A weekend trip to Russia? That’s way too far!
Not however during my semester abroad in southern Finland! As it only took around three hours by train from the place I was living, I decided to take the opportunity and visit the beautiful city of St. Petersburg. From Germany, for example from Frankfurt am Main, it’s about a three hour flight.
To wet your appetite for the upcoming World Cup in Russia, I’d like to tell you about my weekend in Saint Petersburg in the following article.
My name is Julia Gleisenberger, I live and study in Gießen and last year I spent a semester abroad in Kouvola, Finland, about one and a half hours east of the capital Helsinki.
Starting off with a recommendation right away: If you are planning a trip to Russia you should start planning early enough, so that you avoid unnecessary costs. We started planning about six weeks before departure, as the visa is the biggest hurdle that needs to be overcome and can take a while. We were a diverse group of many nationalities studying in Finland. About ten of us wanted to go to St. Petersburg and two people took over the planning.
The first step was to apply for an “Invitation Letter”, which is the prerequisite for a Russian visa. You need to provide personal data, the reason for travelling and accommodation details throughout your stay. It had to be completed online and we had to be careful to apply for the right kind of visa (namely a “single entry visa”). If you travel as a group, you can also apply for a group visa. However, you will need a Russian tour guide.
The completed application for the visa was sent to us within 24 hours by e-mail. In order to apply for the visa, we needed current passport photos that were no older than six months, a passport that was still valid for at least six months and a personal invitation from Russia. This invitation was written by our hostel we were planning to stay at. After a lot of back and forth, we eventually had all the documents we needed and were able to bring them to Helsinki to the processing office. The issuance of the visa took another four weeks. Then we were finally able to collect our passport in Helsinki again, together with the visa for our weekend in Saint Petersburg. From then onwards everything else was pretty easy to organise. We booked a train from Kouvola to Saint Petersburg. The journey cost us € 50.00 per person for a round-trip ticket. After about two to three hours on the train and an hour’s time difference, we finally arrived in Saint Petersburg.
… and suddenly you are in another country with a language you do not understand. Letters that you cannot decipher, signs that you cannot read, and a cell phone that has no network. That was definitely a new experience! As few passers-by were in command of the English language, we were very glad that a student from Belarus accompanied us, who took over the coordination in Russia.
From the train station we headed to our hostel. If you are traveling to St. Petersburg, I can highly recommend the “Baby Lemonade Hostel“. It is very central, clean and a great place to meet people. And that for just 15 euros per person for two nights. One of the employees offered us a free city tour for the following day and we gladly accepted it.
After settling into our room, we went on a discovery tour. Our first stop was the restaurant “Marketplace“. Here there really is something for every taste. The ordering system can be compared to the restaurant chain “Vapiano”. There are different stalls with all kinds of food, so you can put together your very own menu and pay the individual portions at the cash desk. It is definitely worth a visit, as they offer everything from European dishes to Russian specialties. However, in comparison to Russian restaurants it is very expensive. For lunch including a drink, I paid the equivalent of 25.00 €. But it is suitable for large groups and perfect for a snack for in between.
Our next stop was the Hermitage, one of the largest and most important art museums in the world. The entire building complex, in which the museum is located, is also known as the Winter Palace. Art Museum and Winter Palace are collectively referred to as the Hermitage and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is the entire city centre of Saint Petersburg. So our evening activity was set, especially as students enjoy free admission. If you do not have student status, you should plan in about three hours and around 45 euros for a visit to the Hermitage. There are about three million objects in the archive, and next to the Louvre and other major museums, the Hermitage is also famous for its significant collection of classical European art. We set out to have a look at a fraction of the 350 rooms with about 65,000 exhibits.
After this breath-taking start in Saint Petersburg, we wanted to try some typical Russian cuisine. We chose a recommendation from the Platform Tripadvisor and ended up at Pelmenya Restaurant. A great little restaurant with a lovely atmosphere. We tried Russian beer and enjoyed a variety of sweet and hearty dumplings, a typical Russian dish. That evening we went to bed quite early as we needed to be well rested for the city tour the next day.
We used the second day to get to know the city and its attractions – and, of course, to buy some souvenirs. In addition to the small typical souvenir shops, I’d recommend the bookstore Singer House. If you like to browse a bit and want to bring some high-quality products home, you should stop by here.
My tip: Beware of pickpockets or mascots who want to take pictures! In no city I’ve been so far have I had to take care of my bag as much as in St. Petersburg!
After a little stroll we began our free city tour offered by the hostel, as mentioned above. It was perfect to have the city shown to us by a local student, so I’d recommend anyone to accept such an offer. Our guide took us back and forth through the city centre and ended the tour at the Resurrection Church.
It’s really worth a look inside here even if there are masses of tourists. It costs about the equivalent of five euros to enter, but it’s definitely worth it!
Afterwards, we paid another visit to the stunning Hermitage in day light. I’ll never forget the light green outer facade that makes it so unmistakable and easy to recognise.
In the evening we met a friend who had spent her semester abroad at the THM in Gießen. She took us to one of her favourite restaurants, the “Kazbegi”, and showed us the nightlife in St Petersburg. I highly recommend the restaurant, as it has many Russian and Georgian specialties on the menu. With dimmed lights and special furnishings, it has its very own charm. It’s a bit hidden and hard to find, but it’s worth the search.
Afterwards we went to the “Room 13“, a bar very close to the restaurant. In Russia, it is customary to combine quite diverse bars, shops and exhibitions in inconspicuous houses. As it was, the bar was also in such a nondescript corner house, which was connected by a staircase and long corridors with the adjacent buildings. The houses were full of small shops from different designers and lots of different bars. Our first stop was the bar Room 13, with an enormous spirits menu. You could test the craziest creations from over 100 shots here. I really highly recommend this place.
In the next corridor we had another marvellous experience. The entrance of the bar was comparable to the wardrobe in the film “Narnia”, only you really did have to squeeze through a bit. Unfortunately it was too crowded that evening, so we were only able to catch a glimpse of it. But make sure you do not miss this magical “wardrobe”!
Visit this building complex and have a peak into various small bars, shops and restaurants, I’m sure there’s something for everyone here! Our little “pub crawl” led us on to the Bar Pinch and ended in the Union Bar, two locations that I highly recommend for your stay in Saint Petersburg as they are modern, have a large selection of drinks and are ideal for a nice evening out with a group.
On the third day we followed a recommendation of our Russian friend. She said that we must visit a very special place in Saint Petersburg: The Loft Etagi. We didn’t really know what to expect from her descriptions – a cultural centre and one of the largest exhibition spaces in St. Petersburg.
There were a variety of unusual dining options, from black ice cream to colourful kebabs, all in street food style with a variety of small seating areas, a “Green Café”, various designers and a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. If you ever come to St. Petersburg, you really should stop by here.
Unfortunately, after this wonderful morning, our time in St. Petersburg came to an end and we made our way back to Kouvola. It really was an eventful and beautiful weekend in Russia and I’d go back in a heartbeat! And when are you going to St. Petersburg?