The New Russia: Discover St Petersburg

Russia is an eclectic place- barren but beautiful, a mix of poverty and unbelievable excess, tradition and rapid progress. It’s fascinating, vibrant and a little overwhelming, all at once. Don’t be put off travelling here because of the bad press, perceived difficulties or especially because you think there’s nothing to see or do.

Right now is actually one of the best times in history to see Russia- while the country is going through a transition from being insular and closed to cautiously open and embracing the west. Travel in Russia is becoming easier, but it is by no means overrun by tourists and is one of the dwindling number of destinations that still feels completely genuine. If you do take the leap, St Petersburg is an incredible city and the one place in Russia you absolutely should not miss

Highlights of St Petersburg

Get lost in the Hermitage Museum

The Hermitage is one of the world’s great (but often overlooked) museums. It is staggeringly big (including the world’s largest collection of paintings), indescribably beautiful and full of amazing art- from Da Vinci to Renoir to Michelangelo, to Roman marble statues, jewels and the muraled ceilings of the building itself. Part of it is housed in the Winter Palace, where the Russian Tsars lived and ruled. Unfortunately signage inside the Museum is terrible- hiring an official guide or taking a tour may be a good investment, though getting lost and exploring is equally fun! They have begun selling tickets for the Hermitage Museum online, though you may still expect a lengthy wait outside to get in.

Experience the nightlife of ‘the New Russia’

The younger generation of Russians are often wealthy, educated and didn’t live through the Communist Party era their parents endured. They also know how to party! The centre of town (off or near Nevsky Prospekt, the main boulevard through the city) houses huge luxe Euro-disco venues where young Russians strut their stuff in European designer labels and underground rock clubs in converted Soviet-era bomb shelters.

Spend an evening at the Russian ballet

Even if this isn’t normally your thing, this is the one place in the world to make an exception. Russian theatres are opulent and elegant (think lots of red velvet) and the dancers deserve their reputation as the world’s best. Heavily discounted tickets can be picked up on the afternoon before a show, but make sure you buy from the official ticket booth, and NOT from people loitering on the streets outside- they’re sure to be fake. The Mariinsky (Kirov Ballet), the Mikhailovsky and the State Hermitage Theatres are among the best.

Embrace Russian cuisine

For the same price as the popular МАКДОНАЛДС (McDonald’s), try a local restaurant- avoid the touristy ones and pick something where the whole menu is in Russian! Try pointing at something randomly- you may end up with borsht (traditional beet soup), hearty stew, dumplings or strudel. To be fair, there is a small chance you’ll end up with offal, but it’s all part of the adventure, right?

Explore Catherine’s Palace

Another imperial palace, set outside the city, where you can appreciate the stunning wealth of the ruling class before the days of comrades and communism. Includes a recreation of the famous ‘Amber Room’, a priceless treasure that disappeared with the Nazis in WWII. Keep an eye out for the slightly comedic giant statue of Lenin pointing to the sky on the drive out!

Pick up a tacky souvenir

Babushka dolls decorated with famous basketball players, misspelled Lenin propaganda magnets and, of course, a big fur hat with a gold hammer and sickle crest. Russian souvenirs are amongst the tackiest and most distinctive , and beat that passé Amsterdam shotglass or Parisian keyring hands down.

Things to avoid in St Petersburg

Attempt the Metro. Not a definite no-no, but exercise caution. Even if you’ve mastered the London Tube or the NYC Subway, the St Petersburg Metro is a whole other experience. Signage is very difficult to interpret, timetables are nearly always in Russian and tourists are often targets for pickpockets. Having said this, some of the stations are exquisitely decorated and very beautiful! For shorter trips, make do with cabs around the centre.

Pick up some cheap vodka. Every neighbourhood has a store on the corner selling groceries, cigarettes and a staggering array of vodka. Beware the very cheap locally produced brands- you get what you pay for and will wake up with a truly horrendous hangover. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Drink the tap water. Even in a decent hotel in this fairly modern city, tap water is definitely best avoided as gastrointestinal bugs are common. Don’t forget to use bottled water to brush your teeth as well!

Russian travel tips

– Visas can still be a little tricky and need to be organized well in advance. The key thing you will need is a ‘letter of invitation’ from a Russian tourist operator or hotel, absolutely necessary for a 30-day tourist visa. Be ready with extra passport photos and a fee, which varies depending on nationality- Americans pay more than anyone else!

– Most entrance tickets have a ‘Russian’ rate and a much more expensive ‘tourist’ rate, but many places offer unusually good discounts (or even free tickets) for students of all nationalities. Bring your student card and make a point of asking if there is a discount.

– Pack WARM in winter. St Petersburg can hover around the mid twenties (Celsius) in summer, and get down to the MINUS twenties in winter. Warm, waterproof shoes and a heavy coat are essential.

– As for any destination- learn a few words of local lingo. ‘Privyet’ (Hi), ‘Spocebo’ (thankyou), ‘Da’ (yes) and ‘Nyet’ (no) are a good start!

This article was authored by GYE contributor Fiona Soper. Currently, Fiona is trying to find creative excuses to balance travel with a PhD, brushing up on her Arabic and dreaming of Oman.

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