Saint Petersburg: The Seat of the Russian Empire

So about a month ago (man, how often do I write blog posts about stuff I’ve done a month ago?) I embarked on trip to Europe. I just finished my master’s and so I wanted to make sure my grad trip was special.

Since I’ve already spent so much time in Asia, I decided that I wanted to go to Europe, a continent that I’ve only been to once and had a really big urge to go back to. So after months of deliberating of where to go and what to do, the day of my trip arrived. So I got to the airport and got on a plane to Russia.

The two largest countries in the world.

Yes, Russia. As a Canadian, Russia is not a very common tourist destination. It’s one of those countries that you hear a lot about (especially recently), but it’s also one of those countries that people don’t typically visit. For one, people don’t really know too much about it. Second, we require a visa to go and it’s honestly a pain to get, plus expensive. Third, well, it’s Russia.

Anyways, I wanted to go and since my girlfriend is Russian it makes sense for us to go together. So, we went. The first stop on the trip was to Saint Petersburg, which now has the distinction of being the most northern city I’ve been to in my life.

Prior to going there, I didn’t really know what to expect. Of course I know the Russian stereotypes and I’ve looked up some pictures online, but for the most part the city, and the country, was a mystery to me. So it was exciting because it was a chance to compare the real country to all the random internet memes and stereotypes that I’ve come to know.

Of course there’s McDonald’s in Russia.

You know how the first thing people say when you mention Russia is that it’s cold? Well, we went in the middle of July and man it was not hot. We may have been a bit unlucky with the weather but it was cloudy, rainy, and windy. Aside from one awesome day, the temperature was in the teens like the entire time we were there.

Weather aside, the city was awesome. It has all of those European elements that you would expect: the churches, the palaces, the squares, etc. But everything felt, bigger. The size of all the buildings were all huge, giving the city this grand atmosphere. It’s hard to explain, but you know that feeling when you see a tall building? It’s like that feeling, but in this case it’s because the building is long/wide.

A portion of the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace is the best example of this. Man, that building is big. We didn’t go inside, but seeing it from the Palace Square or just from the waterfront is a spectacle in and of itself. The scale of the building, the colours, everything is just so ornate and impressive.

Speaking of ornate and impressive, you know the really famous church in the Red Square? The red one with the buildings that look like they’re tipped with ice cream. Well, Saint Petersburg actually has one of those too, it’s called the Church of the Savior on Blood. So not only does it have a really sick name, it turned out to be one of my favourite places in the city too. The city is fairly walkable and the church is near the historic core so you see it pretty often, and each time I saw it I was always impressed by how awesome the church looks.

The Church of the Savior on Blood.

We walked through the main street in the city, Nevsky Prospect, a bunch of times and it was really cool just walking down this street and just check out the random shops and buildings that were on it, but even cooler when every couple blocks you’d see a giant church or another impressive looking building. I highly recommend doing the walk down the street at least once, but make sure you take the subway too cause the subways in Saint Petersburg are pretty special, at least to me.

So I’ve heard a lot about the Russian subways before actually going to Russia, and Saint Petersburg did not disappoint. For one, it has one of the deepest systems in the world and so every station had this giant escalator you had to take in order to get to the platform. In fact, one of the stations,¬†Admiralteyskaya, is so deep that they had to make two giant escalators because “it’s difficult to build elevators longer than 125 meters”. Not only were the elevators long, but they were also super fast too, which was a nice change of pace compared to the slow Korean escalators.

One long escalator.

Aside from the depth, the subways are also kinda neat. They were built during the Soviet era and honestly it looks like nothing has changed since then. The trains look like they were built in a different generation (cause they were), and some of the stops even have these metal doors that open up when the trains arrive.

But one of the neatest things about the subway stops are the decorations. Each of the platforms are uniquely decorated and it gives off such a nice atmosphere. It’s especially interesting because some of the older stations still have a lot of Soviet decorations so you’d be walking down to the platform and see a quote by Lenin or hammer and sickle imagery. It’s a bit surreal but really cool.

Subway station celebrating Russian and Soviet science.

Anyways, enough of the subways. Let’s talk about boats next.

Saint Petersburg is right off the Baltic Sea and there’s a lot of rivers flowing through the actual city itself, meaning that there’s a lot of bridges and boats. We actually took a canal boat tour which was kind of a nice way to see the city, but the more interesting thing is what happens at night.

Every night, the big bridges are raised so that the big boats can get through. So what you have are these giant bridges that are just open and large shipping boats and cruise ships just take turns going through. This is kinda neat to see, but it’s also interesting because it means if you live on the other side of the bridge, you aren’t getting back home for a while.

This was cool to see, but it wasn’t as cool as what I expected based on what I’ve heard. Regardless, it was interesting because since we went in the middle of summer, the sun doesn’t actually fully set. So you could be like us, outside at 3 am by the water looking at these giant boats pass by these raised bridges while you can still see sunlight. It’s a bit unreal.

Sunlight and big ships at 3 am.

The last thing I want to talk about is Peterhof Palace, another one of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg. This was built by Peter the Great as one of his many palaces, and honestly it’s really beautiful. We were really lucky because the day we went was literally the best weather we could’ve hoped for cause it was sunny and warm, making the palace look even more grand.

There are a ton of fountains and statues on the grounds and it’s actually like the perfect size so you can see a lot without having to actually walk that much. Perfect for a leisurely stroll. There’s a lot of cool things in there, but by far the coolest is the main fountain by the entrance, which honestly might be the most impressive fountain I’ve seen. For one, it was big. Second, it had a lot of golden statues decorating the fountain area. Third, right behind the fountain was another grand looking building which made the entire view just fantastic.

Beautiful fountain.

Honestly the entire palace was great. It was a bit strange there though because it didn’t really “feel like Russia”. It kinda felt you could take the entire palace grounds and throw it into any other European country like Germany and France and it would fit right in.

And I think that’s actually one of the most interesting things about Saint Petersburg. It’s a Russian city, but it was designed by an emperor who wanted to emulate other large European cities, making it a really unique city since it’s the most “European” Russian city. That said, it’s unique among European cities too because it definitely has it’s own twist which makes it different and stand out.

Overall, I had a really great time in Saint Petersburg. The entire city is very beautiful and it was so nice to walk around and check out everything. The only thing is that since the city was founded a couple hundred years ago, a lot of the historical elements are lost on me since my knowledge of Russian history is a bit lacking. Regardless, I learned a lot and would definitely go back. I know this might sound crazy but I kinda wanna go in the winter. I think it’ll look even more magical then.