St Petersburg is in a constant battle with Moscow for the right to be the capital of Russian football. While the country’s second city took a back seat during the Soviet era and in the immediate aftermath of Communism, the tables have since turned.
Flagship club Zenit, backed by energy giant Gazprom, won four league titles between 2007 and 2015. They were also the last (and only the second) Russian club to win a European trophy, in 2008.
On Krestovsky Island, a 60,000-plus capacity superdome was unveiled in 2017, staging the Confederations Cup final that July. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa, responsible for innovative airports, galleries and an entire master plan for Astana in Kazakhstan, the new Saint Petersburg Stadium will be a World Cup 2018 and Euro 2020 venue.
Also referred to as the Krestovsky, it stands on the site of the old Kirov Stadium, where Zenit and Dynamo St Peterburg played the inaugural match in 1950. Some 100,000 were squeezed in here when CSKA Moscow visited in 1951.
Football was first played at this outward-looking port city in 1897, a game between English and Russian workers on Vasilyevsky Island, closer to the city centre than Krestovsky. By 1914, a local team was formed, playing at the Obukhovsky Stadion, today a sports complex by the Bolshoy Obukhovsky Bridge.
During two ensuing revolutions, chaos, civil war, terror and the introduction of Communism, this local team survived, or was least quickly revived in the 1920s. St Petersburg became Leningrad, whose representative XI finished runners-up to Moscow in the City Team Championship in 1924, 1932 and 1935.
Formed in 1922, Dynamo Leningrad competed in the inaugural Soviet championship of 1936, and continued to feature until 1954. The team played at the Dynamo Stadium, built in 1929 on Krestovsky Island, a kilometre from today’s Saint Petersburg Arena, by the banks of the Malaya Neva. This was the main football stadium in the city in the 1930s – it was even said to have staged a so-called Siege Game in 1942, while Leningrad remained under blockade.
The club was replaced by TRL, then resurrected in 1960. Its story became even more convoluted in modern times. FC Petrotrest played in the last match at the Kirov in 2006, were promoted from the third flight in 2012 and duly competed for the first time in the FNL, one down from Russia’s top tier. Petrotest played as FC Dynamo St Petersburg between 2007 and 2010. The original Dynamo were then in the amateur leagues.
In 2013, the two clubs merged to form FC Dynamo St Petersburg, keeping second-flight status and playing at the smaller Malaya Sportivnaya Arena (MSA) ground in the same Petrovsky Stadium complex where Zenit were based until recently. Despite three-figure crowds, in 2018 Dynamo were reasonably close to a place in the play-offs for the Russian Premier League.
If Dynamo had succeeded, the Russian top tier would have featured two clubs from the country’s second city, a rarity. During 2017-18, St Petersburg also played host to FC Tosno, 2017 promotees from a town 50km south-east of the metropolis, based at the main Petrovsky Stadium for this solitary campaign. Relegation followed in May 2018.
Back in 1938, there were five clubs from Leningrad in the 26-team (!) Soviet Top League – although Stalinets merged with Zenit a year later. Another outfit, Elektrik, had been formed as Krasnaya Zarya a decade earlier. Their main ground was the wonderfully named Red Triangle Stadium, repaired in 2007. It stands on Liflyandskaya ulitsa in Ekateringof Park, south-west of the city centre. The club, though, barely made it past World War II.
As well as a Dynamo, Leningrad also had an FC Spartak in Soviet times, who started life in 1931 as Promkooperatsiya and ended it in 1967 as Avtomobilist.
One survivor of the pre-war era was the Lenin Stadium, opened in 1925. Renovated several times since, it became the home of Dynamo and Zenit’s reserve team. Also known as Central Stadium, this classic Soviet construction with the signature floodlights like giant waffles was then renamed the Petrovsky after its island location close to Vasilyevsky. With a capacity of 21,000, it accommodated Zenit’s move out of the vast Kirov in 1994. The revival of Zenit as a modern-day success story took place here.
The Kirov had been reconstructed to co-host the football tournament for the 1980 Olympic Games, the winning Czechoslovak team playing four games here. It also witnessed Zenit’s only successful title-winning season in 1984. Despite passionate local support – composer Dimitri Shostakovich was said to be a fan – Zenit otherwise rarely finished in the top three.
For all that, the visit of any Moscow club always gave football-crazy locals the chance to go overboard. Once Zenit gained the financial backing of Gazprom in 2005, the rivalry was ramped up.
While Zenit established themselves as a major domestic and international force under Dick Advocaat and Luciano Spalletti, attempts to set up another club in the city, FC Piter and FC Rus, failed to get off the ground. Despite Dynamo’s impressive rise to national prominence, popularity remains elusive.
With Zenit regular tenants since April 2017, the Saint Petersburg Stadium will host seven games for the 2018 World Cup, including Russia-Egypt, one semi-final and the third-place match. Either of the latter two games may feature Germany, winners of the Confederations Cup here in 2017.
Note that nearly all foreigners to Russia require a visa – check with Russian Visa for details.
Pulkovo Airport is 17km (11 miles) south of the city centre, international terminal 2 slightly closer than terminal 1, used mainly for domestic flights.
Bus No.39Ex runs from the arrivals terminal to Moskovskaya station every 25-30mins (journey time 20mins). Bus No.39 is every 15min, journey time 30-35min. In each case, give the yellow-vested conductor on board the ticket money, about 40r/£0.50. Minibus K39 is more frequent, also calling at Moskovskaya plus six other metro stations. Pass your 40r to the driver.
Moskovskaya station is near the southern terminus of the blue M2 metro line, seven from central Nevsky Prospekt, six from the Sadovaya interchange where you can take the purple M5 to Krestovsky. Moskovskaya should not be confused with Moskovsky, the main train station in town. By the stadium, Novokrestovskaya metro has opened on green line M3, change at Nevsky Prospekt from the blue.
From the airport, a taxi can be arranged from the Taxi Pulkovo desk on the first floor of Arrivals, where a price is agreed. You can pay by cash or credit card there. Expect to pay between 1,000r/£12 and 1,500rub/£18 for a ride to the city centre. Around the city, the green-branded Taxovichkof (+7 812 330 0002) is as good as any and can be booked online.
In town, buses, trams and trolleybuses run on the same system of paying the conductor 40r, also the fee for minibuses, money passed to the driver. One journey on the five-line metro system is 45r/£0.54 with a token or less with a ten-trip card (355rub/£4.30), both available from ticket offices at stations.
You must have at least one night’s pre-booked accommodation before you can arrange your visa. During the World Cup, those who have Fan ID are exempt from the visa regulations.
There are a handful of hotels around Krestovsky Island, within easy reach of the Saint Petersburg Stadium. The nearest, the Arena Hotel, is practically next door, with 27 mid-range rooms. Direct booking through the hotel should allow you to find a standard double at around 3,000r/£36 – but not during the World Cup. On-site are a pool, gym, sauna and restaurant.
Also close is the Hotel Park Krestovsky, a modern three-star built in 2009. It’s a large complex with 194 rooms, conference halls, tennis courts in summer and parking for 500 cars.
On the northern bank of the island by the Divo Ostrov amusement park, the Hermes Park Hotel is pricier, with rooms in the 7,000r-10,000r/£84-£120 range.
All three have little to no availability during the World Cup, though it’s always worth checking for cancellations. Rates quoted will be at least three times higher.
The Courtyard St Petersburg Vasilievsky sits directly opposite the Petrovsky, delivering four-star comfort and stunning waterside views. At presstime, there were still available rooms in June, from 17,000r/£205 a night. Tucked in from Tuchkov Bridge across from the Petrovsky Stadium, the three-star Shelfort (3-ya liniya Vasilevsky ostrova 26) usually has doubles for about 4,000r-5,000r/£48-£60 but considerably dearer during the World Cup.
On the same riverbank facing the stadium, between Tuchkov and Birzhevoy Bridges, the Solo Sokos Hotel Palace Bridge is one of three branches in this upscale Finnish chain. Expect stupendous spa facilities and the first indoor golf club in St Petersburg. Rooms start at 23,000r/£278 during the World Cup. Also close to Sportivnaya metro, at Maly prospekt PS 16 on the stadium side of the water, the Sharf Apartment Hotel has comfortable lodgings in the 5,000r/£60 range, 8,000r/£97 during the World Cup.
The city centre is choc-a-bloc with lodgings, from box-like hostels to historic luxury.
Right by St Isaac’s Cathedral in the heart of town, the Astoria dates back to 1912, ‘iconic and palatial’, and good enough for the French squad who stayed here in March 2018. It’s all high-end, the spa, the bar, the restaurant and the rates – with some availability during the World Cup. Alongside, the Angleterre is similarly swanky, with some rooms at 25,000r/£300 on various nights halfway through the World Cup. Nearby at Malaya Morskaya ulitsa 14, the Petro Palace is in the same luxury bracket, with rates through the roof in June/July 2018.
On the other side of the cathedral by the river, the Nevsky Breeze at Galernaya ulitsa 12 is more mid-range but modern, having been opened in 2008. Availability and rates during the World Cup are currently reasonable, about 9,000r/£109 per person on certain nights. On the same street at No.4, the Delux is similar in standard, price and availability, although with only eight rooms.
An easy metro hop away near Tekhnologichesky Institut (M1/M2), the Sokos Olympia Garden at Batayskiy pereulok 3A exudes sleek, Scandinavian cool, amenities including all kinds of business-friendly functionality. With nearly 350 rooms, availability in June/July is reasonable, lowest rates per room from around 12,000r-17,000r/£145-£205.
Another plus here is the Sports Bar ’84, named after Zenit’s title winning season and occupying half the first floor. Sports fans – thirsty Finnish aficionados of ice hockey are regulars – can also watch in a separate movie theatre space with soft chairs.
If you’re coming into Moskovsky train station, you’ll find the modern Park Inn by Radisson Nevsky St Petersburg alongside at Goncharnaya ulitsa 4A, its Paulaner Bar doubling up as a handy city-centre pub. Given its location, availability is extremely low during the World Cup.
The locality is otherwise dotted with cheapies of varying degrees of acceptability. The Fermata (Goncharnaya 10/flat 2) is happy to offer its box-like rooms for around 2,000r/£24, unless the World Cup’s on, in which case it’s 7,000r/£84.
St Petersburg is full of football-friendly bars. Suitable places to watch the match include Mollie’s Mews (Bolshaya Konyushennya ulitsa 5), one of many in a local pub-like chain. It also includes Mollie’s at ulitsa Rubinstein 36 and the Office Pub at Kazanskaya ulitsa 5.
Also near Kazan Cathedral, right on Nevsky at No.22, you’ll find the Tower Pub, with TV football – it sits next door to O’Hooligans, a pub mini chain with four outlets in town, one a short taxi hop from the Saint Petersburg Stadium.
Liverpool (ulitsa Mayakovskogo 16) lays the Beatles theme on thick but also offers regular live Premier League action in high definition.
Picturesquely set by the Fontanka at Naberezhnaya reki Fontanki 108, Dickens has little to do with London but offers a large range of draught beers and whiskies. The Oliver pub (ulitsa Belinskogo 3) is in the same family and in similar vein.
By the Mariinsky Theatre, the Shamrock is probably the most authentic of the football-focused pubs, in business since 1994.
Across from the Sokos Olympia Garden hotel (Batayskiy pereulok 3A), which has its own excellent Sports Bar ’84 and mini-cinema for match-viewing, Old Friends is another pub geared to football watching.
For a more Russian experience, SPB is a local chain of a dozen pubs with one at Nevsky 8 near Admiralteyskaya metro, offering Belgian, German and own-brand brews, along with Guinness, plus a better class of bar food.