The city of Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 by tsar Peter the Great as Russia's "Gateway to the West". Today, the city is Russia's greatest cultural hub and has served as an imperial film location backdrop in films like Anna Karenina (2012) or the British mini series War & Peace (2016). The comedy-drama series The Great (2020) about a young Catherine the Great was not filmed here, but is set in St Petersburg. Here is all you need to know to prepare a trip to St Petersburg…
Films to see for inspiration
The hilarious comedy-drama series The Great (2020-) with Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult is set in St Petersburg, but was actually filmed in England and Italy. The series is inspired by the true story of a princess from Germany. In the 18th century, she married the Russian crown prince Peter and after a coup and Peter's death became the sole ruler of Russia called Catherine the Great…
Other films set in St Petersburg include Anna Karenina (2012) James Bond: GoldenEye (1995), the British TV mini series War & Peace (2016) with Lilly James and Paul Dano and the feature film Siberia (2018) with Keanu Reeves.
The British TV mini series "War & Peace" (2016) was shot at the Hermitage Museum and former Winter Palace of the Russian royal family. Photos: © BBC
Me in November 2017 at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg with "Catherine and Peter" in the back!
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.
In November 2017, I went on an organized group tour by ferry. We started from Stockholm (Sweden) and took the ferry to Helsinki (Finland). From there, we took another ferry to St Petersburg, Russia. On the way back we took the ferry to Tallinn (Estonia) and after that back to Stockholm (Sweden). Once you leave the ferry, you get up to 72 hours "visa free time" in St Petersburg.
On my group tour, we arrived from Sweden on the colourful ferry "Princess Anastasia"
I found 72 hours just about enough to see the highlights of the city. Plus, a group tour is 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).
The Church of the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
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” is best to explore St Petersburg without the crowds and the high accommodation prices in the summer.
- 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
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.
Even closer to Nevsky Prospect, the river and the Hermitage Museum is the medium-priced Mini-Hotel Diva.
Catherine Palace in Pushkin, some 40 min. outside of St Petersburg
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
The Hermitage @night
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 for food and drink…
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 to Russia
- Russians rarely greet each other with a handshake (particularly women), so just nod. Update: In the corona year 2020, we have probably got so used to not shaking someone's hand that we won't do it in Russia either… 😀
- Currency – the Russian currency is the "Rubel" (In 2020, 1 Euro is approximately 90 Rubel). Credit cards are accepted in most places within the city and I hardly needed any cash. 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 a taxi, otherwise there is a risk that you can get ripped off!
- The St Petersburg Metro has one of the most beautiful free art galleries in the world. To be on the safe side though, it's better to 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. Bottled water is pretty low priced and available everywhere.
- Due to potential clogging, there are quite a lot of places where you should not throw toilet paper in the toilet and signs usually warn you about that. So just put the used toilet paper in a basket next to the toilet.
Unless otherwise credited, all photos by © Sonja Irani | filmfantravel.com
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!
For my best tips for what to do and see in St Petersburg, check out my post 10 Things to Do in St Petersburg, Russia
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