Saint Petersburg is often called a Venice of the North. Indeed such a great number of splendid architecture, spread along the river banks can be seen just in these two places in the world. But this enormous city is often confusing, especially for foreigners who do not speak the Russian language. Let me share my experience and some useful tips on how to fully enjoy the beauty of the Russian Empire capital.
When to visit:
If you don’t have masochistic tendency to derive gratification from your own pain or humiliation better not go to Saint Petersburg during the winter. Thanks to the high humility and icy winds I can promise, you’ll get cold to the bones. Even not impressive -20C (in comparison to the Siberian colds), in Saint Petersburg turns to be something not bearable. Besides, during the winter you’ll lose one of the most important local attractions – drawbridges opening. Pretty awful weather in Saint Petersburg is also late autumn because of almost constant rain, north winds and grey sky. So if you are planning your trip in advance consider spring or summer to go there. Especially worth attention are famous white nights – lasting from June 11th to July 2nd. Although, keep in mind, that this is also a touristic pick season. If you are short of money better pick up some date before or after – for example at the end of May or mid-July. Weather around this dates supposed to be already nice, with mild temperatures and sun in Saint Petersburg.
View from the Moyka river, city centre
How to get there:
Saint Petersburg is easy to reach almost by all kind of ground transport, ferry and plane. Especially convenient is a bus through the Baltic States (local operators) or a train (for example from Belarus). Crossing the border from the EU in a train means much higher price and a long period of expectation (as the railways in Russia and post USRR countries have different diameter then EU). If you are a fan of sea transportation, you could consider coming to ex-Leningrad with a ferry, for example from Helsinki or Stockholm. You can also cross the border with your own car, but be prepared that formalities might take some time (count at least 2 hours each side). You will be also required to fulfil some paperwork – like customs declarations and expect countless checks of your car from both sides. And important information, do not forget to obtain the green card for your vehicle before crossing the border. If you are going to Saint Petersburg from Moscow, a very convenient way is to take a high-speed train – called Sapsan (about 4 hours) or overnight train (around 8 hours). Both go from Leningradsky train station (as Leningrad is a previous name of Saint Petersburg).
If you belong to these unlucky buddies who need to have a visa to go to Russia, check the requirements on the official website of the Russian embassy in your country. If there is no such embassy near the place you live check the nearby countries or look for exceptional cases – for example Georgians can get Russian visa only through the Swiss consulate. Fulfil the requirements carefully, as there is no chance to get a visa after arrival. Besides, average touristic visa you can also apply for transit one – if your destination country is different than Russia. On contrary to the many countries when the transit visa is given for 24 or 48 hours in Russia you’ll get full 10 days. Such a visa is also two times cheaper and much easier to receive. It is enough to show the tickets both ways. But this is not the end of formalities you’ll need to fulfil after the arrival. According to the Russian law, you have to register in a place where you are going to stay. Most of the times, the hotels are doing such as registration. It is good to ask them about it after the arrival. If you are going to stay with your friends, such registration is possible in every post office. Anyway, you will have 7 business days to fulfil this obligation. Obviously, this is just a dead letter and nobody really check it but as a Romans use to say “Ignorantia juris non excusat”, so it’s good to keep this information somewhere in mind.
Like many big cities Saint Petersburg has a well-developed subway. You can travel between the most impressive sights in the city just using the metro. Especially if the stations themselves are like a piece of art. But be prepared that subway in Saint Petersburg has been constructed as a bomb shelter. It means that many stations are deep under the surface and sometimes going down with the escalator takes longer time than travelling between the stations. As the city was built on the mud, this way of transportation is pretty difficult to develop – many lines go under the rivers, so, there are not as many new stations to cover the inhabitant’s needs. So better avoid the subway during the rush hours. To travel by subway you can either buy a top-up card or singular tokens. The transportation card can be also used in buses, minibuses, river transportation and trams. Taxi is also a convenient way of transportation, but having in mind a great size of the city, longer rides can be pretty expensive. The most convenient way of using a taxi is with phone apps like yandex.taxi or mytaxify. The card of public transportation would be not full without the world famous “marshrutkas”. Long after my arrival to Saint-Petersburg, I couldn’t get used to this kind of minibuses. What makes marshrutka unique is the lack of fixed timetable (at least not in a written way) as well as an unusual possibility to stop in any place convenient for passengers. Another weird thing is passing the money through the whole bus to pay for a ride. It is hard to believe that this is working, but somehow it works and in many places in the city, marshrutkas are the most common way of transportation.
Drawbridge opening during white nights
There is not a problem to change almost any currency to Russian rubles. But it is a kind of Saint Petersburg phenomenon, that the best rates among the currency exchanges you will find in the city centre. You can also change the cash in banks (this service provides, for example, Raiffeisen Bank). Besides, Russia has a well developed private banking sphere. You can pay by card or by Apple/Google Pay almost everywhere in the city. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted payment tool.
Russia is famous from the widely accessible, quick internet. You can plug-in to the global network almost in every restaurant and many public places. If this is not enough you can purchase a sim-card from local GSM provider with 4G limitless internet. Be careful, do not use your domestic sim-card especially for surfing. High bill for roaming from your provider can be a bad surprise after you will come back home.
There is a great number of shopping malls all over the city with international and some domestic brands. Smaller shopping you can make in super and hypermarkets. Many of them, the same as restaurants and bars are 24 hours open. Do not forget about the limitations of alcohol, which cannot be bought between 11 p.m and 11 a.m in any kind of shop. Also, tobacco products are sold under some restrictions (there are no cigarettes exposed), so to buy a package you have to ask the seller.