A Summer Guide to St. Petersburg
by Victoria Masters
St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg – the light of my heart, the bridge between the East and West and the fascinating country that is Russia. The city of grand, sprawling palaces and golden onion domes soaring into the sky. I moved from the USA to St. Petersburg in September 2017, so I’ve seen it at its coldest and loved it at its muddiest and rainiest. But there is nothing quite so magnificent as St. Petersburg in the summer. I’ve decided to write this guide to give you a guide as to how best enjoy St. Petersburg in the summer, which tourist destinations are the best to hit and which to miss and to recommend some more unusual ways to discover the magic of this truly wonderful city.
Let’s start with the first big question: Do I need to speak Russian to come to St. Petersburg? The short answer is no….but it really helps. In the city center and hottest tourist spots you will find plenty of English speakers, but as you move further away from the center the level of English falls in accordance. However, Google Translate can do most of the heavy lifting for you thanks to offline downloads, Uber is accessible and cheeeeeeeap, and body language is universal.
What to See
Bridges & Canals
The best time to come to St. Petersburg is definitely during white nights, which start in late May and continue into early July. The sun hangs high over the city, and the streets are alive with the Peterburzhtsi (read: locals) embracing summer before the Russian winter sets in. A must-do for your first time in St. Pete is to take a canal cruise – they run a bit more expensive than the average tourist attraction, around 800 rubles (roughly $10 USD), but taking the time to see “Venice of the North” is simply unmissable, particularly at night. If you’re planning to pop a special question or just want a romantic night, rent a private boat with dinner on the Neva as you watch the bridges go up.
As for daytime attractions, St. Petersburg is the museum capital of Europe, boasting over 200 individual museums. Aside from the obvious Hermitage, you can see, in no particular order, museums devoted to Russian art, printing, bread, and of course, vodka. You can even take a tour of the Baltika factory. But as for must-sees – well, the Winter Palace, obviously. If you have the time, take a day trip to Peterhof to see its grand fountains (grounds entrance is free), and to Catherine Palace in Pushkin – which was built to rival Versailles and honestly, blows it right out of the water. Travel to the Kunstkamera, Russia’s first museum, on Vasilevsky Island to see Peter the Great’s collection of medical oddities – but do it after you eat lunch.
Cross the bridge to Petrogradskaya Island to walk around historic Peter and Paul Fortress, and if you’re a military nerd, the Artillery Museum is only a five-minute walk away. Top your day off with some exercise by climbing St. Isaac’s Cathedral for a stunning panoramic view of St. Petersburg’s famous rooftops.
A little party: Rubenstein Street…
But St. Petersburg is not only the museum capital of Europe – this artistic city is also the bar capital of Europe. Head to Rubenstein Street, which houses over 50 bars, for a night of pub crawling (Punk Brew is my personal favorite.) Or if you’re into partying really hard – Dumskaya street might be more your speed. And of course, you mustn’t visit the cultural capital of Russia without catching a ballet at the Mariinsky.
Where to Stay
St. Petersburg has the luxury of being both chock-full of things to do and relatively undiscovered. It’s also an extremely walkable city – you can get absolutely anywhere on foot, and public transport is widespread and available. Therefore, staying in a nice hotel close to the city center will run you only around $250 USD a night at the height of tourist season if you book well enough in advance. As I’ve only lived in St. Petersburg before, and never stayed in a hotel there, I’m going to base my recommendations on the type of accommodation.
While I’ve never stayed in a hotel in St. Petersburg, they have a HUGE advantage – they register your visa (and otherwise take care of you legally.) They are legally obligated to provide you with visa support and register you upon arrival so that all you have to do is throw your bags into your room and go. Hostels will do the same, but some of them will try to charge you extra for it. Saint Petersburg hotels are quite affordable and central – keep in mind that the further you get from the city center, the less English will be spoken. However, Russian hotels are not the same kind of luxury you would expect in Paris. A clean bed and some bottled water are what you can expect at most hotels, although you can book a stay at the Four Seasons if you’re really trying to emulate that Russian millionaire vibe.
This is my personal favorite option, as Saint Petersburg apartments are generally high-ceilinged and gorgeous, with huge windowsills overlooking the street. Some even come with saunas inside. You can also take advantage of Russia’s inexpensive grocery stores and cook meals at home (as Russians would want you to do.) However, be sure to ask your host about visa registration before booking. This is their legal obligation when renting to you, but many Russians consider the trip to the post office too much of a hassle and will refuse to do it.
I would not recommend a hostel in St. Petersburg. Hotels are available and affordable, and hostel owners often know exactly their type of clientele and will cater only to the bare minimum. The beds are clean, but bathrooms may not be, and you will find only the bare minimum. However, hostels are a great way to meet fellow travelers and engage socially.
Staying With A Friend
If you’re lucky enough to have a Russian friend willing to take you in, I’m sorry to say you’ll never have another experience like it in your life. Hospitality and close friendships are an important part of Russian culture, so get ready to be treated like absolute royalty – I’m talking full feasts every night, and of course, champagne and vodka. You’ll want to bring flowers, but not an even number – that’s for funerals.
So that’s my summer travel guide to St. Petersburg, a city of history and color and vibrancy, even in the wintertime. Get out there and enjoy all that Mother Russia has to offer!