St Petersburg with a local (but not like a local)

When traveling, we all long to have the most authentic experience at a destination. Yes all the monuments, museums and the top attractions need to be checked off the list, but no one wants to be stuck within the confines of the tourist trap and we all take pride in venturing off-the-beaten experience when visiting a new destination. A lot of us coin it as seeing a city like a local, but our trip to St Petersburg made me realise that experiencing a city like a local is almost impossible for a tourist, but we can all delve into the lives of locals while visiting a city or a country.

Ellie and us
Ellie and us

St Petersburg would have never been on our list of places to visit if it wasn’t for a friend who lives there and insisted that we visit her while in the Northern Hemisphere. So we booked our flights for the recent bank holiday weekend and were pleasantly surprised with our overall impression of the place, people and the food. After being there, I am actually surprised that it is not on many people’s travel radars.

After almost a 5-hour flight from London via Warsaw, we arrived in St Petersburg, got picked up by our friend Ellie and after 45 minutes of taking the metro and a bus, we arrived at our very centrally located Airbnb apartment. Now if we were travelling alone, this would have been an experience on its own, but regretfully thankfully, we didn’t have to play charades with any locals to try and explain where we wanted to go, we didn’t have to fret about how we are going to contact our host and didn’t even have to hold a conversation with him!

St Petersburg by night
St Petersburg by night

After dropping our bags, we headed straight out for the streets. The moment we got to the Nevski Prospekt, the first thing we noticed was the amount of space available. The footpaths were wide, the roads even wider. Later we found out that this was not just limited to the main CBD area, but Saint Petersburg is a lavishly spacious city overall.

First things first, money exchange. Ellie took us straight to the Currency Exchange Office Ligovsky, which is known to have the best rate compared to anywhere else in the city. Open from 9.00am – 9.00pm, heavily guarded by armed security and only one person allowed to face the lady with the moolah, this was an experience of its own. Since it was lunchtime, Ellie took us straight to a place called the Marketplace inside the mall she frequents called Galeria. It’s the kind of place that an intrepid traveler would consider too touristy, but that’s where Ellie genuinely goes with her friends, not just her overseas friends, but her local friends too. After a delicious meal of grilled fish with potato (mine), grilled chicken with some lamb rice (Mrs FOMOist’s) and a chicken stir fry noodles (Ellie’s) we all headed to soak up the first lot of sights. Now before I move on, I would like to highlight again that when traveling alone, I would have insisted on trying something that a local would sneer at. I mean, living in London, I hardly go out on a hunt for the perceived English staple of Fish & Chips.

Hrenovuha homebrewed vodka shots
Hrenovuha homebrewed vodka shots

So once we are on our way, Ellie suggests that we go have this special vodka (we are in Russia after all) made with horseradish called Hrenovuha. I didn’t realise that Hrenovuha is a type of a homebrew until I asked the bartender to let me take a photo of the bottle, but he explained (through Ellie) that the bottle does not correspond to its contents. On the first day we managed to at least walk passed most of the tourist attractions including:

  • The famous Kazansky Cathedral that reminded me a lot of the Hoffburg in Vienna
  • The beautifully ornate Singer Building, just outside the Nevski Prospekt Metro Station
  • The Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, where we paid to go up to get the panoramic views of the city – well worth it at £4
  • The Winter Palace (Hermitage) where they were setting up for the St Petersburg’s City Day celebrations later that night

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While walking passed all these monuments, we were amazed at the number of pop-up festivals. There was a Street Market dedicated to books that started in March and will be there till September. Then there were arrangements being made for the St Petersburg Annual Ice Cream Festival. A festival, dedicated to ice cream, seriously? Sore from walking the length of Nevski Prospekt, on our way back, we decided to stop over at Craft Brew Café, serving a wide range of locally brewed craft beer. While they didn’t serve it at this bar, this is where I learnt that a common bar snack with beer is croutons. We did end up trying these at some other bar, but they are literally a slice of bread, cut into long strips to look like fries and then deep friend in garlic oil, topped with cheese – yum! From this point onwards, the following events may have occurred:

  • A bottle of Talka vodka was bought from a local liquor store and may have been sipped on a few times while walking around.
  • A doner kebab known as Shawarma may have been consumed to soak up the vodka.
  • A bar called Format may have been visited where big glugs of Talka may have been poured into our beer glasses – not suspiciously at all.
  • A Shisha/Cocktail bar called Tesla may have been visited where Talka may have been poured in an empty glass and consumed neat under the pretence of being water, while sipping on Espresso Martini and smoking up guava flavoured shisha.

It was a busy first day. It was also a very long day, thanks to the phenomenon known as white nights. So during a few weeks in summer, the sun barely goes down. It goes a bit like twilight and then the sun starts rising again, which means you lose the track of time (excuses) and get into bed with broad daylight outside at 4.30am.

Given the last night’s shenanigans, Saturday morning was a bit slow, but surprisingly none of us had any hangovers, which is a miracle at my age. We went back to the Currency Exchange Office Ligovsky where this time we had to line up outside for over 20 minutes to get our money changed. I don’t mind lining up to get into a club, I am even coming to terms with lining up for bars after living in London, but lining up outside Currency Exchange was a first. After the money was exchanged, we headed to Tepemok for pancakes (that look like crepes) filled with a choice of sweet or savoury filling, just enough to provide the energy for our visit to the infamous Hermitage (Winter Palace) Museum. Founded in 1764, makes Hermitage one of the oldest museums in the world and one of the most popular tourist attractions. You can read up on the Hermitage forever, but below are a few of our highlights:

  • The Jordan Staircase is the first thing you see as soon as you enter. It really sets the scene for the rest of your visit. It’s ornate, it’s spectacular and it’s grand.
  • While we didn’t get to see The Peacock Clock doing it’s majestic dance, it is really a sight to behold and a marvel of human creativity.
  • One can’t help but get awestruck by the beauty and the detail of the several rooms and halls of the museum.
  • The size, beauty and detail of the numerous chandeliers will have you walking around with your mouth wide open. Sia could easily spend days swinging from chandelier to chandelier.

In addition to the Hermitage, we were also very excited to see the Church of the Saviour on Blood. I can pretend that I wanted to check it out for its history or religious significance, but I’ll be honest, the only reason we wanted to check it out is because its colourful domes remind me of the skyline from the Arabian Nights.

Do you see the resemblance?
Do you see the resemblance?

Even though the slow start, Ellie was determined that we should go clubbing, given it was Saturday night so we head back home after procuring a bottle of vodka from the supermarket that unsurprisingly had the largest range of vodkas I have ever seen in one place. The usual going out-out in London would entail pre-drinks at a mates starting around 8.00pm and perhaps leaving around 10.30pm, but not in St Petersburg thanks to the white nights. After all the sightseeing we got home around 8.00pm, had something to eat, drank some vodka, then started getting ready around 11.00pm, got to a club called Santa Barbara around 1.00am and it was still empty and only got busier around 1.30am. We would have never found this hidden “gem” even if we tried. Girls dressed up in their best interview clothes – literally white shirt, skirt/trousers, perched up on heels that could only be described as stilts to us mortals. I am pretty sure I also saw a few lasses in ball gowns and one even dressed up in what I would describe as a black sparkly wedding dress. It was a fancy affair that ended around 4.00am. I admit that it was an early night even by London standards, but remember we spent the day sightseeing and we had more planned for next day (or this morning when we left the club).

Now rather than continuing on with the chronological list of events, I will now list a few other things that stood out to us on the trip:

  • The metro stations. I know I’ve said it before about Stockholm, but in St Petersburg, they are magnificently ornate. Walls and pillars donning beautiful metal carvings and the ceilings covered with twinkling chandeliers. A metro station called Avtovo in particular was just as spectacular as some of the rooms at the Hermitage. In addition to being breathtakingly spectacular, St Petersburg metro is also the world’s deepest subway, so be prepared for vertiginous views from the top of the escalator. Interestingly enough, Ellie who has lived there almost her entire life confessed that she had never noticed the beauty or the depth of the metro and was now excited to pay more attention to these historic marvels of the city, ordinarily used to get from A to B.
  • Another must-see sight is The Summer Palace, Peterhof. You pay a fee to enter the grounds (thanks to Ellie we paid the local rate of 450 rubals instead of 700 rubals per person). Then you have to pay to go inside any of the several halls and palaces within the ground, which we didn’t do. The grounds alone are stunningly beautiful, especially the Grand Cascade Fountain that can be admired for hours. We’re so grateful that Ellie took us there because since it’s outside the central area, I fear that we may have put it in the too hard basket.
  • If you visit in summer, do the late-night opening of the bridge boat excursion. It’s when the 12 bridges over the river open up one after the other. If the lit up bridges weren’t enough, the view of city bathed in light and reflecting off the water is a marvel.
  • For a very confusing service at a bar, we visited Fiddler’s Green. It’s a bar with no menu, staff with limited English, making it a lot of fun after you’ve had a few and all you want is a glass of water.
  • For a traditional Russian feast, Ellie took us to Soviet Café. Even though it’s on the main drag, the food is excellent (Ellie’s words not mine) and reasonably priced. This is the place where we tried the croutons with the beer and I don’t understand how it’s not yet a thing.
  • For a delicious snack or a scrumptious dessert, no trip to St Petersburg is complete without a visit to the infamous Bolshaya Konushenaya, 25 for feather light, deep fried (yes it is possible) sugar-coated doughnuts called Pyshki. Served with a cup of coffee, it’s the perfect pick me up (not that we needed an excuse).

To wrap this very long post up, go visit St Petersburg before it becomes the stomping ground of the stag and hens parties and if you know someone who lives there, it might even give you a chance to experience this beautiful city with them (not like them ofcourse).


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