Saint-Petersburg Guide

October 2020 | Travel | Russia | Moscow
Unz Review tags: Saint-Petersburg, Travel, The AK

Saint-Petersburg’s imperial legacy and status as a tourist magnet aside, I would sooner classify it as Russia’s biggest “millionik” city than as its “second capital”, as denizens of the “Venice of the North” sometimes refer to it. Before the Great War, Saint-Petersburg – Petrograd, as it was rechristened in 1914 – seemed destined to become the bustling, megapolitan heart of an empire of half a billion souls stretching from Murmansk to Tsargrad. But the cataclysms that overran the Russian Empire during the 20th century hit it especially hard. Shorn of its status as imperial capital, depopulated during the Civil War, starved during the Leningrad Blockade, and taken over by organized crime during the 1990s, it has inexorably lost population and power relative to Moscow.

These melancholic thoughts often come to mind whenever I wander Saint-Petersburg’s wide, wind-swept boulevards, barren and underpopulated relative not even so much to the Muscovite beehive, but relative to its own, antebellum visions for a Tsarpunk future that, thanks to the Bolsheviks, was not to be.

Moscow’s status at the heart of Russia’s hyper-centralization is probably bad for the country as a whole, but reality is what it is. It completely overshadows Peter’s city in economics, politics, and science production, with the latter only remaining competitive in culture and tourism (the latter, a dubious distinction). I also much prefer Vladimir-Suzdalia’s summer petrichors and dry winter cold to the sultry heat and cold, windswept showers of Ingria. Originating in the medieval era – Moscow had 200,000 people by the mid-17th century – it is also a more “authentic” Russian city in architecture, and is built a more human scale. Central Saint-Petersburg is a place of wide imperial avenues, and the grand pomposity of the buildings and palaces, though initially impressive, gets monotonous after a while (in this respect it is somewhat reminiscent of Washington D.C.).

Built by Peter the Great to be a “window to Europe”, it remained richer, more cosmopolitan, and more progressive than traditionalist, religious, and hard-drinking Moscow through to the Revolution. But this ceased to be true for Leningrad, as the internal flow of human capital reoriented towards the capital. It is now Moscow that is not only the richer and more cosmopolitan (and liberal) of the two megapolises, which has – amongst other things – translated into better infrastructure and state IT services. Finally, in my own personal, limited experience, expats (though not repatriates) tend to be happier in Moscow.

Nonetheless, I do not mean to counter-signal against Saint-Petersburg. Its denizens tend to be proud of their city, even if it often contains an undertone of resentment against Muscovites for having expropriated their leading status. First and foremost, it is considerably less diverse; although Moscow is a veritable whitetopia by Euro-American standards – it is around 85%-90% Slavic Euroepan, with most of the rest consisting of temporary Gastarbeiters from Central Asia and the Caucasus – in Saint-Petersburg that percentage rises to 90%-95%. Human capital is comparable to Moscow’s, with both taking turns coming top on various tests and proxies of cognitive ability; you will be able to find a wide range of intellectual communities on all sorts of interests. Finally, the stereotype of Petersburgers as a more placid and cultured people than brasher (if richer) Muscovites is not entirely outdated.

As a parting note, I will also say that Saint-Petersburg has also been improving at a lightning tempo in recent years. Whereas Moscow transitioned from a city of crumbling commieblocks and brash malls into a sophisticated, SWPL technopolis during the 2010s, these same processes have come to Saint-Petersburg from the mid-2010s (and are beginning to filter down to smaller cities right right about now). I observed very large and visible improvements just between my visits there in 2017 and 2019. Lenin’s Curse, it would appear, has been finally lifted a century hence. By all means, certainly do check it out, for the history and culture if nothing else – and who knows, perhaps its melancholic introspection will be more to your liking than Moscow’s hustle and bustle.

 


SPB Map

This section contains a list of some of the best and/or most interesting museums, restaurants, and attractions in Saint-Petersburg1. Places that I consider to be “must-see” during a 1-2 week stay in Saint-Petersburg are highlighted. I have a strict policy of only giving a ★ rating to places that I have visited personally. What I consider to be my personal favorites – ranging from “world wonders” such as the Hermitage to more obscure curiosities such as the Listva nationalist bookshop – are denoted by ⭐ gold stars.

 


Things to See

INSTITUTIONS
  • Admiralty / institution 🏢 – inaccessible to the general public, given that it currently serves as HQ of the Russian Navy.
  • Lakhta Center / institution 🏢 – Gazprom HQ, Europe’s tallest skyscraper (462 meters)
  • Mariinsky Palace / institution 🏢 – 19th century palace that housed the State Council in late Imperial times (subject of a famous Repin painting) and now hosts the SPB Legislative Assembly.
  • Troll Factory @Savushkina / institute 🏢

 

MONUMENTS & VIEWS
  • Alexander Column @Admiralteyskaya ★★★★★ monument 🏛️ –
  • BRONZE HORSEMAN @Admiralteyskaya ★★★★★ monument 🏛️ – probably the most famous SPB landmark, which inspired a famous Pushkin poem.
  • Cats Elisey and Vasilisa @Gostiny Dvor ★★★★★ landmark 🏛️ – tribute to Siberian cats brought into Leningrad in 1943 to control the city’s rampant rodent population, which had exploded in the absence of their natural predators in the previous two years. If you manage to throw a coin onto the ledge holding them, you will increase your character’s Luck stats.
  • Egyptian House @Chernyshevskaya ★★★ landmark 🏛️ –
  • Five Corners @Ploschad Vosstaniya ★★★★★ landmark 🏛️ –
  • House of Raskolnikov @Spasskaya ★★★ landmark 🏛️ – where the anti-hero of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” lived.
  • House of Singer (Dom Zingera) @Nevsky Prospekt ★★★★★ landmark 🏛️ – palatial apartments of the Singers – a family of Tsarist-era sewing machine magnates – it now houses social media giant Vkontakte officers and a giant bookstores with lovely views.
  • Lakhta Center Observation Deck view 🗼 –
  • St. Isaac’s Cathedral @Admiralteyskaya ★★★★★ view 🗼 –
  • Solovetsky Stone @Troitsky Bridge ★★★ monument 🏛️ –
Field of Mars ★★★ / park 🏞️☭
Wide open space glorifying Latvian Bolsheviks who massacred Russian freedom fighters in Yaroslavl in 1918, and various other communist scumbags. Depressing to have this in central Leningrad.
Palace Square ★★★★★ square 🟥 – central square of Saint-Petersburg featuring the Alexander Column as its centerpiece.

 

Things to Do

SAINT-PETERSBURG
Alexander Nevsky Lavrachurch ☦️
Alexander Theater / theater 🎭
A.S. Popov Central Museum of Communications ★★★★ / museum-technology 🏛️⚙️
“Aurora” Cruiser / museum-history 🏛️
Belozersky Palace / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
Central Museum of Soil Science of V.V. Dokuchaev / museum-science 🏛️🧪
Central Naval Museum ★★★★★ / museum-military 🏛️💣
Dostoevsky Museum / museum-literature 🏛️📜
Erarta / museum-art 🏛️🖼️
FABERGE MUSEUM ★★★★★ / museum-history 🏛️👑
Grand Maket Russia / museum-entertainment 🏛️🤡
HERMITAGE MUSEUM ★★★★★ 🏛️🖼️
House of Peter the Great / museum-history 🏛️🇷🇺
Kazan Cathedral ★★★★★ / church ☦️
“Krasin” Icebreaker / museum-military 🏛️💣
KUNSTKAMERA ★★★★★ / museum-science 🏛️🧪
Marble Palace / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
MARIINSKY THEATER / theater 🎭
Mikhailov Theater / theater 🎭
Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer, and Signal Corps ★★★★ / museum-military 🏛️💣
Museum of City Electric Transport / museum-technology 🏛️⚙️
Museum of Democracy Construction of Anatoly Sobchak / museum-history 🏛️🏳️‍🌈
Museum of Optics / museum-technology 🏛️⚙️
Museum of Political History of Russia / museum-history 🏛️🇷🇺
Museum of Printing in Saint-Petersburg ★★★★ / museum-literature 🏛️📜
Museum of Russian Vodka / museum-media 🏛️🤡
I have the feeling that this is a tourist trap catering to foreigners, but reviews are generally positive – so who knows.
Museum of Saint-Petersburg Metro / museum-technology 🏛️⚙️
Museum of Savings (Sberegatelnogo Dela) / museum-finance 🏛️💱
Museum of Shadows ★★★★★ / museum-entertainment 🏛️🤡
Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines ★★★★★ / museum-technology ️🏛️⚙️
Museum of Stone ★★★ / museum-art 🏛️🖼️
National Pushkin Museum ★★★★★ / museum-literature 🏛️📜
PETER & PAUL FORTRESS
Museum of Space Exploration & Rocket Technology of V.P. Glushko ★★★★★ / museum-technology ️🏛️🌌
PETER AND PAUL CATHEDRAL ★★★★★ / church ☦️
State Museum of the History of Saint-Petersburg ★★★★★ / museum-history ️🏛️🇷🇺
Trubetskoy Bastion Prison ★★★★★ / museum-history ️🏛️🇷🇺
Russian Ethnographic Museum ★★★★ / museum-palace 🏛️🇷🇺
RUSSIAN MUSEUM ★★★★★ / museum-art 🏛️🖼️
Russian Railway Museum ★★★★★ / museum-technology 🏛️⚙️
SAINT ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL ★★★★★ / church ☦️
SAVIOUR ON THE SPILLED BLOOD ★★★★★ / church ☦️
Sheremetyevo Palace: Museum of Music / museum-music 🏛️🎼
Smolny Cathedral / church ☦️
Smolny Historical and Memorial Museum / museum-history 🏛️🇷🇺
State Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad / museum-military 🏛️💣
State Museum of the History of Religion ★★★★ / museum-religion 🏛️☦️
Stroganov Palace / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
Yelagin Palace / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
Yusupov Palace ★★★★★ / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
Zoological Museum of Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences ★★★★  museum-science 🏛️🧪
Extensive zoological collection that grew out of the Kunstkamera founded by Peter the Great, it features the world’s only skinned mammoth exhibit, as well as a complete blue whale skeleton and multiple mammoth and elephant skeletons. Though there are plenty of smaller mammals, birds, fish, reptile, and insect exhibits as well. It could do with some more funding – many of the description plaques are decades old, e.g. claiming there are “100 Amur tigers left in the USSR” (reality: there are now ~500 of them in Russia).
CORE PALACES:
STRELNA, PETERHOF, ORANIENBAUM
Chinese Palace / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
Konstantinovo Palace ★★★★★ / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
Menshikov Palace / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
PETERHOF ★★★★★ / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
GATCHINA
Prioratsky Palace / museum-palace🏞️🏛️
State Museum of Gatchina / museum-history 🏛️🇷🇺
KRONSTADT
Kronstadt History Museum / museum-history 🏛️🇷🇺
Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas / church ☦️
PAVLOVSK
Pavlovsk Park / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
PUSHKIN
Alexander Palace / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
CATHERINE PALACE / museum-palace 🏞️🏛️
Ratnaya Palata / museum-military 🏛️💣

 

Entertainment

SHOPPING
⭐ House of Singer (Dom Zingera)shop-books ⚖️📜
Bookstore attached to the iconic building that once belonged to the Singer sewing machine tycoon family.
⭐ Listva / shop-books ⚖️📜
Nationalist bookshop.

 

Restaurants

Bar Laboratoriya 31 / European bar-cocktail 🇪🇺
This is supposed to be some kind of science!-themed cocktail bar & kalyanaya.
⭐ Barcelona ★★★★★ / $$ / Spanish bar-tapas 🇪🇸
Perfect place for a night out. I recommend any of the bocadillo along with the eponymous Sangria
BeerHERE  ★★★★ / $$ / European bar 🇪🇺
Slightly on the expensive side. Was known as a focal point for local nationalists (at least back in 2017).
Bekitser / Israeli restaurant 🇮🇱
Highly rated Israeli street food.
Bonch ★★★ $$ / cafe
The éclairs are good, but Internet is slow, non-reliable, and staff unhelpful. Avoid if you want to get things done.
Brodyachaya Sobaka ★★★★★ / $$ / Russian restaurant-cafe 🇷🇺
Underground cafe with great puddings, coffee, and live poetry readings and performances in the evenings (see schedule). Opened up in 1912, it was closed down by the Bolsheviks, flooded during the bombings in WW2, and only restored to what it once was in the 1990s.
Brynza ★★★★★ / $  / Russian eatery chain 🇷🇺
SPB based semi-fast food chain serving traditional Russian cuisine. You can’t really go wrong here, but the ukha soup is worth trying out in particular.
Bushe / $ / bakery chain
Chbkafe / cafe ☕
Chufalnya ★★★★ / $ / Chinese eatery 🇨🇳
Photo menu, check. Exposed kitchen with piles, check. Stacks for drinks, check. Male servers look like they’re from a farm on the Chinese-Russian border, check. Harbin beer, check. 10/10 xiangxiaren.
COCOCO ★★★★★ / $$$ / Russian restaurant 🇷🇺
This was one of the top three culinary experiences of my life (the other two being Chez Panisse in Berkeley, USA, and Zavod Bar in Veliky Novgorod, Russia). Unfortunately, it closed down.
Cococo / cafe chain
… And reopened as a cafe-bistro. I have yet to check it out.
 Coffeeshop Company ★★★★ / $ / cafe chain ☕ – 24/7
Excellent place to get some work done.
Dachniki ★★★★ / $ / Russian restaurant 🇷🇺
Decabrist Cafe ★★★★ / $ / Russian cafe
El Copitas / $$$ / Mexican cocktail bar 🇲🇽
F. Volcheka ★★★★ / $ / Russian bakery chain
HARVEST ★★★★★ / $$ / Russian restaurant 🇷🇺vegetarian 🥕 – gluten free 🌾
Voted one of the world’s top 50 restaurants, this restaurant specializes in fancy interpretations of vegetable dishes, straight from the farm. It was an interesting culinary experience, and very affordable.
Letuchiy Gollandets / European restaurant 🇪🇺
It looks like a tourist trap – I probably wouldn’t visit it, what with the other gastronomic delights on offer elsewhere.
🇷🇺 Lindfors / European eatery chain 🇪🇺
Literature Cafe ★★★★★ / $$$ / restaurant-cafe
The food is overpriced and nothing to write home about, but you don’t come here for the food, but for the old-time atmosphere and the wonderful live music (classical piano and singing).
Mari Vanna ★★★★★ / $$ / Russian restaurant 🇷🇺gluten free 🌾
Extrapolating from its Moscow affiliate, I assume it is a good place to sample Russian cuisine surrounded by ur-Russian kitsch. But feel free to check out award winning “Harvest” next door.
Marketplace / $ / Russian stolovaya 🇷🇺
SPB-based chain of Soviet-style stolovayas with typical Russian and European food. I haven’t dined at one, but it looks very similar to Moscow’s Mu-Mu chain.
Namaste ★★★★ / $$ / Indian restaurant 🇮🇳 – gluten free 🌾
Yet another very solid Indian restaurant, though the Karachi Chicken at Tandoori Nights was better.
Oh! Mumbai / Indian restaurant 🇮🇳
Pelmeniya / $ / Russian eatery chain 🇷🇺
Percoso / $$$ / Italian restaurant 🇮🇹 – gluten free 🌾
Pivorama / $ / European restaurant-bar chain 🇪🇺
Republic of Cats ★★★★★ / $$ / Russian animal cafe ☕🐱
Opened in 2015, this is not just Russia’s, but Europe’s, first cat cafe (with the possible exception of a Vienna cat cafe that opened in 1912, which Lenin regularly patronized in 1913, finding the feline companionship a comfort; the patriotic owner closed it down at the outbreak of war, apocryphally donating all his cats to a factory making fur-lined boots for the war effort). You don’t go here for the coffee, but for the cats they rescue and train – nineteen of them as of Nov 19). If in the mood, some of the cats can do acrobatic and counting tricks for visitors. They have antihistamine tablets for people with allergies.
Shoko-Moko ★★★★ / $ / cafe ☕ –  24/7
Severyanin / $$$ / Russian restaurant 🇷🇺
I hear it is a good enough  restaurant, though pricey/clearly catering to tourists.
Stolle ★★★★ / $ / bakery chain
Taiyaki / $ / Japanese eatery 🇯🇵
Tandoor ★★★★★ / $$ / Indian restaurant 🇮🇳 – gluten free 🌾
Commonly considered to be the best Indian restaurant in SPB, it features authentic dishes and competitively priced business lunches with a choice of curries.
Tandoori Nights ★★★★★ / $$ / Indian restaurant 🇮🇳
Right next to Tandoor, this place serves very good curries (Karachi Chicken was perfect) and naans.
Teremok ★★★★★ / $ / Russian eatery chain 🇷🇺
Tuman ★★★★ / $$ / kalyanaya 🚬 

 


SPB Life

To Do

Entertainment

For the basics of living in Russia (bureaucracy, shopping, etc.) I refer you to the Russia Expat Guide.

Otherwise, I have only ever “lived” in SPB as a tourist, so the advice I can give you is much limited relative to Moscow – much of what I can say will only repeat what I have there.

Obviously, Saint-Petersburg has its own, newer Metro system, but the principle on which it works is similar. Get your card – use the Yandex.Metro map app for navigation.

Likewise refer to the Moscow Guide for my notes on Restaurants.

For similar reasons, I cannot give you much in the way of advice on the Saint-Petersburg property market, apart from the banal observation that the same expensive SWPL center/cheap prole outskirts applies as in Moscow. That said, it’s worth noting that Saint-Petersburg property prices are MUCH cheaper – as of the time of writing (Oct 2020), one square meter in Moscow costs 281,000R vs. just 112,000R in Saint-Petersburg; quality-adjusted one can buy in a central SPB historical district in SPB what one would only otherwise be able to afford in a Moscow prole “sleeper district”. Even the southern resort town of Sochi is marginally more expensive at 150,000R per meter. So if you prefer Saint-Petersburg to Moscow or see no cardinal difference, then opting for a property in the former is a no brainer.

 

Communities of Interest

I am not too familiar with the “scene” in SPB not only because I do not live there (in case you didn’t catch that yet), but because they also tend to be smaller/less prominent nationally. Stands to reason, after all – at the end of the day – SPB only has a third of Moscow’s population and a fifth of its economic weight.

That said, for the three “communities” to which I have some relationship – expats/repats; nationalists; transhumans – here is how the picture looks like.

Nationalists – Relative to Moscow, this is undoubtedly the strongest of the three:

  • The Listva bookshop, a project of the SPB-based Black Hundreds publishing house, has been open in Saint-Petersburg since 2016. Major focal point for guest speakers – politicians, historians, etc., as well as yours truly (speech on dysgenics/idiocracy).
    • This is the major aspect of the SPB nationalist scene – having their own bookshop – which made it unique, though less so now that Moscow also has a branch since 2020.
  • Rozanov Club (YouTube) is a discussion club. (My interview with them).
  • Russia Tea Club – semi-private, now largely dead organization that evolved out of the SPB reading club of now defunct Sputnik & Pogrom magazine (now czat.chat). I gave them a speech on IQ in 2017.
    • BeerHere pub is an occasional IRL focal point for them.
  • Imperial Russian Movement – Explicitly Orthodox military-patriotic club, recognized as “terrorists” by the US State Department. Their underground “base”/gym features Ukrainian war trophies.
  • Inquisition/”Kings” – less salubrious element which happily doesn’t really exist outside the Internet (US Alt Right/Daily Stormer larping Twitter trolls) is mostly based in SPB.

Expats & Repats – In my limited experience, expats seem to be happier in Moscow than in SPB, but n=2 so take it for what it’s worth. Doesn’t apply to repatriates.
Incidentally, “collapse theory” author Dmitry Orlov is one such repatriate (not a dox, this is public knowledge).

Transhumanists – Not at all familiar with their scene in SPB apart from the fact that they also have an annual Geek Picnic festival. I think this is a highly Moscow-centric movement.

 

Tourism 101

First things first – most people coming to Saint-Petersburg, I assume, will be doing so as tourists. I would recommend prioritizing as per the lists above (underlined/capitalized; highlighted; golden starred) while inclining it towards your own interests. Here are some suggestions to get your started – feel free to adjust to your own preferences!

 

4 Day Program

  • Palace Square and the Hermitage Museum followed by the Faberge Museum (usually open late), a walk down Nevsky Avenue and dinner at one of the restaurants and a drink at world-famous El Copitas Bar (needs to be reserved weeks to months in advance!).
  • Take in the morning panorama at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, breakfast at a Teremok or Brynza, before spending the day at a museum or palace of your choice (good picks: The Russian Museum; the Kunstkamera; Central Naval Museum; Yusupov Palace). Performance at the Mariinsky Theater for the evening.
  • Day trip to Peterhof Palace, its famous fountains, and the restored Amber Room.
  • Morning at the Kunstkamera, lunch at Harvest restaurant, and an afternoon at the Peter & Paul Fortress and the museums interest you. Then pass by the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, and explore the Museum of Shadows and the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, which are open until late in the evening.

 

Additional Days

  • Can easily add a solid weeks’ worth of palaces, museums, and religious-historical complexes. I especially recommend seeing the Central Naval Museum, the Railway Museum, and the Zoological Museum (world’s only mounted mammoth).
  • Day tours to: The Catherine Palace in Pushkin; the Konstantino Palace in Strelna; a boat tour to Kronstadt Island; and a visit to the Lakhta Center viewing platform, on Europe’s largest skyscraper.

 

Extra-SPB Excursions

Although I don’t have a detailed list of attractions for these places, you can access separate reviews of most of these places at the Travel page).

  • It’s a necessity to visit Veliky Novgorod for 2-3 days for true connoisseurs of medieval Russian history.
  • Vyborg Fortress.
  • The medieval town of Pskov or Ivangorod on the Estonian border.
  • Boat cruise to Lake Ladoga and the monastery on Valaam Island.

 


References

  1. This guide covers a geographic area that I intuit to be a part of the greater Saint-Petersburg region, e.g. including the town of Gatchin (~50 km), but not extending to , but not Vyborg, Ivangorod, or Valaam Island (~100+ km). Trips to the latter I will typically collate as a list on the Travel section of this website and possibly cover in travel posts on my blog at The Unz Review.