How to leave the city behind and in just a few days greatly broaden your understanding of Russia.
St Petersberg is a fascinating city with so much to do and see. However it only offers a brief snapshot of Russia, adding an excursion like this to your visit will give you a far broader picture of Russia and give you some uniquely Russian experiences.
Novgorod, Pskov, Pechory and Staraya Russa 3/4 days 2/3 night
Novgorod and Pskov are two of Russia’s most historic towns, Pechory one of Russia’s most beautiful monasteries and Staraya Russa is a fairly unexceptional small town except for the fact Dostoyevsky wrote and set the Brother Karamazov here and his house has been excellently preserved.
Novgorod, three hours out of St Petersburg’s Moscow Station, is the obviously first destination on this loop. The station is a pleasant kilometre walk from the town centre. In the centre the town boasts a medieval fortified town centre (called a Kremlin in Russian), many historic churches and a very thorough (perhaps too thorough) museum charting the changing styles of icon painting down the centuries (Museum of Fine Arts Sofiyaskaya Square). Boat trips can be arranged on the river and for those wanting a true proletarian experience there’s a soviet era Russian baths on Novoluchanskaya Street by the church.
The town’s best attraction is a short bus ride out of time (bus no.7 which starts from Sennaya Square). This is the Vitoslavitsy Museum of Wooden Architecture, a treasure trove of about fifty wooden building most between 100 and 400 years old. The collection is mainly peasant cottages from various parts of the vast Russian empire and the skill and simple craftsmanship, combined with a few exhibits of tools and costumes from the period really bring to live the history of the simple Russian peasant and provides a welcome counterpoint to the grand palaces of St Petersberg.
Hotel Akron (Predtechenskaya 24) is a very functional modern hotel in the centre of town with several good snack restaurants within metres of the door and friendly staff. The best restaurant in town, in fact one of the best restaurants in Russia, is the Restoran Voronets in one of the towers of the Kremlin wall. Medieval style meat heavy dishes are served in metal pots, simple food very well done, the staff are nice and the attention to detail stretches to the extensive drinks menu which tries to extend the medieval theme. All in all an excellent restaurant, enough reason to visit the town in itself, about $15 per head.
A good daytrip from Novgorod is Staraya Russa, one time home of Dostoevsky and still home to his atmospheric house museum. It’s a two hour bus to get here from Novgorod's main bus station and while there is a small history museum, a small military museum and a small gallery the only real reason to come here is Dostoevsky’s house museum (Dostoevskovo 8). If you’re not a Dostoevsky fan skip it and move on to Pskov. If you are a fan the simple domestic details of the house, the actual desk (very small and delicate) where he wrote Karamazov, copies of manuscripts and other personal possessions, combined with enthusiastic staff will really bring the man to life. The town’s quite a nice place to stroll just for its very ordinariness with multicoloured wooden houses interspersed with the odd church.
Pskov was one of the great towns of old Rus and despite the ravages of the war there is still evidence of this golden time, it's about 4 hours by bus from Novgorod's Central bus station. The Trinity Cathedral in the Kremlin is the most famous sight, its scale is impressive as is its collection of icons. Over the river about 2km south near the bank (look for the spires) is the unesco listed Mirozhsky Monastery which has some beautiful frescos. When you visit you might feel like you’re breaking in, don’t worry, visitors are welcome so long as you’re quiet and dress respectfully.
The town museum (Nekrasova 7) has some interesting artefacts from the war and some fairly ordinary 19th and 20th century art however the highlight is the medieval icons, weapons and other craftwork. It’s very well curated by Russian standards.
Much like the Akron in Novgorod the Hotel Oktyabraskaya (Oktyabrasky 36) is decent without being anything special, a double is about $25, the staff are nice and the location is good for both the station and restaurants. I didn’t record the name of it but there’s a great restaurant offering contemporary Russian food on the town wall where Oktyabrskaya street meets Sverdlova street, it's mainly grilled meats, soups and salad and will cost less than $10 per head.
A very worthwhile day trip from Pskov is to the Pechory Monastery. Pechory is a beautiful fortified monastery which has recently been restored so the colours are especially vibrant. A highlight is the journey down into the caves where the monks have been burying their dead for centuries. The simple graves and the dark stillness and isolation of their final resting places captures the essence of the monastic life in a sobering way. The journey to the monastery takes 1 hour by bus from the central bus station in Pskov.
A daytrip can be organised from Pskov to Pushkin’s estate at Mikhailovskoe, it can be done by public transport but is much easier to be done by organised tour from the Pskov Kremlin (the touts will find you). The house is quite interesting and the grounds quite pretty but if you’re pushed for time there are better things to do. A trip to Dostoyevsky’s house is definitely a better way to spend a day.
If you use the journey as a loop it's best to return by bus to St Petersberg, it's about a 6 hour journey through attractive pine forest, there are many buses a day but be sure to book at least a day in advance at the Pskov bus station. If you want to go to Moscow there is a convenient 12 hour night train. there are also night trains and day buses to both Riga and Tallinn.