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guide to saint petersburg

Guide to Saint Petersburg for First-Timers

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The guide to Saint Petersburg I read before moving to the city did not prepare me for life in this city.

Palaces dressed in soft hues with swirling ornaments transported me to a time of royalty. My eye for the Russian Empire’s splendor diminished as I crossed yet another canal via a stone bridge. Why?

The Winter Palace

Some urge made me glance to the side. I did a double-take and realized stone bridges connected this city for as far as the eye could see. Guilt overcame me for enjoying this city of bridges built by millions of people who suffered under the Russian Empire.

I casted my eyes away in shame and tried to return to my previous happy state of mind. Yet, everything now felt Soviet. My eyes revealed the nuances preserving memories of the Soviet Union that were previously masked by royalty and modernity.

Locals seemed to not feel this guilt, or they at least masked it well behind their quiet happiness and belief in community upliftment. They didn’t complain about the chilling wind or dirt left on their shoes from the melting snow. Perhaps to honor the bridge-makers, I should show gratitude for what I have and linger my thoughts less on what I don’t?

With this idea, I ignored the limited winter daylight and explored the frozen city. I watched as snowflakes so big you can see their designs flutter to the ground. The white ground twinkled against the streetlights. My camera couldn’t adequately capture the scene, leaving this magic only to the intrepid traveler’s eye. Yes, the world is still magic.

It was in these moments Saint Petersburg taught me how to balance hope for the future and memories of the past. How could you not

I’ve designed this guide to Saint Petersburg for you to experience the best of what the city has to offer while discovering the same lesson I learned.

My best advice? Read as much as you can about Russia’s history before visiting. This guide to Saint Petersburg is nearly 4,000 words long, leaving inadequate room to delve into Russia’s history. Only when you understand Russia and Saint Petersburg’s history will you learn from and love the city as much I had. Lonely Planet’s Russia guidebook is excellent for those short on time.

Guide to Saint Petersburg Activities

Lose Yourself in the Hermitage

The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world with over three million artifacts permanently exhibited in 360+ rooms. They say it takes nine years to see everything in this collection! The museum is inside the Winter Palace and is a retreat from the chaos of city life in downtown Saint Petersburg.

Be Enchanted by the Church on the Spilled Blood

You’re bound to whisper “wow” as you enter the church, followed by hearing this same word repeated in all corners of the room. You can distinguish locals by their proud step as they walk from gold mural to gold mural.

Watch a World-Famous Ballet

Saint Petersburg boasts two world-famous theaters–the Mariinsky and the Mikhailovsky. Ticket prices range widely, but I recommend splurging more for better seats if possible. Part of the magic disappears somewhere between straining your neck to see and shifting your body from side-to-side because the person in front of you is blocking the view. A ballet critic I met said Mariinsky features traditional dance and Mikhailovsky a more contemporary style of ballet. My zero years of ballet expertise couldn’t tell a difference, though.

Before the ballet

Tour the World at KunstKamera

Saint Petersburg’s first museum hosts extensive ethnological and anthropological exhibits. Only one small exhibit consists of KunstKamera’s famous collection of ‘freaks’–two-headed fetuses, deformed animals, etc. I scampered through this section so I could get back to walking around the world in one museum.

Gawk at Catherine Palace

If I ever packed a dress to capture an “Instagram-worthy” photo, it would be for Catherine Palace. This palace beckons you to spin and dance amongst the gold walls and wood floors. Although Catherine Palace is in Pushkin, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, it’s not too expensive to get there via bus, tour, or even private car hire. Linger in the palace, but don’t forget to explore the gardens.

Walk the Length of Nevsky

Nevsky is the main street in Saint Petersburg and features a lot of the best entertainment, palaces, museums, shopping, nightlife, and restaurants in the city. The street feels like it goes on forever when you’re walking the length of it (especially during winter nights), but have no fear because the street is only 4 kilometers-long (approximately 2.5 miles).

Watch the Sunrise Over the Neva

Just do it. During the winter months, you don’t even have to wake up that early.

Celebrate the White Nights

In the last ten days of June, the sun never fully sets. Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced the White Nights but my friends who have experienced it confirm the White Nights are magical.

Eat Pischki

Pischki are fried donuts and are the perfect fluffy dessert. My favorite pischki cafe is called April 12th. Locals buy the pischki at this cafe by the plate-full and always with a cup of coffee. It’s located near the Hermitage and has a fun Soviet space theme.

Eat Blini

If you love pancakes and crepes, then you will love blini. It’s like a savory crepe with jam, meat, sour cream, or other fillings. I love to eat mine with caramel apples.

Cheer on SKA

SKA (Sports Club of the Army) is the the Saint Petersburg ice hockey team. These games are filled with Russians cheering on their team with a drink in one hand and a noise maker in the other. Russian cheerleaders are an act of their own. Games aren’t expensive for Western standards, but if you’re looking for even cheaper tickets check out the retirees games. I watched retirees from the Penguins play retirees from SKA and it was a cool game to watch because many rules, like helmets, didn’t apply.

Learn Russian

Many Russians don’t speak English, so you’ll have a harder time navigating the city or experiencing the culture if you don’t speak Russian. I highly recommend learning Russian for a few months prior to your visit with Rosetta Stone, my favorite language-learning software, or the free app Duolingo. The basic Russian I knew upon arrival made it easier for me to use public transportation, purchase tickets at museums, and order at restaurants.

Celebrate Victory Day

Russians describe Victory Day as a “holiday with tears in our eyes.” It’s the most important national holiday in Russia because it recognizes the day Nazi Germany surrendered. Russians have a different view of WWII then my American history classes taught me. I explored this other perspective in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, and wrote this post about the Russian perspective on WWII. You should read that post if you will attend Victory Day celebrations. When you attend, be incredibly respectful. This is their moment, not yours. Watch and quietly observe as you witness Russians embrace sorrow and pride. Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th every year.

This wasn’t actually taken on Victory Day, but there are Russian flags and it’s a cute photo so here ya go

Stuff Yourself on Maslenitsa

Yes, there’s a holiday for pancakes and it’s called Maslenitsa. Russian pancakes are called blini, which taste like a savory crepe. Maslenitsa is celebrated before lent, sort of like our Fat Tuesday. Although Maslenitsa is technically an entire week, the real festivities kick off on the last day. The biggest Maslenitsa celebrations are on Yelagin Island. Since the date of lent changes every year, you’ll have to look up the new dates of the festivities. Keep in mind that the Orthodox calendar is different!

Sweat In A Banya

Banyas are a way of life in Russia. They’re like saunas, but with a lot of tradition behind them. Read how to visit a banya here. Yes, you will be naked. Yes, you will see women beating each other or themselves with branches.

Party On Doomskaya

If you’re young, or at least can hang with the youngsters, get ready to experience the wild nightlife on Doomskaya. Doomskaya is the street where most clubs in Saint Petersburg are located. Many of them have free entry. Although Doomskaya was not my regular spot (I preferred going to bars and sometimes a couple of paid-entry clubs off Doomskaya), but I always enjoyed my Doomskaya moments because each visit was a new experience.

Hang Out at Palace Square

There’s no better place to meet a friend, people-watch, snap a hundred photos, or skateboard than Palace Square. Sun or snow, this spot is always beautiful. I loved visiting it at dusk!

Celebrate City Day

Unfortunately, my visa ended before the May 27th celebrations so I couldn’t celebrate Saint Petersburg’s birthday. If you are in the city on this day, though, be sure to celebrate with bands, dancing, and drinking amongst locals. It’s supposed to be one of the best public celebrations of the year!

Watch the Noon Cannon

Every day at noon, the cannon at Peter & Paul Fortress roars into the sky and, subsequently, sets off car alarms. The music and costumed characters admittedly build anticipation greater than the event itself, but the event is nonetheless worth a pause during your fortress explorations.

Tour Baltika Beer

Saint Petersburg’s local beer brewery offers English-speaking tours that end with a beer tasting and snacks. Expect several full-size pints in this “tasting” and to walk away feeling extra happy.

Pet Cats

There are cats residing at the Hermitage, charged with the duty of protecting the museum. One day each year, the public is able to visit the Hermitage cats! The date changes slightly annually, so check the Hermitage website for an updated calendar. Unfortunately, I missed the date while I lived there, so I visited the Cat Republic near Saint Isaac’s Cathedral instead. It’s one of several cat cafes in Saint Petersburg.

Walk on the Canals

Walk on water? Yes, sort of. During the winter season, many of the city’s canals freeze and locals will walk, bike, ice skate, and play on the ice! This activity can be extremely dangerous if the ice would break and isn’t exactly legal (to be fair, I don’t think it’s explicitly illegal). Only go on the ice if you see several locals on the ice, preferably at night when it’s coldest. The police kicked everyone off the ice when I visited, and I didn’t see another opportunity to get back on, so keep in mind this is likely a rare activity. My friends and I went to a spot near the karaoke bar Poison.

Watch the Bridges Open

In the warmer months, the bridges open at night to allow large boats to pass underneath. It’s lovely to watch them open at night, just don’t get caught on the wrong side of the Neva! The bridges won’t close again until 5:30 AM.

Learn About Rasputin’s Death

Travelers often skip Yusupov Palace. The bland exterior certainly doesn’t sell the interior design and history. This palace is worth a visit, though, if you’re interested in learning about Rasputin’s death. It is one of history’s greatest murder mysteries and you’ll learn about all the conspiracies behind his death during the palace tour. Do your best to ignore the creepy wax figures.

Visit Erata Museum of Contemporary Art

There are several incredible art museums in Saint Petersburg, but Erata was my personal favorite. It features only artwork created by living Russian artists. Although the entry fee is more expensive than most attractions in Saint Petersburg, your entry supports the museum and these living artists. The dead ones don’t need the money anyway. Erata particularly attracted me because of its look into Russia’s modern art scene and culture.

Find a Special Exhibition

There are several rotating special exhibits in Saint Petersburg, even museums with only rotating exhibits! A Google or Facebook events search will reveal several.

I found a special exhibit about life during the Siege of Leningrad displayed through photography and artwork. The exhibit was a haunting reminder of the power of hate, and the power of love and the importance community to overcome hatred. It was an important reminder during this political climate.

One row represents the amount of food one person had to eat per day during the Siege of Leningrad.

How to Thrive in Saint Petersburg

Without a doubt, Russia is a difficult place to travel for Westerners. The language doesn’t share a familiar alphabet, Russian sounds terrifying, everything feels intimidating, and the history is often depressing. Hopefully, the following tips in this guide to Saint Petersburg help you thrive in one of my favorite cities in the world. Trust me, once you get the hang of the city, you’ll love it too.

  • Learn the alphabet. Although guidebooks name attractions in English, expect nearly everything to be in the Cyrillic alphabet. Familiarizing yourself with the alphabet will prove extremely useful during your time in the country. Go one step further and learn the language! As I mentioned earlier, Rosetta Stone and Duolingo are my favorite language-learning softwares.
  • Learn Russia’s history. I’ve said this before, but I want to reiterate the importance of learning Russia’s history. In all my travels, Russia is the only country I’ve visited where you can understand cultural practices by pointing to specific historical events. This step is as easy as reading the history section in Lonely Planet’s Russia guidebook. The history section won’t reveal everything, but it’ll give you a strong basis.
  • Don’t drink the tap water. Officially, the city water is safe to drink. Unofficially, many of the pipes are old and contaminated with a pesticide that could ruin your vacation. Boil your water, bring a water purifier like a charcoal stick, or buy a water bottle with a filter to save your stomach. Although the water is unsafe to drink, you can brush your teeth with tap water.
  • Marschrutkas aren’t that scary. The U.S. State Department warns against riding these buses because they believe the drivers are unsafe. I reference the state department’s warnings often, but ultimately decide for myself the safety of a destination or activity. Marschrutkas are one of those instances where I think the State Department’s description is inaccurate. Marschrutkas are large vans, sometimes minibusses, that use regular bus stops but aren’t part of the Saint Petersburg public transportation authority. Locals use marschrutkas because they travel on routes public transportation does not touch. They’re a little pricier than regular buses but often have faster routes. Sometimes you get a crazy driver, but that’s more of an annoyance than a safety concern. I suggest you use them only if you speak a fair amount of Russian, though, because you have to call out your next stop in Russian.
  • Speaking English draws attention. Russians are familiar with Chinese tourists, not American or European. Speaking English in public will draw attention to you. If you’re at KFC at 2am, there will be a drunk Russian who approaches you when they hear you speaking English. If you speak English while walking down the street, little kids will stare at you in shock.

Your Guide to Saint Petersburg & What to Expect

A visit to Russia is usually accompanied by culture shock. Here are a few things I noticed to prepare you for some of the cultural differences.

Prepare for Contradictions

Although “land of contradictions” is a cliché phrase, there is no other country that describes this phrase better than Russia. Practice patience with these contradictions because, I promise you, Russia is worth it. Eventually, the contradictions will become second-nature.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Most buildings look dingy from the outside, but are meticulously designed inside. Russians seem to not bother keeping up with the exterior of buildings, probably because the harsh and temperamental weather would quickly dirty the exterior again. Go into the crappy-looking museums, restaurants, banyas, etc. You’ll probably love it.

Russians are Kind

They may wear a face of annoyance or indifference most of the time, but kindness and generosity is wired in them. The Russian experience taught Russians to depend on each other for support and survival. They depend on a sense of community. If you ask for help, Russians will most likely help.

Russian friends

Russia is Frustrating

For example, my boot’s zipper broke and I knew a cobbler could easily fix it. The first cobbler was on vacation, the second was “too busy,” the third supposedly didn’t have the right tools, and the fourth fixed it with a few swings of his hammer for free.

Nothing is efficient or easy in Russia, but everything will work out. Go with the flow and remain patient. You’re experiencing Russia, and it’s an incredible experience.

Always Use the Coat Check

Since coat checks are free in Russia, many buildings are able to force you to check your coat. If you think you’ll be cold inside, bring a light sweater to carry with you in addition to your winter coat.

Beautiful ballet, but I was cold the whole time

Carry Your Documents

Always carry your documents with you. Check before leaving your accommodation if you have them with you. Keep them in a secure spot while out. Even if you’re running across the street quickly, bring your documents.

Why? Russian police have the right to stop anyone at anytime to ask for their documents. And they do this. If you’re unable to produce your documents, the police will detain you until they confirm who you are. This “confirmation” process usually takes several days.

The CUstomer is Always Wrong

It’s the exact opposite of Americans’ belief that the customer is always right. Don’t annoy the grocery clerks, restaurant staff, museum ticketing office, or anyone else you encounter. In Russia, the customer is always wrong.

Russia is Safe

Let’s be honest, when you think about Russia you probably think of the Russian mafia and Putin and Western-haters. This isn’t the case. As a solo female traveler, I felt safe in Russia. In fact, I often felt safer walking in Saint Petersburg alone at night than I do in D.C.! The government is not the people.

Navigating the Streets is Difficult

Sometimes streets have signs. Sometimes they don’t. Existing street signs aren’t always helpful, either. The name of the street may have recently changed (which happens quite frequently) or the sign is located on a building halfway down the street instead of on the corner.

Definitely download Google Maps, Map.Me, or another navigation app while in Saint Petersburg to decrease the confusion.

The Metros are Awesome

Most of the metro stations feature columns, murals, and other artwork. Take the time to explore the metro stations and photograph them.

Expect to stand on an escalator inside the metro station for several minutes, or to take several escalators, because these stations are deep underground.

The metros are simple to navigate, but most of the stations have several street exits. The app CityMapper will help you plan your metro (or other public transportation) route and which street exit to take.

Also, for some reason, the lights tend to flicker inside the metro as it stops.

It’s Normal to Sleep on the Couch

Russian apartments are small, so it’s very normal for a member of the family or guests to sleep on a futon in the living room. The living rooms are often designed as a living room and a bedroom. Don’t be offended if you’re visiting a Russian and they ask you to sleep on the couch! They’re as comfortable as a bed.

I loved living in Saint Petersburg and enjoy seeing the city increase in popularity with Western tourists. If you have any questions or additions to this guide to Saint Petersburg, tell me in the comments below!

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