The taxi driver who picked me up at 4 a.m. recognized me from our last silly-early ride, and he shook his head. I know, I told him. I know. The airport schedules tend to carry an hourglass shape, and I’ve had my share of early morning and late night flights. This Tuesday morning trip was the busiest I've seen the airport at any time of the day: three departures were set for Moscow in addition to mine, bound for St. Petersburg. Everyone was tired. No one wanted to be there that early. But the consolation prize for everyone in that terminal was that within a few hours, we would be walking the streets of one of the world's greatest cities.

The schedule makes a bit of sense in light of the time difference: it's a four hour flight and a four hour gain to each of the country's leading cities, so persons of business can hop a morning flight and get to the city in time for a day of meetings or sales or whatever it is that business people still travel for—whatever shred of their work can't now be done online. I slept most of the flight, something I've gotten better at through the litany of sleeping-hours flights in Russia. It took a minute to shake off the sleep when we landed, but by the time I grabbed my suitcase, I was focused and ready to go.

From the baggage claim, I knew I needed a bus to the Moskovsky Metro Stop, then I'd make one switch at the Technological University. When I de-bussed and headed into the underground, my first stop was the transport card machine. St. Petersburg's aren't the most simple to use: you can't buy a pre-loaded card and must first purchase the card, then swipe it back into the machine to add value. Lots of tour guides and travel manuals advise against pre-buying a card in Russia since the discount is small, but it's not the discount that matters to me: it's the saved time and hassle of having to stand in line at the token machine—plus, I'm always invested in fitting in. I've found that when I’m traveling overseas, the best way to avoid unnecessary pat-downs and subway bag screenings is to seem like you belong. Russian police in particular have no concern with the concept of profiling; if you appear foreign, you'll get twice the scrutiny—period. That's just how it is, for better or worse. So the more prepared and local one seems, the less likely they are to be stopped over and over again.

The Saint Petersburg Riverfront.

The Saint Petersburg Riverfront.

That was the idea, at least. It's worked everywhere else, but in St. Petersburg where authorities are understandably taking heightened levels of care, my pat-down rate was about to resemble Aleksandr Karelan's career record, despite my best precautions. By the end of the trip, I simply started walking straight toward the X-ray scanner outside the turn styles. The thing is, if feels like an inconvenience the first time or two, but it’s quick, it’s painless, and the attendants are generally cheery. In the lines, I saw plenty of people getting grumpy toward the security folks, but it accomplished nothing and served only to leave the tourists griping and complaining long after they’d headed down the escalator and toward the trains. But a week-long trip to one of the world’s most beautiful cities leaves no time or reason for that kind of unnecessary angst, so I just smiled, let them check my computer, and went onward. Easy enough.

My bag and I did finally get through the Metro—but Google maps had kindly sent me to the wrong hotel, though the names were amusingly similar. I'd intended to walk around the city upon arriving, but hadn't planned on doing it with my luggage in tow. I'd put in a good two miles of hiking before I finally made it to the hotel, where I deposited my things and took off to explore, unburdened of much of my load. First stop: breakfast, which is not typically my favorite meal, but a made-to-order cafeteria chain called Marketplace provided the right combination of ease and tasty, plus it gave me a chance to recalibrate and plan. It was just 8 a.m. local time at this point, and check-in wouldn't start until 3 p.m., so I had time to explore.

I checked in on top-rated coffee shops and encountered a problem that would hound me all week—and one that led me to want to write a full-blown St. Petersburg Travel Log. Namely: most people who visit St. Petersburg seem to do and write about the same dozen things and eat and review the same dozen restaurants. And I wasn't having it. 

A lot of foreigners visit St. Petersburg. Cruise line companies have even worked out a scheme that allows visitors to enter the country visa-free—provided they arrive by cruise ship, stay outfitted in badges the entire time, and stay in approved hotels, take official (and overpriced transportation into the city, and eat at approved restaurants. Aside from a new pilot program in the far East (one I very much plan to take advantage of in the future), this is the only way and place to enter Russia without navigating the difficult and nerve-racking visa scheme. There were so many foreigners, in fact, that my hike away from Marketplace left me with one distinct observation: the best way to tell the difference between Chinese visitors to Russian and Westerners is that the westerners tend to be dressed in track pants and sharing renditions of the unspeakable things they did after last night's seventh pint, while the Chinese are in trim business wear, carrying portfolios full of documents that are undoubtedly shaping the future of geopolitical economics. It's not a good look on us, fellow Westerners—not a good look at all.

One of the first things I tend to search upon visiting new cities are Off the Beaten Path reviews. The first one I read for St. Petersburg suggested that visitors, as an alternative to the normal activities, head to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This is not off any beaten path. In fact it’s one of the city’s most recognizable places, one constantly ringed with tourists, cameras, street vendors, and buskers. When I saw this was as far as anyone had gotten in labeling the unusual sights of the city, I knew I was in for some good exploration. I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to count on much expert guidance.

Sampling the merchandise at Coffee 22.

Sampling the merchandise at Coffee 22.

The first place I chanced past was tucked into a side street near the Griboyedov Canal. Coffee 22, named after its address, turned out to be brilliant. To the extent that I saw what other folks were eating, I instantly regretted having already eaten breakfast. But the coffee was good enough (I had a light, locally coasted Kenyan filtered through a Hario V-60), and the music was top notch: the defining feature of the place is a two-turntable DJ deck in the middle of the room, where someone was spinning even at 9 a.m. The owner, who brought my coffee, said music and rhythm dominate the human experience, and that he wanted to build a sonic atmosphere that accentuated his product. During my visit, the sounds bobbed seamlessly from American soul to European ambient and back. To top it all off, the plentiful outlets for some post-flight recharging were brilliant aides. As it tuned out, all my devices—from a three-month-old phone to a six-year-old computer—decided to lose half of their battery life this week. That led me to spend most of the trip with my phone off, which was actually a godsend. Given that so few of the interesting stops had been reviewed or suggested by anyone findable, I turned out to have much better fortune aimlessly wondering around and walking in places that looked interesting.

And it actually worked. This is a bigger generalization than I'm normally comfortable making, but I've found that in Russia, the quality of the food/drink/entertainment/clothes/whatever tends to closely match the external design. Folks here who care about their products tend to be incredibly thoughtful about every inch of he process: the image, the marketing, the style, the atmosphere. I've found that if a place looks halfhearted, everything about it tends to be halfhearted, and if a place look purposeful and well put-together, the contents are likely to match. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I have yet to find a bland-looking restaurant building with exciting contents, and visa-versa. If a place looks hip, it will probably taste that way. If a place looks soviet or divey or chainy and bland, the contents will likely match. It's a pronounced consistency here, and so it's generally pretty easy to tell what you're going to get before entering a place.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood as seen from the canal.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood as seen from the canal.

From coffee, I headed for the canals. St. Petersburg was originally a swamp, drained and back-filled with earth, and there are all sorts of stories and legends about emperors demanding that visitors to the fledgling city bring rocks along to help with construction. Now, the land is solid, but the city is ringed by canals and crisscrossed by rivers, lending to the nickname, Venice of the North. There’s not much else particularly Venetian about the city, but I’m sure the nickname works as a marketing tool. The ever-present water, though, gives the city an attitude of flow: everything seems to me moving and shifting.

For all the dozens of times I walked past it, I never went inside the Hermitage. For all my curiosity, I've never been a huge connoisseur of museums. When I do go in them, my text-focused mind tends to spend all day reading the placards and little time actually watching the exhibits, and so to be frank, the heart of the experience is largely lost on me.

The Hermitage, which I walked past a dozen times but did not visit.

The Hermitage, which I walked past a dozen times but did not visit.

I bet it's amazing inside. But I've seen the interiors of palaces before, and I've seen the works of European master artists, too. With just four days to spend in St. Petersburg, the museum didn't get to claim one. I visited the square, though and watched military bands play in rotation. Somehow, a pair of tourists managed to miss the whole mass of people in uniform and their exceptional amount of noise, and found themselves stuck walking between columns of marching instrumentalists. That, folks, is awkward.

After grabbing a burger for lunch, I walked the Neva River embankment, then headed back to settle in to the hotel. From there, I did an unusual think: I left my laptop locked up in the room and traveled light, with just my phone and camera. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking aimlessly, not particularly looking for anyplace to go, but simply looking. The ornate imperial buildings, interspersed between grey flats from one Soviet era and brightly colored soviet flats from another, were as diverse as they were unending.

By the time the sun fell and I headed back to the room, my phone had me down for almost twenty miles of walking, and as soon as I sat, I felt every inch of it in my ankles, knees, and hips. I spent a couple entirely un-exciting hours on work—creative and otherwise—before turning in for the night. It felt like I’d crammed half a week into the day, but that’s how I like to travel. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up with Wednesday’s adventure, including three different eras of history and tips for surviving a five-hour-long Russian opera.

The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.