St. Petersburg, or “Peter” if you prefer to sound like a local and can master the rolling Russian “r,” is different than other Russian cities. It’s actually surprisingly un-Russian. Peter was quite the Europhile, and wanted the city to be Russia’s window to the West. Indeed, with long, wide boulevards, canals reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice, and stunning Baroque architecture, you could easily find yourself wondering why you needed a visa to visit.
When to visit
St. Petersburg is magical any time of the year, however, there’s a reason hordes of tourists visit from mid-June through early July: White Nights. Imagine meandering the city’s historical streets, cruising its hundreds of canals, or simply soaking in the view from your hotel room—all without it ever getting truly dark outside. While it’s not exactly brilliant sunshine 24 hours a day, it also never gets much darker than dusk. If you ask me, that’s a nice contrast to St. Petersburg’s winters, when the sun never seems to rise.
While summer is popular for a reason, the off-season isn’t all that bad. Last winter, my husband and I spent a month holed up in a dark apartment in a dark corner of the dark city, learning Russian. Despite the fact that the streetlights were still on when we walked to class at 9 a.m., and that they came back on when we left (at 3 p.m.), I wasn’t completely soured by the experience. One day the sun peeked through the clouds, and what emerged was glorious.
Tourists flock to this northern city for a reason: There is tons to see and do.
The historic center of St. Petersburg is teeming with pastel-colored imperial buildings, sparkling gold-domed churches, and lush green spaces. The main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, is in the heart of the city. Some guidebooks refer to walking along it as a thankless trudge past the sooty trolleys, honking cars, and smelly underground shopping areas that dot the metro exits and entrances, but I saw it as the perfect way to get my bearings. I never tired of passing the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood, Gostiny Dvor, or Catherine the Great’s famous Winter Palace. Just make sure to wear a comfortable pair of shoes, unless of course you’re a Russian woman and don’t feel pain in your stiletto-clad feet.
Weeks on end could be spent visiting St. Petersburg’s many museums. They range from the downright odd, like the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, which has a special display of “born freaks and unusual finds” to the magnificent—the State Hermitage Museum comes to mind.
Next, consider shopping. Souvenir stands abound, but if you’re in the market for a fabulous fur coat or ushanka (one of those imposing looking furry hats) you’ve hit the jackpot. Even in the summer you can find places selling top-quality items. Another thing Americans always seem to want to buy is caviar. Never, ever buy it on the street. The hawkers’ prices are too good to be true for a reason: The caviar being sold is either not the real deal, or it’s not cultivated in accordance with international law.
If it’s all a little overwhelming, you can take a tour of the city by land or sea. Getting a seat on one of the plethora of tour buses trolling the streets or open-topped boats plying the canals is rarely a problem. Hosts of operators congregate along Nevsky, especially near tourist attractions such as Gostiny Dvor and the Hermitage. They can be arranged in an impressive number of languages for an affordable price that includes admission to sights, guides, and transportation. There are also tours to attractions in neighboring villages like Pushkin or Petrodvorets.
Tips to consider
Between the sleepless nights in the summer and the cold, sleepy days of the winter, it’s obvious there’s a lot going on in St. Petersburg. What might not be so obvious is how to get to the city. Here are some tips for making trip planning easier.
St. Petersburg is not a last-minute leisure trip. The main hassle for Americans is getting a visa. Another hurdle is getting an official invitation needed to apply for the tourist visa. And, all visitors to any Russian city must also register with the local government within three business days of arrival, a lovely holdover from the U.S.S.R. Registering is very important because failing to do so can cause problems when you try to depart Russia.
While it all sounds complicated, securing these things can be relatively easy. My husband and I had no problems getting them from our language school, but tourists will be able to get them with the assistance of a travel agency, or through an online agency specializing in the service such as Russia-visa.com or Eridan. If you read Russian, you can probably file the visa paperwork yourself, saving time and money. The perk of arranging all of the above through one agency is that they’ll handle all your paperwork, as well as make arrangements for your registration once you arrive.
St. Petersburg is not a cheap city. Some of the hotels are truly five-star with price tags to match, taxis are notorious for ripping off foreigners, and a decent restaurant meal can easily cost $50 for two people. To make it more affordable, stick to mid-grade hotels, take the metro or other forms of public transportation, avoid the glitzy restaurants aimed specifically at tourists, and look for the more “local” places. For example, you can get tasty bliny with soup or salad at the chain restaurant Chainaya Lozhka (this website is in Russian only) for about $5. I almost hate to admit I know this, but you can also get a McDonald’s hamburger for $1. Beer is also cheap, costing no more than $1 on the street; avoid the Irish bars if you’re looking for a cheap pint as they cater to the well-heeled set and charge accordingly for their imports.
Students bearing an ISIC card receive free admission to the Hermitage, a discount at Subway (I’ll admit it, I ate there a few times), discounts at many of the local Internet cafes, and much more. The little ISIC symbol is usually displayed by the counter, so even if you don’t speak Russian, you can just whip out your card and reap the benefits. If you’re studying in St. Petersburg and can get your hands on a Russian student ID, you’ll also receive substantial discounts throughout the city at many of the smaller tourist attractions.
Unfortunately, non-students may find it harder to get discounts like these. Places like the Mariinsky Theater, famous for its opera and ballet during the colder months, still command tourist prices. In some cases this can be as much as 20 times higher than local rates. I know foreigners who regularly attended shows at places like the Mariinsky for a local discount, but they either spoke Russian extremely well or had Russian friends buy tickets for them. However, be careful with this approach as ticket collectors can smell a foreigner a mile away and will literally chase you through the theaters demanding you pay the difference.
An area of uncertainty my husband and I encountered was how to get and spend local currency. Russia is still a mostly cash economy, although credit cards are often accepted at upmarket hotels, restaurants, and shops. ATMs, or bankomats as they’re called in Russian, are common and offer a good exchange rate; I usually used ones at nice hotels and never had a problem. Although traveler’s checks can be cashed locally, you will likely face high commission fees and/or long processing times. I think we lost over $100 due to “fees.” Hint: If you do carry cash, make sure the bills are crisp and new. I had one $20 bill that no money changer would take for fear of it being counterfeit.
One final bit of advice about traveling to St. Petersburg comes from a dear friend of mine, a Russian I met here in Denver. According to Dmitry Polyakov, “Have an open mind, don’t feel unsafe, and enjoy observing everything around you. Oh, and avoid Nevsky Prospekt on graduation night in late June. It’s crazy.” So there you have it.
A trip to St. Petersburg is bound to be a memorable one, and I hope no one is put off by the potential logistical challenges. Once you get there, and walk along the Neva River as it winds past the Winter Palace, you’ll know why many refer to it as one of the most beautiful cities on earth, not to mention one of the more interesting. Udachi vam, or “good luck to you.”