The Sapsan route from Moscow to St.Petersburg can be described with one word; bleak. While the train itself is state of the art, contemporary and comfortable, the views of a harsh, barren landscape interspersed with small, isolated villages of several dilapidated, wooden and barbed wire surrounded Soviet style buildings showed an older and perhaps a truer Russia. Frankly, it looked like the ideal place for high spirits to keel over and die.
It wasn’t that I was surprised by this; I was in rural Russia, I had hardly expected the bright lights and good times of Vegas, but it depressed me all the same. Sitting in a warm, wifi enabled carriage with my nose against the window felt almost rude, as if I were joyriding a gold chariot through a shanty town with a plate of truffles on my lap. What a difficult place this would be to live. Luckily an armed guard chose this exact moment to thrust his face into mine and demand to see my papers yet again so there was little time for deeper thought. I adored Moscow, as detailed in my first city guide, but feared I had been in Russia too long. I was ready for something new and was unsure of what to expect from St.Petersburg. I needn’t have worried as this city is a breath of fresh air. Quintessentially Russian but with an undeniably European influence, it felt like a perfect blend of two contrasting worlds with all the cafes, cocktail bars and contemporary art collectives I could have hoped to find. Here are some things that made my time there so memorable;
St.Petersburg’s coffee scene is a delight with endless cafes in which to while away the afternoon and many open late to host live gigs and cocktail hours at the weekends. I’m Thankful For Today on Gorokhovaya Street is one of the best, as is Berlin inspired Mitte Cafe. BGL on the Fontanka Embankment is a go to for coffee and bagels while Pyshki is a must for anyone looking to try a traditional Russian doughnut. For coffee and dessert, Candies By Coffee Room near the Hermitage is heaven.
Food + Drink
Menus throughout Russia can be eclectic to say the least. Restaurants tend to serve what they like whether or not it is in keeping with the overall theme i.e. it is not unusual to find a Tandoori special in an Italian restaurant or a set menu that promotes a traditional borsch followed by a Mexican burrito. The widely recommended Restaurant 22.13 on Konushennaya Square is a fun and fancy place to go but the menu is definitely designed in this mish mash style. The Clean Plate Society is very similar with slightly more casual food. Personally I find this catch-all approach to pairing food somewhat off putting so I was thrilled to find some alternative restaurants in St.Petersburg with a more cohesive style.
Pifpaf Burger Bar is a must visit on Griboyedov Embankment. Taste To Eat is famous for their modern take on Russian classics and Jackie and Chan Bar + Kitchen serves the best Asian food in the city. TarTar Bar is a destination for meat eaters although certain parts of the adventurous menu are not for the faint hearted (chicken gizzards and veal brains feature).
As the capital of the Russian brewing industry, St.Petersburg is awash with bars. Redrum Bar on Nekrasova Street is a Scandi style craft beer hub and one of my favourite places to people watch. CoffeeEat22 is a painfully stylish cafe and late night wine bar with a permanent DJ while Bar 812 and Arka Bar were among my favourites for cocktails.
Russian art guides typically focus on the Fine Art museums ubiquitous in St.Petersburg, most famously the State Hermitage which contains over 3 million pieces of classic work and antiquities.
However, for people like me who absolutely favour contemporary, controversial exhibits over those of historical or monetary value, this is the city to see it. The Museum Of Non Conformist Art founded by the Pushkinskaya Collective is a journey through the counter culture of the post-Soviet era. There is also Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art and Novy Muzei, both of which actively seek statement art, as well as the Anna Nova Gallery and Luda Gallery on Mokhovaya Street who host a selection of lesser known artists.
The conservative culture in Russia engenders liberal protest and radical political art against which the state are known to exact brutal reprisals. When Alexander Kosolapov’s Coca-Cola Jesus was defaced at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow it was the museum curators, rather than the Orthodox activists who had launched the attack, who were charged with criminal hooliganism. After the high profile arrest of feminist protest group Pussy Riot performance artist Petr Pavlensky sewed his own mouth shut in solidarity. A recent LGBT exhibition titles Be Yourself was forcibly shut down and the organisers arrested for flouting the ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” signed into law in 2013.
St Petersburg also has Rosphoto, an exhibition centre displaying works closely connected with photography and a permanent home for street art in the form of The Street Art Museum, a designated space on a partially decommissioned industrial estate to the east of the city.
St.Petersburg, like Moscow, is home to several ‘cultural clusters’, the most famous of which is Taiga Space, a creative platform aims to bring young professionals together for collaboration and creativity. Located in a formerly dishevelled mansion on the Neva River, tenants of the space receive discounted rental rates in exchange for maintaining the building and the collective is home to boutique shops, design studios and workshops, as well as a mini hostel, cafe, exhibition space and a pop-up cinema space.
Loft Etagi on Ligovsky Avenue is the oldest loft project in Russia and is a St.Petersburg institution. There is a gallery, a hostel, a cafe and the best terrace I saw in the city.
St.Petersburg is less than five hours by train to Helsinki and there is a visible Scandi influence to the shopping in the city. The style is a little sleeker than in Moscow but undeniably Russian. Lomonosova 22 and Lyyk Design Market are two of the best places to shop.
There is also Tkahci, another industrial art centre located in a former weaving mill. It is heavily billed as a ‘creative space’ but for me lacked the authenticity and heart of Taiga and Etagi. It is, however, crammed with boutiques and independent labels so an amazing place to find unusual pieces by homegrown designers.