Arriving in Russia is, for most people, a faintly terrifying experience – it certainly was for me! Warnings from your friends and family that you will be frozen to death, murdered by the Mafia, or eaten by a bear don’t exactly help matters along. But, with a little insider information, your stay in St. Petersburg could turn out to be the best part of your Year Abroad.
Russians have a notoriously bad reputation for unfriendliness, and for good reason. They don’t smile (unless it’s for a very good reason), they don’t say “Please” or “Thank you”, and woe betide you if you get in their way when they’re in a hurry! But once you get past the frosty exterior, you will find that there are many genuinely friendly and hospitable Russians – just don’t let appearances deceive you!
Most places in St. Petersburg can be reached on the Metro although the number of stations is more limited than in some big cities, so there may be a fifteen minute walk on either end of your journey. There may also be a fifteen minute walk once you get inside the Metro station, with some of the longest escalators in the world to navigate, as well as the fact that changing line warrants not only a platform change, but a complete station change (Sennaya Ploschad’, Spasskaya and Sadovaya are essentially one station, serving three different lines). The other major disadvantage to the Metro is that it closes between midnight and 6am every night, meaning that nights out can end up being somewhat longer than you intended. However there are advantages – it costs less than 50p a journey (less if you buy a multiple-journey card), the stations are kept incredibly clean, and some stops on the red line are decorated as lavishly as the palaces! The other main way to get around St. Petersburg is by marshrutka, or taxi-bus. These mini-buses, which wait at their end destination until they are deemed full enough to leave, but also pick up passengers en-route, are especially useful as they serve the suburbs, including the royal palaces of Peterhof, Pushkin and Pavlovsk. The destinations and fares are displayed on the side of the bus, and the fare should be passed forward to the driver with the command ‘Передавай, пожалуйста' and any change will be passed back to you. This system works surprisingly well, but it’s best not to sit near the front unless you want to spend the entire journey passing money back and forth.
There are some things money can’t buy , for everything else there’s Mega. These ‘out-of-town’ (i.e. so far from the centre that only the locals know they exist) shopping centres, served by free buses from Ulitsa Dybenko, Parnas and Devyatkino metro stations feature a range of European and Russian chain stores, including some English favourites you didn’t know you were missing (M+S anybody?). For those who don’t live on the outskirts and don’t fancy finding out what’s hiding out there, the city centre is also well-served with shops, including two malls in Sennaya Ploschad’ and a large new complex near Ploschad’ Vosstinaya. Souvenirs and gifts for your family and friends back home are also easy to come by in St. Petersburg. The best place to look is probably Gostiny Dvor, the huge department store on Nevsky Prospekt. The best place to buy is probably the souvenir market behind the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which has all the same items at a fraction of the price. But don’t stare too long, or you will be expected to buy!
Nights out in St. Petersburg start early and finish late, partly out of choice and partly out of necessity. Many of the bars along the Nevsky Prospekt will be full by 7 or 8 in the evening, although the most popular chains, such as SПБ, serve food as well as alcohol, so getting in early needn't mean foregoing dinner. Missing the last train home (at around 12.30AM) doesn’t have to be a problem either, as most clubs stay open until 6am. From Revolution, on Sadovaya Ulitsa, you can even watch the sunrise from the glass-roofed top floor. Or, if dancing the night away isn’t your style, many of the coffee shops stay open all night, giving you a retreat after you tire of clubbing.
Top Ten Things to Do
Some of them might seem a little wacky, but my trip wouldn’t have been complete without these ten experiences:
1. Watch the bridges open. At around 1am every morning, the bridges open to allow big boats to pass down the Neva. Make the most of it, bring a bottle of champagne. All the Russians are doing it!
2. See a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. Even if you don’t like ballet, it’s worth it just to see the inside of the theatre.
3. Drink a cup of горячий шоколад. Served in Шоколадница coffee shops all over the city, this drink, literally melted chocolate in a cup, is not to be missed.
4. Visit the Hermitage. Because let’s face it, if you don’t, everyone will ask why you didn’t. And besides, it’s free with a Russian student card!
5. Watch people walking on a frozen body of water. Obviously only in the winter months, but as everything freezes between November and March, chances are you’ll get to see this happening.
6. Eat Russian fast food. Блины, пироги, пельмени, and lots and lots of сметана. Love it or hate it, if you want to live like a local you’ll have to get used to it...
7. Climb to the top of Smolny Cathedral. The views are as good as from St. Isaac’s, only without all of the irritating tourists – always a plus!
8. Watch some Russian TV. Not only does it test how good your Russian really is, but there are some genuinely hilarious programmes. I recommend ‘Давай Поженимся’, just like ‘Blind Date’ except the couple get married at the end.
9. Go to one of the flat museums. These flats, once inhabited by famous literary and political figures, are supposedly kept exactly as they were at the time. Whether they are or not, they are a huge part of Russian museum culture, and an excellent way to learn about the former inhabitant.
10. Get out of the city (or even the country). As well as the palaces of Peterhof, Pushkin, and Pavlovsk, St. Petersburg is just a bus ride away from such European capitals as Helsinki, Riga and Tallinn. Really, it would be rude not to.
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Read another insider's guide to St. Petersburg.