St. Petersburg’s Unexpected Side: Plenty of Family Fun

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On a recent summer afternoon in the village of Shuvalovka, Russia, just outside St. Petersburg, my 8-year-old daughter and I were absorbed in painting a set of matryoshkas, the wooden nesting dolls popular throughout the country. Tatyana, an artist who goes by only her first name, had opened her workshop to us for the activity, and through our translator, we followed her instructions on how to adorn the plain female figurines.

With our five wooden dolls, each progressively smaller than the last, we meticulously drew on faces and decorated their bodies with bright paints. Before we knew it, three hours had passed.

St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city with a population of about 5.3 million, may not seem like an obvious travel destination to visit with children. It is known for its historical sites and museums, such as Catherine’s Palace, an 18th-century residence where the Russian czars spent their summers, and the State Hermitage Museum, home to more than three million objects of art.

But as my daughter, Meenakshi, and I discovered, there is an appealing and unexpected side of the city. It’s actually a place where children can pack in days of fun.

This wasn’t always the case, according to Greg Tepper, the founder of Exeter International, a travel company based in Tampa, Fla., with an office in St. Petersburg that specializes in private trips to Russia (Exeter arranged our itinerary, including the matryoshka doll painting). “Russia’s political turmoil in the 1990s kept tourists away, but now that there is more stability, travelers are coming to St. Petersburg, and the people there are responding by trying to make it a place where children are welcome,” he said.

A decade ago, he said, he planned no family vacations to St. Petersburg, but today, trips there account for 20 percent of his business in Russia.

That increase may be connected to the city’s overall growth in tourism. According to the St. Petersburg Tourist Information Bureau, about 6.9 million people visited the city in 2016, compared with 5.1 million in 2011.

The tourism bureau published a family guide for the first time in 2014 and released an expanded version last year. Though the guide is currently only in Russian, the bureau has plans to release an English edition.

And even without a printed guide, it’s easy for families to find much to entertain them.

On our first morning in the city, for example, Meenakshi and I took a scenic hydrofoil ride down the Neva River from the city center to Peterhof, an 18th-century estate in the suburbs that the czar Peter the Great built, drawing his inspiration from Versailles.

After a quick tour of the ornate Grand Palace, the estate’s showpiece, we headed to the sprawling gardens, known for their over 100 fountains. Their mesmerizing display of spouting and cascading water amused us both for hours. My favorite was the chess cascade, a black and white three-tiered fountain resembling a chessboard and lined with bronze statues, while Meenakshi was taken with the several “trick” fountains that shoot out water unpredictably, tempting her, like most children who visit, to try to run through them.

There was more to see in the city, like the interactive Mitten Museum, with a display of more than 500 pairs of handmade mittens from Russia and other countries.

In the museum’s play space, there are toy houses where children can don gloves worn by workers in various industries such as cooking and medicine; there’s also an area where they can paint and take home their own set of clay mittens. When the museum opened in 2013 it was just 900 square feet, but it has been such a hit with families, a spokesman, Dmitry Rumyantsev, said, that it has expanded to nearly 6,500 square feet.

At the Russian Museum of Ethnography, founded in 1895 and home to more than 700,000 cultural artifacts, children can get artistic — molding clay toys, beading or weaving with birch bark — at craft workshops held on Sundays throughout the school year.

Hotels, too, are doing their part to lure in young guests. The Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace St. Petersburg, in the city center within a gilded 19th-century palace, opened in 2013 and now counts families as nearly 40 percent of its clientele, the property’s chief concierge, Olga Kachalova, said.

The concierge staff has devised a series of programs meant to give children an insider’s view of St. Petersburg, such as an art-themed half-day guided excursion to meet contemporary artists, including graffiti street artists and painters, in their studios. Ms. Kachalova sees it as a way to introduce children to contemporary Russian art in snippets.

As she put it, “Kids get bored fast.”