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Destination Unusual: St Petersburg

15th December 2011

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What do you think of Russia? Our traditional Western view of our Eastern cousins is one of austere and oppressive surroundings, of a world far removed from our own bright culture. But visiting the nation’s cultural capital Saint Petersburg you will find a vibrant city steeped in rich history which has collided head-on with an influx of Western culture. If you are looking for a city with unique and, sometimes, bizarre experiences - this is the destination for you.

St PetersburgBuilt on ‘uninhabitable’ swamp land by an eccentric, Tsar Peter the Great, Saint Petersburg was designed as a ‘window to Europe’, intended to showcase the best in design, architecture and taste. As such the city is often referred to as an open-air museum and is a truly spectacular place at every turn.

An emerging favourite for European city breaks St Petersburg was voted the seventh best city in Europe in the Trip Advisor Travellers’ Choice 2011 Awards.

Here is a snapshot of just a few of the things on offer:

Eating and drinking

Imagine a city where a history of Western culture – music, film, fashion – had flooded in all at once. Through Western eyes St Petersburg is culturally like stepping back in time to the 1980s (when Russia was making its transition to capitalism) whilst being firmly set in the present day.

Our culture has been embraced with wide-eyed vigour. Translation of some of the city’s many signs will reveal a casino named Adam Ant amongst many star and brand named establishments.

Amongst the hundreds of quality restaurants, for a fine dining experience you can eat at La Cristal (named after the rappers choice of champagne) which is over-flowing with 1980s affluence and decadence. You can enjoy exceptional food, in a bar that would not be out of place in Miami Vice.

If you’re looking for something a bit more ‘Russian’ give Russian Kitsch a go. Peddling traditional Russian fayre in excessively quirky surroundings it is a definite ‘experience’.

In the evening what not try Pulga a stereotypical basement bar (bar the puppets having sex and the giant pirate’s head on the wall) where locals celebrate the New Year every single night. The music is strange mixture of dance records from the nineties and Russia pop ditties, but with the exuberant atmosphere you won’t care. Join in the drunken revellery that inexplicably involves everyone wearing bunny-ears!

For a quieter night-out why not sample the local brewed beer at the TinKoff Brewery, which these days is a modern, sophisticated drinking hole where you can easily enjoy a chat whilst sampling a tasty local beverage. Beers come in 1 litre glasses so you get plenty of booze for your buck.

In general beer is a little on the pricey side coming in at the equivalent of £6 per litre glass, but as you would expect vodka is a cheaper drinking option.


Saint Petersburg is a city that is dragging its historical heritage back from the clutches of the Soviet era. Buildings taken over by the communists for their own use are in the process of being restored to their former Tsarist glories – and glorious these places are. In history few royal dynasties did ‘bling’ like the Romanov’s. The city itself has a staggering 300 palaces, all shrines to excess and affluence.

Walking round the spectacular Grand Palace Peterhof (or Catherine Palace), an ornate wonder sat in huge, beautiful gardens it is a beacon of wealth that in some way shows how it all ended in revolution. Captured and burned down by the Nazi’s in World War Two the palace is some way through a long-term restoration project to bring it back to its former glory and is a magnificent place to visit.

Stood on the Moika River Yusupov Palace matches stunning decor with some of Russia’s most interesting history, the building being where Grigory Rasputin (the notorious ‘mad monk’) was murdered in 1916.

The story of Rasputin’s death is worth hearing in the room where his murder plot unfolded. The Rasputin exhibition can be visited only with a tour. English-language tours are available by prior arrangement. Elsewhere in the palace, the breathtaking private theatre is as beautiful as it is surprising and one of the most amazing rooms in the world. It is an absolute must see.

The gold-domed, ornate St Isaac’s Cathedral (the third largest in the world) is also breath-taking inside and offers visitors a 300-step climb to witness the best views of the city.

With 300 museums across the city you’ll find something to peak your interest. Of course if you would like to carry on with the more bizarre subjects you can find buildings focused on bread, circuses and water to name a strange examples.

On a more serious note you can make a visit to the Hermitage Museum ( ), which takes in the lavish interiors of the former imperial residence with a colossal collection of art. Recognised the second largest museum in the world, and containing a mind-boggling 2.7 million exhibits you’ll never get round it in one go, but a walk round is well worth it. In fact, it has been claimed that to view every exhibit for just one minute would take you nine years!

While it might not be everyone’s first choice Peter The Great’s own museum project Kunstkamera (Russia’s first museum - ) does have something worth a look. Hidden away at the back is the unique and intriguing Chamber of Curiosities. A collection of ‘monsters’ the chamber highlights the Tsar’s fascination with abnormality. Not for the squeamish this collection holds the likes of a stuffed two-headed calf and Cyclops piglets amongst a truly unnerving array of multi-limbed, misshapen foetuses. It is a truly unusual experience.

A safe city

Russia often has a reputation as being a dangerous place to visit, but this couldn’t be further from the truth in St Petersburg. It is a ‘safe city’ with an increasing selection of services to keep tourists on track. The local tourist board of a 24-hour, free hot-line (when called through the MegaFon mobile network) to offer advice, answer your queries and give you information.

During peak tourist times the city also has ‘Angels’ on the streets who are on hand to guide tourists, plus most of these will be students earning some summer cash so they should be easily approachable and have a good idea of what might be of interest to you.

Also at you can download a range of audio tours of the city to your phone free of charge which will help you make the most of your visit.

And now for something completely different.....

If you want to see something truly off the chain (and something that even most of the locals wonder about) you can now take up an offer of cheap accommodation at the St Petersburg University of Humanities and Social Sciences. Why would you want to go and stay in a university during time off from your own? Well, this is no ‘normal’ university!

This is a university through the rabbit-hole and into wonderland. Sure it looks a bit like a disused industrial complex and inside, on first look, it could be any other uni, but delve deeper and the place is nuts (in a good way).

Yellow SubmarineMany universities have a media-lab, but not usually inside the Beatles Yellow Submarine! Part Beatles museum and part actual submarine, students work with fish swimming in portholes and all over-seen by life-size mannequins of Paul McCartney and John Lennon at the helm, and joined, inexplicably,  by a weird caricature dummy of the university’s rector – whose Beatles obsession is why the place exists.

As if this isn’t enough there is wooden decking complete with pool and sun-loungers for students to relax in and on the way to the halls of residence (where you can stay) you’ll walk through a replica Italian street, past a replica Italian rail-station. Children’s voices are constantly pumped into the street, which in many ways is as unnerving as it sounds.
Ask if you can dine in the staff only cafeteria which is based on the story of Pinocchio. It is a one-time eating experience, if you can eat whilst being overlooked by twisted puppets you’re a better man (or woman) than me!

The accommodation itself is pretty standard, in an old-school, student halls way and are not exactly the lap-of-luxury. But for the price, and the variety of rooms (you can get single and double options of various sizes, usually sharing bathrooms between two rooms) it is an interesting and cost-effective way to build a base for a trip to the city. It is just 20-minutes away from the city centre by Metro or bus, giving easy access to other attractions.

Of course during the summer months there will be no students around, but a stay at the university will give you a visit that will be unlike other.

Where else to stay

Of course, if the idea of a bizarre campus stay is not your thing there are plenty of other accommodation options. There is a lot of choice that won’t damage your student bank balance with the city having 117 economy hotels, 377 mini-hotels and 46 hostels to match your budget with somewhere nice to stay. Of course if you are feeling flash the city also has 15 5-star hotels to stay in – like the Kempinski ( ) which is an insanely luxurious place to stay.

A great student deal

Like what you read? Lucky for you, for summer 2012 the Russian National Tourism Office are offering bespoke packages which could cost as little as £350.

The unique package would include the arranging of Visas, accommodation at the St Petersburg University of Humanities and Social Sciences for three, four or seven nights, return flights from London with Rossiya Airlines, and tours of the city by representatives of the Russian National Tourist Office.

These packages are perfect for students looking to explore St Petersburg in a unique way without breaking the bank.

Get in touch with the Russian National Tourism Office to see what they can offer you.

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