While the phrase “Russia in springtime” doesn’t exactly conjure the same romanticism as phrases like “Paris in springtime”, and while the temperature might be lower than what you are used to in the depths of winter at home, early spring is actually a really lovely time to visit St Petersburg. Twelve-hour days give you plenty of time to look around, the weather is pleasantly calm and sunny, if cold, and there aren’t many other tourists around to get in the way (well, international tourists at least).
We arrived into St Petersburg by plane in the early afternoon, the first stop on our Trans-Siberian adventure. Having been warned by various relatives, co-workers, and vague acquaintances about the supposedly surly disposition of the Russian population, not to mention the open hostility of the authorities, we were surprised to get through immigration as smoothly as you could wish, and to be met with friendly people offering help any way we turned. “I’ll tell you which stop to get off at,” says the man who has just helped us buy our bus tickets. “And you can go with this man, he is going to the metro too and he’ll help you.”
St Petersburg is a graceful, elegant city with wide boulevards, sweeping canals and hidden courtyards still dusted with snow in the late March sunshine. Every building feels grand and imposing, and that’s before you even catch sight of the Kazan Cathedral, the Hermitage, and St Isaac’s Cathedral. But what really took my breath away upon first sight was the spectacular Church on Spilled Blood, glittering in the twilight.
Emerging from the snowy courtyard that held our youth hostel, without yet having our bearings, my sister and I arbitrarily chose to turn right. Only a short way down the boulevard, we caught our first sight of the church. It was a clear night, the sun had dipped below the horizon but the sky was still more blue than black, and the last skerricks of light slid over the gilded golden domes and brilliant blue and green swirled turrets.
With construction starting in 1883, the Church on Spilled Blood is literally on the place where Tsar Alexander II was killed. Inside, that patch of cobble stones is still clearly visible, looking stark and somewhat out of place amongst the grandeur of thousands of intricate mosaics. But it’s the outside of the building that really took my breath away, standing majestically beside the frozen canal. But it wasn’t too long before the cold got to us, and we followed a sign proclaiming “Jazz and Food” – a perfect antidote to the cold outside.
St Petersburg doesn’t really do ‘early’. It sort of put a dampener on the enthusiasm with which we left our hostel first thing in the morning, looking for coffee, breakfast, and something to entertain us. After nearly an hour of hunting, we finally found what may have been the only cafe open before 10am, a little basement place that served pastries. With no way to tell what was inside, we took a gamble – I ended up with fish, my sister had apple and berries.
The city is known for its dozens of quirky little museums. With out limited time there – not to mention that many things are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays – we didn’t make it to the Bread Museum or the Plumbing Museum, but we did stop in at the Police and Security Museum, a fascinating couple of rooms with friendly staff and most captions available in English, German and Russian. With much of Russia’s recent history ‘behind the iron curtain’, it was interesting to see the home-team perspective on it.
The most striking museum we visited though has to be the Zoological Museum, an enormous, multi-story palatial building filled with hundreds of thousands of taxidermy specimens, ranging from polar bears to baby turtles to kangaroos to starfish. There were even some extinct specimens – the thylacine stood out to me – and fossils of great mammoths preserved in ice, some even with skin and hair still present. The place was absolutely packed, with dozens of school groups excitedly photographing the big cats and cooing over the baby penguins, positioned taking their first steps under the watchful, dead eyes of the fathers.
I have to say, the whole thing was exceptionally creepy in a very morbid, strange way. But it did get me thinking about zoos in general. Many of the specimens on display were over 100 years old, and, carefully looked after, they’ll last another hundred years at least. Could that be better than forcing wild animals to subsist in zoos for their entire lives, replacing them as needed? Modern zoos look fairly comfortable, but I’ve also had the misfortune to visit an old-style zoo in central Russia, where a too-thin Siberian tiger shivered in an old-fashioned wood and iron cage next to a couple of bears in similarly bare cages. If that’s the way animals are to be treated for our own amusement, maybe it is better to preserve taxidermy specimens. I don’t know what the answer is – but the thousands of dead animals were both absolutely fascinating and creepy beyond belief.
The Hermitage. It’s much bigger than I expected, and I have to say, I expected it to be pretty big. Hundreds of bright white-painted window sills stand out against the brilliant light-teal exterior, which looks glorious in the sunshine, even if there’s still snow on the ground and the river is still frozen. Inside, the maze-like path through the palace brings masterpieces at every turn – even for someone like myself, who knows nothing about art history, the works are stunning. I have to say though, my favourite part was the rooms set up as they were when the Hermitage was Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. It’s astounding to think of the luxury in which some people have lived.
But it’s much more than the landmarks that make St Petersburg an excellent place to spend a few days. It’s a great place to just wander around – though a good coat and hat is essential. We found a lovely little games shop through a courtyard and down an alley, breakfasted at a cosy Brooklyn-themed cafe with dim sunlight pouring in through the high windows, and saw the famous bronze horseman (my sister happened to be reading the book of that title while we were there). We found amazing griffin statues guarding a bridge over the canal, passed a circus that supposedly has bears walking tightropes, and strolled through pretty, snowy parks with the first of the spring birds emerging from their winter hideaways.
I even got asked for directions, and it was nice to know that I looked like I belonged in a place I had so quickly become comfortable in. (Unfortunately for the girl in question, while I could tell from her body language and tone that she wanted directions, I couldn’t understand a word she said, and didn’t exactly know where we were either. I responded with something like “pajzalsta, nyet pa ruski” which I hope means “excuse me, not speak Russian!”)
Our final night in St Petersburg was spent at the ballet. To this day, I’m not entirely sure if it was a professional or semi-professional production, as the quality was decidedly mixed, with so-so sets graced by exceptional dancers. But either way, it felt like a fitting end to our short time in St Petersburg. It’s definitely a city that’s high on my list of places to go back to.
Have you been to St Petersburg? What are your best tips of things to do?
Photos by my sister. Follow her at instagram.com/neat121.