Departures is a series of alternative city guides which provides you with practical information not just on ‘things to do’ in a given destination, but on ‘better things to do’ – different ideas, departures from the norm designed to tickle the fancy of the more discerning traveller. With the world’s attention focussed on Russia this month, we thought we’d follow our guide on things to do in Moscow with this – better things to do in St Petersburg.
Don’t call Saint Petersburg “the Venice of the north” – it’s a cliché and the comparison is unflattering to Saint Petersburg. While Venice sinks under the weight of its own success, the Russian imperial capital has all of the faded grandeur, the culture and the canals with only a fraction of the crowds.
For all its history, Saint Petersburg is still a real city with a vibrant social scene and cultural life – the city’s best bars (including Russia’s best gay bar) are well worth visiting, and Saint Petersburg’s best restaurants easily rival the best Moscow has to offer.
“Saint Petersburg has the faded grandeur, culture and canals of Venice, without so many crowds.”
Peter the Great created the city in the eighteenth century as a gateway to Europe; a Western-influenced showpiece, packed with stunning buildings built in the then-fashionable Baroque style that would offer itself up more readily to visitors than Moscow, its big Slavic brother to the south.
That distinction remains true today. Moscow is made for motorcades but Saint Petersburg is best discovered on foot, whether during the White Nights of summer or the near-permanent darkness of winter.
Despite its charms, there’s a melancholy note to the city formerly known as Leningrad, and it’s a good idea to have some points of reference before you set out to explore it.
Adventure: Better Things To See in Saint Petersburg
Take a brief stroll down central Nevsky Prospekt to get your bearings but otherwise avoid the street, which is noisy and a bit of a tourist trap. Instead explore the canals that run perpendicular to the main road – like Griboyedov and the Moika embankment – before heading to the charming but less busy Vasilevsky Island, across a bridge from the city “mainland”.
Vasilevsky is home to the Saint Petersburg State University, the oldest in Russia, as well as the Kunstkamera – one of the world’s oldest and largest ethnographic museums that is perhaps most famous for its chilling selection of anatomical exhibits.
For the best view of the city, go to the easternmost point of the island (known as the spit), where you’ll find the landmark Rostral Columns that figure of the 50-rouble banknote. Across the river you’ll see the Hermitage Museum in all its glory, as well as the Peter and Paul fortress, where the Romanov imperial family are buried.
Antidote: Better Ways to Relax in Saint Petersburg
If you’re visiting Saint Petersburg in the winter, you might want to try a banya – similar to what they call a sauna just across the border in Finland. The Yamskiye baths are among the oldest wellness centres in the city, but locals swear by the less-busy Degtyarnye banyas in the centre. The honey- and salt-peeling, or ice steaming (with herb-infused ice cubes), are as delicious as they sound and highly recommended.
“Enjoy honey-peeling at The Degtyarnye Banya, or experience swimming with white sands and pine trees at Sosnovy Bory beach.”
In the summer, take in the city’s famous parks and green spaces such as the Summer Garden and the Field of Mars, but then take a taxi to one of the beaches just outside town. Komarovo and Sosnovy Bory on the Gulf of Finland offer a Scandinavian swimming experience with white sands and pine trees.
Appetite: Better Places to Eat in Saint Petersburg
More than any other city in Russia, Saint Petersburg is a destination for food lovers. The city’s best restaurants offer local and Scandinavian-influenced cuisine as well as food from the former USSR and better Westernised dishes than you’ll find elsewhere in the country.
Avoid the famous, oversubscribed Idiot and instead go to Koryushka near the Peter and Paul Fortress. Koryushka is a local fish that smells a little like fresh cucumber – a scent that wafts through the city streets at the arrival of spring.
In the city centre, Zinger Cafe offers a view of the Kazan Cathedral, but nearby Terrassa is less busy and has an equally impressive backdrop, with The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood thrown in. The food is better there too.
Agenda: Better Cultural Experiences in Saint Petersburg
The big-name museums like The Hermitage and the Russian State Museum are absolutely worth your time and a trip to either could take up a day alone, depending on your interest in the country’s art and history.
But if the crowds and gilded interiors start to feel oppressive, try the Street Art Museum, set in an industrial space slightly out of the city, which still contains a working plastics factory. The museum is open to the public during the summer but there are guided tours at weekends all year round. There’s a different theme for the exhibition each year – 2017 celebrated the centenary of the October Revolution with a mock-up of the Stage Hermitage and witty Lenin-head graffiti patterns.
The Mariinsky ballet is another staple of the city’s cultural life, but for more a more experimental repertoire check out the new stage of the Alexandrinsky theatre.
Saint Petersburg has an excellent bar scene, the loudest and busiest of which is based around the central Dumskaya street. For something lively but less chaotic, Nekrasova street, to the east of the centre is recommended.
Apparel: Better Places to Go Shopping in Saint Petersburg
The DLT or Au Pont Rouge department stores in the very centre will cover your bases in terms of designer brands. But Saint Petersburg offers a number of more exciting shopping options, notably the Loft Project Etagi and Golystin Loft, which both have boutiques selling Russian and foreign designers over several floors.
Weshalki showcases up-and-coming local brands, while specific Saint Petersburg names to look out for are Asya Malbershtein – especially the backpacks and bags – and womenswear designer Liza Odinokikh.
Theo Merz is a British journalist based in Moscow. Keep up with him on Twitter.