Use FTF's guide to Russia's “Venice of the North” to learn all about the family attractions in this beautiful city.
In case you were wondering, zdraftst’voitye means “hello” in Russian, the native language of St. Petersburg. In 1703, Peter the Great began the nine-year project of building a new Russian harbor city on the Gulf of Finland. Since then, this 300-year-old city has seen its share of war, hunger, and revolution, but has shown remarkable spirit and toughness. (Residents famously attended a performance of the philharmonic orchestra during a World War II shelling attack!) In this age of peace and relative prosperity, St. Petersburg is ready to show your family its soft side.
Just strolling around Russia’s “Venice of the North” is a diversion in itself – the city boasts many picturesque canals and over 500 bridges. The Blue Bridge, at 319 feet, two inches wide, is the widest bridge in the world. Sculptures of horses gallop in place along the Neva River. An especially beautiful time to walk along the river is during the “White Nights” in June and July, when, due to the northern latitude of St. Petersburg, the sun never quite seems to set, but lingers with a soft, white glow instead.
St. Petersburg’s Metro stations are a must-see themselves. These “People’s Palaces” are stunning stations as envisioned by Stalin who employed the best Soviet architects to design them. Sculptures, mosaics, and chandeliers were commissioned from famous artists and many tons of marble, granite, and limestone were used in their construction. In 1955, the first line was opened with stops at the Pushkin and Vladimir stations. Stations are buried deep underground because of the many waterways St. Petersburg and long escalators lead down the platforms. The Metro ride is a great experience that gives a glance into the daily life of the people of St. Petersburg.
For addition insight into daily life of the people of St. Petersburg, visit local shops such as the Kuznechny Market. Sellers in the market come from all over Russia and sell everything from fruits and fresh fish to homemade cottage cheese and natural honey.
Nevsky Prospekt is another great place for walking. This bustling thoroughfare has grown into St. Petersburg’s best shopping street. It’s also culturally rich, with historic buildings and monuments alongside pharmacies, bookshops, and toy stores. You may even see an exclamatory sign in Russian that translates to “Citizens! At times of artillery bombardment this side of street is most dangerous!” (Don’t worry, this is left over from World War II, and doesn’t apply to the current, peaceful situation in St. Petersburg.)
Elyveev’s, a reputable delicatessen store located on the Nevsky Prospekt, is worth a visit as it is one of the best places to buy caviar and vodka. It is located in one of the most lavish modern-style buildings built at the turn of the 20th century, embellished with bronze sculptures and huge windows.
What To See & Do
The Hermitage Museum (812/110-96-25. Open daily except Monday, 10:30 am – 6:00pm) is a massive collection of art from the Stone Age to the present, and the city’s most world-renowned attraction. Six buildings along the Neva River house this museum complex with over 3,000,000 items. The most awe-inspiring of these buildings is the Winter Palace, once home to the Russian Tsars. Here the kids can view doll clothes from the early Middle Ages, ancient Egyptian tombs, and probably too many other exhibits to fit into one day. The Golden Rooms contain gold, silverware, and gems fashioned into fabulous jewelry and collected by Catherine the Great.
For the inevitable snack break, the Hermitage CafÃ© menu includes pizza, ice cream, and other familiar junk food. The cafÃ© also features an Internet area where visitors can send electronic postcards directly from the museum.
Outside the museum, a statue of Tsar Alexander stands atop a tall column in the center of Palace Square. Once this was the parade ground for the Tsars, then the site of three revolutions, and now it’s just a great place to run around!
Another fun, outdoor area is the Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Krepost, in Russian), built by Peter the Great on Hare Island to protect St. Petersburg from invading Swedes. Later this irregular hexagon of a fortress was used as a prison – novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was imprisoned here in the mid-19th century. Next door, the thin spire of the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral reaches into the air. This church, the oldest in St. Petersburg, holds the tombs of Russia’s pre-revolutionary emperors. There’s even a beach-like area on Hare Island that crowds with sun-bathers in the summer.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral (812/315-9732) famous for its lavish interior, is now open to visitors as a museum. If your family doesn’t mind combining tourism with cardiovascular exercise, try climbing the hundreds of steps to admire the city view from the sky-high Colonnade. Look down on the bronze statue of Nicholas I on horseback in St. Isaac’s Square – another monumental tribute to Tsarist Russia. The Cathedral is open daily except Wednesday from 11am–6pm, but the Colonnade closes at 5pm.
Another interesting religious site is the Grand Choral Synagogue which was consecrated in 1893. The synagogue soon became the home of the city’s entire population of 15,000 Jews, after the Russian authorities closed all Jewish meeting houses in the city. The recently restored Moorish-style building is located at 2 Lermontovsky Prospect and provides education and charitable works, and hosts concerts of cantors from the US, Israel and Canada. Weekly services are held in the Grand Hall on Saturdays and holidays at 9:30am and in the Small Synagogue on weekdays at 10am, 4pm and after sunset, and on Saturdays at 10:30am and 1pm.
For a definitely kid-friendly adventure, check out the cruiser “Aurora” (Open daily 10:30am–4pm except Mondays and Fridays). An antique of the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s, this vessel now floats, restored and maintained by Navy cadets. Kids can explore the deck to their hearts’ content for free; a parent request may secure a tour of the engine room for an extra fee.
Another boat turned floating museum is The Icebreaker “Krasin” (812/324-9448; Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am–5pm, closed Mondays). This tough ship played important roles in both World War II and research expeditions in the Polar Ocean; now it floats off the bank of Vasilyevsky Island and welcomes visitors. If the Krasin sparks an interest in polar navigation, another place to visit might be the Arctic and Antarctic Museum (812/311-2549; Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm; closed Monday, Tuesday, and the last Saturday of each month). If nothing else, there is a large collection of taxidermy that children tend to find fascinating.
The Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, known as the Kunstkamera, (812/328-1412. Open daily 11am–4:45pm; closed Monday and the last Wednesday of each month) showcases artifacts of traditional cultures from all over the world. In addition to the impressive permanent collections, several temporary exhibits explore aspects of human culture throughout history. The included Lomonosov Museum features scientific instruments (like sun-dials, compasses, and telescopes) from the 13th to 19th centuries, and the Planetarium contains re-created 18th century paintings of the night sky.
If you have time for an excursion out of town, Peterhof (812/420-0073) is a 29km commuter train and bus ride away, to the west on the Gulf of Finland. The name of this great estate means “Peter’s Court,” and it was built as a place of repose for Peter the Great. The Grand Palace, with its elaborate interiors, is open for viewing Tuesday–Sunday 11am-6pm, closed Monday and the last Tuesday of each month. The main draw for kids here is the enormous park with fountains, statues, and pavilions galore. The Lower Park features over 120 fountains with no pumps – all the water movement relies on gravity alone. In the most famous fountain, water shoots dramatically from a lion’s jaws as a golden Samson holds them open. Visitors can also watch aquatic chess boards, dragons, and silly characters. Lower Park is open daily 9am–8pm, 9pm on weekends. Fountains run 11am–5pm from late May to mid-October.
Going To The Theatre
Back in St. Petersburg, you may want to take advantage of the performing arts – the city is a cultural mecca of Russia. Perhaps most well-known is the Mariinsky Theatre (812/326-4141), which showcases world-famous Russian ballet and opera. Everything about the place is elegant, from the blue velvet chairs to the three-tiered chandelier. Tickets can be reserved by phone or over the Internet.
Catering more to young children is the E.S. Demmeni Theater of Marionettes (812/311-2156). Performances feature puppets on strings acting out children’s tales. This is Russia’s first puppet theater, founded in 1918, and the tradition of marionette puppetry is older than the Tsars.
Where To Stay
As more world travelers discover the charms of St. Petersburg, the quality of lodging increases. The Astoria Hotel (812/494-5757 is great for tourists, with a downtown location, currency change, and in-house travel agency, all enveloped in elegant Art Deco decor. This hotel houses many group tours and offers single and double rooms as well as suites. Children under 12 stay free in their parents’ room (there is a small fee for an extra bed).
The Radisson SAS Royal St. Petersburg (812/322-5000) is another classy hotel located downtown. The historic building has original features almost 300 years old. There are many deluxe rooms to choose from and Russian dishes are served in the Barbazan Restaurant. Kids to age 17 stay free.
For families looking for lodging a bit more budget-oriented and culturally immersed, Host Families Association (HOFA) (911/914-2762 might be the way to go. This organization matches travelers with local Russian host families based on language, level of service, and age (including children). Optional services include meals, a car, and Russian language tutoring. References are available.
St. Petersburg ‘s climate is generally mild and humid with frequent fog and rain. The peak season for tourists is between May and September when temperatures range from 45 to 60°F (7 to 15.5°C). Summers can have very dry and hot periods, but the temperatures usually range between 65 and 77°F (18 to 25°C). Winters are much colder with temperatures generally between -13 and 23°F (-25 to -5°C).
The ruble, the local currency, is currently valued at US$1 equals about 31 rubles. When spending time in St. Petersburg, you should always carry identification with a photocopy of your visa and passport. Russia requires tourist visas from the citizens of many countries, and arrangements for documentation should be made well in advance. As in other very populated cities, watch out for pickpockets, particularly in public areas, marketplaces and on the Metro.
Getting around the city is surprisingly easy. Families without a car in their vacation budget need not stress about transportation – there is plenty of the public variety. The Metro is the fastest, cheapest way to navigate the city, and big “M”s clearly mark the entrances. Nicely decorated stations and big escalators are extra incentives for kids!
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