The city of Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 by tsar Peter the Great as Russia's "Gateway to the West". Today, St Petersburg is the country's greatest cultural hub and has served as an imperial filming location in films like Russian Ark (2002), James Bond: GoldenEye (1995) or the new British TV mini series War & Peace (2016). To make sure you can make the most of your stay in St Petersburg, here is my quick guide filled with the best tips from my recent visit…
Films to see for inspiration
How to get to St Petersburg
As Russia is not part of the European Union, you need a visa for visiting – even as a EU citizen! Applying for a visa on your own can be a very complicated and expensive process. Thus, my recommendation is to go on a guided group tour.
You will usually travel by ferry from places such as Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland) or Tallinn (Estonia). Once you leave the ferry, you get up to 72 hours "Visa free time" in St Petersburg.
When I went on a trip in November 2017, I found 72 hours just about enough to see the highlights of the city. Plus, it's certainly a lot less stressful than having to organise a Russian Visa by yourself.
A guided group tour is also a good idea because not everyone will speak English in Russia. In fact, very few people do (even in such a large city as St Petersburg).
You will also feel safer. Although I personally didn't have any negative experiences, I've heard that foreign visitors do occasionally get robbed etc. (especially on the metro).
When to go
- June-July: This is the main season as many visitors want to experience the so-called "White Nights" when the sun hardly sets at nighttime and the days are very long.
- Spring (April-May) or autumn (September-October): The so-called “shoulder season” or “off season” is best to explore St Petersburg without the crowds and the accommodation prices of the main season.
- Winter (November-March): Although the days are shorter, there will be less visitors and thus more time and space to explore St Petersburg's many attractions. From November, there will also be spectacular Christmas lights and if you're lucky the first snow…
Where to stay
Budget price range: On my guided group tour, we stayed in the VeloHostel. The best thing about this hostel was that it was located just off Nevsky Prospect – Saint Petersburg's main avenue for shopping and restaurants.
Along Nevsky Prospect, it's about a 20–30 minute walk from the hostel to the Hermitage State Museum. Furthermore, the rooms were reasonably clean and there was good working Wifi. Just a few steps from the hostel, the coffee shop Stolovaya Tarelka (Kolokolnaya St. 19/18) offers a great range of breakfast items for little money.
Medium price range: Even closer to Nevsky Prospect, the river and the Hermitage is the medium-priced Mini-Hotel Diva.
Things to do
For my best tips for what to do and see here, check out my post 10 Things to Do in St Petersburg, Russia.
What to eat and drink
I found the local Russian cuisine here (and those from neighbouring countries such as Georgian cuisine, which is very popular in St Petersburg) surprisingly modern and varied. Even for a vegetarian like me.
Plus, eating out is pretty cheap. Especially if you are used to North American or West European food prices.
Here are a few ideas…
Bliny – Typical Russian pancakes. Get them either sweet (e.g. with jam) or savoury (e.g. with mushrooms). A good selection at good prices is offered by the Russian fast food chain Tepemok, which are all over the city. The descriptions over the counter are in Russian only, but you can ask for an English menu. If in doubt, just point on the pictures. 😉
Borscht Soup – One of Russia’s best known traditional dish. Usually made with beetroot and pork, but vegetarian options are available, too. Just ask the waiter.
Vodka – THE ultimate Russian drink! In St Petersburg it comes in many different flavours with some of them (ie. with berry juice) actually tasted pretty good.
Russian dumplings – Typically Russian are a good option for meat eaters and vegetarians (for example filled with cheese) alike.
For more restaurant recommendations, check out my post 10 Things to do in St Petersburg, Russia.
Ten Things to know before you go
- Russian women generally dress quite feminine. So ladies: If you don't want to stand out as a tourist, try not to dress too "leisurely". Russians also rarely greet each other with a handshake (particularly women), so just nod.
- Currency – the Russian currency is the "Rubel" (1 Euro is approximately 70 Rubel). Credit cards are accepted in many places. But just to be on the safe side, make sure you exchange some cash before you come to St Petersburg.
- Splitting the bill and paying by card in restaurants – As we found out, both is often not possible. So bring some cash whenever you eat out as a group and pay the bill together.
- Taxis – agree on the price before you board, otherwise you can be sure to get ripped off!
- The St Petersburg Metro has one of the most beautiful free art galleries in the world. Go in groups.
- Language: Be prepared that you will encounter quite a lot of people that speak no or very limited English.
The most important word to remember in Russian is "spasibo" (pronounced: spasiba), which means "Thank you". If you want to say "sorry" to someone, it's "izvinite".
- You need a visa (unless you go on a guided group tour)
- Food is pretty inexpensive and very varied in Saint Petersburg
- The tab water in Russia is not drinkable! So you need to buy bottled water.
- Due to potential clogging, there are quite a lot of places where you should not throw toilet paper in the toilet, but in a basket next to it.
Have you visited St Petersburg and have some great tips? Or are you planning to visit St Petersburg and still have some questions? Let me know in the comments below!
Unless otherwise credited, all photos by © Sonja Irani | filmfantravel.com
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