Notes on...

St Petersburg: now's the right time to visit Russia's rebel city

Book your holiday for May or June, when the light-hearted locals are emerging from winter hibernation

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

Looking across the wide Neva from Vasilyevsky Island, the Palace Embankment shimmers in the river, suspended between water and sky. Raised on a marsh by violence and sheer force of will, there are few cities more impossible, and more beautiful, than St Petersburg. It’s worth going for the view alone, and you should — now, while the rouble is weak.

Thrown up in only 50 years in the 1700s, St Petersburg is a vast stage-set upon which imperial society played at being European. Nowadays, you too can choose your role. Would-be Rostovs can take a box at the Mariinksy and spend one day at the Hermitage, and the next day out at Tsarskoye Selo and the Catherine Palace. Or, on the other hand, you can skulk like Raskolnikov down the back streets and canals, ducking into dive bars and checking out guitar bands.

There is plenty of underground, in both senses of the phrase. St Petersburg is the bohemian student to Moscow’s brash party animal, and the locals have a proud history of telling authority where to stick it. It’s no accident that the birthplace of the Russian Revolution is also the home city of Pussy Riot and Pyotr Pavlensky, the Putin-baiting performance artist who nailed his scrotum to Red Square.

So, when to go? Winters can be cold and summers humid, so May and June are best. The weather is warm and the streets are alive with light-hearted locals who have recently emerged from hibernation. Winter can, with luck, yield brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies, but you’ll have to hedge your bets.

This far north, summer nights consist of a couple of hours of purplish haze before dawn breaks again. Closing time is an alien concept, and with the city’s thriving bar culture (I recommend trying the buckwheat or lingon-berry vodka) it’s hard to know when to call it a night. If you’re staying on one of the islands, getting home has an extra frisson of excitement. The Neva bridges open at scheduled times of night to let shipping through, then stay open for several hours. Cut it fine and the taxi ride becomes a demented scramble to cross the bridge in time.

If you’re staying in a hotel, choose wisely. If you’re very unlucky, you might find radiators that don’t turn off, drilling in the corridor, and a rubbery breakfast buffet. An alternative is to rub shoulders with the locals and take an apartment in a ‘Home Stay’. Andrey and Sasha’s, where I stayed, is full of bohemian charm and backs on to the Griboyedov Canal. The hosts were away when I visited, but their friend Serge — a linen-suited Anglophile, radio presenter and bon vivant — stood in admirably, even inviting me to hear him sing jazz standards at a club called The Hat.

Food-wise, you needn’t worry. You won’t find authentic parmesan here since Russia imposed its retaliatory ban on western food imports. You will, however, find some excellent modern places making a virtue of a necessity and doing impressive things with local produce. And besides, you’ve got the culinary bounty of the former Soviet states to choose from — Ukrainian, Uzbek, Armenian and Georgian, surely the most underrated of all the national cuisines. Some argue that Georgian baked goods are the best in the world — and who am I to disagree?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • HJ777

    Fabulous city. I was there early October – also a great time to go.

    • George

      My thanks – I was thinking about St. Petersburg for my holiday next year – you may well have decided the matter for me!

      • HJ777

        It is truly remarkable.

        Do take an evening cruise along the rivers/canals as it gets dark. The experience is one that will stay with you for a very long time.

        Eating out is very inexpensive. You can pay a lot for a hotel in the centre but it has an excellent underground system and if you are prepared to stay a little way out from the centre you can stay really inexpensively.

        On the way from the airport you do see quite a few soviet era buildings (not that bad, actually) but don’t be fooled – the main part of the city has more fabulous buildings and sights than you can take in – and is unspoiled by the type of ugly modern buildings that blight most large cities. The Russians don’t do modest when it comes to architecture – big, elegant, colourful and beautiful is what they go in for, which is exactly my taste.

        If you have ever been to Budapest and liked it then you can be sure of liking St. Petersburg at least as much (and the scale is much bigger). I can’t wait to go back.

        • George

          My sincere thanks for taking the time to write of your experiences and recommendation; I’m making notes!

          I’m fairly young and like to cut corners with travel arrangements; hence I intend to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg with VJV so they do all the touring legwork for me. I will, however, investigate the evening canal trip; my hotel is smack bang in the centre and a few minutes walk from one of the main canals.

          Regarding architecture; didn’t the Soviets adopt a variant of Art Deco before the Brutalist movement gained influence? I believe Moscow University (?) is an example of the geometric ‘step-up’ design pattern. Regardless, I love what Art Deco does in the respect of adorning buildings with human figures and symbolic iconography in bas-relief – I know plenty of Soviet-era Russian buildings do this.

          Thanks once again!

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Only the people are nihilistic and deranged.

    • No Man’s Land

      It felt oddly frozen in a period to me, I fell in love with the place beautiful, charming and melancholic.

      • HJ777

        Yes, I know what you mean.

        It didn’t feel exactly like that to me, however, since I was there on a sports club trip and we stayed in an area a short distance from the centre on an island where there are also many modern developments, especially sports facilities (such as the new football stadium for the World Cup) so we got a real flavour of the new as well as the old.

        Magical place. I loved the old Soviet era doughnut shop (one of our group was a native of St. Petersburg and grew up there in Soviet times). It serves nothing but ring doughnuts (just 14p each!) and coffee sweetened with condensed milk.

        One of things that impressed me was how good a job the city authorities do in maintaining public buildings and places – putting many local authorities here to shame.

  • The Baltic Barcelona.

  • A real liberal

    A recent very long weekend was full of astonishment and surprise. What a remarkable city. Stay at the recently refurbished Official State Hermitage Hotel before the prices go up. Don’t expect too much from the Mariinsky. Eat at Severyanin. Bliss.

  • rationality

    An absolutely beautiful city full of imperial grandeur. The Church of the Saviour of Blood is truly one of the most amazing churches I have ever seen particularly its history of being built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II in 1881 was murdered by one of those with revolutionary spirit that caused so many problems to Russia throughout the years. I was lucky to go in June so drinking when it was still light at 1 in the morning is strange. Also what surprises me is how friendly the Russians are.

    And they want to go war with a magnificent European culture such as this?

    • HJ777

      I agree with you about St. Petersburg and the people.

      But who is this “they” who wants to go to war against them?

      • rationality

        NATO (Breedlove recently talking of the Russian threat. Wanting to put troops and weaponry into Poland and the Baltics)
        Media (constantly telling lies and demonisation of the Russians and Putin)
        UK (talks tough about Russia but does zilich about the invasion)

        This what the left is like when it has no influence in a country. Petulant, psychotic and deceitful.

        • HJ777

          How does any of that constitute “wanting to go to war”?

          Your moniker is poorly chosen.

          • rationality

            It is rational to debate where this is going with the evidence we know about. I dont fancy our chances against Russia.

          • HJ777

            Having and reinforcing troops and weaponry in NATO countries didn’t precipitate a war with Russia before, did it? I rather think it deterred it, which was its purpose.

          • rationality

            Things have moved on. There was the Soros funded colour revolution in the Ukraine and the provocation against Russian nationalities in the east of the country trying to draw Russia in. Remember how the media spun that?

            Additionally our governments allow millions of fighting age Muslims into our lands so yes it is within their nature to start something stupid. This is a rational train of thought.

          • HJ777

            The word you are thinking of is random, not rational.

          • rationality

            I’m sorry that you cant follow rational thinking when discussing the problems that Russia faces from the oligarchical collectivists in the West and where this could lead. Its quite important that geopolitical affairs are discussed in these crazy times.

          • HJ777

            I can follow rational thinking.

            The problem is that you don’t demonstrate any. “Oligarchal collectivists in the West” indeed.

          • rationality

            You dont understand what is going on. I have tried to debate with you but because of your lack of understanding you cant follow the process.

            For example in Russia Putin kicked out the oligarchs or jailed them such as Beresovsky and Khordokovsky. So the oligarchs have little power in Russia and they’re sore about this. As the oligarchs have so much power in the West they act petulantly against Russia and I’m talking about Soros and Victoria ‘Fck the EU’ Nuland and their antics.

            If theres a subject you dont know anything about, ask or dont get involved. But definitely dont accuse me of ignorance when its yours that is the problem. Its the rational outcome.

          • HJ777

            So you’re a conspiracy theorist who is convinced that only he knows the real story because of his superior insight. I had a neighbour once who was Jesus reincarnated – but who was surrounded by ignorant people like me who just couldn’t understand. You would have, of course.

            These oligarchs who were kicked out or jailed are apparently deciding western government policy – which is to precipitate war against Russia.

            Yeah, right.

          • rationality

            I thought that the term conspiracy theorist was only used nowadays by the media to smear people who talk about the governments dirty secrets. When we have millions of unskilled Islamics coming to Europe and there being no conspiracy to be rather naive dont you? Or what about the WMD in Iraq conspiracy? Its no longer a conspiracy when they get found out or is beyond plausibility.

            Yes the oligarchs are the ones controlling Western government policy. What do you think this insanity is we are living under now is all about? Soros, Rothschilds, the media moguls, banking families Have you followed the Maidan uprising? Have you spoke to people in Kiev (wonderful place by the way) or Russia about this? If you want to know how oligarchical collectivists works, read 1984. Its all there.

            You havent been red pilled yet have you?

          • HJ777

            I was right about random.

            Loony and deluded were the other words I should have used.

          • rationality

            I have said several times that if you dont understand something dont get involved but you did and you parade your ignorance like a virtue. Its like trying to explain to a child quantum physics. They will say ‘its stupid!’ as they dont understand or care how it works. You asked a question. I have given a response and you act like a child and show the same psychological response.

          • HJ777

            Yes, you keep saying the same thing. Doesn’t make it any less ridiculous though.

            I wouldn’t even try to explain quantum mechanics to you as you are clearly not up to following any of it (my degree is in physics, by the way).

          • rationality

            Again you fail to grasp the analogy. I couldnt care less what your degree is in. I was using an example of the process of psychological dismissal when a given subject is not understood. Stands to reason that you in particular arent getting that very clear point I am making. Regarding the subject of physics, I wouldnt go on a comments board and start making a fool of myself because I dont understand how it works (or care for that matter).

            Yes it is a ridiculous world. Russia invited the Allies to help him take out ISIS which he did and I am grateful but why didnt the Allies want to detroy these Islamic nutters? Or taking in millions of fighting age Muslims with links to ISIS on ‘humanitarian; grounds. Its an utterly insane world. Where have you been that you dont know this?

          • HJ777

            You clearly have no difficulty coming on a comment board and making a fool of yourself.

            You seem to relish it.

          • rationality

            You said earlier that the reasons for the animosity against Russia sounded ridiculous so I have given evidence of other ridiculous things going on and asked you why this was the case. You in turn have traded a school ground level retort rather like the child in the analogy I gave and you failed to grasp, ‘its stupid!’ These boards are meant for discussing issues which you have yet to do.

          • HJ777

            Like I said.

          • rationality

            These boards are meant for discussing issues which you have yet to do.

          • HJ777

            I have better things to do with my time than discussing the lunatic delusions of someone who thinks that western governments are controlled by disgruntled Russian oligarchs who are going to make them declare war on Russia.

            Goodbye. I shall not waste any more time on you.

          • rationality

            I didnt say George Soros or Victoria Nuland were Russian.

            You miss the point YET again.

            Come on you just wanted to have a pop but I wouldnt back down and now you’re acting as though you’re superior when you clearly dont have a clue what I’m talking about. Go to Russia and you might find out and then we perhaps could have a mature conversation.

            Прощай дебил

          • HJ777

            What would you know about mature conversation?

          • rationality

            And around and around it goes.

            I am… forget it I cant be bothered any more.

          • HJ777

            Thank goodness.

          • SunnyD

            I always read your posts with interest. Twasn’t so long ago I myself was lambasted by many and felt alone in (what felt like) a cold dark conspiratorial world (well perhaps it was about 20 years ago). Please don’t change

          • rationality

            Many thanks! I dont come here to make enemies but I do tend to annoy people as these ideas we have challenge people’s preconceived ideas. When we have millions of fighting age Muslims coming here in the guise of humanitarianism and this isnt questioned it is maddening.

            I wont change. Theres too much at stake.

          • HJ777

            “you clearly dont have a clue what I’m talking about.”

            That makes two of us.

  • Father Todd Unctious

    St Petersbury sounds like a village in Midsomer Murders.

  • Hegelman

    I knew Leningrad well in Soviet days. It was the most unearthly and fabulous place imaginable. The whole of the USSR was like that: sheer magic. For all its faults and crimes there was something utterly glorious about the country which it has completely lost now. Russians confirm this to me: they too are haunted by a sense of irretrievable loss.

    The city of Dostoevsky, Lenin, Trotsky, will always mean everything to me.

    • “The whole of the USSR was like that: sheer magic.”

      So bright with blinding magic that Soviets couldn’t take the intense glare, and sadly had to resort to fleeing the crimson land of Nirvana for lands not blessed with atheist, one-party governments, like Finland. Those who got caught in the Gulf of Finland were returned to the bosom of Mother Russia, and assisted with their ocular condition by spending several years in a state psychiatric hospital.

      • HJ777

        I think you are missing the point that was being made.

        He acknowledges the things that were utterly wrong about the USSR, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something very special about the people and they way they lived. Things may be better now, but people can still feel a sense of loss about what has changed. It’s human nature.

        • “Things may be better now, but people can still feel a sense of loss about what has changed.”

          No Russian Orthodox (or Ukrainian Orthodox; Georgian Catholic; etc.) would have anything good to say about the the way Soviets lived, naturally. The USSR is an abomination to them and all non-Marxists.

          • HJ777

            I didn’t say that all people feel a sense of loss about all things that have changed.

            Indeed, I know several Russians and they generally think that most things are better now – but when a former way of life has gone, it is hardly surprising that many feel a sense of loss.

          • “Indeed, I know several Russians and they generally think that most things are better now”

            Why didn’t they inform you that the ‘collapse’ of the USSR is a fake? That nothing has changed. For the last three years there’s been an anti-Marxist revolution going on throughout the Ukraine – where over 1,200 [of 2,300] reviled monuments to the despised Lenin were finally destroyed – due to the weakened security apparatus in the Ukraine, the weakened security due to a critical number of Ukrainian Marxist military being in Iraq/Syria posing as ISIS.

          • Hegelman

            You have understood me.

            But, as Pushkin, the greatest Petersburgian of them all, advised: “Don’t argue with a fool !”

  • Maureen Fisher

    May is a great time to visit and the white nights amazing to see.

  • Fashionista

    If only Britain had helped the Tsar crush the despicable Bolsheviks and made sure this band of murderers never got to power! Then there would never have been a Soviet Union (and no WWII either) and the magic of this city and the Russian empire would still remain today.

  • Father Todd Unctious

    “Thrown up “. Like my reaction to most things Russian.

    • Cyril Sneer

      That’s because you have serious issues.

      What’s up did your wife run off with a Russki? She needed a real man.

      • Father Todd Unctious

        Rude Pratt. Do you really think portraying yourself as a tongue tied imbecile makes up for the complete absence of anything to say?