–so many of us in the audience were shocked by the cannonshot even though we knew it was coming.

* Peter and Paul Cathedral (inside the Peter and Paul Fortress). Grade: B. The outside is another spectacular St. Petersburg icon. The inside was mostly raised white marble tombs for royalty, with much debate over whose crypt was located where. We rarely have debates over burial locations in the United States, so all of the location angst seemed characteristically European. The interior, while beautiful, was understated and bordered on unremarkable. While we waited to enter, a four-piece band serenaded us during the noon hour with lovely classical music from the tower.

* Trubetskoy Bastion (inside the Peter and Paul Fortress). Grade: B. This was a key prison for political prisoners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The inmate roster is like a who’s who of well-known Russian dissidents. It looked like a rotation through the prison became a badge of honor—just like a stint in the big house has become a status symbol in the rap community and in certain white collar circles. But the prison was used equally against rebels trying to overthrow the government and later the government officials who got overthrown. The cells were surprisingly big and prisoners sometimes were afforded some luxuries, but overall this seemed like a place I would not want to be. The museum has some redundancies—most of the open cells are identical, and the first and second floors are largely duplicative. Still, I walked away from the museum with a better understanding of why the late 19th century and early 20th century Russian government was so paranoid—it was a time of chaotic efforts to overthrow the incumbents, the government had lots of enemies, and it was trying to manage a stretched empire. I could sort of see how it became hard to distinguish friend from foe.

* Peterhof. Grade: C+. Peterhof was a huge testament to the seemingly limitless wealth of Russia’s rulers. In retrospect, it’s a demonstration of royal excess. The Russian rulers weren’t satisfied with having a few palaces, so they kept building more and more. Even in Peterhof, Catherine the Great built a hermitage (translated, a “retreat”) so she could get away from the main palace, which itself was the summer vacation home from St. Petersburg. Seriously? You need a retreat from your retreat?

Further on the theme of excess, the grounds were filled with many expensive-to-maintain developments: grassy areas, sculptured gardens, and lots and lots of fountains. If you’re the ruler of Russia, how much time are you going to have to enjoy the bottom dozen least-interesting fountains at your summer home? I did like some of the whimsy on display in the fountains, such as the trick fountains and the dragons at a fountaintop.

It’s always funny to see the 18th and 19th century concept of “nature,” fully on display here. Nature was something to be managed, not to be left in its original state. Viewed from the modern perspective, Peterhof would have benefited if more land remained undeveloped and the attractions were consolidated more closely together.

Much of the property has been nicely renovated after Nazi Germany looted and ransacked the place, but clearly it’s a work-in-progress—especially when compared with places like the Church on Spilled Blood, which is positively gleaming after its comprehensive renovation.

I lowered Peterhof’s grade due to the oppressiveness of the multitudinous pay-as-you-go options. They really need to provide an all-you-can-eat option to enjoy everything at Peterhof, rather than nickel-and-diming people at many different minor attractions (which each required at least 2 people, the ticket seller and ticket-taker—another example of the overstaffing problem).

I also lowered the grade because different attractions were open and closed on different days. If you really wanted to enjoy everything, you have to select your visit day carefully. As it turned out, the Grand Palace was closed on Mondays, the day I went. I probably couldn’t have rescheduled, but still, it pays to research the options in advance.

I also couldn’t tell if my ticket to the Lower Garden allowed me to exit, go to the Upper Gardens (and pay more), and then reenter the Lower Gardens so I could get back to the hydrofoil at the dock without paying another entrance fee. The ticket probably told me, but it was in Russian, and English-speaking help seemed scarcer here than in St. Petersburg. In all, I was a little baffled trying to navigate everything.

Despite all this, I enjoyed walking around the Lower Gardens. The Grand Cascade was a sight to behold, even after the Vegas casinos have tried surpassing it nearly 3 centuries later. Even some of the lesser-celebrated fountains, such as the pyramid fountain and the Roman fountain, impressed me greatly. I also just liked walking around the less developed parts and seeing a bit of (cultivated) Russian landscapes. The views across the Gulf of Finland were nice, although I’m sure it would be nicer on one of the rare sunny days.

I took the hydrofoil to Peterhof from the dock right in front of the Hermitage. This was a nice way to see the city from the water and was a quick (35 minutes) and convenient way to get back and forth. However, it was an expensive option—800 rubles (nearly $30) for the round-trip—and if you can’t exit and reenter the Lower Gardens for one fee, then taking the hydrofoil further limits your options. Considering the total costs, I’m not sure the trip was a great value. Some friends recommended Pushkin, a different summer royal retreat, as an alternative. Its highlight—a room covered completely by amber, even though it was recreated after Nazis looted the original—sounds mighty nifty.

* Hotel. Grade: C-. I stayed four nights in the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya on the west end of Vasilyevskiy Island. Unless you have some reason to be out in the sticks, I cannot recommend this hotel. I stayed there because the conference arranged it and then generously covered my entire stay. I was happy to accept a poorly located hotel for this tradeoff.

The hotel ranks itself “four stars” by Russian standards, but this would be more like a 2.5 star business hotel in the US. The accommodations were clean enough, but the furnishings were dated. There was no free wi-fi, and the breakfast was average for vegetarians (in fairness, there were several hot entrees, just none I would touch). The hotel doesn’t provide shampoo conditioner or soap bars, and with just one soap dispenser by the sink, taking a shower involves lots of stepping out to get soap. The room size was large by European standards.

However, my real gripes were two-fold. First, I was on the entrance side of the hotel, so my room was very noisy from people talking loudly to each other while smoking outside the entrance door and buses idling in the motorway. Melatonin and noise-canceling headphones ameliorated the problem substantially.

Second, and more seriously, getting to the “cool” stuff in the city center took time (and, depending on how you go, money). The nearest metro station was a 20+ minute walk, so even a trip to Nevsky Prospeckt (2 metro stops away) took 40+ minutes. Depending on where I had to walk from there, it could easily take close to an hour to get to my destination via the metro. Driving might be quicker, but that depended on sometimes-gnarly traffic and, of course, dealing with the taxis looking to fleece American tourists. Furthermore, there were virtually no other support services, such as restaurants or other retail stores, adjacent to the hotel. Finally, the hotel basically doubled its price during the conference I attended, making it a grossly overpriced option during that time.

Two of my American colleagues stayed at the W hotel instead, perfectly located right in the heart of things between the Hermitage and St. Isaacs Cathedral. Now THAT is a nice hotel!!! However, I believe the W cost 6x my room’s rate, so it’s hard to say the W is a better value.