St Petersburg is a beautiful, romantic city but it probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind for a family holiday. Yet we went last week and had a great time. So in case you are thinking about visiting St Petersburg too, here are some of our highlights.
Our favourite day out was to the gardens at the Peterhof palace. It is a beautiful place and you can easily imagine courtly lords and ladies strolling through the tree-lined avenues while stopping to admire the many fountains. But it isn’t just for grown-ups, our little lad was mesmerised by the trick fountains and had great fun watching people trying to run through them without getting wet. In particular he thought watching Daddy try it was hilarious! The palace is a 40 minute journey by Hydrofoil from St Petersburg (from jetties just outside the Hermitage) which adds to the fun of the day.
The Peter and Paul fortress was another good way to absorb some history and culture while giving the kids some excitement. The grounds of the fortress are free to wander round and plenty of children were enjoying climbing on top of the canons. Just be sure to be there at midday when one of the canons is fired (it is a big bang!). You have to pay to walk along the ramparts (there is a little kiosk by the steps) but the views across the Neva are stunning and we enjoyed watching the boats from so high up. You have to buy a ticket from the main entrance desk to look round the cathedral but it is worth the fee as pretty much every Tsar is buried there including the remains of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, his family and their faithful servants.
If you find yourself in the city on a rainy day then do check out the Oceanarium. It really is first-class with lots to see including a walk-through tunnel (the only one I’ve been to with a travelator!) so you can see the fish up close. Our three year old would happily spend time looking at fish-tanks in a pet shop so he absolutely loved it. It is housed in a shopping centre that also boasts a butterfly house, a small kids amusement arcade and a 7D cinema (I must confess that I can’t work out what all the 7 dimensions might be!) so you could easily spend a day here.
If your little people are transport-mad then the bus and boat tours are a good way for them to have fun while Mum and Dad learn something about the city. Just don’t make the same mistake as us and get on a boat with a Russian-speaking tour guide unless you are a native speaker. My other half can follow most conversations in Russian but the speed of the commentary turned out to be something of a challenge even for him! One tip if you go on the hop-on-hop-off bus tour (which has a great audio commentary in a variety of languages) is to include a stop at the Bronze Horseman statue because the playground in the nearby Alexandrovskiy gardens was by far the best we found in the city.
Restaurants and Cafes
You won’t be short on places to eat in St Petersburg but we did find a few real gems for families:
We loved Teplo (Bolshaya Morskaya ulitsa 45) so much that we went twice. At one end of its pretty courtyard is a fantastic outdoor play area with a netted space for practising football or basketball skills as well as a climbing frame and sand pit. Little ones are well catered for, not only does the restaurant have a children’s menu and highchairs but there is a potty and children’s steps in the bathrooms, a baby changing table (the only one I have come across in Russia so far) and some baby wipes in case you’ve run out. On weekdays Teplo opens at 9am for breakfast (11am at weekends) which meant we could sit in the sunshine and eat pancakes while our kids burnt off some early-morning energy. And if it rains there is an indoor playroom too.
Korushka (3 Petropavlovskaya Krepost) boasts a stunning location on the banks of the Neva looking across to the Winter Palace. Due to the prime location, it isn’t a cheap eat but the food is excellent (it is run by the same people as Prianosti i Radosti in Moscow’s Gorky Park) and it has a large indoor supervised playroom and children’s menu. Our kids particularly loved going down the slide into the ball pool and we had significant difficulty in dragging them away so we could look round the rest of the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Yat is close to the Hermitage on the banks of the Moyki river (16 Nab Reki Moyki). It was fully-booked for lunch but we had no trouble getting a table for some yummy cake and afternoon tea. It has a small cushioned area with soft toys for kids but the big attraction for our two were the real live rabbits.
Café Botanika (Ulitsa Pestelya 7) is a stone’s throw from the Summer Gardens and although it must win the prize for the smallest children’s play area (literally the space under the stairs), it had a toy tool-kit to play with which meant our son was kept occupied for quite some time “mending” the dolls house. The menu includes some exotic dishes – I had a delicious Indian carrot cake – which makes it a little more interesting than most and we managed to linger for well over an hour.
So, would I recommend St Petersburg if you have kids? Yes, definitely. Ok so we had to accept that we wouldn’t spend much time inside art galleries and museums* (in fact to the horror of some of our friends we never even stepped inside the Hermitage) but then we can always come back another time to see some more – after all, St Petersburg would make a great place for a second honeymoon when the children are fully grown!
*Update: If you do want to explore the art galleries with children, this really helpful article by pitterpattertravelers.com has some fantastic ideas.