When in search of an ultimate getaway, I consider going at my own unhurried style and on my own budget, without breaking the bank. While this is true for all types of travelers, I also factor in the language and the people of the city I go to.
“Isn’t it daunting to wander around Russia?” I replied to Pinky who egged me on to join her for a whirlwind weekend.
Concerned that English is hardly used in the country, I could only imagine the intimidating atmosphere there.
“Let’s take a daring adventure laden with any uncertainty!” she cheered on.
My wary perspective was not given any serious thought as I was distracted by the tempting off-season air ticket rates.
The morning air was bitterly cold outside Pulkovo Airport. After much anticipation, we brought enough winter outfit. We made sure the unforgiving climate didn’t overwhelm us.
St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia and the “window to Europe”, is bursting with stunning scenery and Tsardom history. Even if it’s the second largest state after Moscow, locals who speak straight English are a rarity. Yet, there’s more to the allure of the Russian-European city than meets the eye, which are all great reasons to visit.
Unlike anywhere we’ve been, this westernized region gets its own slice of Amsterdam, Venice and Versailles. The scenic town, set in numerous islands linked by over 300 bridges, is strewn with cream-colored baroque and neo-classical architectural pearls. Near the borders of Finland and Estonia, its distinctive cityscape, monumental landmarks and coastal waters grace travel destination brochures.
Layered up under our winter jackets, we looked around St. Petersburg’s picturesque geology by metro, which is the most convenient and the cheapest in their transport network. In fact, their subway system holds the second deepest metro station record in the world.
Averting rivers, unfavorable areas and moist grounds, Admiralteyskaya Station is 86 meters below the bustling urban scene. The unusual depth takes roughly four minutes by over 125-meter escalators, which may cause some anxiety to those with claustrophobia. The foot traffic drains into the commercial hub of Nevsky Prospekt, the perfect setting to hang out, eat and relax.
We basked in the stunning views on the bank of Neva River and watched the world go by. Along the waters is the enthralling State Hermitage Museum. Formerly known as The Winter Palace, it is evocative of The Louvre in Paris. Art enthusiasts should not miss the opportunity to marvel at its enormous collection of elegant paintings, fine sculptures and delicate artefacts. While a plethora of exhibits resides on its marvelous halls, the façade of its imperial structure is a feast for the eyes when illuminated at night. Buskers create a stir in the palace square where tourists love to converge.
Meandering through the Arch of the General Staff (opposite the Hermitage), we stumbled upon shops of brightly-colored Matryoshka dolls. Nothing is quite like them that I can’t blame myself for buying a 10-piece set!
It was cold enough along Griboedov Canal as we headed for the well-crafted Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built in honor of Emperor Alexander II. Tourists, enamored by the iconic onion domes, capture Instagram-worthy photos of its imposing facade and the elaborate mosaics in its interiors. And yes, the magnificent church is comparable to Moscow’s world-famous St. Basil’s Cathedral.
At the center of the action, the walkways, canals, bridges, waterside restaurants and bars evoked nostalgic memories of my trip in Venice, the Navigli in Milan and Amsterdam.
The next day, we escaped the vibrant city streets, 29 km to the west, for a relaxed change of pace. In the outskirt of the town, we spent a day lazing by the soul-stirring landscape of Peterhof (Dutch for Peter’s Court), a wonderland with extraordinary stories to tell. Restored in its former glory having been heavily devastated in WWII, it’s reminiscent of the majestic palace and sprawling gardens of Versailles in France.
The Grand Palace is as welcoming as it is beautiful. As the royal retreat of Peter the Great in 1714, it dazzles with opulent amenities amidst fountains, statues, woodlands, canals and gardens. Widely known for the grandeur of its museum, this most clicked parkland in Russia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Facing out to the Baltic Sea (Gulf of Finland), the dramatic scene boasts a picture-perfect vista “engineered” by Peter himself. The fountains, powered by underground springs (not motor pumps), come to a standstill in winter that there’s hardly any tourist roaming the complex. However, there is a great deal of walk if you need a deep sense of peace and a quiet moment to be immersed in nature.
The minibus ride from Peterhof to the town center took half an hour. Famished from a long and exhausting walk, we stopped at Tepemok, frequented by tourists for satisfying Russian food, and tucked into the pelmeni, blini and plov (dumplings, crepes and rice pilaf).
“If it snows in Moscow tomorrow, it’ll be my first snowfall!” I alluded.
“Let’s hope the weather leans in our favor,” Pinky wished.
Just as we went off into the night, white flakes were falling down from the sky….