Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: St Petersburg

Orla Orla at a rooftop bar overlooking the Church on the Spilled Blood © Gary Latham

Orla Thomas, Features Editor of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine, recently returned from the Russian city of St Petersburg, where she was researching a feature for the mag.

Tell us more… With photographer Gary Latham (garylatham.co.uk), I spent six days exploring the sights of Russia’s second city and pre-revolutionary capital. Founded in 1703 by westward-looking tsar Peter the Great, his bricks-and-mortar testament to the country’s imperial might remains equally impressive today.

In a nutshell… Anyone who saw the recent BBC adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel, War and Peace, will have an idea of what St Petersburg looks like. It is a city of unmatched grandeur: crammed with grand palaces and mansions, and snaked with rivers and canals.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood The colourful onion domes of the Church on the Spilled Blood © Gary Latham

Defining moment? Seeing St Petersburg at its most Russian-looking, at the Church on the Spilled Blood, site of the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Its colourful onion domes make it one of the city’s most photographed sights, but at dawn you’ll find barely anyone there.

Good grub? There’s a reason Russian food isn’t famed, but those unafraid of stodge can eat very well here. Pelmeni – dumplings stuffed with meat, fish or mushrooms – are the Russian equivalent of dim sum, and are served with sour cream. Locals also love a pie, and the ubiquitous Stolle chain (stolle.ru) is a great place to try the various savoury and sweet fillings.

Stodge Tucking into a healthy dose of Russian stodge © Orla Thomas

You’d be a muppet to miss… The Soviet-era monuments, some way from the historic centre but all within walking distance of Moskovskaya Metro station. Stalin intended the House of Soviets, with its imposing statue of Lenin, to be the core of a new city centre. Just up the road is the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, where a 48m-high obelisk encircled by bronze figures pays moving tribute to the many people lost during the Siege of Leningrad (1941-44).

Get any souvenirs? I think it might actually be illegal to leave Russia without a matroyshka nesting doll and a bottle of vodka, but I also found myself coming home with several Soviet-era pin badges and propaganda posters (a bargain at 200 roubles each, just over £2), some Lomonosov porcelain and an amazing fridge magnet celebrating the machismo of Russia’s popular president, Vladimir Putin.

Pin Badges Soviet-era pin badges make for unique souvenirs © Orla Thomas

Quintessential experience? The unmissable St Petersburg experience is a trip to the State Hermitage Museum, housed in the old Winter Palace. Fighting for your attention are the ornate rooms themselves (one is entirely gold) and a mind-boggling collection that includes work by Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Van Gogh and Matisse. Top tip: most tour groups have a scheduled lunch stop between noon-2pm, so this is a good time to catch the museum at its least busy.

Watch the interview

Orla Thomas travelled to St Petersburg with support from Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.