St. Petersburg was by far the most “exotic” destination on my family’s summer at sea. We, frankly, knew very little about Russia and the port city that has been called the “Venice of the East” due to its number of canals and bridges that criss-cross the city. We went in with an open mind, and we stayed within the confines of the city; not knowing the language (and with few Russians speaking fluent English), we decided that trying to venture to the countryside (say, for hiking, as we’d done in previous ports) probably wouldn’t be a great idea.
Here are 10 things we discovered during the five days we explored St. Petersburg, Russia:
1) Public transportation is cheap. Especially after coming from super-expensive Norway, we were delighted to find that public bus transportation from our ship’s dock to downtown St. Petersburg was not much more than $1 for all four of us. The city does have the most inefficient way of collecting fares: each bus has a “money taker” who walks around collecting coins and issuing tickets. So, instead of installing an automated system, Russia prefers to pay a salary to ticket takers who take up space on the bus. Regardless, we appreciated the low price–even if the busses were hot, stuffy and often stuck in traffic.
2) You can get tired of Russian pancakes. We found a chain fast-food restaurant with an English menu, Tepemok, which serves blini (pancakes) that are savory or sweet, stuffed with grilled veggies, mushrooms and beef, or bananas and chocolate. We ate at Tepemok twice, and then didn’t need the carb-filled lunches again.
3) The Hermitage is huge. We went on a two-hour guided tour, which was great, and gave us some insight to the treasures housed here. but it barely scratched the surface. The State Hermitage Museum houses more than 3 million art objects. We saw 15th-century paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, marble busts that date back to 100 A.D., gorgeous mosaic ceilings and richly embroidered thrones.
4) You don’t touch the fur. We had such fun walking into department stores and smaller boutiques that sold ubiquitous Russian fur hats (and fur coats and fur everything). However, we learned quickly that you do not touch the fur. We made ourselves comfortable in one small spot on Nevsky Prospekt, the main drag in St. Petersburg, and fondled fox and rabbit, and even tried on a hat or two, all under the evil eye of one of the store’s workers. We smiled, she glared, we left relatively quickly (there were no words exchanged; she seemed not to know our language, we certainly didn’t know hers). The next spot, we noted a sign in English: “Please do not touch the merchandise.” Oops.
5) You don’t take fruit samples without buying. We took the underground metro (an adventure in itself, some trains are 200 feet underground and race along tracks like a rocket) to an open-air farmer’s market, Kuznechny Ryonk, where vendors offered us slices of juicy peaches and plump cherries. We were game to buy some fruit, but the vendor wouldn’t stop filling my plastic bag when I held up two fingers and pointed to the peaches. We really only wanted a few items (namely because taking fresh foods back on the ship is forbidden). We didn’t want the filled-to-the-brim bag he handed us. When he demanded money for it, we said no thank you, and then he got really angry. I don’t know any swear words in Russian, but I’m pretty sure he said some.
6) The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood is worth a visit. The very ornate church with shiny onion domes was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Its interior contains more than 80,000 square feet of mosaics.
7) Navy Day is entertaining. We happened to be docked in town when the seafaring city of St. Petersburg celebrated its thousands of naval officers; annually Navy Day takes place on a Sunday at the end of July. Ships and submarines in the River Neva were decorated with flags; a parade and fireworks draw crowds (and crowds and crowds). Russians outfitted in festive blue and white stripes are exuberant, let’s say boisterous, as they carouse in the streets.
8) Russians–at least those who make their home in St. Petersburg–are fashionable and sophisticated. Everyone we saw walking the streets of St. Petersburg was dressed to the nines: cute summer dresses and heels on the ladies, slacks and leather shoes on the men. A few locals were in athletic wear, but definitely not the yoga pants, hoodies, sneakers, hair-in-a-ponytail you might see in NYC as women make their way to exercise class after work. The Russians still managed to look very put together even in casual wear. American tourists stuck out in shorts and Vans.
9) The Russian ballet can be cheap. I bought $45 balcony tickets to Swan Lake at the historic Alexandrinsky Theatre, which opened in 1832. Our seats offered an excellent view; while orchestra seats were $100 or so, nosebleed seats were as little as $25. Sure, we heard that Russians can actually purchase tickets much cheaper than tourists, but I think my $90 evening out with my daughter was money in Russia well spent. The ballet was beautiful, and we enjoyed a quintessential Russia experience.
10) My kids are awesome. I heard not one complaint as we dragged them sightseeing every single day we were in St. Petersburg. It was incredibly, unseasonably hot–we wore sundresses and shorts instead of the jeans and sweaters we’d packed for Russia. But we walked and walked through St. Petersburg’s very crowded streets and took those aforementioned stuffy busses, and we went to restaurants where we had to point to menu items because our servers didn’t speak a lick of English. And my children, ages 12 and 14, went with the flow. It was a wonderful reminder that travel is an ever-present teacher. During our stay in St. Petersburg, I learned that my children can hold their own in very unfamiliar situations… and thrive.
Previous posts on Semester at Sea, chronological order:
- I’m Sailing around Europe with My Family in Tow
- Logistics and Paperwork for a Summer Abroad
- 24 Hours in London with Kids
- Settling in on the Ship
- Lisbon, Portugal, with Kids
- Bilbao, Spain, with Kids
- Scotland Stole My Heart
- More Hiking Happiness in Ireland
- Highlights of Norway