Things you need to know before visiting St Petersburg Russia
You’ve read the guidebooks, you know something of the long history and you know what sights should be on your must-see list. But what about the practicalities they don’t tell you about in chapter one of the Lonely Planet?
My well-travelled husband and I were 1st time visitors to St Petersburg earlier this year and we enjoyed it immensely, but we make no bones that it was at times a challenging destination. St Petersburg is a wonderful city, rich in history, museums and architecture. But it is part of the former Soviet Union and has only really become a mainstream travel destination in the last 10 years. Guidebooks will tell you what to see. Hopefully the following will help you understand some of the realities to expect.
There are opportunities for the St Petersburg authorities to improve the welcoming feel of the Pulkovo Airport. It embraces its former Soviet existence, greys are dominant, the building suitably square and cold as is necessary for any true communist building. The guards are well trained to be aloof and unwelcoming. Border guards in any chosen country are never the best tourism ambassadors, but the detached guards at the airport might be the best examples of this we have encountered.
We chose to rent an apartment for the week we were there and this was an excellent decision for our style of travel. For others the ease of a hotel and some English speaking staff may be more important. Our transaction was organised in an efficient and friendly manner. I can only recommend the one we had personal experience with – Oksanas.
Our apartment was near the main shopping street, Nevksy Prospekt, and in a small apartment block. The exterior was a bit disconcerting – old and unkempt. The steel door leading to our stairwell looked a bit off-putting, but these were just cosmetic things. The apartment was great, modern clean and warm.
The first thing we learnt was that the guidebooks were 100% correct when they say you won’t see many English signs. The major tourist attractions were signed in English, but for the rest you either needed to get to grips with some Cyrillic or become very competent in guessing. For the first couple of days we found our way back to our apartment by walking along Nevsky Prospekt and locating the McDonald’s restaurant which we knew was on the corner of our street.
The metro is definitely an adventure. For some this is a challenge to be taken up, for others a must avoid. After our first trip my husband vowed never to ride the St Petersburg metro again.
There are five lines in the system and they are deep, deep underground. Having bought your token and put it into the turnstile you board a very fast escalator that whisks and rattles you down to the centre of the earth. Following a series of tunnels you arrive at a number of steel doors. You, having observed the others around you, stand in front of the doors and wait. The system is efficient and there is a train every few minutes. The doors open and you head into the carriage. The carriages are not modern and the trains race along shuddering on their rails. You need to count the stops you need to your destination as there is no easy maps or signs along the way.
Other random observations
People drive fast here and the skills related to lane management are poor we saw two nose to tail crunches just on the drive in from the airport.
It is a city of obvious wealth contrasts. On the street where we stayed there was a Lada being repaired with a hammer parked beside a new Bentley and a new Lexus. It was all quite normal.
Fur coats really are de rigueur in this city.
St Petersburg is a rewarding city. It is not an easy city but neither is it a particularly difficult one. Be mentally prepared and you will enjoy what it has to offer.