Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
In case you weren’t aware, it is not easy to visit Russia. Don’t get me wrong, the actual act of transportation couldn’t have been easier – we took the high-speed Sapsan train from Helsinki to St Petersburg and it ran as smoothly as anything. The problem is in Russian bureaucracy – the visa application process for Russia was the most complicated I’d ever experienced.
First you need a letter of invitation from someone in Russia which is easy if you’re joining an organised tour, but more difficult if you’re travelling by yourself. We ended up using Real Russia who can provide visa support documents like invitation letters. Secondly when filling out the visa application form, it’s a bit more complicated than simply putting in your contact information and dates of your proposed visit. You also have to provide information about your last three employers and your managers there (sucks to be you if you’re self-employed!), as well as listing all the countries you’ve visited in the past ten years, plus the dates that you were in those countries. I travel overseas at least once a year, most years to more than one country at a time, so that last bit was a bit difficult!
Once your visa is actually approved though, it doesn’t mean you get a smile from the passport control officials as you pass the border. We had a passport control officer standing over us on the train from Helsinki for half an hour as she ran our passports and visas through the system, frowning forbiddingly the whole time. I’m pretty sure I could feel the sweat dripping down my face.
Even when you get into the country, it’s not the end of Russian bureaucracy! It’s expected that all foreign visitors will register themselves with the local police whenever they reach a new destination within Russia, often through a language barrier. We made the decision to not even make the attempt to try to navigate our way to the police station and instead opted to stay at hotels rather than private rentals, as hotel staff will register with the authorities on your behalf. One less thing to worry about!
Don’t let my account of Russian bureaucracy scare you though. Once you manage to overcome these hurdles, St Petersburg is a wonderful city to visit, rife with Imperial history, grand buildings, and a rich cultural heritage. Anastasia, our guide on our free walking tour of St Petersburg described the city as the cultural epicenter of Russia, and it truly is. The splendour and the rich ownings of the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace are beyond compare, and that’s just the start of it!
We took advantage of local cultural offerings by attending two separate performances at the world-famous Mariinsky Theatre. The first, Macbeth the opera, and the second, Don Quixote the ballet. Both were absolutely magical performances, and surprisingly well priced – we paid about $70 for two very good seats to the opera, and only about $14 for two nosebleed seats for the ballet. An absolute bargain. I would recommend watching the ballet rather than the opera at the Mariinsky though – the body language of ballet is universal, but you need some understanding of the local language to understand opera. The Russian surtitles didn’t do much to help us understand an Italian opera!
I’d also recommend spending your first day in the city with the St Petersburg Free Walking Tour. It’s a fantastic, compact tour that takes you to most key points within the city, gives you some interesting background, and helps you shape your time in the city. Our guide Anastasia was particularly excellent – she knew her Russian history back to front, was able to give us some valuable insights into daily Russian life, and suggested a few places to eat as well! Even though it started snowing halfway through the tour, she helped to keep us warm by doing a coffee stop along the way.
We joined the same company later in our visit for a paid tour (700 Rubles per person, or $14 AUD) of the St Petersburg metro system. Our guide Vlad was a particular expert on the Soviet era, and was able to guide us around some particular metro stops noteworthy for their Soviet artwork and architecture, explaining each mosaic and sculpture along the way. He was also very open about the current nature of Russian society, particularly around how the current generation view the Soviet years and Stalin’s legacy. This is a particularly interesting tour, not only for the architecture of the metro, but the Soviet history you learn along the way!
Needless to say we visited all the key monuments – St Isaac’s Church, Kazansky Cathedral, the Church of the Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, etc. We spent a full day in the Hermitage Museum and it didn’t feel like enough time…like the Louvre, I feel as though it’s one of those museums where you can spend a whole week there and still not see everything properly. After all, we didn’t even get time to visit the museum of Impressionist art right next door to the Hermitage (accessible on the same ticket!).
We had meals at places like Stolle, Marketplace and Frikadelki, and Teremok. We also had a lot of snacks along the way – Russian pastries in particular are particularly tasty and remind me of Asian bread in its sweetness. Most of the time we cooked dinner at home though (thanks to a supermarket just down the street), and that’s due largely to the weather! With sunrise at 9am, sunset at 3pm, and cold wet snow most of the time that we were in St Petersburg, we just wanted to get back to our apartment by 4pm so that we could shed our wet layers and get warm and cosy!
I’d love to visit St Petersburg again in the summer, where we get more hours in the day to enjoy exploring outer reaches of the city, and visiting places like the Grand Palace out of town at Peterhof, or the Alexander Nevsky Monastery where you can see the tombs of such greats as Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. Needless to say, we’d also keep paying $14 for two tickets to wonderful ballet performances at the Mariinsky!