Sometimes a city totally overwhelms me with its beautiful architecture, laid-back vibe, and unique culture and I can’t help but fall in love. But other times, my love for a city comes from the amazing people I meet there. Saint Petersburg was one of those times.
Of course even if we hadn’t Couchsurfed with Nikolai I would have loved Saint Petersburg – even in the gray end-of-winter weather the city glowed. Seriously, how did the residents of Saint Petersburg luck out in living somewhere this beautiful?
But even if Saint Petersburg had had all the charm of Ulaanbaatar (for those who don’t remember, it was bleak) I would have loved it.
We Couchsurfed with a young Russian guy named Nikolai who simply could not have been a more fantastic host. He introduced us to his friends, took us to his favorite spots to hang out in the city, and told us stories about the Russian countryside and white nights that had me longing to explore Russia in the summer.
My only complaint about Nikolai and his friend Vitali is that their enthusiasm for their 1000 kilometer cycling trip through the Norwegian fjords may have given Dan some dangerous ideas. I guess I’m going to have to start going to the gym…
Anti-Cafés in Saint Petersburg
I’m probably about to betray how out of touch I am with hip café culture around the world, but are anti-cafés a thing now? The only other time I had been to one was while in Almaty, Kazakhstan, so I had figured they must just be a trend in former Soviet republics, but a quick Google search just told me that actually they’re all over Europe now?!
For those of you who are even less in the know than I am (I’m going to go ahead and pretend that’s the case for someone out there) an anti-café is a place where you don’t pay for your coffee and snacks, but instead you pay for the time you spend there.
The first anti-café we visited is in the city center and called Friends, but good luck finding it, because you won’t.
Friends is a secret café located at the top of an ordinary apartment building. As we walked upstairs Nikolai whispered to us to be quiet, because they don’t want the neighbors to become suspicious, though I found it hard to believe that so many people don’t know that they’re living underneath one of the city’s hippest new spots.
We walked in to be greeted by the sweet smell of shisha smoke, and one of the staff handed me a long-stem rose – because it was International Women’s Day! I can’t remember how long we were there for – maybe 3 or 4 hours – but at the end we paid 450 RUB (under 8 USD) for unlimited tea, cookies, and shisha.
The next day we went to Freedom, another anti-café, but this one couldn’t have been more different from Friends. Instead of tucked away in a tiny smoke-filled apartment, Freedom is in a beautiful historic building on Kazanskaya 7 with high ceilings, old portraits, and even a grand piano for visitors to play.
The anti-café costs 2 RUB/minute, and we spent the rainy afternoon there playing Dixit and drinking far too many lattes for my caffeine-sensitive body to handle.
Quirky Museums in Saint Petersburg
Even though I generally hate museums, I figured it would be a crime to go to Saint Petersburg without seeing the famous Hermitage Museum. Or Dan guilted me into going. One of the two.
The State Hermitage really is so beautiful!
At least Dan told me the Hermitage was beautiful, because I spent most of my time here:
I can just hear my parents sighing – I really don’t know what’s wrong with me, but even the most amazing museums in the world seem to exhaust me.
Unfortunately for me we had two more museums on our St. Petersburg agenda, BUT luckily for me, these were no ordinary museums. In fact, they really weren’t like museums at all.
Grand Maket Russia
I really enjoyed the Grand Maket Russia, but really I think it’s every small child’ (and probably grown man’s) dream museum: it’s a scaled version of all of Russia’s regions, including tiny houses, people, and even
toy model trains running through the country.
The Grand Maket doesn’t show specific Russian cities but instead a generalized version, complete with snow for Siberia, and every few minutes the lights would dim for a night scene. What I really loved though was the intense attention to detail, down to smoking buildings with firetrucks hosing them down, workers stopping for a lunchtime snack, and even someone (accidentally?) jumping off a bridge.
Admission: 400 RUB (7 USD).
Museum of Soviet Arcade Games
A lot of Russian cities have a version of this museum, but my research told me that St. Petersburg’s is the best. Now I’m not a big arcade game fanatic, but these mechanical games were a lot of fun, and usually hilarious and/or bizarre. It sort of blew my mind that a lot of them aren’t even that old – the age of smart phones and Google glass really is worlds away from life just a couple of decades ago – especially Soviet life!
Admission: 450 RUB (8 USD), which includes 15 tokens to play games.
We ended our time in Saint Petersburg with a night of good old-fashioned karaoke with Nikolai and his friends. It was our last day in Russia, so I guess it was appropriate that somewhere in the middle of two gruff looking Russian men’s inspired rendition of “Sex Bomb,” something for me clicked.
Yes, Russian culture is in many ways bizarre – and so distinct from the rest of Asia and Europe, and yes, Russian politics can sometimes seem insane, but there’s something so utterly special and unique about the enormous country and its people.
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly sets Russians so apart, but I really think there’s something about life that Russians really get. Obviously I’m generalizing here, but I love how romantic Russians are with their love for poetry and theater, and their sometimes dark, sometimes downright bizarre humor. But mostly I love how absolutely Russian Russians are.
Russia, I’ll be back.
I’ll eventually write up a post with details of how we did the trans-Siberian route with local trains on the cheap, but as I’ve already had a few questions about prices, I just calculated our budget and we each spent an average of 13 USD/day in Russia. That includes all accommodation (we Couchsurfed about half the time), food, and travel expenses, but excludes visas.
The ruble is incredibly weak right now, so if you’re looking to save money, now is the time to visit Russia!