Tag Archives: St. Petersburg

Travelling Underground in Russia

When staying anywhere we like to use our own two feet to get around – it’s cheaper, we get to see more of the town or city, and the exercise does us good! However, staying in a big city means that sometimes walking just isn’t feasible or we’d be walking all day and not seeing the sight that we want to see. Moscow and St Petersburg are Russia’s two largest cities and so we’ve had to get to grips with their underground rail systems (buses and trams are usually trickier as maps of routes are not so readily available and stops not so well signed). Fortunately both cities have networks that are cheap and pretty straightforward to use.

The metro in St Petersburg is the deepest in the world (by average depth of its stations). The deepest station is Admiralteyskaya at 105m below ground. The escalators down to the platforms are ridiculously long (about 3 minutes by our reckoning). We kept trying to get a photo to show them, but it’s really tricky to get a good perspective. It’s just 28 roubles (about £0.55) for any journey. For that you get a token, something like a fairground ride token, which is fed into the station entrance to let you through the turnstile, you are then free to exit whenever, and from any station. Although stations are fairly far apart, the five lines reach most corners of the city and trains run every 2-3 minutes during the day from one end of the line to the other.

20130515-101721.jpgSt Petersburg metro: Metro tokens, train arriving at the platform, inside the carriage

20130515-101735.jpgIt’s a long way down!

The Moscow metro system runs in a similar way to St Petersburg but uses magnetic cards rather than coin tokens. You can buy cards valid for one trip (30 roubles, approx £0.60) or more with prices getting cheaper as you buy more (e.g. 300 roubles for 11 trips works out at approx 27 roubles or £0.55 per trip). It is a larger network with 12 lines and almost 200 stations and we found it a little more confusing to begin with, especially the signs which direct you how to transfer between the different lines within the connecting stations. It’s also been a test of our Russian reading skills as, for the most part, there are no signs (and certainly no announcements) in English. Having a metro map with the stations named in Russian and English has been invaluable and we’ve found that the best way to work out when to get off is to count how many stops we need and then keep track while we’re on the train although this did backfire on us once and we ended up overshooting by a station so we had to swap to the other platform and get the next train back! Moscow’s metro is the 4th busiest in the world (after Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing) and we really got a feel for that when travelling at rush hour.

20130515-110102.jpgMoscow metro: station name on platform (Belorusskaya), metro station marker on street, busy Taganskaya station

Some of the stations in St Petersburg are quite impressive with chandeliers and mosaics, and Avtovo’s glass faced columns were the real stand-out, but you can think of them as a warm-up act for the Moscow stations. Stalin ordered that the metro stations should be designed to glorify the the Soviet system and awe the people. We spent a few hours one afternoon hopping from station to station and admiring the designs (all for the price of one trip – good value sightseeing!).

20130515-101743.jpgLight and airy Avtovo station, St Petersburg

20130515-110115.jpgDifferent styles of decoration at metro stations (clockwise from top left): ceiling mosaic at Belorusskaya, station chandelier at Prospekt Mira, stained glass at Novoslobodskaya, wall mosaic at Kievskaya

20130515-110123.jpgKomsomolskaya station, Moscow

20130515-110132.jpgAndrew played with exposure times to show the movement in Prospekt Mira station, Moscow

20130515-110739.jpgThere’s even a short stretch of monorail in the Moscow transport system

St Petersburg round up

We’d originally booked to stay a week in St Petersburg, but after a few days in this wonderful city we decided to stay another week as there’s so much to see and like about it!

Among our favourite places were the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood and the Hermitage. Other highlights included wandering along the main street, Nevsky Prospect, where we found a fantastic food hall (to take photos inside you had to either pay a fee or make a purchase, so we bought some expensive bread!) as well as admiring the impressive buildings and designer shops.

20130503-220441.jpgNevsky Prospect sunset

20130503-220459.jpgKupetz Eliseev’s food hall

There seem to be loads of churches and cathedrals in St Petersburg. Another of our favourites was St Isaac’s Cathedral with an amazing iconostasis (altar screen) and beautiful mosaics.

20130503-220524.jpgCentral dome at St Isaac’s Cathedral

20130503-220558.jpgIconostasis at St Isaac’s Cathedral

On our final day we visited Peterhof, a stately home just outside St Petersburg which is famous for its fountains. This was worth seeing and the reason that we visited so late in our stay was that the fountain season only started on 27 April (they are turned off during the winter). However like many museums in Russia it has a two tier pricing structure with cheaper tickets for Russian nationals and more expensive ones for foreigners. I don’t object to the principal of this if it means that more Russians get to see their historic sites, but in the case of Peterhof we felt the foreigners ticket was a bit overpriced, especially as you had to pay for each museum in the grounds separately and they were typically ~£6-10 each, and that’s after the £9 to get into the gardens.

20130503-222132.jpgThe Grand Cascade at Peterhof

20130503-222149.jpgFountains and very friendly squirrels

We also celebrated Julie’s birthday in St Petersburg and managed to find some amazing cake at the Bushe cafe before a sushi dinner followed by beers and vodka shots (now that we know how) at our local, Barcelona Bar.


Here’s our St Petersburg round up:

What photo takes you right back to St Petersburg?

This was a tough one. We did so much that it was difficult to choose a single photo, but we decided on the magnificent Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. Not only because its even more impressive inside than out, but our hostel was just a block away from it so we saw it every day.


Summarise St Petersburg in three words.

  • Splendour – From the State rooms in the Hermitage, the fountains of Peterhof, the various churches and cathedrals, and the architecture throughout and underneath the city, St Petersburg is a stunning feast for the eyes
  • Peter – Peter the Great was responsible for establishing a fortress here and (temporarily) moving the capital of Russia from Moscow to St Petersburg. His image is everywhere, and he gave the city its name!
  • Lie-ins – something about the city made us sleep later than usual – a difficult cycle to break once you’ve started on it. Maybe it was the later opening times of the museums (typically about 10.30am), maybe it’s just the Russian way (most of the people in or hostel seemed to keep similar hours), or maybe it was the vodka…?

You really know you’re in St Petersburg when….

All the signs look like they ought to be readable but when you try to read them, they don’t actually make sense. The Russian cyrillic alphabet is close enough to the English latin alphabet that you’ll recognise about a third of the letters, but even then you’ll find the pronunciations are almost always different.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to St Petersburg?

A spare camera battery (and sneak in a spare memory card too!)

Highlights of the Hermitage

Wow, where to start with this vast and amazing museum. The Hermitage is housed across three floors and three buildings in the heart of St Petersburg. You enter from Dvortsovaya Ploschad (Palace Square) into the Winter Palace. This beautiful building, painted green and white, was built for the tsars in the mid 18th century. The museum collections were begun shortly afterwards, in 1764, by Empress Catherine the Great. To give you some idea of the scale of the place, we visited for two longish days (6-7 hours each and we weren’t dawdling) and we could easily have spent another day or two there without covering the same ground twice. The corridors of the museum reputedly add up to something like 20km (about 12.5 miles).

20130427-183814.jpgPalace Square and an unexplained military parade on the day of our first visit

20130427-183837.jpgUs outside the Winter Palace

The art collections are impressive, but for me the real highlight were the rooms that they were housed in, with carved cornices, chandeliers, ceiling paintings and lots of gilding. There are also a number of state rooms open to the public. These are mostly on the first floor and also include rooms furnished in styles from different periods, e.g. Art Nouveau or Roccoco.

20130427-193311.jpgThe Jordan staircase – what an entrance!

20130427-193336.jpgCeilings of the Hermitage

20130427-193417.jpgThe gilded drawing room

20130427-195726.jpgInterior details

20130427-195741.jpgLots of gilt and crimson in The Boudoir

20130427-212228.jpgSculptures in the Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting

20130427-220721.jpgItalian art in impressive surroundings

A particular highlight for me was the Raphael loggia copied from the gallery in the Vatican which was painted by Raphael and his students between 1517-1519.

20130427-222133.jpgThe Raphael Loggia

The first floor of the museum is where most people seem to concentrate their visit. As well as the majority of the state rooms, it contains all the ‘Old Masters’ kind of art. Pretty much all European, they have a staggering number of pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc. There is a small collection of British Art, including some pieces from Wedgwood’s Green Frog Service which was commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1773. There’s also a collection of European medieval art, and a room devoted to armoury.

20130427-220745.jpgTriangular Wedgwood dish with a view of Alnwick Castle

20130427-220801.jpgHuge Flemish paintings

20130427-220812.jpgRembrandt’s Descent from the Cross

20130427-221553.jpgArmour for horses

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to antiquities, art from ancient civilisations. Neither of us was particularly interested in seeing these (there are only so many Roman emperors I can look at before I get bored…) but we did have a quick look through some of the rooms which was worthwhile to see the variety of exhibits as well as the different styling of the rooms on this floor.

20130427-214241.jpgRoom of the Culture and Art of the Hellenistic Era

20130427-214257.jpgAncient artefacts

The top floor of the museum contains 19th and 20th century European art (Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso…) and collections from Asia. We especially liked the collection of Japanese netsuke.

20130427-221518.jpgArt student sketching on the top floor

20130427-221534.jpgPieces from the Japanese collection

On our second day at the Hermitage, we opted to take a tour of one of the museum’s treasure rooms. The collection of gold artefacts can only be viewed in a tour group and no photos are allowed. We weren’t very impressed with the tour (especially as it cost us an extra £6 each on top of the museum entry price). Although the group size was not too large (about 15 people), the guide spoke very quickly about each exhibit and moved on to the next almost without drawing breath, not allowing us to either take in what he had said or properly see what he’d just spoken about. It was especially galling as a Russian tour group had gone into the collection 15 minutes before us and were still only halfway round when we were shunted out, so maybe we were just unlucky with our guide. Nevertheless, some of the ancient items were very beautiful and incredibly intricately made and it was worth seeing, if a bit overpriced.

About halfway through our first day, just as we were contemplating a pit stop for a coffee, we spotted a guy winding a grandfather clock and stopped to watch. An older woman who looked like one of the museum stewards approached us (just about every room has an elderly lady standing by to shout at visitors if they get too close to the art, try to take pictures when they’re not supposed to or generally do anything else naughty). She spoke a little English but not a lot and with a certain amount of charades and pointing at our map she made us understand that we should visit room 204 at 7pm at which point she did a strange little dance with flapping arms. What on earth could that possibly mean? Was she going to demonstrate unaided flight? Intrigued, and not having passed through room 204 previously in the day, we made our way there just before the appointed time and were met with a huge crowd:


One of the Hermitage’s more famous artefacts is this magnificent gilded Peacock Clock made by English clockmaker, James Cox, around 1770. The clock part is not very obvious at first glance, but two dials situated on a ‘mushroom’ at the base count the hours and minutes and a rotating dragonfly, sitting on the mushroom, checks off the seconds. Bells signal the hours and quarter hours.

20130427-211452.jpgUs with the clock after the crowds had cleared

The clock is in good working order and is kept running all the time, but the mechanism which runs the automated figures (what we were about to witness) is only wound once or twice a month. Enter the man who we had earlier spotted looking after the grandfather clock. He got inside the glass case with clock, wound it up and the show began – the owl’s head turned and its foot lifted, the peacock began to rotate, opening its tail, and finally the cockerel crowed three or four times. We later marvelled at the chain of events that meant we saw the clock in action – our choice of day to visit the museum, spotting the clock man earlier, the kindly and persistent woman who tried really hard to communicate the place and time to us. Do you have any stories of equal serendipity?

If you’d like to see it for yourself, check out this video:

Essential Russian Culture

Today we decided to fully immerse ourselves in Russian culture and went to a vodka museum and tasting session.

20130423-213210.jpgSmiles before trying any vodka

The Russian Vodka Museum has various displays explaining the history of vodka in Russia, how it is made, and lots of different glasses, bottles and labels from through the years. Unfortunately, none of the explanatory signs are in English so we paid the additional price to have a short tour (from the barmaid as it turned out). This was definitely worthwhile and she told us how grains used to be fermented in a big pot before Russians learnt to use proper distillation equipment from travelling in Italy, how Russians got round the two periods of enforced Prohibition in the 20th century (vodka on medical prescription, and home distillation if you were wondering), and why Russians toast any major event with vodka.

20130423-212748.jpgRussian Vodka Museum displays

20130423-214102.jpgLarge glass and picture of sparkling water vending machine from Soviet times

Emperor Peter the Great loved vodka and used to play tricks on his guests. If anyone arrived late for dinner he would make them drink a litre of vodka from a huge glass – like a very extreme version of ‘catch up’. He also liked to wait until his guests were quite drunk and then serve them with plates of red crayfish which would start to move! Instead of cooking them which makes the crayfish turn red (and kills them), they were prepared by steeping in vodka which makes them red and sleepy so that they only began to move after they were served.

After the tour, we had a vodka tasting with 3 different types of vodka (Russian Standard, Gold and Platinum) which were served with 3 different Russian canapés (zakuski) – pickled herring with onion and boiled egg on rye bread, pork fat with horseradish on rye bread, and a pickled cucumber. Our tour guide advised us that vodka should be downed in one gulp, as you get more drunk if you sip it, but I found that was easier said than done and it took me several swigs to empty each glass!

20130423-213414.jpgThe vodkas used in the tasting

20130423-213155.jpgTrying the down-in-one manoeuvre before eating the zakuski

The bar in the museum stocks 220 different kinds of vodka which can be tried if you find that you’ve got a taste for it after the first three. We decided to try a couple of the pricier ones (around £5 for 50ml so still not breaking the bank) to see if we could tell the difference between those and the ones that we’d just tasted. Andrew got the Beluga and I decided to try the Mamont. And the difference? They were both pretty smooth, but we couldn’t really tell them apart and I don’t think they were any better than the Russian Standard Platinum… Underdeveloped tastes at least allow for cheaper drinking!

20130423-212805.jpgOur higher end vodkas

The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

So we’re finally in Russia. We arrived in St. Petersburg on Monday by high speed train from Helsinki (top speed about 210 km/hr, or 130 miles/hr). It took just 3.5 hours including a relatively brief stop at the border for the passport control people to check that everyone’s documents were in order. I’ve decided that I might join the Russian border control agency after our trip as I would quite like a job where part of the uniform is a fur hat :)

20130418-182800.jpgUs on the train before departure from Helsinki station

We’re loving St. Petersburg so far. It’s a bit like a cross between London (big, noisy, lots of traffic, heaps of museums) and Venice (shabby grandeur, canals, extremely stylish wealthy locals). I think it helps that the weather has become spring like as well and we’ve had some sunshine every day!


Yesterday we visited the Hermitage, but more of that later as we intend to have a second day there – it’s absolutely vast, I think you could spend a full week there and not see everything! Today we went to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood which is just a 5 minute walk from our excellently situated and very friendly hostel. Because it’s so close we’ve walked past it every day and each time I’ve taken a photo as I just can’t get over how amazingly ornate and colourful it is.


20130418-222021.jpgExternal details

Christ mosaic under the porch next to the canal

And yet the outside was just a taster for the inside. Mosaics cover the whole of the interior and the amount of gold in them seems to make the church glow.




We spent a lot of our visit just gazing upwards.


The church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was mortally wounded by revolutionaries in March 1881, and this is where the ‘Spilled Blood’ part of the name comes from. Inside there is a canopy carved from polished stone over the spot.



Some of the mosaics are breathtaking, especially the ones in the roof.




The altar screen is covered in gold and gemstones.


20130418-223618.jpgAltar screen details

20130418-223714.jpgInternal details