The sprawling city of St Petersburg is segmented by its statue-guarded canals and brightened by its continuing succession of pastel-coloured grand buildings that line most major streets, giving them the look of giant marzipan covered cakes that you can cut a huge slice out of.
The high speed Sapsan train has made it even more connected to its big brother, Moscow, but as city personalities go, they are polar opposites – Moscow, with its grey concrete buildings, endless train stations and confusing traffic feels far less welcoming or relaxed than its refreshing northern counterpart.
At home at Soul Kitchen Hostel
Also I think what makes a difference is what kind of reception you get at the place you’re staying. Perhaps this is where St Petersburg has an unfair advantage, as it’s home to the world’s best small hostel, as rated by Hostelworld.com.
Soul Kitchen Hostel is the ultimate traveller repose, from the huge L-shaped couch that dominates reception and the mismatched chairs and long communal tables that fill the kitchen, right down to the cosy beanbags in the computer room that overlook the canal.
They’ve even thought of so many little extras, like posting your postcards and allowing you to customise them with their own set of ink-stamps, plus loaning you electric shoe dryers in case you’ve been caught in a downpour. The detailed tour, given on arrival by the ever helpful, fresh faced staff, is incredibly informative. They don’t just point out the amenities but explain the building’s history – built by Russian merchants in the 1800s, before falling into communal living and disrepair, and finally being restored by the current owners, with little nods to the past remaining in the building, like an old pipe to signify it was one of the first in the area to have water, and part of the wood-burning stove.
My favourite Soul Kitchen touch though is the custom-made one-page city guide, which is full of top local recommendations and basically has you set up for your whole visit to St Petersburg if you’re only here for a couple of days like we are. It even denotes places where there is a small discount or offer for Soul Kitchen guests. Guide in hand, off we went!
Sights and pies – the perfect combination
We walked to Stolle via the gold-topped St Isaac’s Cathedral, the lush green Hermitage and the unforgettable Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood and its amusement-style swirled conical steeples.
Underneath the glass counter at Stolle is an astonishing array of homemade pies, and while we couldn’t see an English menu, you can quickly deduce what’s what. Spinach and onion, salmon, fish, cherry, to name a few. You can go for large or small slices, and we chose a selection, which armed us with a load of plates to carry to our table, but looking around, this seemed to be the done thing. The casing is more like thick brioche bread then traditional pie pastry and the fillings are thicker than usual, but boy they tasted good, and went down quickly.
Getting our game on
Rather than being tempted by seconds we decided to work off our lunch at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, a zany collection of arcade games from this not yet forgotten era housed in a hidden, industrial looking square that adds to the retro vibe. The instructions are all in Russian but part of the fun is trying to decipher how to master each one. Lucky the entrance fee gives you 15 game tokens and each machine takes one, so if you can’t quite figure one out (this happened a few times I must admit) it doesn’t take much to move onto the next.
Phil took a strange liking to the shooting range game, which he played four times in a row, intent on hitting all targets (his best result was missing just four. I couldn’t even hit one).
While he beat me at table hockey (it is just a bit too complicated to navigate the stick that controls the player and then rotate him so the stick hits the ball) I whipped him at basketball, which involved a ‘court’ made up of holes marked with two numbers, yours and your opponents. You throw the ‘ball’ by hitting the number of the hole that it lands in and the person who gets there first gets to control its direction and can eventually score.
Discovering more Soviet traditions
Time for another treat, and this time we followed the Soul Kitchen map to a traditional pyshkie doughnut café, another relic from Soviet times, and it certainly feels this way when you see the tables filled with headscarf clad little old ladies. Looking around again, it seemed the done thing was to order a plate of four or five of the icing sugared fried treats for yourself but after having feasted on those pies earlier we decided to share (but at 13p each maybe we should have just got our own!).
After waking from our carb-crash induced nap we embarked on a pre-dinner drink at yet another Soviet-reminiscent institution – Cafe Mayak on Mayakovskogo street, complete with Lenin’s head in the window, hoodied lads sat at the back, and pictures of Putin and Marx on the wall .
Drink of the day here is carafes of vodka poured into shots, clinked, and drunk chased with a sweet drink. To go with your vodka you can choose a small meal from the plastic slip-encased, Russian-only menu. We had to resort to looking at and overhearing other people’s orders brought over by plump, metal toothed old ladies in standard issue aprons. We went for the classic borscht, which was delicious and so fitting for where we were.
And uncovering the new
Not on the Soul Kitchen map but still a recommendation from a local staffer was the Etagi Loft Project on Ligovsky 44. This old building and yard has been converted a series of exhibitions, stores and cafes, with surprise eateries and boutiques tucked into the corners of each of the five floors as you wind your way up the staircase, before ending at the café deck, and finally, on the rooftop park itself.
For next time…
If we’d had more time we would have fit in the Street Art Museum and the Museum of Emotions but the linked articles in The Guardian and Moscow Times will have to suffice until next time. I don’t know about you but rather than feeling regret that we couldn’t do it all, it’s nice to have a reason to return!