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Trip Report St. Petersburg Trip Report

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Just back from five days in St. Petersburg and I came home with a very different impression of Russia than when I started. I expected a rough, gray place, where I'd have to count my change carefully and closely guard my wallet and camera, with a lot of grumpy people, bad service and Soviet bureaucracy. But there was none of that and everyone I encountered was quite helpful - which came as a big surprise.

Highlights:

Peterhof - It was a bright sunny day and the fountains were just as beautiful as I'd hoped. The palace itself is ok, but the gardens are great to walk around, as is the town itself. The Peter and Paul Cathedral a few blocks from the palace is well worth a visit.

Yusupov Palace - I took a guided tour, which I rarely do, but it was worth it. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it is the best of all the palaces. The Rasputin tour was interesting, but not worth the extra money.

Museum of Political History - There are more English explanations than most museums I visited and it is surprisingly honest about modern Russian history. It's a bit confusing to get around but the staff were very helpful as they were at all the museums.

Church on The Spilled Blood - The best of the religious sites I saw.

Palace Square - both in the day and a night when it is practically deserted.

Degtyarniye Banya - It took me 45 minutes walking around in circles to find it, but it was worth the effort. Never been in such a hot sauna, followed by a freezing cold pool and getting beaten with scalding hot birch branches. One of the craziest travel experiences I've had. It probably gets more tourists then any of the other banyas, but it is not remotely touristy. Little English is spoken, but everyone was quite helpful.

The Weather - The forecast was for cloudy weather every day, but that was wrong and I got three beautiful sunny days.

Desserts - Lots of places have cakes and chocolates but none as good as St. Petersburg, which was another pleasant surprise.

The Metro - Lots of fancy stations with chandeliers. It is clean, you never have to wait more than three minutes for a train, and none of the "We're delayed because of train traffic ahead of us," that is part of daily life here in New York.

Less Exciting:

W Hotel - Everyone raves about it, but I'm not sure why. It is a 3 star hotel in the body of a 5 star. Nothing major, but lots of little things that should happen at a place like that. And their Mix restaurant is just as pricey and just as overrated.

The Hermitage - There was an excruciating 45 minute line and it was ridiculously crowded. Some of the rooms are nice, but wandering through the crowds with a map looking for the Van Gogh or Monet rooms which only have a few Van Gogh's or Monet's was not worth the effort. *Note that there are ticket vending machines in the entry plaza which can spare you the long lines, though no one seems to know that.

The Marble Palace and Mikhailovsky Castle - Nothing terribly exciting.

Not Enough Time - Even five full days was not enough. I had a long list of places to see and didn't make it to many of them, such as the Russian Museum, the Smolny Cathedral, Museum of Religion and the Grand Choral Synagogue which is open 10-6, not 8-8 as claimed by Lonely Planet.

Recommendations:

Pelmeny Bar - on Gorkhovaya St. Good dumplings and without the grumpy service that LP says.

Coffee Room - just one block away on the same street. Good desserts, hamburgers, french toast and friendly staff.

Lux Express Bus from Tallinn - Mostly comfortable, arrived early and the countryside is beautiful.

Welcome Taxi - Picked me up at the bus station and then took me to the airport. Right on time both ways.

In the end, it was quite a good trip and St. Petersburg is up there with Rio, Tel Aviv, Barcelona and Budapest as one of my favorite cities.

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