Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dining in St Petersburg

Are you curious about Russian food? Well, I certainly was. We found the food to be quite sophisticated and very cosmopolitan in St Petersburg, with a Russian touch.

For our first dinner, at 10 pm, scurrying around in a downpour, we stumbled upon Stroganoff Steakhouse, a very elegant and expensive restaurant. It was similar to a high end New York steakhouse but still we tried some Russian foods. Portion sizes were huge so I ordered cabbage soup only, giving me room to taste everyone else’s food. This is my way to keep weight under control and my friends know that. The soup was delicious. A friend ordered pancakes with cream and caviar as an appetizer. Portions were enormous (like America?). I had a pancake – absolutely mouth-watering. For main courses, friends ordered beef stroganoff, sausages and salmon with fries and creamed broccoli as sides- all excellent. I enjoyed tasting everything. Many could only take one bite of their main course, as they were too full from the appetizers. Even I was stuffed. That proves my point! Order small, you can always order more.

The next morning it was breakfast at the hotel. There was a buffet with cereals, yogurt, eggs, sausages, breads, fruit and fruit juices. I tried buckwheat. Yuck, it’s a tasteless, chewy grain, then eggs, whole grain toast, fruit and coffee.

For lunch, we had blinis and caviar again. It’s hard to resist pancakes and our excuse is it’s local food.

Over the three days, we stopped in at a few coffee shops, which are similar to the US - nice, comfortable, costly, but Russians pay the same price. The café lattes are tasty. Coffee is strong for those who like strong coffee, otherwise add plenty of milk.

My second night was dinner at our suburban hotel as there was nowhere to walk so I ate a boring meal consisting of mixed vegetables and went to bed early. This was my only light meal and first good night's sleep.

Lunch the next day consisted of borscht for the others; I don’t like beets. I had a great cabbage soup. We were at the best pie shop in town so tried mushroom, cabbage, apricot and strawberry pies. I had a small slice. These were the best pies I’ve ever tasted!

That night, we had another fabulous dinner. Again, everyone had three courses and wine; I had a martini and two appetizers - Greek salad and an avocado and shrimp cocktail with too much mayonnaise. I left full again, as I tasted everyone’s food. Food was as good as any in NYC, prices matched too.

Although water is filtered so safe, I still drank bottled water, using tap water to brush my teeth. Food is safe however it’s recommended not to eat street food. That pretty much goes for most countries


Walk, walk, walk. There is plenty to see.

The first day we were lost so it took us four hours of walking to get to the city.

The second day we walked 45 minutes to the Hermitage, then had a guide for 3 ½ hours. There are no seats so you really are walking. This palace is quite fabulous.

That afternoon I walked to the Church of Spilt Blood, which is the most elaborate church I've ever seen; then to another very plain church that had been bombed and now restored. Actually most places had been destroyed a few times and renovated amazingly. History repeats itself. After that I walked through two large beautiful parks and across a long bridge to a fortress island where the Peter and Paul cathedral is. It was a lovely day however one can walk too much. By now my back was in pain so I took a cab home, knowing I’d be gypped.

The next day consisted of a bus ride to the Petershof fountains, then walking a lot again. So worth it! This palace and the gardens are fantastic!

The third and last day consisted of walking for three hours, seeing churches and museums. All interesting.

Travel Tips:

What is great?
White nights make you feel safe to walk around at 11 pm in daylight.
The train ride from Helsinki to St Petersburg is a very comfortable five-hour trip.
Have your hotel van pick you up at the train station or airport or you’ll be gypped.
There are many great sights to see so you walk a lot.
You MUST have guides for all sights. We did for the Hermitage and Petershof, which made us learn a lot about Russia’s history.
You have an excuse to eat pancakes for breakfast.
Restaurants can look modest outside, and elegant or hip inside.
Canals are beautiful.

What is terrible?
White nights keep you sleep deprived, especially if your hotel doesn’t have blackout curtains.
Bad service at restaurants: food arrives at different times for each person; there is no rush to bring the check.
It’s meant to be dangerous for women on their own as they get mugged. I held my bag close but didn’t feel threatened.
Don’t stay in the suburbs. No one speaks English and it’s hard to read maps so you can get lost, especially as roads curve around the canals.
Cabs that should charge $10, charge tourists $50, even if you ask the hotel or restaurant beforehand. As a group, we only paid the amount the restaurant said it should be. When I took a cab alone, I wasn’t going to argue with a Russian man at night. I was mad to pay $50 for a 15-minute ride, but was safe.
Bus and boat tours are mainly in Russian. We took a boat cruise in Russian, as they said there were no English tours. For 1-½ hours we listened to a loud guide as we looked at buildings and monuments, not knowing what we were seeing.
Book ahead for English tours or have a private guide. People from all over Russia travel to St Petersburg for the white nights and that is what the tourist industry caters to.
Some days it poured which makes it hard to find a restaurant. Plan ahead.
As a precaution it is advisable to not carry a wallet in an exposed back pocket. The most serious threat to visitors is traffic. Drivers are not used to giving the right of way to pedestrians. Cross streets quickly and carefully. Make sure cars are stopped before using a crosswalk.
A visa takes at least a month so start right away - book hotel, get invite from hotel for consulate, (emailing back and forth to pay and confirm everything can take 2 weeks), complete applications, submit with check, get in 2 weeks or expedited in 2 days.

I was scared a lot –muggers, traffic, cabs, getting lost, water, little English spoken.

It is still worth it to visit this spectacular, exciting and different city. Enjoy!