Russia was high on my bucketlist for a long time. The country intrigues me. Politically sensitive, massive, diverse, different, extreme in some ways. Finally, I set foot on Russian soil in 2016. And came back a few times more. My first Russian trip was to St. Petersburg (Sankt Petersburg, Санкт-Петерб́ург), which I would highly recommend you to visit.
St. Petersburg stole my heart
St. Petersburg is the city where my grandparents bought a beautiful wooden matryoshka doll many years ago, which I inherited after my grandfather also passed way. The city that is considered by many to be “more boring and diplomatic” compared to Moscow. I do not gree. I visited both cities multiple times and St. Petersburg stole my heart. I feel the city is a perfect mix of Russia and Europe and I would love to go again soon!
St. Petersburg is definitely an architectural and cultural rich city. A lust to the eye in many perspectives. Less crowded and “more slow” than the big metropolitan Moscow. To see the difference, visit both cities in one trip and enjoy the train ride in between. The funny thing is, when I think about St. Petersburg, of course I remember the beautiful building, delicious food, etc., but one of my clearest memories is the sound of the winter spike tires rolling over the streets LOL
What to see in St. Petersburg
There are many beautiful things to see, both inside and outside of St. Petersburg. The main center is easy to walk around, although sometimes too cold (winter). The main attractions to see include:
- Hermitage Museum
- The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
- St. Isaac’s Cathedral
- St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral
- Moscow Plaza (Moskovskaya Ploshchad)
- Trinity Cathedral
- Kazan Cathedral
- Smolny Monastery
- Peter and Paul Fortress
- The Siege Museum
With regards to visiting the Hermitage Museum one tip: buy your tickets online in advance to avoid sell out and the long lines stretching all over the square… See below for three great options.
Outside of St. Petersburg, I would suggest to take time to visit at least one of these stunning palaces (or both if you have sufficient time and interest):
Simply click on a bold green name above for a recommended tour option.
Where to sleep in St. Petersburg
Being a big city, St. Petersburg has many hotels available. I personally like a bit of luxury. Here are the hotels I so far have booked and liked in St. Petersburg:
Out of these, Crowne Plaza is my favourite due to great service, comfy beds and excellent central location. It is very close to a big mdoern mall with nice restaurants and shops, and on walking distance of several main attractions.
Where to eat in St. Petersburg
There is this thing in St. Petersburg called the Ginza Project. They offer a range of fantastic restaurants that offer the opportunity to taste a lot of different flavors including Russian and dishes from all -stans (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc.). Don’t let the big menu scare you off. Also great for lunch. Reservation recommended.
Located in the Galería mall in one of the main streets of St. Petersburg, opposite Crowne Plaza hotel. Like a lot of shops in St.Pete, the mall is open until late (at least 23:00h, also during the week). I went here several times as I liked it so much. The name means Aubergine (eggplant).
Located at Moskowsky and Leninsky Avenues, with view on the statue of Lenin. Metro station at Moscow Plaza (Moskovskaya Ploshchad).
Vodka & Caviar
Russians adore their vodka and prefer to consume it with some caviar (fish eggs), a Russian invention. Caviar is also known as ‘Black Gold’. It costs about one thousand euro per kilo! I am not a fan but Russians love it.
Interested to meet locals and get to know their food culture better? Consider taking this Cooking Class with a Local Russian Family!
Walking around the city with a local is a great way to learn more about the Russian culture. Take for example this 3-Hour Walking Tour: St Petersburg Like a Local.
Besides sightseeing and food, there are several other ways to experience Russian culture. You will see it is much more intregueing and sophisticated than foreign news and other media may imply. Unless you are a philistine, I would highly suggest to visit a Russian entertainment show, such as:
- Russian Cossacks Show
- Folklore show with vodka and champagne at Nikolaevsky Palace
- Swan Lake Ballet Show at St. Peterburg’s Hall or Anichkov Theater
Find this all too cheesy and more interested in something masculine? The average Russian man is very masculine and likes weapons and stuff. When in St. Petersburg, you can actually take a private AK47 Shooting Experience. Not for the soft hearted…
Russian is not an easy language and not too many Russians (especially older generation) speak English. Some simple words like ‘spasiba’ (thank you) will be attainable to learn in advance, but learning the language properly will take years of practice. Who’s got time for that?! Google Translate has been my lifesaver so many times. I have had so many conversations with Russians in my own language via this app! Allow the app to use your smartphone’s microphone for most convenience.
Knowing the Russian alphabet is already very helpful. Because if you can read the letters, you will understand a lot more of the words you will see everywhere. In St. Petersburg there are more double-languaged signs (RU-EN) than in Moscow. Another sign St. Petersburg is more European, international oriented and Moscow is more Russian.
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Sightseeing on a cloudy, rainy day… 🌧 This is Moskovskaya Ploshchad (Moscow Plaza) with big Lenin statue in Saint Petersburg. Did you know this city was previously known as Leningrad?! At the other side of the Leninsky Prospekt you'll find one of the nice Ginza Project restaurants 🍴
How to get around St. Petersburg
- This Hop-On Hop-Off bus is a very easy way to get around the city and see many of the city’s highlights
- When taking a taxi, make sure you know where to go and what would be (approximately) a fair price for that taxi ride. Otherwise the taxi driver will charge you a lot more as they will notice you are a foreigner. This happens all over Russia. So bargain!
- Uber is a great tool to get around the city. Indication of costs in advance, time until arrival, drivers reviews and payment via creditcard. Russians also use Yandex.taxi but it is in Russian only.
- Recommend to take the Raising Draw Bridges by Night Boat Tour to see the city from the water perspective too
- Beside the option of a guided tour by bus, you can also visit Petershof Palace by hydrofoil from st. Petersburg (45 min)
- Renting a car in Russia is not recommendable, due to the high rate of accidents and road conditions. Dash cams are very common, for a reason. Parking in St. Petersburg is a challenge too.
St. Petersburg Airport
Most likly you will arrive at St. Petersburg by air. The airport of St. Petersburg is called Pulkovo (LED). Check Skyscanner for flight options. Although it is only 23 km, a transfer by road from Pulkovo Airport to the city center may take up to 2 hours, depending on traffic.
I read somewhere that officialy a taxi ride between Pulkovo and St. Petersburg city should cost no more than 1100 Rubles (app. EUR 16). However, in reality this will be a lot more due to traffic jams and whatever reasons the driver may come up with. Take into account a ride from Pulkovo to the city center can cost 35-60 euro easily. Per ride, so especially if you can share it with several other people, it is reasonable. I would suggest to book a transfer with a fixed price in advance.
Public transport into St. Petersburg
By far public transport will be the cheapest option to go from the airport to the city center of St. Petersburg. Should you have little luggage this may be a feasible option for you. The metro network only starts on the edge of the city, not the airport (yet). First you will have to take a bus and then metro. From the airport, Moskovskaya is the name of the metro station (blue line, metro line number 2) closest to the city center.
- Take bus number 39 from the airport to Moskovskaya metro station. The Express Bus is 10-15 min faster (20 min) than the City Bus (30-35 min). A single bus ticket costs 30 Rubles (less than 1 EUR or USD). The busses run from early in the morning (05:30) till around midnight.
- Take the metro from Moskovskaya metro station into the city. Get off at the metro station closest to your accommodation. If needed, transfer to a metro line other than blue.
If you take seven stops south from Moskovskaya metro station, you will end up at Nevsky Prospekt, in the heart of St. Petersburg. You may want to study the metro line map for a bit before you leave home.
There is also the option of Minivan cab number K39, which rides every 5 min between Pulkovo and Moskovskaya metro station (costs 40 Rubles).
Do I need a visa for Russia?
The answer to that question highly depends on your nationality, how long you wish to stay, what you plan to do (tourist or other), etc. Check for example the website of iVisa to learn whether you need a visa or not.
For most nationalities, a visa is required before entering Russia. You will have to take care of this in advance. For the average European citizen obtaining a visa should be required for Russia, but it’s not too difficult. Like any other visa it will cost some time and money of course. Are you from The Netherlands? Then check CIBT or ANWB for more information and assistance on Russian visas.
White Night in St. Petersburg
One festival my Russian colleague keeps raving about is White Night (Beliye Nochi). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to attend this annual city event myself yet, but it’s on my to do list! It is one of the biggest and most popular events of the city, even of Russia, with often >2 million visitors. Huge fireworks show over the Neva River, concerts, ballet shows, sailing ships, etc. Should be fantastic, so if you have the chance, go for it!
St. Petersburg is the world’s most northern city with a population over 1 million, geographically located at 59 degrees 57′ North. As a result of such a high latitude, the sun does not go under the horizon deep enough for the sky to get dark. The dusk meets the dawn and it is so bright that in summer they do not turn street lighting on.
When is White Night
White Night takes place every year during the weekend closest to the Summer solstice, ‘the whitest of the white nights’, usually somewhere between mid-June and mid-July. It is a complete festival with various events, which already starts in May. This tradition began here after the end of World War II, when schools united to celebrate the ending of the school year. High School kids get their diploma around mid-June.
During “Aliye Parusa” (Scarlet Sails) the bridges will go up and ships will sail over the river. The Palace Bridge should be one of the best spots to watch the firework show and ships go by. Just show up early and keep your bladder on hold for several hours so no-one can steal your spot. The view from a roof should be great as well, for example try the History Hotel on the English Embankment. Might be a smart idea to book such hotel long in advance.
Interested to read more about White Night in St. Petersburg? Check out these two articles:
- Vogue: How to celebrate St. Petersburg’s White Night, Russian Style
- NY Times: White Nights of St. Petersburg, Russia
I love watching travel series and reading books about countries like Russia. Furthermore, you might be interested to read here all about my favorite travel series, of which many are about Russia.
If you cannot visit St. Petersburg during White Night, or find it too expensive then, I would suggest to go in Spring (especially May) or early Fall. In Spring there will be lots of flowers. Early or late Summer can be pleasant too. Late Fall, Winter and early Spring are too cold for me in St. Petersburg, but that is personal of course. Every season has its charm.
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