Russia has always been the ultimate on my dream holiday list. I can clearly remember telling my mum that I wanted to go when I was just five years old.
I’m not entirely sure why or how the idea first came into my head; but the older I got, the more I wanted to visit. Perhaps it’s because Russia has an air of mystery – I’d heard lots of stories but didn’t actually know of anyone who’d been. It probably also had something to do with the fact that I loved the movie Anastasia (totally wanted to be a Russian princess and find my own Dmitri).
For years and years I was desperate to go, and then finally in June 2014 the opportunity came about.
My friend and I had booked ourselves a three week Scandi adventure, travelling through Norway, Sweden and Finland. It was going to be the third time that I was in a country bordering Russia, without actually crossing over to the “other side” (Latvia and Estonia being the other countries).
Looking out of interest, I found by chance that there was the option to visit Russia visa free. There were restrictions, but essentially if you travelled in by ferry (we used St Peters Line) and stayed for less than 72 hours, then you could visit.
Hearing that, I was sold, so my friend and I booked ourselves a space on the ferry to St Petersburg for a long weekend.
On the Friday of departure, we were so excited that we boarded the ferry three hours early (although it also may have been that we were bored by Helsinki – there wasn’t that much to do!).
The boat left at 6pm, due to arrive in St Petersburg at 9am the following morning.
Having caught the overnight ferry (aka “party boat”) from Stockholm to Helsinki the week before, we assumed that this ferry trip would be similar in terms of the amount of things to do; but we were wrong.
It was like a 1970s throwback. Whilst the chicken Kiev I had for dinner was good (eating them in Russian waters is the closest I’ve got to being in Kiev so far), the journey itself was SO boring.
When we eventually arrived in St Petersburg the following morning, the passport control queue was long. It was taking some people ages to get through, which made me slightly nervous. I had visions of being turned away and forced to go back home!
There was no need to worry though – when it was our turn, it was a quick stamp in our passports and that was it. We were in the country I’d wanted to visit for my whole life. Exciting!
Wanting to go to Russia as a child, I’d heard a lot of stories about it (I think my parents didn’t particularly want me to visit!) I was told about the mafia, the police, the pickpockets, the attacks on tourists… which made me extra aware of my surroundings.
A minibus picked us up outside the ferry terminal, and dropped us in St Isaac’s Square (Russian drivers, as you may imagine, are crazy). The city is massive, and we didn’t have a clue where we were. We were a bit apprehensive about getting our phones out in case a roaming gypsy stole it, or a policeman suspected us of being tourists and arrested us (by the way, I’m not saying St Petersburg is like this at all, because it’s not – but the way it had been built up, made it sound like there was danger literally lurking everywhere!).
It took us a while, and a few wrong turns, but we eventually ended up at the hotel we were staying at – Station Hotel G73 on Gorokovaya Street.
The woman behind the reception was lovely, but she couldn’t speak any English; and I didn’t know much more Russian than “spasibo”. Between the three of us, there was a lot of miming and misunderstanding; but we eventually reached a mutual agreement where we dropped our cases off and went exploring before it was time to check in.
Discovering Nevsky Prospekt
We headed straight for Nevsky Prospekt – an iconic avenue in St Petersburg, I always wanted to go shopping there, and I finally got to tick it off my bucket list! Again, our lack of understanding of the size of St Petersburg meant that because it looked close to us on the map, we decided to walk. It took us an hour.
We had lunch at the British Bakery, and then carried on walking towards Nevsky Prospekt. We walked from one end of the street to another, and it was there I found the most opulent Zara ever. Loved it so much, I bought a skirt from there!
We crossed over the Fontanka River and visited the Church of Spilled Blood, which was just as grand as you’d imagine it to be! Right at the end of Nevsky Prospekt was the Winter Palace. I couldn’t quite believe I was seeing it in the flesh (I mean, I must have watched Anastasia at least a hundred times).
That evening, we were having difficulty trying to decide where to go for dinner. We’d been warned about the metro (i.e. pickpockets everywhere, policemen waiting to arrest you if you took any pictures…), so we wanted to eat somewhere near us. The result? We ended up in Pizza Hut.
We were kind of embarrassed to admit this, but actually the food was really nice, and we got some amazing spinach and ricotta doughballs.
The pizza must have gone to our head because we had a newfound confidence and decided that the night wasn’t over: no, in fact, it was time to go shopping (again).
Late Night Shopping
Galeria shopping centre in St Petersburg is five storeys and 300 stores of shopping heaven, and open until 11pm. We screenshot pictures of the metro map, and worked out which stop we needed to go to in the Cyrillic alphabet; before buying our tokens and descending into the underground.
We literally didn’t speak a word to each other, hoping that people would just assume we were Russian too. In fact, our game plan for the whole of our time in St Petersburg was to furrow our brow, pout and walk with purpose. And it worked.
Galeria was extremely opulent, although I was surprised to see British brands like M&S, Topshop and Miss Selfridge there! There was also a (slightly less impressive) Zara, so I bought another skirt – baby blue leather this time.
We left just as the shopping centre was closing, and caught the metro back to our apartment. At that point I think we were both just so excited to be in St Petersburg, that it hadn’t quite sunk in.
The morning after, now that we could navigate the metro we decided to catch it back to Nevsky Prospekt. We started off at Starbucks for breakfast (I was short changed by £20 – still bitter about it. In an international coffee chain of all places!).
We then set off on a day of sightseeing: we located a church where a Cossack Dancing troupe perform in the evenings, but the tickets to see them were £50 so we decided to give it a miss, as it would eat up most of our budget.
Pretending to be Anastasia
We went to St Isaac’s Cathedral (and witnessed both gypsies and police in action!), then went back to the place I’d wanted to visit my whole life: The Winter Palace.
Entry only cost 600 RUB (£8.50), and you paid a bit extra if you wanted to take pictures. Descending up the staircase in the main hall was amazing (I was definitely channelling Anastasia). The fact that I had (accidentally) coordinated my outfit with the palace was an added extra.
After we’d visited, we got cake from Eliseyev Emporium (one of the grandest coffee shops I’d been to!), and sat in the park.
In the evening, we went on a boat tour, to see St Petersburg from the Fontanka River. It was really interesting to find out that lots of the bridges are lifted early in the morning to let boats through – so if you’re on a night out, you need to make sure that you’re on the right side of the city to get back to your hotel!
By this point, it started to pour it down so hard, the rain was bouncing off the streets. Because of this, we ran into the nearest restaurant we could find for dinner (wearing designated Slavic attire. My choice was a lace back dress with green and red embroidered flowers – very Eastern European chic). We got pizzas and milkshakes, then went back and took selfies of us in our “I heart St Petersburg” tops that we’d bought earlier in the day.
Shoes Before Food
On our third and final day, we headed straight back to Galeria. We’d visited a shop called Paolo Conte earlier in the week, and each had our eyes on a pair of shoes. The stolen £20 had set me back (told you I was still bitter!), so it was basically a choice between dinner that night or a new pair of shoes. I went with the shoes (obviously).
They were so pretty – grey T-Bars with a pale pink and green platform. Really comfy, and it wasn’t like anyone else back in the UK would have them.
Once we’d made that particular essential purchase, we went to the Summer Gardens. Even though it was raining, there were still lots of people roaming about, and it was really pretty. We even witnessed a Russian wedding and I think we may have been in some of the pictures (sat on a park bench, with our umbrellas up).
We grabbed some lunch and went back to the hotel via the Chocolate Museum to stock up on presents.
Getting back to the ferry was a bit of a drama. There were three mini buses that were supposed to pick us up from St Isaac’s Square: one at 3pm, 4pm and 5pm (ready for a 7pm ferry back).
We decided to go for the 4pm bus – but we were still standing there at 5pm, and no sign of the bus. It then threw it down again so my box of chocolates disintegrated (annoying!); and when the buses finally turned up there wasn’t enough space for everyone, so there was just a general panic.
I suppose though that if that’s all that went wrong (thinking back to the stories I was told!), then it was a pretty successful trip.
Buying the shoes earlier on in the day meant I genuinely didn’t have any money for dinner, so we went up to the bar for one last cocktail. Cue some random Russian called Vassily coming on to me, and then chasing me round the boat (which ended in us calling security on him).
Why I Love St Petersburg
St Petersburg was every bit as amazing as I thought it would be: it was grand, regal and majestic. I just couldn’t believe I was actually there!
Russia is definitely a country I’ll be returning to. This is going to make me sound so British and I hate myself for saying this, but I actually found Russia quite difficult getting around as hardly anyone spoke English.
To be fair, I should have learnt Russian but my problem is if I try to learn multiple languages then I get them mixed up, and Swedish is my priority. Next time I’ll certainly make more of an effort, as it was getting very difficult having to mime when we wanted things, and hope for the best. It was almost a relief being back in Finland (and I never thought I’d say that!).
It’s not just St Petersburg I want to go back to: Moscow is on my list, and I’d love to catch the trans-Siberian railway (private cabin, obviously!) all the way to Vladivostok.
Russia, it’s not the last you’ve seen of me!