My sister Katie and I started out on the same life path: Diaper-free at age two, collecting Pokemon at age eight, studying Spanish at age twelve. However, come college time, a strange shift happened: I kept on the Spanish track, but Katie became obsessed with all things Russian.
We were just as confused as you might be.
Katie chose Reed College because of its distinguished Russian Literature program. She hung out at the campus Russian House and ate blini with her professors. Then she studied abroad in St. Petersburg. We’re from California, so keeping with Spanish always seemed like the practical route. However, Katie’s always taken an alternative path, so in hindsight, it seems natural that while everyone was busy studying por vs. para, she had to go learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
Katie is now a Russian translator, and she continues to amaze and perplex us with her love for all things Russian. Explaining the root of her extreme curiosity in the country might go on as long as a Dostoyevsky novel. Thus, I’ve asked her to simply shed some light on her favorite Russian city, St. Petersburg.
Why You Should Consider a Trip to Saint Petersburg (according to Katie)
St. Petersburg is one of the cultural capitals of Russia. It is renowned for its beautiful European architecture, Venetian-inspired canals, museums (the Hermitage), theaters and ballets (the opulent Mariinsky), and fascinating history. It also has a great metro system, and unlike Moscow, is fairly compact and easy to navigate.
It feels more human-scaled than Moscow or other large Russian cities like Yekaterinburg, and has a much more bohemian, grungy spirit to it (perhaps because it was home to the great dissident Soviet rock star, Viktor Tsoi).
The city divides into the mainland and two large islands, so you have to traverse various canals and bridges to get around. Since the metro closes at midnight, you have to be aware of when the bridges raise and lower each night so you won’t get trapped. However, this does make for a beautiful sight, and forces you to stay out all night partying or exploring. Moreover, in the summer you get the White Nights. St. Petersburg is very far north, so it starts to get dark only around midnight, and then just for a couple of hours. This can lead to horrible insomnia, but is a necessary antidote to the long spells of winter cold and darkness.
Traveling to St. Petersburg on a budget can be tricky, because Americans need a visa to visit (last time I was there it was about $150 for a tourist visa, $240 or so for a longer three-month business visa). Airfare and lodging in St. Petersburg, other than hostels or couch surfing, is expensive as well. Avoid chain stores like H&M and Zara, which are more expensive than their American and European counterparts. Luckily, there are amazing and cheap flea markets all over the city (you just have to find them). Food in grocery stores is really cheap, and the metro is affordable and accessible.
Go now while the ruble is in bad shape, but be a respectful visitor and do your best to learn about Russia from a local perspective. There is so much more to Russia than the nasty politics between Russia and the United States make it out to be.
Neighborhood: Petrogradskaya storona (Petrograd Side) is the smaller of St. Petersburg’s two main islands. It’s really beautiful to walk around here, and you can cross a bridge and through a forest to Elagin Island, where there’s a nice park for boating, roller skating and biking, and lounging on beautiful lawns. When I was last there in 2012, the Stereoleto music festival was there (with Regina Spektor and Royksopp headlining).
Restaurant: Khinkali, a Georgian restaurant at 20 Konstantina uslonova ulitsa. Go to as many Georgian restaurants as you can!
Clubs: Tunnel Club, on Petrograd Side (if it’s open), is in an old bunker. A former industrial courtyard at 50 Ligovsky Prospekt is probably full of new clubs, although the first time I was in St. Petersburg, the only things there apart from auto mechanics, abandoned buildings, and piles of scrap metal were the clandestine Vegan Klub and Jesus Club, where all the beautiful young hipsters gathered.
Russian Expression: I find it difficult to pronounce St. Petersburg in Russian (Sankt-Peterbourg), but luckily everyone just calls it Питер (Piter). You’ll probably hear old people refer to it as Leningrad!
Thanks so much, Katie! To learn more from my wonderful sister and her obsession with Russia, reader her In Other Wor(l)ds interview (about her experience studying and working in Russia) and her Let’s Talk interview (about learning Russian).