We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Saint Petersburg, and wanted to share some of our thoughts from our trip in 2018; these hints and suggestions are just purely from our experiences.
1. Background –
Saint Petersburg, is the second largest city in Russia and was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great. It was actually Russia’s capital for 206 years (1712 to 1918) and remains a very westernised city, with lavish bridges (which is why it’s called the Venice of the North), heaps of museums, theatres and luxury hotels.
2. Temps –
We visited Saint Petersburg in late August and the average temps was around 25 degrees, however this was alot warmer than the normal average which is 13-21 degrees. So we could just walk around in t-shirts.
3. Currency –
We took some rubles with us, and the exchange rate is currently $1 AUD to 45 ruble. However, I would just recommend using an ATM at the airport, yes there may be a fee, but it’s easy and quick.
4. Getting there and Visa –
We flew with Finnair, via Helsinki into Saint Petersburg. We needed a Visa; we used a service via our travel agent, and the application was quite involved. We had to detail all trips within a 7/10 year period, our employment, and address history etc. There is however an exemption for travellers arriving on a cruise.
Immigration was easy enough…..after collecting bags you wait outside this row of booths for a green light, and then move forward. You don’t even have to say anything, and I was too shy to use my small amount of polite Russian I had learnt.
5. Driving –
We had arranged transfers, as we weren’t sure about English speaking taxi drivers, and the cabs in Russia are not metered, so felt more comfortable with a transfer – Uber works a treat too. Our transfer driver didn’t speak any English, which was quite obvious when I handed him 600 rubles (as recommended by the Russian travel company we used), and he didn’t say anything – I didn’t feel he was being rude – just didn’t understand me.
The driving standard is pretty ordinary too – our guy was okay, but no lane change indications, plenty of horn blowing …..and blocking traffic through intersections. Oh and the pedestrian crossings (without timer) is just an indication to the driver, there’s no 100% pedestrian right of way.
6. Must Do’s –
- Hermitage Museum (part of the Winter palace) – Book an ‘early entry and small group tour’ – you will have a guide in your language, get to enter earlier than the general public and learn heaps more than just wandering through with the crowds.
- Peterhof Palace & Gardens – we booked a private tour guide for this and so well worth it. We were collected from the hotel foyer, walked down to the hydrofoil and then guided around the Palace and grounds. We just followed along with our guide, as she managed to get to the head of any waiting lines. Plus there was limited numbers allowed into some areas within the Palace, and as we were only a group of three, we managed to cut ahead of other larger groups too. With the private guide you get to ask questions and so much more enjoyable.
- Ballet – we saw Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre – do your research first as to which ending you want to see. I always believed Swan Lake was a tragedy, but not at the Mariinsky Theatre – that performance has a happy ending – very disconcerting when you’re expecting the death, and it doesn’t arrive.
- Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood – an amazing mosaic crafted church, which is still undergoing restoration. There was a short wait in line to enter, but not awful. I’d also recommend paying for the headsets so you can fully appreciate this wonderous place. It is respectful to wear a scarf on your head in the churches, however not many tourist did this and were still allowed in.
- Just walking – along with taking quality photos early in the morning, head out and just walk around. You’ll experience life in general – such as:
- Walking behind a couple – lady was all dressed up – carrying a bottle of champagne (at 7 in the morning). We pondered about where they would be going that early in the morning, was it an early bridal shower, or what……until seeing her take a swig and realising that they had been out all night (at least she still had her heels on).
- Heading towards a tourist attraction and noticing all these cameras, and people in vests etc and then being right there for a drifting video for The Evil Empire – two cars within a few metres drifting along a bridge that we were walking over – all special memories.
7. Small shops – All smaller 711 type shops are heated…….or maybe just retain their heat but certainly no air conditioning, which would be okay 3/4 of the year but not when warm out – it made me feel unwell. These shops also don’t like giving change – as a tourist you normally only have larger notes…….so if you get any change keep with you…….as smaller shops do not like trying to change larger notes……even though to us they don’t seem ‘larger’. You may not understand what they are saying, but you certainly ‘get the gist’.
8. Tourist traps – Around Palace Square there are pretty ‘fan tale’ pigeons – we saw one Asian boy running away and the pidgin owner chasing him – he must have touched or photographed the birds – everything costs.
9. Avoid City Tours – City Tours offers 1 day tickets BUT don’t use, it is worth purchasing a 2 day pass from City Sightseeing and not needing the extra day – both companies are red buses and both show as hop on hop off – but City Tours is awful service – made us change buses, which was then crowded, with some seats not having working English commentary and then full buses, so we had to Uber back to Hotel as stranded at a ‘stop’.
10. Souvenirs – there are plenty of shops with traditional souvenirs available, so shop around, but don’t buy at the airports, as extremely expensive.
11. Tipping – the hints and tips from the Russian specialist tourism company we booked tours through suggested tipping for all services, such as transfers, in cafes etc. Some places added the service charge when paying via Credit Card, so check that before you leave any cash tips, or add extra to the credit card charge – don’t want to add tip twice, especially when we aren’t used to this here in Oz.
12. Photos Tip – head out early before crowds arrive. We headed out around 6am……enjoying the quiet and getting pics………then returning for 7am breakfast and back out……..but that means crowds. Main place we grabbed excellent ‘6am’ photos was in Palace Square.
13. Language – we learnt the basics, such as hello, goodbye, thanks – but we found that all hospitality staff spoke English. Our hotel doorman didn’t speak English though, but by day 3, Anthony managed to get a ‘nod’ from him in response to our ‘thanks’ – our Aussie charmed worked well.
14. Traditional foods – Russia has loads of traditional foods, most that have permeated into general cuisine, but it was worthwhile trying various dishes, such as stroganoff and also borscht actually in Russia.