Saint Petersburg is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, but unlike the majority of European cities, it is not as easy to simply decide to visit, buy an airline or rail ticket and take off with passport in hand.
Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, it has become easier to travel to Russia, but there are still many formalities involved. A large number of people visit Saint Petersburg as part of a Baltic Sea cruise, spending anywhere from two to three days docked in the city.
Of course there is so much to see and do that two to three days is extremely limited and the majority of guests are quite disheartened to leave, knowing how much they left unseen. But the great advantage of such a visit is ability to have guided tours provided by the cruise line or personally arranged through any number of travel providers that are sanctioned by the Russian government, escorting your every move through the city. And so long as you are content with only leaving the ship for escorted tours, there is no need for a visa. The cruise line or private company through which you arrange tours has the necessary paperwork in hand so that all you need is a voucher for the tour and your passport.
The drawback to this arrangement is that you may not leave the ship on your own. You cannot take a walk in the evening; you cannot go shopping or out for a meal on your own. You can only leave in the company of a guide. If you arrange for private tours, you may have total freedom to dine or shop or walk so long as you are accompanied, and so long as it is within the timeframe of your tour arrangement. Many people find themselves frustrated in that they feel like prisoners on board the ship during the hours of the day or evening when they are not on tour. Yet many others are content with this arrangement
If you are coming to Saint Petersburg by ship and know that you will not be content being escorted on group or private tours, then you need to arrange for a visa in advance of your departure unless you hold a passport from the following countries: Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Fiji, Guyana, Hong Kong, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nauru, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Serbia, Seychelles, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. All other passport holders must have a visa if they wish to do any independent travel.
Tourist visas will be issued for a single trip, two visits or for consecutive visits during a three-year period. To obtain a Russian tourist visa, you must apply directly to a Russian Embassy or Consulate or through one of the valid travel document services that for an added fee will guide you through the preparation and then walk your passport and supporting documents through the proper channels to insure the issuance of your visa. Once your visa is placed in the passport, you are ready to travel.
The Russian entry visa placed into your passport
For those who hold a visa and wish to strike out on their own, many questions often arise as to safety issues, how do I get around and can I use credit cards or must I have currency on hand and of course the question regarding food also surfaces. Here are some answers to basic questions for those of you who want to explore independently of ship sponsored tours, either using a car and driver/guide or simply “going native” and mixing in with the general population, as you explore the city.
In western newspapers and magazines there have been so many stories about criminal activity in Russia, especially the groups known as “Russian Mafia.” Yes it does exist, and there is a fair amount of organized crime and also corruption in business and government. But these doings are not going to impact you as a tourist. Street crime does exist in major cities such as Saint Petersburg in the form of pickpockets and muggers. But if you observe ordinary precautions, as you would in so many cities worldwide you will be fine. Here are the basic tips to be kept in mind:
If you are out on your own and you use the city’s efficient and fast Metro, be sure to be alert for groups of young men that look like they are approaching you. There are gangs that will surround an unsuspecting tourist and rob them of their valuables inside Metro stations, especially in the city center region. If you are in a group or traveling with your guide, you will not need to be overly vigilant.
Major credit cards are accepted in most hotels, restaurants and major stores throughout Russia. But you do need to have local currency for public transport, many entrance fees, small shops and restaurants or theatre venues. You also need currency for tips and taxi fares, if you should use local taxis (more on this subject later).
The official currency in Russia is the Ruble. Since the collapse of the oil market in 2015, the Ruble has taken a serious set of losses. At the time of this writing in February 2016, US$1 is worth approximately 80 Russian Rubles. Fortunately most restaurants that are not frequented by tourists have not raised prices to compensate. However, major hotel chains have raised rates to compensate for the decline in the value of the Ruble.
The Russian Ruble is the official currency of the nation
For those of you who are traveling by ship, unless you have a visa, the only time you can dine out is if lunch is included in one of the all day tours you have booked either through the cruise line or privately. Or on private tours, you can arrange lunch with the assistance of your guide.
For those of you with a visa, whether traveling by ship or having arrived in Saint Petersburg on your own, there are so many good restaurants from which to choose. In my book, I present my recommendations, as I do have a tourist visa and have been dining out regularly in Saint Petersburg for the past ten years.
Russian cuisine is what I enjoy when visiting the country. I can have pizza, burgers or other ethnic foods anytime I choose at home. So when in Russia, I deliberately want to indulge in the local cuisine, which is varied and so delicious. Here are some of my favorites that I highly recommend:
BREAKFAST: In Russia, breakfast often consists of a hot cereal called “kasha,” made from steamed buckwheat. It is served with sugar and milk or cream. Toasted rolls, cheese and/or smoked meat may follow, and eggs are often served. Tea is the more popular beverage, but many Russians now drink coffee.
LUNCH: For a quick lunch when people are on the go, one of the popular items is a stuffed “blini.” This is a large crepe that is stuffed with minced meat, cheese, potato or kasha. It is folded over and can be topped with sour cream. Small dough pockets stuffed with meat, potatoes or cheese called “piroshki” are also quick and easy to eat. If you go to a restaurant for a sit down full meal, the items will be the same as those served at dinner.
DINNER: Russian dinners are a multi-course meal consisting of an appetizer, soup, main course and dessert. Appetizers can consist of various types of pickled herring, red or black caviar, smoked salmon or various types of vegetable salads. Soup is a major course, and the servings are generally large. Borsch is a soup made with a beetroot stock, served hot or cold and always with sour cream. Ukha is a clear fish soup with pieces of potato, salmon and sturgeon along with fresh parsley. Solyanka is a spicy tomato base soup with meat or fish that is very savory. There are many more to choose from, but one favorite is a bean and barley soup made with meat. For the main course there is so much variety. Among popular favorites that most foreigners know about are Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff. My favorite is a cutlet made from ground chicken breaded and fried and served with a mushroom gravy. It is called “Pozharskaya kotleta.” Most main courses are served with creamy mashed potatoes or kasha that has been prepared with browned onion and bacon. And popular vegetables are cabbage or carrots. The most traditional dessert are plain blini served with sour cream and honey. And one of the most popular cakes is “mak,” which is a rich poppy seed torte. Another very traditional dessert is a multi-layered honey cake. And tea is again the drink of choice, served in a fluted glass placed in a metal holder.
SNACKS: Russian chocolates are among the richest you will find in Europe. Russians like dark chocolates, and the darker the better. You can find chocolates with as much cocoa as 80 percent. Marmalades, which are shaped like fruit slices and have the flavors of orange, strawberry, lemon or lime and are coated in granulated sugar are another favorite. And Russians love fruit flavored marzipans and glace fruits. Assorted nuts and seeds or dried fruits are another popular snack.
BEVERAGES: Tea, as noted, is the national hot beverage. Russians also like “kvas,” which is a lightly fermented rye drink slightly carbonated. It is even served to children during summertime. And for the hard alcoholic drink, vodka is king.
A delicious poached salmon lunch at Tsar, one of Saint Petersburg’s great restaurants
If you tire of Russian food, there is always Macdonalds.
For those coming by cruise ship without a visa this question is irrelevant. You will be taken on either group or private excursions and will not be in a position to get around on your own. The only exception to the statement above is for those cruise passengers holding a Russian visa and those with passports from the countries named earlier where a visa is not necessary. In those instances what follows will apply to you as well as to non-cruise visitors. For those who are coming by ship and have visas or passports not in need of a visa, there are several options available for independent sightseeing and dining.
Hiring a private car and driver/guide through either the cruise line, a local tour operator such as Baltic Tours. Although you have freedom to get around on your own, there are many important venues that are not easy to get to using public transport or by walking. And unless you are confident in your Russian language skills, it is still more comfortable to have a guide.
If you are on a small cruise ship that is docked at either the English Embankment or the Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment, there are many important landmarks and museums within walking distance. For those of you who are allowed to leave the ship on your own, but who are traveling on one of the large cruise ships, you will have a bit of a problem getting around. The large ships dock on the outer edge of Vasilevsky Island in the new and modern cruise terminal called Marine Facade. There is a local bus #162 that will transport you to the Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station. From there all you need to do is take the train inbound to Gostiny Dvor Station. It is the very next stop, but across the Neva River some distance and it is in the heart of the city. Below you will find information on using the Metro, and at the end of the chapter there is a Metro map.
To use public transportation you do need to have Rubles, as there is no foreign exchange or credit card use for public transport. As of this writing, the normal fare for trolley bus rides is 25 Rubles per person. You board the trolley usually from the rear or middle door and find a seat or a place to stand. The conductor, wearing a rather bright vest, will come to you and collect the money. And often she will show you where to sit if you have not found a seat.
The Metro costs 28 Rubles per token, which is called a Zheton, which you buy at the Kassa, or ticket booth. Lines are both color-coded and named M-1 through M-5. And more recently the maps and the station signs are now also written in Roman script, making it so much easier for visitors to read.
The Metro is clean, fast and the stations are quite ornate. In the inner parts of the city where the Metro existed by the 1950’s, the stations each have a theme, one for the author Pushkin, one for Soviet heroes, etc. And you will find statues, paintings, ornate chandeliers and polished marble floors.
The Metro is crowded, but often times younger Russians will give up their seat to any middle age or older visitor who is having trouble standing. The only thing you need to be cautious about is your valuables, especially in the inner city stations where small gangs of thieves look for unsuspecting tourists. But if you keep with the crowd you will not look as conspicuous.
Most authoritative sources do not recommend that you use local taxis. There are several reasons, and I do concur. Most taxi services are not regulated. The drivers rarely speak English. And if you are unsure as to the layout of the city, you could be taken “for a ride,” as the expression goes.
If you are one who likes to be out late, as some people do. Please remember that if you should be walking after Midnight, the bridges connecting Vasilevsky and Petrogradsky Islands to the central city are opened at 1 a.m. to allow barge traffic to use the Neva River. The bridges are not lowered again until 6 a.m., so you do not want to be caught across the river at 1 a.m., otherwise you will be sleeping on a park bench. But if you happen to be out after dark, it is a beautiful sight to see all the bridges lit up at night, especially when they are opened.
The Vasilevsky Island main Metro station closest to where major cruise ships dock
Saint Petersburg is a very clean city. Russian people take great pride in keeping their personal spaces neat and clean. And the city takes equal pride in maintaining its parks and streets. You will find that there is very little litter or graffiti around the city.
Public toilet facilities are not that widespread, but they exist in all major tourist venues, department stores, malls and restaurants. During the busy summer season, there are portable facilities housed in mobile units that are placed around the city as needed. And in the central city there are fixed location public toilet facilities. You pay an entry fee, usually 20 Rubles and then you are assigned a booth. Women attendants keep the facilities amazingly clean.
The city water in Saint Petersburg is purified, however, many of the delivery systems are old and corroded, and thus it is recommended that you do not drink tap water or even use it for brushing your teeth. Many travel sources say it is now perfectly safe to use, but I believe it is better to be safe than sorry. As for eating raw fruits or vegetables in restaurants, you are safe to do so if you go to first class restaurants, as they do use purified water in food preparation. And all major hotels have their own additional filtration systems.
Dairy products are perfectly safe to eat when in Saint Petersburg. Pasteurization is standard practice. You will find that Russian sour cream, milk and ice cream are very rich and delicious, so go ahead and indulge.
Before leaving home, have your doctor issue a prescription for Lomotil and Cipro and have each filled. Lomotil takes care of common diarrhea. Cipro is to be used if you contract any form of amoebic dysentery. You can always ask the ship’s doctor for advice as to which to use. If you are traveling on your own, not by ship, you can simply tell if you have a fever, feel tired and have no appetite in connection with persistent diarrhea, then it is time for Cipro. As your doctor at the time the prescriptions are issued. This is good sound practice for any overseas travel.
Russia is a country in which English is only now becoming more widely used within the hospitality industry. All major hotels and restaurants along with large stores do have personnel that can speak English. However, if you wish to venture out on your own, you will find that the Metro personnel, taxi drivers, most police and military officials do not speak English. This also holds true for most clerks in smaller shops or business establishments that do not cater to tourists.
Signs are for the most part written in Cyrillic and not Roman characters. Major brand name stores often do use both forms of writing, so you will see some signage that you will be able to read. This is true in major tourist venues. The Cyrillic Alphabet is patterned after Greek, as it was a Greek missionary named Cyril who brought writing to Russia around the 9th century. What is nice about the Russian alphabet is that it is phonetic. Once you know the sound of the letter, you can say it with ease. Each letter has one sound only. I have taught people how to read Russian words on signs within an hour. This is not to say you will learn the language, but you can recognize many words such as bank, restaurant, telephone or toilet very easily.
Most visitors love to shop when in a foreign country. And apart from the usual souvenir T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, calendars, post cards and the other typical tourist kitsch, there are some very serious handcraft items available. If you are willing to spend a bit of money, and with a bit of patience, you can find some real treasures. But for anything that is genuine, you will pay a premium. Here is my list of true Russian craft and a few warnings about imitations:
Matrushka Dolls – These are the beloved nested dolls that fit one inside of the other, from small ones with five or six nested figures to large ones with as many as 20 nested figures. To be traditional, they should feature a young girl with rosy cheeks and wearing a scarf, called a “babushka.” The key to an original one of a kind set is to have the artist’s signature on the bottom of the outside doll. If they are unsigned, they are factory made.
Lacquer Boxes – These beautiful black boxes come in all sizes. Some have landscape or important buildings portrayed on the cover. But a truly traditional box tells a fairytale story or shows a piece of Russian history. Again as with the dolls, they must be signed usually in gold ink at the bottom corner of the picture. They can sell for as low as US$100 for a small one up to as much as US$3,000 for larger ones.
Easter Eggs – A tradition that date back centuries. Most families exchanged carved or painted wood eggs. The Tsar and nobles exchanged jewel-encrusted eggs, the cream of the crop made by Karl Faberge. These eggs today sell for millions if and when they come available. The Faberge studio does produce both semi-precious gemstone and real gemstone eggs, but they are expensive. And there are many copies that are simply made to glitter, but are decorated with glass fake stones.
Amber jewelry – Baltic amber is a beautiful gemstone. But there is so much imitation available that it is hard to know what to buy. You must trust the shop by its looks, the demeanor of the staff and whether they provide any documentation with a purchase.
Fur Hats – You will see street vendors selling fur hats, but buyer beware, as most are made of rabbit or some other cheap pelts. Good Russian fur hats are mink or sable, and they will cost hundreds of dollars. These are purchased in fine clothing shops or department stores.
Embroidery – Traditional Russian cross stitch embroidery, usually in red or black on white linen can still be found in fine shops. Tablecloths, napkins and hand towels are still produced, and these are true treasures.
Oil Paintings – Russian fine arts are highly prized outside of the country. Most paintings are landscapes, although there are also portraits and still life. You will find unknown artists in small shops and galleries whose works sell for a few hundred dollars or less. And there are the top Russian painters whose works sell for thousands. A lot of signed prints of local monuments and churches are sold everywhere as original watercolors. But they are simply unlimited edition prints. Yet they are of good quality and do make nice decorative items and are good to give as gifts.
The interior of the elegant Eleiseevsky Gastronom on Nevsky Prospekt
Most visitors come to Saint Petersburg during the summer months, as winter in much of Russia is relatively brutal – cold with heavy snowfall. During summer, Saint Petersburg weather is generally quite moderate. Daytime high temperatures hover in the 20’s to low 30’s Celsius, between 68 and the low 80’s Fahrenheit.
On occasion the temperature may climb to upper 30’s Celsius or the low 90’s Fahrenheit, but these spells are normally brief. On most summer evenings, a light jacket or sweater is needed around 7 to 8 p.m. onward.
Humidity is relatively high, averaging in the 70 percent range given the amount of water surrounding the city. Thundershowers can brew up quickly, and often you see them coming. And then there are days that can be quite blustery and rainy, as storm fronts develop. Temperatures can drop into the teens Celsius, below the mid 60’s Fahrenheit, sometimes as low as the 50’s.
What To Pack For Visiting Saint Petersburg
A windbreaker and a couple of sweaters are handy items to pack. And definitely bring an umbrella, preferably one that can collapse down and be carried with ease (your cruise ship may provide umbrellas). Good walking shoes are essential, as the best way to enjoy the city is on foot.
If you plan to attend a ballet, folk dance performance or any theatrical production, smart casual wear is sufficient during summer. A nice dress or pant suit for women and a pair of slacks and sport coat for men will be satisfactory. During winter, people attending the theater do dress with much greater sophistication.