July 25, 2019 – July 29, 2019
Ferrying to Helsinki from Tallinn was relatively easy and inexpensive. The boat looked like a cruise ship, and was definitely the biggest I have ever been on. We had to zig-zag up several ramps to get to the top. It was confusing once we boarded because there weren’t really any signs telling people where to go, and there weren’t assigned seats, just tables that you could chill at. There was a supermarket, a Burger King, shopping, slot machines, and live music all on board. I went to the back to watch Tallinn disappear as we sailed off.
I purposely booked a hotel right by the port, but we took a ferry that docked at a different port and the Uber ride to our hotel was almost more than the cost of the ferry, but we really enjoyed our stay at the Haven Hotel. We wanted to explore Helsinki a bit since we only had about 24 hours in the city, so we walked halfway across town to go to this food hall type place for lunch. As most Nordic countries are, the food hall was very sustainable, no plastic cutlery or paper plates. The food was pretty good too – salmon teriyaki and tempeh bao with kimchi.
Some friends who had visited Helsinki before recommended the Lolyl spa as a top thing to do, so we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the saunas. The spa wasn’t huge, with just 2 saunas, some sunbathing, and an area where you could jump into the Baltic Sea. Upon entering the first sauna, I was overwhelmed. It was so hot it burned my nose hairs. Also, I accidentally left my metal necklace on and it started to burn my skin as well. These Finnish saunas are no joke. I only lasted a few minutes and then went to sunbathe.
After cooling down, we entered the smoke sauna, which was dark and smoky and felt like a dungeon. It was even hotter than the first sauna. I don’t know how these people just hang out in there! Needing some fresh air, I jumped into the Baltic Sea and it took my breath away from the chill. After alternating a few more times between sun bathing, saunas, and buckets of ice water dumped on our heads, we were ready for a drink at the restaurant next to the sauna. It was popping, but luckily we found a table where we could enjoy the view of sailboats in the sea.
Since we only had 24 hours in Helsinki and also wanted to see some sights, we then headed across town to see the Church in the Rock, an old church that was built into the side of a rock. It was beautiful in its own way, no fancy decorations or frills, just the natural beauty of the rocks.
Nearby we saw the Parliament building and the Finlandia Concert Hall.
My favorite sight in Helsinki had to be the Helsinki Cathedral, which was all white with round green towers, and it looked like an exquisite palace.
For dinner, Tyler found a place called Ravintola Nokka, which was only a short walk from our hotel. We sat outside on the harbor overlooking several boats with views of the cathedral. The ambiance was incredible, and I loved watching the boats while we ate. We even saw some hot air balloons while the sun was setting. Not only did we enjoy the scenery, but the food was also incredible, the best dining experience of our whole 10 day trip.
I was pleasantly surprised by our 24 hours in Helsinki and wish we could have extended the trip, but early the next morning we headed to Russia.
After much research, we decided the easiest way to get to Saint Petersburg was by taking a 3.5 hour train from Helsinki. This required me to get a Russian visa several months before our trip (Tyler already had one from work). The visa process is extensive and you have to list every country you have been to in the last 10 years and when you were there. Thank goodness I kept up with it all from this blog!
The train ride through Finland was beautiful, mostly just thick forest of trees and a few lakes. We had a few thorough checks of our passports from the Finnish officers and then we crossed into Russia where we were greeted with more trees and another even more thorough passport check. I don’t remember anyone actually checking my train ticket, but the passports were definitely examined.
We stepped out of the train station and into the chaos that is Saint Petersburg. Not going to lie, we did not plan well and had no cash and couldn’t figure out how to get to the hotel. Tyler ended up calling the front desk and they said to take the metro. The metro was super crowded and very deep underground, apparently one of the furthest underground metros in the world. I think there was some miscommunication with instructions from our hotel, because we got off the metro still a 15 minute walk from our hotel, down the busiest street in all of Saint Petersburg. Hoards of tourists lined the sidewalks as we jostled through with our luggage. The crosswalks were a free for all with barely enough time to cross, but it was a great way to already see some of the city. Four story buildings lined the streets and sometimes one building spanned the whole block. It was hot, but it was also magical.
The Hermitage Palace
Upon arrival at the Petro Palace Hotel, we met with the concierge to map out our stay. She encouraged us to visit the Hermitage Palace immediately because it would be the least crowded time to go. This wasn’t even on our list, but we took her advice and it ended up being awesome. Second in size only to the Louvre, we only had 3 hours to hit the highlights of this museum. With the help of an audio guide, we prioritized the second floor. The main beauty of the palace is just in how splendid the rooms are. Each was decorated differently, and we saw a crimson room, a room with baby blue and white, several gold rooms, and my favorite the malachite room (a jade colored stone).
There were grand halls with paintings of famous artists. I loved seeing paintings of the Dutch artists that I know, Rembrandt, Ferdinand Bol, Gerard Dou, Van Wou, Albert Cuyp, and some of their paintings even depicted scenes of Amsterdam and windmills.
We saw ancient Roman sculptures of the Gods and even a room filled with weapons. This museum had it all, in the Siberia room, we saw the carcass of a dead horse, and in the Egyptian room, we saw several sarcophaguses. It was such a great museum.
For dinner, we did as you do when you’re in Russia, and we had dinner at the Vodka Museum. Definitely a tourist trap, but definitely had a great selection of Vodkas. I started with a cherry vodka, not sure that I could go straight for the hard stuff, and we had some lightly salted pickles and a few types of fish for our vodka snacks. It was … interesting. The food was decent, but I would go back for the selection of vodkas.
Tour of Saint Petersburg
The next morning, we met our tour guide bright and early to see the sights of Saint Petersburg. Because the city is so big, we also had a driver to cart us around. She gave us a good mix of history of the city as well as the impact of World War II.
First, we learned some interesting facts about the city including that is was founded in 1701 by Peter I. The royal family ruled Russia into the early 20th century. Most of the emperors’ reigns ended by assassination. The history of the royal family really fascinated me, and I encourage you to learn more about them as well!
Today, the city is home to 5 million people and 42 islands. There are a series of canals that run through the city, originally dug to drain the swampy land and prevent flooding, but the city is still prone to floods.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
This extravagant cathedral has over 100kg of gold inside, mostly in the form of gilded surfaces. It used to have paintings, but they were turned into mosaics because of the humidity in the cathedral. This was definitely a labor of love as it took 1 year to complete 1 sq cm of mosaic. During WWII it was badly damaged and cost RUB 23M to restore.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress is located on Basel Island and was built in 1703 to protect the city. The tomb of Peter I lies inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral along with several other members of the royal family, including the whole family of Nicholas II, assassinated in 1917. A beautiful alter at the front of the church is carved out of lime wood and gilded with gold. During WWII, the church was camouflaged by painting it gray and so it was not badly destroyed.
Church on Spilled Blood
In my opinion, one of the most amazing things we saw in Saint Petersburg. Alexander III built this church in the late 1800s in honor of his father Alexander II who was assassinated. Alexander II had it rough, there were 7 attempts on his life, and the last one did him in.
Inside the church, there are no paintings, only mosaics, including one made of precious stones at the front of the church. During WWII, the church was damaged when a missile fell on the roof. In 1961, a SWAT team risked their lives to diffuse the missile.
Saint Nicholas Church
Built in 1763 in baroque style for the Saint of Navigation
Bronze Horseman Statue
A monument to Peter the Great from Catherine the Great.
The tour was really an information overload and the tour guide smelled like a sandwich, but we sure did pack in all the sights.
For lunch, I demanded that we get Georgian food again, so I could enjoy the cheesy goodness of another Khachapuri and dumplings.
In the afternoon we took a stroll through the Summer Gardens to take refuge from the heat under the trees. It was basically a park with tons of trees, some fountains, and a restaurant. A great place to people watch.
Every travel blog we read (and our hotel) recommended doing a canal cruise to see the city. We arrived just as the boat was about to take off, so we hurried onboard, only learning afterwards that the whole tour was in Russian! I’m pretty sure we were the only non-Russian speakers on the whole boat, and we didn’t get a lot out of the tour besides seeing some cool buildings from the water. I think the whole experience would have been improved by being on an English speaking boat.
We finished the evening by dining at L’Europe, a fancy hotel restaurant that sometimes has ballet shows with your meal. When we were there it was just a singer. The Russian cuisine was decent, but the Vodka pairings were the highlight of dinner. Who knew that I would become such a Vodka fan?
As we walked back to the hotel after dinner, we really got to take in the local culture stopping to see several street performers. There was one band who drew a really big crowd with their cool dance moves and loud drums.
Built in the 18th century by Peter the Great as his official residence, Peterhof is about an hour drive from Saint Petersburg. It was pretty much totally destroyed in WWII, but was completely rebuilt in less than 20 years. The restorers studied how the palace looked and brought it back to its original glory. Some of the treasurers were hidden in Siberia, so a few of the originals remain.
We toured the inside of the palace first, marveling in the grandeur. Although Peter the Great preferred a smaller and simpler design, the rulers that followed him built magnificent great rooms onto the palace. The ballrooms were incredible, lined with golden mirrors and fixtures. I enjoyed making our way through the palace, but was glad for our guide. The rooms were so crowded, and only a certain amount of people could go in each one. Since we were only a group of 3 (and not 25) we could easily maneuver between the opulent spaces.
Probably the coolest part is the outdoor gardens which have fountains running from the front of the property to the back and all the way down to the sea. There are no pumps, but the elevation and size of the pipes create pressure to make the water flow. Several golden statues surrounded the main fountain to commemorate the victory over the Swedes.
In addition to the big central fountain, there were several joke fountains made by Peter the Great, for example, a dog chasing ducks around in circles, and many fountains that randomly squirt water onto the unsuspecting person walking by. I wish we would have stayed and enjoyed the amazing gardens longer, especially since it was a very pleasant day.
After the tour, we kind of just puttered around town, checking out a cat cafe and some bars.
For dinner, we ate Armenian food, which is similar to Georgian. Eggplant rollups, grape leaves, and lamb were on the menu.
We happened to be in Saint Petersburg for Navy Day, which is a big celebration for the city. Even Putin was in town for the celebrations. We didn’t know until later, but he gave a speech at the boat parade that we could’ve seen! Too bad we were hanging out in Peterhof instead. In the evening, the huge ships that were previously in the parade came into the harbor and there were fireworks. Everyone was so excited for the show, but the fireworks were kind of lame. We ended our night by visiting an American sports bar. Don’t ask me why.
Overall, I think Saint Petersburg was my favorite city we visited in the Baltics. It was so different from anywhere I had previously been, and was just so beautiful.