In 1997, Anastasia came out in theaters. I remember my mom taking me to see it, and ever since, I’ve been captivated by the myth and legend surrounding the Romanov family. Over the years, my fascination continued from cartoon-inspired stories to cold, hard, history facts about WWI and the October Revolution. I found myself picking up book after book about Tsar Nicholas II and his beloved Alexandra, and then, by extension, learning more about the English royal line and how Queen Victoria influenced Russia through her children. (For my book recommendations, see the bottom of the page.)
When Jeff and I were throwing hypothetical darts at the world atlas, we were trying to figure out how to bridge Stockholm with Thailand. I casually said over dinner one night, “I wish we could go to St. Petersburg. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” Jeff’s response was, “Well, why not?”
The next day, I made my way to the Russian consulate in London to ask how to acquire a tourist visa. I knew it would be tricky since we were American passport holders living in London on a work visa. Not allowed through the gate, the security officer handed me pamphlets through the metal bars on where to go and how much to pay for a 3-day visa. The cost and timeline were extreme. As I walked back to the Notting Hill tube station, my dreams of seeing Russia slowly faded away as the guard’s words echoed in my head. “It will be difficult for you since Russia and the U.S. are not on the best diplomatic terms.”
A friend of Jeff’s was also planning a trip to Russia, and he went through the proper channels to have only acquired his official visa one week before he was supposed to leave. He had applied for his visa at least two months beforehand. Then, the clouds parted. A dear friend of mine told me about the cruise line option. If you agree to go into Russia and leave within three days and use a specific cruise line from Helsinki, you can visit St. Petersburg visa-free! I did a little jig on the London streets that day.
The St. Peter Line has two ships aptly called the Maria and the Anastasia that depart from Helsinki every other day to get to St. Petersburg. You have 72 hours (more like 60 hours) on Russian soil before you get back on your ship and go back to Finland. There is no way you can book a flight from St. Petersburg to leave. You must leave the way you came. That’s why Helsinki became a vital part of our trek toward home.
We boarded the ship at 3pm from the West Terminal in Helsinki. We were one of the first to board, but that meant we had the run of the ship. Our room was windowless with two small, twin-size beds, but we were pleasantly surprised to know it was a full-on cruise ship and not just a ferry boat we had imagined. Complete with restaurants, movie theatre, and casino, this cruise ship was only missing the water slide to make it a Carnival line.
From Helsinki to St. Petersburg, it’s roughly 14 hours on the boat. We settled in on the calm sea and watched the Baltics fade away in favor for open ocean. The next morning, we were still surrounded by open ocean. At first, we weren’t alarmed. But then, as eight o’clock (our original docking time) came and went, and the crowds around the information desk grew, we were worried.
We meandered around begging for answers as the Finnish/Russian staff were reluctant to give answers. Finally, we were told in four different languages that due to high winds near the port, our arrival would be pushed back to 6pm. I was devastated. Already, we had such a limited time in Russia, and now we would lose 10 hours. However, there were several other travelers just doing a day-trip who would no longer even disembark.
When we finally got off the boat in a hoard-like fashion that would make Black Friday seem like child’s play, we boarded the shuttle bus to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Our AirBnB was a short walk from the iconic church, but we were losing daylight, so we made a bee-line to the apartment, but not before seeing our first instance of domestic violence. Welcome to Russia!
For those who are curious, customs and immigration coming into Russia was, of course, stricter than Finland, but it was not impossible or invasive. If you’ve been through the UK or US border patrol, it’s no different. I would only suggest making sure you keep all documentation at the ready, and definitely don’t lose it.
Our apartment was past the famous Nevsky Prospekt main street and the iconic Winter Palace. Our backpacks were heavy, our bodies were tired, but when I first saw the teal green palace, I stopped dead in my tracks. All the frustration from the boat and even the threatening rain didn’t bother me in the least. I was standing in front of something I had wanted to see for years. I was finally there, and I could reach out and touch it. Reluctant to leave, I had to be pushed and pulled away so we could drop off our bags.
Our AirBnB host met us on the street to walk us into the building. At first look, I was terrified. The building looked to be crumbling and graffiti hid most of the original paint, but after walking up the first flight of stairs and through the heavy metal door, we were pleasantly surprised by the small loft apartment. So far, Russia was full of surprises.
We only had time that night for a meal out, so we headed back to Nevsky Prospeckt for dinner at the Literary Cafe. In the foyer, a wax figure of Oscar Wilde sits with a quill in hand, but upstairs, surrounded by maroon walls and candles, an opera singer stood by a baby grand piano and serenaded us with Russian love songs. I was in heaven. It was the perfect first night in St. Petersburg.
On the first Thursday of every month, the Winter Palace, or Hermitage, is free for all visitors. We woke up early to find some easy breakfast and stand in line to get inside the palace. Not open until 1030am, we passed the line close to 9am to see it already a good 100 people deep. My hopes were dashed at a fast entry. While at breakfast at an adorable restaurant called Bonch, we went ahead and booked the full price tickets online to skip the queue. Yes, we could have saved the $18 per person by standing in line, but as we watched the line get longer and longer as the rain poured in the courtyard, we knew it was completely worth the cost.
The door for online ticket holders is off to the right of the palace, through an alleyway. Once inside, I wanted to twirl. I was finally standing inside the Winter Palace, and it was truly gorgeous. Map in hand, we started walking through the dozens and dozens of hallways. I tried desperately to imagine the Romanovs running around and the state events that happened in the walls, but it was actually quite difficult.
I imagined the Winter Palace to be similar to the Versailles Palace in Paris or the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. Instead, it a converted museum with artworks from all over Europe. I hate to admit I was disappointed. I was standing in the gorgeous hallways of the famed palace, but instead of bedroom sets and royal furniture, I was seeing statues and canvases.
First built in 1732, the Winter Palace was the official residence for Catherine the Great. But the gorgeous, green building was not the original Winter Palace. Just down the street, and also included with your ticket, is Peter the Great’s first winter palace. It is a much smaller space with some of the original walls intact, but mostly, the small museum is set up like a wax recreation of the original palace. If it wasn’t included in the ticket, I would have skipped this extra stop.
Jumping around in history a bit puts the galleries inside the palace in a better context. In 1905, demonstrators marched on the Winter Palace and a massive massacre occurred dubbing the day Bloody Sunday. It was mostly symbolic; however, because the royal Romanov family was already living at the Tsarskoe Selo 15 miles south of St. Petersburg. The Romanovs, Queen Alix in particular, were very private, so living in the center of St. Petersburg was rare for them. Then, in 1917, the famous October Revolution began, which eventually saw the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. So, the Romanovs were not the most famous or notorious Winter Palace residents. Catherine the Great (1762-1796) was a much higher influence on the green palace, which makes the artwork and gallery pieces make more sense. The furniture and bedrooms were at the Peterhof Palace or the Tsaeskoe Selo, which were now out of our reach due to time constraints.
But the artworks inside were truly astounding. Canvases from the 17th century, Catherine the Great’s clothing, and a golden peacock clock which was influenced by Grigory Potemkin and acquired from the Great Queen in 1781. We were surrounded by jade vases, ornate doorknobs, and even a death mask or two, but after a few hours, the palace turned into a dizzying maze and the sheer amount of people inside the medieval walls was becoming suffocating. While I love that the palace offers a “free day” for visitors, I’d recommend paying to skip the queue and also possibly have a little more breathing room.
About a mile down from the Winter Palace turned Hermitage is Peter the Great’s famous Summer Garden. This magnificent outdoor garden is supposed to rival the gardens of Versailles, but I cannot attest to that. When we first arrived at the gates, it was closed. Despite not finding hours online, they do not open to the public until 10am. Then, when we wanted to go back, the rain was pouring in sheets, so we decided walking through the grounds was not worth catching a cold so early in our travels.
Instead, we boarded the underground metro toward the Tikhvin Cemetery on the far south east side of the city. In high school, I read and fell in love with Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. When I saw that the man was buried in St. Petersburg, I had to come and pay tribute. The cemetery was 200 rubles to get in, and the grounds were quite small, but when planning your trip, make sure to know which side you’d like to go through. The side with Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker Suite) is called the Master Artist side.
All of the signs and tombstones were in Russian, so it turned into a puzzle to find Tchaikovsky. A few signs were put up to direct you here and there, but besides the two famous names, we couldn’t determine most of the other headstones. The small and intimate space was truly beautiful though. The rain had calmed to a mist giving the cemetery surrounded by construction and bustling traffic an eerie but perfect atmosphere.
We hopped back on the metro from Ploshchad’ Aleksanra Nevskogo and headed back toward the Winter Palace area. As we walked through the metro, we realized that they were incredibly unique. For one, St. Petersburg sports the deepest underground system in the world. In London, we’ve grown accustomed to riding or walking the escalators down through a labyrinth of more hallways and escalators, but in St. Petersburg, it’s one, massive line of people being lowered into the underground. After standing on the slow staircase for minutes on end, it becomes quite surreal. I even saw a gentleman thumbing through the newspaper as he descended.
A note about the St. Petersburg metro: The metro uses “tokens” not unlike an arcade. You must go to a little token dispenser just outside the turnstiles and exchange 140 rubles for four journeys. When you have your coins, you take it to the turnstile and insert the coin. If it does not go in all the way, the machine will unkindly let you know your mistake, and frustrated Russians will either help point out your mistake or sigh heavily and make you more nervous.
When we made it back to the Admiralteyskaya metro stop, the rain turned epic. Soaked to the bone and hungry, we ducked into an adorable restaurant called Katyusha. The waitresses were in full length cotton dresses with a flower print and the space itself was decked out like an English tea garden. It was a bit bizarre to see such kitch in a Russian restaurant, but we embraced it and thanked the universe for the roof.
This was the first restaurant where gluten-free options were notated, so I was personally grateful to not order blindly. I tried a Russian salad or Olivier salad which was the opposite of healthy, but truly delicious, and I had the beef stroganoff, which was truly Russian. With 1950s music blaring on the stereo system and 1980s soccer replays on the TV, I felt like I was in a bubble of surreal. A unique experience to be sure.
The rain had not stopped and our clothes had yet to dry, so we headed back to our flat for the night and to plan our final day in Russia. Stay tuned for gorgeous onion domes, a wild goose chase in the Neva river, and the famous Romanovs.
Helpful Links for St. Petersburg:
- The AirBnB apartment we stayed in.
- St. Peter Line Information for Helsinki to St. Petersburg
- Russian Visa Information
- The St. Petersburg Metro map.
- The Hermitage Museum (aka Winter Palace)
- The Peterhof Palace
- The Tsarskoe Selo or Catherine Palace
- Recommended Reading for Russia:
- Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina by Virginia Rounding
- The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport
- A Journey into Russia by Jens Muhling
- The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley