The Great and Wonderful: Saint Petersburg

by Alina Piruzieva

“Tanya, will you marry me?”

A young man in casual jeans and a white T-shirt is standing in the middle of Bolshaya Konyushennaya street, surrounded by a crowd of strangers. He is holding a mic, which he took from a local street musician after one of the performed songs. As the brave guy proposes, the musician and the rest of the group, as well as the whole crowd, are looking at him cheerfully and supportively, even though they see him for the first time.

The crowd starts to scream and applaud the second the future bride nods her head, barely letting her say anything. The young couple kisses each other, and the band sings another song, while the listeners are dancing, congratulating the couple, and singing along. And to me, this chaotic and careless atmosphere is what makes tourists come back to Saint Petersburg over and over again.

Where to go

Considering how tired I am of St Petersburg being called the cultural capital of Russia, I still can’t deny that this naming does suit the city perfectly. It shows even in some people’s absolutely stunning outfits, not to mention the greatest of the city’s sights. That being said, I saw an old lady wearing a red tweed jacket and a skirt complemented with a pair of lace gloves, a small matching hat, and a red trapezoidal leather purse. And she was just one of the stylish strangers passing by.

But of course, when talking about St Petersburg’s actual wealth, I mean the city’s vast historical and cultural heritage that proceeds to grow up to this day. One of them is Kunstkamera. Founded in 1714 by Peter the Great, it offers a great opportunity to learn a lot about the history and modern life of African, American and Asian nations. The items for this museum had been collected for hundreds of years, so you can truly enjoy the diversity of the world's different cultures. Moreover, there is an anatomical section devoted to mutations of living organisms including human babies’ and fetuses’ physical deviations. So if you don’t like looking at such things, just pass by this hall with your eyes closed and continue your journey. That’s basically what my mom did — and she used to dream of becoming a doctor!

I also was lucky to visit Recycle Group’s art project “New Nature” in Manège. For this matter, even the exterior of this gracious white building was decorated with sculptures of floating people made with some white mesh material. The exhibition was devoted to people’s relationships with the latest technologies and to the way cyberspace overlaps with nature. This project made me way more interested in contemporary art than I had been before because it turned out to be not just unusual but truly deep and thought-provoking. (By the way, even if you are positive that not many people are interested in an exhibition of a “not-so-popular” art group, always buy tickets online or beforehand. That way you won’t end up delaying and reconsidering your plans for the next couple of days, as I shamefully did.)

But what excited me the most was the Hermitage Museum. The largest art museum in the world, it will conquer you with its opulent interior and the greatest masterpieces of world art. Unfortunately, I wasn’t (and will never be) able to see everything there, but the brilliance of things I did see in Winter Palace is now imprinted in my mind. I still remember the goosebumps I’d got after entering the museum and looking at the glorious white and golden baroque gallery. All the halls differ from each other: some of them are bright and luxurious, others are minimalistic and more soothing to watch — but each of them will take your breath away. Just don’t forget to look up at the ceilings because these are always incredible.

What to see

Overall, I didn’t visit many museums and exhibitions in St Petersburg, since the weather was so great that it would be a hate crime against myself to spend more hours indoors. Although I was afraid that I’ll miss out a lot because of that, the city’s streets gave me more than I could ever expect. Its architecture is bright to the point where every single building has its distinct character. Blue, pink, beige, white, grey and green houses standing right next to each other always remind you that they used to be some noble people’s private property. All of these people had different incomes, tastes and reasons to build their houses — and that’s what made the city so colourful and memorable.

There’s no way you’ll pass by Isaac and Kazan Churches — two monumental buildings that made me gasp in awe because of how small I felt standing next to them. But what you don’t want to miss are the well-yards — the kind of yards that are surrounded by the building itself. As you will notice, this interesting architectural solution to the lack of space in the city proposed by Peter the Great didn’t turn out to be great for people’s mental and physical health. These yards helped me see Saint Petersburg the way Dostoyevsky and his characters saw it — dark, dull and depressive. There were some adorable things there, though, such as this balcony and a cute heart-shaped windows’ grid of Buck’s House that you can see in the photos below.

You can also visit Annenkirche — a burnt Lutheran church that is being restored at the moment. From the outside, it is a greenish building with white columns and other decorations, but on the inside, it looks destroyed and abandoned. It isn’t true though: there are still different events being held in this building, and many people want to take a look at it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t examine the church’s interior (which was the most interesting thing to me) because that day the only way to get there was to attend the excursion that we didn’t have time on.

What to do

One of the most popular activities for tourists in Saint Petersburg is riding the boats on Neva and the city’s canals. There are a lot of options: you can watch movable bridges open for ships at night, or take an excursion through the city’s centre, or book a boat to ride it by yourself. I took an excursion this time because I wanted to see Saint Petersburg in all its beauty and to learn about its history and architecture more.

Also, visit some of the numerous parks in the city. For me, it almost became some kind of a routine to wander around Summer Garden practically every evening. Enjoy its fountains, its perfect balance between nature and human hand, its gigantic old trees, beautiful arcs and gazebo made of some vines. The calm comforting melodies played by musicians complement this peaceful ambience. Other parks, such as Mikhailovsky Garden and Catherine Park are wonderful as well, but Summer Garden just exceeded all my expectations.

To me, the most important thing to do in St Petersburg is to observe its streets (if the weather is appropriate). It is especially captivating in the evenings and nights when the buildings are illuminated with lamps and the streets are filled with my favourite people in this world — street performers. Some of them sing in small bands, others — on their own, and almost each of them gathers their audience. Can you imagine that during the fifteen minutes I had to walk to the subway I saw ten street music performances in this city? And I wasn’t even running! By the way, despite all the usual performers, there was a middle-aged man wearing casual clothes, a grey cap and a pair of sunglasses that I saw at least three times. At first, I thought that he was a member of a band. But it turned out that he was just dancing to the music of different street singers and attracting even more listeners to them. I don’t know who this man is and what his intentions are — but I’m sure he became the public’s favourite.

If you’ve got tired of St Petersburg in the middle of your trip or want to take a chance and visit some neighbouring places, you can take a bus tour to another town or island. As for me, I visited Veliky Novgorod, which once was the capital of Russia, too. This one-day trip refreshed the way I saw St Petersburg and helped spice up my trip, so try to visit another place if you have enough time. There are a lot of options, including Petergof, Pskov and Valaam.

What to eat

There are plenty of cafes and restaurants in St Petersburg — sometimes it was even troublesome for us to choose where to stop. But from all the places I’ve visited, these two are must-eat places that I would definitely like to visit again.

Marchellis is a famous chain spaghetteria. Its menu offers different dishes of Italian cuisine and a huge variety of drinks and desserts. The servings there turned out to be a little too big for me, so I ended up overeating both times I was visiting the restaurant (I tend to overestimate my possibilities when I’m hungry). So if you’re not used to big portions, a plate of focaccia and any salad will probably be enough. I also ordered pasta and ravioli with seafood the two times I visited this place, which was also delicious.

Mickey’s & Monkey’s is a restaurant on Gorokhovaya street that offers you any kind of food you’d like from soups to burgers and overshakes that are actually some kind of sign dish of this place. I had a falafel roll with soft feta cheese, which was scrumptious and very hearty. But what I liked about this restaurant the most was its unique and bizarre interior. With its red brick walls, old columns, a disco ball and a fake dinosaur skeleton hanging from the wooden ceiling, this colourful restaurant left a lasting impression on me.

Needless to say that there’s always something to see in St Petersburg, depending on who your co-travellers are, when and for how long you visit the city. And although it was my third time there, I will definitely visit it again — at least to check if that man in a cap and dark glasses is still dancing with random street performers.