6 Ideas for a St. Petersburg Summer

Two weeks ago my mum came to visit me in Russia. After a tour around Moscow, we moved on to St. Petersburg—the Petrograd/Leningrad of yore. No matter what you call it, the city is beautiful. St. Petersburg was my introduction to Russia way back in 2009. I visited it; I loved it; I returned two years later and never looked back. I love Moscow and am glad to stay there for the next little while, but Petersburg was a great beginning. It might also be a better place to tour than Moscow, as it’s smaller and more manageable–everything feeds off the main street, Nevsky Prospekt. Besides, it was the capital for centuries, so palaces and museums abound.

The Neva river basically runs perpendicular and through Nesky Prospekt, forming what’s essentially the backbone of St. Petersburg. I mean, Peter the Great constructed the city ON A SWAMP. Forget about the weather being anything but rainy, and the metro from being anything but 200 feet underground (doubles as a handy bomb shelter). When I was first in St. Petersburg, I lived in a crummy dorm room with cockroaches, peeling parquet and a fiery-haired roommate with a heart tattooed onto her derrière. But it also had a sweet view of the Gulf of Finland:

Bright Sky at Midnight

There’s so much to do here, especially during White Nights in June and July, that I could never include it all. But after several visits, here’s what I like best:

1. Aragvi: Have I proclaimed my love of Georgian food enough yet? There are many good places to eat Georgian in Moscow, like Elardgi and Khacha Puri. Interestingly, Aragvi in Moscow used to be Stalin’s favourite restaurant, recently re-opened after years laying dormant. My mum and I went to Aragvi St. Petersburg and had a lot of fun, getting khachapuri, soup, and whole trout stuffed with nuts and pomegranate seeds. Also, funny-shaped bread.

2. Dacha: But of course! Dacha and Fidel, right next to each other, take the cake for the diviest dive bars ever. If you don’t have tons of fun and hear Tom Jones swinging his hips with She’s a Lady, then WELL. I don’t know what to say. ❤ u, Dacha! Besides, bars and clubs in SPB aren’t nearly as snobby as Moscow’s. For more drinking fun, check out the Baltika Beer Factory or the beer festival in June.

3. Pushkin House Museum: Yes yes, you should definitely see the beautiful Hermitage (or watch Russian Ark, if you’re too lazy), but I love the Petersburg charm that comes from small house museums, where the writers (in particular) like Pushkin, Nabokov and Dostoevsky kept home and penned their masterpieces. I like Pushkin’s home especially, because you can see his hand-written manuscripts, his personal library, and the vest he was wearing when he was shot.

4. Alie Parusa (Scarlet Sails): Nobody does it better than Petersburg, where every occasion is an excuse for lots of fanfare. Alie Parusa is probably the best parade/celebration I’ve ever seen. It has celebrated the end of the academic year (late June) since the end of WWII, with fireworks and a giant red-sailed ship floating down the Neva. The celebration is based on this legend by Alexander Grin:

“A little girl Assol met a wizard and it has been foretold: “… it will be a fine sunny day when a beautiful ship under scarlet sail comes and the noble prince will take you away from here. He’ll take you to the world of your dreams, where you will be loved and happy.” The neighbours told jokes about her, children teased her, but she waited for her prince.” (Thanks, imdb!)

5. Nizhni Novgorod: I really loved visiting Nizhni Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city. It’s only three hours from St. Petersburg, but it will make you feel like you stepped back in time, like you’re part of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. When I went some three years ago, we booked from the kiosks outside of Gostinny Dvor. Those kiosks are still there, still doing brisk business–go to them if you speak some Russian. Nizhni Novgorod (not to be confused with Velikii Novgorod) is the home of the first kremlin, a fantastic monastery, and probably the nicest-looking beach I’ve seen in all of Russia. If we’d only had time to relax upon it!

A Nice-Looking Beach in Old Russia

6. Boris Eifman Ballet: Boris Eifman is an exceedingly cool choreographer who takes his troupe around Russia and beyond. I saw Anna Karenina a few years ago at the Alexandriinsky Theatre and enjoyed it so much I think I may have cried. The show was only two hours long, perfect for someone with no attention span, like me. It was also really original, despite the classic Tchaikovsky score; for instance, before the inevitable ending, Anna is seen in a flesh-coloured body suit, literally stripped of her imperial past. Spooky.

How to Get There: May, June and July (during the White Nights) are probably the best times to take a first trip. Take a Baltic cruise, take the train, fly—hop to it and get there! Seriously, though, take the train. For the true Russian experience, the 8-hour overnight journey in Platskartni is to die for. Essentially, you’re placed a long hall among many, many other passengers. Especially if you’re on your own, this would likely be less scary than a four berth kupé compartment–it’s a whole room full of strangers instead of just a couple. And it all works out–the first time I did this, I met a sweet Russian girl who helped me with my homework. If that sounds like too much, the Sapsan is also a really cool train, and only a 4-hour ride. It’s very comfortable, and has English-speaking staff.

Where to Stay: My Mum and I stayed at the Nevsky Forum hotel. It was very decent, but rather expensive for what you get. This is White Nights, I suppose, and it’s the most expensive point of the year. I swooned over the W and Grand Hotel Europe, so those are also options. On the cheap, try this mini hotel my colleague recommended. Or try Apartator, the AirBnB of Russia. Another qualm about Nevsky Forum below–I thought there was a reason they didn’t put hotel room numbers on key cards?…

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New Year, New York: What to Eat in Manhattan

I’m back in London, having just returned from my first trip to North America in over a year. It was such a great month, one that finished up with five days in my favourite city–New York! It’s absolutely impossible to get bored there, and you don’t have to search hard to find good food (if you go with the crowds and prepare yourself to wait a while). You’ve just got to know the rules when eating there: tipping is all but mandatory, and 20% or $1 a drink is de rigeur these days. If it’s your first time there, you have to get some of the classic Manhattan foods first–spiced peanuts, street vendor pretzels, and maybe some pastrami from Katz’s–but after that there’s such maddening variety that you could have anything you ever wanted any night of the week. On that note, here are a smattering of the places I visited on this trip:

Penelope, 159 Lexington Ave. This was my first stop with Gillian after a super-long Greyhound trip, and it was such a pleasure. New York is the only place I can think of that tops Toronto for brunch. Brunching in New York is like a contest with twelve tables worth of winners, everyone jostling for space and the last of the waffles (which were awesome: pumpkin-flavoured with apple butter and spiced pecans). Best for: Long catch-ups and an invigorating start to the day.

The Ace Hotel, 20W 29th Street. We stopped here for a cocktail or two to begin our night, and the lobby bar was filled with colleagues having after-work drinks, Columbia kids who came downtown with their laptops to study and drink on the lighted tables, and those there to celebrate–like us! Have a glass of wine or bottled beer, sure, but I wish I had ordered a cocktail from their menu; they looked festive and delicious. Best for: An indulgent, posh evening.

The Blind Barber, 339 East 10th St. Barber shop by day, bar by night. Like Beauty Bar that we went to a couple of years back, this place was packed and hot (even on the night before New Year’s Eve); time to get cozy. I suggest crashing the library-esque VIP space at the back, or just mingling and seeing what kinds of characters you find; for example, one jolly gentleman offered a drink and then rescinded his offer, ripping his $20 bill in half and laughing hysterically. Har. You might even have a celeb sighting, as some of us did–what’s good enough for Zooey Deschanel is good enough for me! Best for: Feeling undeniably hip.

Ray’s Pizza, 27 Prince St. You can imagine how this goes: it’s New Year’s Eve, you’re trying to get home, and there are no cabs. One suddenly appears, but then the group ahead beats you to it. You stand on the curb for 20 minutes, your hand out like a fool, to no avail. You take a pizza break and munch on a hot plain cheese slice like this one from Ray’s. It makes the high heel-induced pain almost worthwhile. Best for: The consummate slice, with consummate New York attitude. Live it, love it.

Nobu, 105 Hudson St, plus a million other locations worldwide. For a restaurant that makes me think of Sex and the City (whether the ladies ever went here or not) it’s actually pretty reasonably priced, as long as you don’t order the delicious-looking (and very expensive) Omakase. You can get super-fresh sushi/sashimi fare here, which is what we did, or you can definitely get a mix of hot and cold plates, tapas-style. Actually, we got those too! The Arctic Char was lovely. The desserts–green tea ice cream, mochi sandwiches and chocolate mousse–also looked fabulous. Best for: Date night, platonic or otherwise.

Reserve, 407 3rd Ave. This place has the honour of being the only Thai wine bar I’ve ever seen–Thai tapas and wine. Cool. With a spicy curry in you, Prosecco at 20% off and complementary glasses of sparkling at the end, this place was the perfect entry to 2012. Happy New Year!

Birch Coffee, 5 E 27th St. Connected to the very cool-looking Gershwin hotel, Birch is preparing for the future with their super-sustainable stuff and friendly service. If that’s not enough,  they even cold-brew their own iced coffee (which I’m sure is more of a tempting treat in the hot, humid New York summers than it was then in the cold). Cool artwork, a quiet space and proximity to the Empire State building means that this is a nice central spot to begin or end your day. You might also try Joe, though beware that you could end up balancing your cuppa on your lap for lack of seats. Best for: An eco-friendly caffeine hit to your day–and an escape from the NY cold.

Sixth Ward, 191 Orchard St. “The Sixth Ward, otherwise known as The Five Points Neighborhood, was a place where tenants were terrorized and all manner of crime flourished. Hundreds of years later, thankfully times have changed.” So warns their website. Now the Sixth Ward is an Irish bar, and you’re more likely to be put in harms way by your own bad dancing than nefarious thugs. Best for: A Guinness, a dance, and an end to your New Year’s Eve.

Serendipity 3, 225 E 60th St. What a favourite. I remember going to many birthday parties and farewells here when I was young. There was also a movie based on this resto, which made it even more famous and crowded. Have the frozen hot chocolate, in one of many flavours (like peanut butter and mocha) but beware both the $8.50 minimum and the fact that they accept only a very few reservations, so you’ll probably be waiting at least an hour. Best for: Nurturing your inner child.

Brasserie 360, 200 E. 60th St. While waiting for Serendipity’s to call our number (as you can see from the address, it’s right up the street), 360 was the place to go for ice water and lox with bagels. If you’re not gonna get pastrami on rye in New York, the least you could do is get some lox, capers and red onions. So New York! I also tried some of my friends’ sweet potato fries and can also concur that they are wicked. Best for: A relaxed, quiet brunch.

Other spots that I loved a lot a few years ago, but whose deliciousness will warrant more recent inspection include: H&H for bagels, Cowgirl for baked potato ice cream (try it!), Peanut Butter & Co. for the best fluffernutter, Babycakes for mostly gluten free vegan treats, Tony’s for enormous portions of Italian food, Lili’s for scallion pancakes and Tasti D-Lite for the original low-cal ice cream. Those places have active websites, so I’m hoping they’re still around, but while writing this I noticed with great sadness that a number of my favourites–like Annie’s, Totonno’s and Samalita’s–have closed. It’s a bit depressing, but I like to think that the owners go on to bigger and better ventures, and keep cooking delicious food. Thanks, New York, you’ve satisfied all my hunger pangs. Stay beautiful!

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3 and by me.