“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of mankind and life cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth for all of one’s lifetime.”
Russia. The very sound of this word likely conjures up a controversial leader or perhaps the nail-on-a-chalkboard sound of our very own President’s name. It has been in the front line of news more than any other country since the election and not in a positive light. Well, I am not here to talk about politics, but I will be happy to debunk a few negative stigmas about Russia and its people throughout this post. This is a travel blog after all, therefore I am here to share with you the immense beauty, history, art, architecture and culture that Russia has to offer. So follow me to explore the beauty of this beautiful European-feel Western-most city of Russia: St. Petersburg.
If someone told me while living in Hawaii, that before I turned 30 I would meet a wonderful Russian/American man while living in Seattle, a year later quit my job, leave the country, and together fly across the world to visit his home city of St. Petersburg, I wouldn’t have believed it. Russia had never been on my bucket list, and I’m not sure it ever would have been, had I not met Sasha. But here we are on country #4 on our world travel adventure, and believe it or not, I’m even learning Russian! I can now officially read the alphabet and feel like a first grader as I try to sound out street names and signs and ask Sasha if I got it right. Learning another language (especially one with 33 letters in their alphabet) is humbling and satisfying. Sasha is my multi-cultural babe; he was born in St. Petersburg and raised here until he was 9, with a two-year stint living in India from age 3 – 4 while his Dad (a professor) taught on a visiting program. He would return every summer to St. Petersburg all throughout his childhood, and when he was 12 years old, his family relocated permanently to Boulder, CO where he grew up. (I am convinced that this is one of the reasons Sasha has a stomach of iron, having been exposed to all kinds of cultural foods growing up.)
By the way, the name Sasha in Russia is just about as common as the name John or Steve in America. It is a shortened nickname for Alexander (how they derived Sasha from Alexander makes no sense to me, but I like it.) When Sasha introduces himself anywhere outside of Russia, people ask him to repeat his name because we are trained especially in the U.S. to think that any name ending in “a” is feminine. Here if you call out the name “Sasha”, about five men/guys turn to look.
Being an island girl, I can tell you that it is an absolute dream to be here and feels surreal as Russia is quite literally across the entire Earth from where my family is on O’ahu. When people ask me where I am from, I respond with, “ya s Gavai” (I am from Hawaii) and they’re always amazed. Some have never even heard of it, some think it’s close to Cuba, some don’t know it’s part of the U.S., and some have heard of it but wouldn’t be able to locate it on a map. I don’t blame them, it’s tiny. I imagine it is difficult for them to fathom such a far away place that is so polar opposite to Russia in every possible way. I feel so grateful to be able to be here and experience this culture, though I admit, the grimness of folks on the metro, at grocery stores and in passing on the streets was tough to get used to. From first glance one might think that based on facial expressions or the fact that nobody smiles at you in passing or when you enter an establishment, that Russian people are miserable. However, after spending so much time here, I learned that smiling at everyone is simply not part of their culture. Smiling and laughing is reserved for family and people you know.
Going from South America to Russia was a massive culture shock. Having been raised in Hawaii, where, in my wildly biased opinion, I feel has some of the friendliest and most genuine people in the world, I had a hard time accepting that it’s not normal to smile all the time and say hello to or acknowledge everyone I pass. The constant big, genuine smile on my face that I typically walk around with, does not fit in here. In fact, if you do smile at someone in passing, they may think you’re making fun of them or just did something naughty. In general, people are not open or outwardly friendly here unless they know you. There is no such thing as “pocket niceties” like you would see in America, such as asking someone “how’s your day going?” Or “did you find everything okay?” In a grocery store. I actually don’t mind this because in America these niceties can often come across as fake and forced because companies train and sometimes require their employees to make “small talk” with their customers, even if they couldn’t care less about the current state of your day or mood.
Here, your Uber driver is considered good if they pick you up on time, don’t talk much if at all during the ride, and say goodbye when you exit the car. Interactions seem much more transactional rather than emotionally oriented. Of course, not everyone in Russia is this way. We have had our fair share of chatty and friendly Uber drivers and restaurant servers. One Uber driver even expressed how happy he was to see American tourists in his home town because he felt that the news and our leaders make us hate each other without understanding why. And I must say that once you get to know someone and they gain your respect and trust, Russians are some of the most kind, generous and hospitable people I have ever met.
Traveling to such different countries has helped me learn not to judge from my “American lens”, rather to accept a place and its people for what it is and try to understand where they come from and what has shaped their cultural ways. Russia has been through a lot of hard times and are still facing difficult circumstances as many other countries are. However, it is always possible to find the beauty everywhere, the key is not to compare.
Everyone here is so impressed by Sasha’s ability to speak fluent Russian to them and then turn around and speak to me in English without any accent. Kudos to his parents for teaching him their mother tongue growing up! I am so happy to know that when we have kids in the future, they will speak Russian (and hopefully more than that if we decide to raise them abroad!)
Sasha’s parents spend several months here every summer for White Nights, where the sun never really sets, rather moves across the horizon because the city is located so far North. This means that during the month of June, days are long and night skies are bright until nearly midnight! In the photo below on the left, you can see from the clock that it is 11:48 PM and still bright outside. We were coming home from the opera.
Russia occupies approximately 8% of Earth’s land mass, but on this trip we only visited three cities: St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kazan. Check out my individual blog posts on the other cities here:
Also don’t miss my blog post on Russian Food & Language.
We had originally planned to stay only two weeks, but, as fate would have it (and our biggest travel oopsie to-date), we ended up staying a whole month. (I have to admit, there are worse places to be “stuck” for a month!) Allow me to tell the story of how Sasha was stuck in Riga, Latvia while I continued on to his home city without him.
While we were London checking in online for our flight to St. Petersburg with a stop-over in Riga, the capital of Latvia, Sasha noticed that his Russian passport had expired! In the midst of getting everything prepared for such a huge move in Seattle three months prior, we didn’t even think to check his Russian passport. His American passport was still valid, but without a Russian visa, you cannot enter the country even if you are a citizen. He made it from London to Riga just fine because it was considered a domestic European Union flight. However, upon checking passports in Riga before boarding the plane, the gate agents realized it was expired and would not let him on. They told me to proceed on to the plane, so we parted ways not knowing what would happen but that we would figure out a way to get him home! This was a Wednesday evening, so he caught a bus to downtown Riga, found a cheap hostel and waited until the Russian Embassy opened the next day. Meanwhile his Dad picked me up from the airport when I arrived in SPB (Saint Petersburg). The Embassy informed him that he must have his internal Russian passport (given to all citizens of Russia), which, thankfully we had at home here in SPB. His Dad and I expedited his internal passport via DHL on Thursday morning to arrive to Riga at an undetermined time on “Friday afternoon” the next day. The problem was that the Embassy was only open from 9:00 AM – 12:00 noon and we weren’t sure it would make it in time. They are of course closed on the weekends, so we ran the risk that he would be stuck there all weekend until Monday. Thankfully, Sasha took a taxi to the DHL office on Friday morning as the tracking had said it arrived. He made it back to the Embassy with his internal Russian passport with 30 minutes to spare, and they were able to get his paperwork prepared for him to leave that evening on a 9:00 PM ten-hour bus from Riga to SPB. Lesson learned here: always check the expiration date of ALL passports if you are a dual citizen!
Sasha’s father is the Director of Russian Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU). Each summer he takes a group of students studying Russian, to St. Petersburg and they stay here with host families for six weeks. They do many tours and cultural activities, which I so luckily got to join, so I could not have had a better tour guide!
Things to do in St. Petersburg
We spent a total of three weeks here and still we didn’t even come close to seeing it all! I highly recommend at least one week here, which means that each day will be packed with museums and activities!
- Visit The Hermitage
The Hermitage is kind of a huge deal. Once the Imperial Palace, it is now the largest art museum in the world! People come from near and far just to see this incredible museum, which Sasha’s Dad took me to (while Sasha was still in Riga). We spent around five hours there which is considered a “quick tour”! Many people choose to come back several days to complete it.
(Click on each photo to enlarge it)
2) Visit the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
This church was built atop the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. His blood on the cobblestone street was never cleaned up, so it was decided that a church would be built over it in his honor.
As with many significant churches and buildings in SPB, this church was funded by the imperial family. Here is what the inside of the church looked like
*Tip for tall photos if you have a panorama option: flip the phone sideways and take the pano vertically instead of horizontally. This especially works well for tall buildings that are not in the full frame*
Make sure you go at different times to catch the lighting. The golden hour is incredible.
SPB is known as the “Venice of the North” or the “Amsterdam of the East” because of all the canals. The wide and stately Neva river flows through the city and feeds into the gulf of Finland. SPB was once the capital of Russia, and, as Peter the Great called it, the “window to Europe”. There are lots and lots of bridges here, and they even make a show out of raising the bridges at 1:30 AM each morning to let the large ships come through. If you can stay awake, it’s a sight to be seen!
3) Take a River Cruise
As with any city built on water, there are heaps of boat cruises during day or night time!
4) Take a Stroll Downtown and be Awed by the 18-19th century Architecture and Statues all Around!
Walking around the city is a fun activity in itself! Just be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes!
One thing I noted is that Russian women don’t wear shorts. In fact, nobody wears shorts. If you wear shorts, you are immediately pegged as a tourist. Also, women wear stockings with everything, even under jeans! We were here during the month of June, which is summer but temperatures were still as low as 10 C at night and the warmest it got was 22 C, but average temperature sits right around 16 C.
The weather reminded me exactly of Seattle; gloomy, grey, rainy and a bit humid. However, when the sun was out, it sure was spectacular! The difference here is, people actually use their umbrellas. And they’re really colorful!
(I may or may not have stalked this woman down a street corner to get this photo)
5) Take a Walk on Yelagin Island
The beginning of June is prime season for tulips! (Click on each photo to enlarge it)
6) Ride a Tandem Bike Through Sosnovka Park
Just a 15-minute drive from downtown is a beautiful and enormous park that just so happened to be right across from the family apartment we were staying in. There are all kinds of bike rentals here, kids’ playgrounds, etc. Also, this will be the only place you see women in fit wear in all of Russia. (My casual yoga pants and flats certainly do not fit in here.)
7) See an Opera or Ballet at the New and Old Mariinksy Theatres
I was classically trained in opera at the age of 13 but had never in my life up until this trip, attended an opera. Thanks to Sasha’s Dad, who took his students to many theatre performances, we got to join three operas, a symphony, and the 275th annual graduation performance from the Vaganova Ballet School. Ballets are typically held at the old Mariinsky Theatre which still preserves its original interior and exterior (which meant that Sasha had to duck so he didn’t hit his head on the low ceilings!) and operas are held at the new Mariinsky Theatre, which was built simply because shows were always sold out and they needed more space! (An excellent problem to have!) Below is Italian opera composer Verdi’s “Sicilian Vespers”, a five-hour, five-act opera! I’ve gained some serious opera stamina after this trip! Translation is on the screen in both Russian and English. There is a balcony up top with a beautiful view of the city and river below. (Cost is 100 rubles per person).
8) Alexander Park and “Mini Saint Petersburg”
Located near the zoo, this small park houses (in geographic accuracy), all of SPB’s most famous landmarks.
9) Visit the Island of Kronstadt
Located just a 45-minute Uber ride outside the city (over a long bridge, no ferry required), is the island of Kronstadt, originally the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet to guard approaches to SPB. One of Sasha’s Mothers’ good friends lives on the island so we visited her and got a local tour!
10) Visit Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral
Located inside the Peter and Paul Fortress, this Cathedral was the first and oldest landmark in SPB, finished in 1733. It sits along the Neva River and provides excellent views of the water. During summertime on a sunny day, you’ll get to see Russian sunbathing in full action. For some reason they think that standing up will get them a better tan! This scene absolutely cracked me up!
And I’m the Hawaii girl here all covered up whilst everyone else is in bikinis and speedos?? 🙂 By the way, it was sunny but not particularly warm (around 12 C, or 53 F, which, I suppose is warm for Russians).
11) Go to a Dacha (Summerhouse) and Experience a Banya
If you are well-to-do, you have your own private Banya on the same grounds as your dacha. Inside the sauna fits around four people and there is also a shower and changing area as well as a resting area connected that leads to the outside so that you can cool off in between sessions. It is typical to go in and out of the sauna between four and six times in the span of a few hours. I had the incredible honor of being able to witness and be a part of the ceremonial leaf slapping/massage called Platza. Our host collected birch and oak leaves from the forest and strung them together like two brooms. He soaked the leaves in hot water inside the sauna and when the person is ready to be massaged they go in naked and the vessel that holds hot stones is opened. Water mixed with essential lavender oil is poured onto the rocks and the leaves are shaken vigorously in the air above the person’s body to create steam and warm rain. They are then slapped like a hot (but soft) iron on the body, which is meant to release toxins and purify the skin. The temperature of the sauna was approximately 70°C. So you don’t stay in for longer than 15 minutes (there is a sand timer inside). I really enjoyed the massage experience. Sasha got it on the GoPro but since Americans tend to be overly conservative when it comes to displaying nudity, I’ll spare you and this photo will do.
The next day we visited the local market to see where all this amazing food was coming from. Russians LOVE their cucumbers and dill!
12) Get a Thai Massage
I don’t know how I managed to live in both Hawai’i and Seattle; two places with a decent amount of Thai people, and never heard of Thai massage! This is my new favorite form of massage and I highly recommend that you try it here. Thai massage therapists use their entire body to really get deep into relaxing the muscles using their own body parts, including sitting on you (don’t worry, most of them are tiny but insanely strong enough to make you cry in good pain!) It’s normal to be sore afterwards, as that means they have done a good job. You can specify the level of pressure you prefer (light, medium, hard). I did medium-hard and was not disappointed.
Royal Thai Massage is a chain with three locations in SPB. They have a program where fully trained massage therapists come here after they complete their studies in Thailand. The massage therapists stay for one year and have the option to stay longer. I can’t imagine how much they must miss their home cuisine, as there is close to zero Thai restaurants in this area of the city. They also must think it’s soooo cold! The reason they chose Russia for the program is because Russians love their massage. Here is the facade of the building on Bolshaya Konyushennaya Street. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the interior is clean and zen-like.
When Sasha changed into his robe, his massage therapist picked up his pants, and before folding them, held them up to her body and they started giggling uncontrollably because they went from her feet to her head!!! I wish I got a photo of that, but no cell phones are allowed inside the massage rooms. Instead, here is a photo with our two massage ladies and Sasha the Giant.
PRICING (as of June, 2017):
One hour traditional: 2,600 rubles (~$45 USD)
90 minutes: 3,800 rubles (~$67 USD)
120 minutes: 5,000 rubles (~$88 USD)
*TIP: On weekdays between 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM all massages are 30% off!*
13) Visit the Faberge Museum
For 300 roubles per person, this interesting museum is full of gorgeous jewels and eggs. Faberge was a household name, such as “Tiffany’s” is now. Faberge is known for his jeweled eggs and were traditionally made exclusively for Czar’s to present to their wife on Easter. The eggs were made between 1885 and 1917, and 50 were made either by Faberge himself, or by his team with his supervision, and many are on display today inside the museum. They have now become a Russian souvenir and a popular decoration in one’s home.
You may have noticed that I haven’t included anything about food in this post. That’s because Russian food deserves its very own blog post with plenty of delicious photos to make you want to visit tomorrow. Check out my blog post here on Russian Food & Language.
Transportation and Getting Around in St. Petersburg
The metro system is the deepest underground in the entire world, going to depths of over 100 meters (300 feet). You can purchase a metro card and continue to reload it as often as necessary. This is a great way to get around if you are staying in or near the city center. Just be warned that the trains are ear-piercingly loud. If you’re at all sensitive to loud noise like I am, bring earplugs and don’t be afraid to wear them. Russians have seen stranger things in the metro.
Since we stayed outside the city center in one of Sasha’s family member’s apartments, it was not close to a metro station so we relied heavily on Uber, which is very popular here and really cheap (by American standards). For a 20-minute ride from our apartment into the city center, we typically spent on average $3 USD one-way. A ride to the dacha, which was located one hour outside the city, was $22 USD. I always think that a great way to get to know a city and their people is to take Uber and have conversations with the drivers (if you speak a mutual language), who usually don’t sugar coat their feelings on politics, city issues, and pride of their country. Luckily, Sasha speaks Russian so he was able to converse with them.
Homelessness, Crime & Safety
There is virtually no homeless in Russia that we have seen. There are a few beggars who look a bit rough, but were completely harmless, and many of them actually perform acts to earn their money rather than just stand there and beg. One theory is that the colder an environment is, the fewer homeless there are, simply because they would not be able to survive a Russian winter. During Soviet times and in the 1990’s, cities had programs where they would give apartments to low income earners or large families. The apartments were also given to war veterans or folks with a handicap that made it difficult for them to earn enough money to support themselves with adequate housing. This program still exists, however, the eligibility requirements have become more stringent making it more difficult to obtain.
Overall, SPB is an extremely safe city and the only reason I didn’t feel comfortable going out on my own is because I don’t speak or read Russian fluently, and many people here do not speak English if I needed help. As with all major cities, be smart with your belongings in crowded areas because of pickpockets. The city receives many cruise ships arriving to port on a daily basis, so streets are immaculate. I barely saw any graffiti and was impressed with the fact that there are street cleaners outside 24/7. There is also a fair amount of police security around the area to make people feel safer.
Chivalry Vs. Sexism
This is an interesting topic in Russia. Sasha confirmed that my observations were accurate having lived here for several years himself. My observation was that chivalry still exists here, which was a refreshing sight to witness having grown up in America where most young boys, teenagers or grown adult men wouldn’t even think to stand up when a woman enters a room. On the metros here, men stand for women so that they can sit. They also open doors and pull out chairs, as well escort them arm-in-arm while walking. While this is nice to see, it also shows that some of the old mentality of women being “fragile” or “helpless” still somewhat exists. Though customs are slowly beginning to shift and evolve, I noticed that most women still dress “properly”, meaning either in dresses or stockings. Of course many women wear pants or jeans, but the concept of feminism and women being “strong” here doesn’t seem to have caught on just yet.
As I mentioned before, the only place where I saw women in fitness clothing was inside the park. While this completely makes sense for a big city, I was surprised to not see many sporty-looking women. It seems to me that girls and women are still expected to be dainty and made-up. Again, this was merely my observation based on the time we spent here and the locations we visited, so this may not be an accurate or inclusive deduction.
Tourism is starting to pick up in the major cities such as SPB and Moscow, as well as Kazan because of the football (soccer) games. Russia is a huge hub for hosting sporting events, which brings a good deal of tourism here, along with all the cruise ships. China is the #1 tourism influx to SPB, and they typically come in large groups with guides. Overall, Russia was one of the richest cultural experiences I have had the honor of experiencing, and I would highly recommend a visit!
What We Spent in Four Weeks in Russia
A few notes before going into financials. The only accommodation we paid for was in Kazan as well as chipping in for the electric bill, as we were very lucky to stay with Sasha’s family, so our accommodation expense for this leg of our travels was extraordinarily cheap. We also didn’t spend as much on eating out as we normally do, because Sasha’s family cooked many meals at home.
Our cell phone bill each month is $104 for the two of us for T-Mobile’s International plan. However, because the apartment we were staying in did not have wifi or a router, we had to get a local SIM card and continue to reload money on it, so our bill was a bit higher this month.
All expenditures are in US Dollars
|CATEGORY DESCRIPTION||TOTAL SPENT IN 30 DAYS||AVERAGE PER DIEM|
|Transportation (includes the bus fare from SPB to Moscow, one-way, all Ubers and metros)||$527.69||$17.59|
|Airfare (from London to SPB, Moscow to Kazan, and Kazan back to SPB: 3 flights total)||$313.45||$10.45|
|Clothing, Accessories & Gifts||$148.07||$4.94|
Country’s currency: Rouble
At the time of travel to Russia, the currency conversion was $1.00 USD = 57 Russian roubles, so to figure out the USD cost, divide bill in roubles by 57 to figure out USD.
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