Where to stay: I visited St. Petersburg while on a cruise, so I didn’t have the opportunity to stay on shore, but there are a lot of great options for you to choose from in St. Petersburg! Airbnb has a wealth of low-priced options in great areas of the city, so I would highly recommend looking into one of those. In a city like St. Petersburg, it would probably be to your advantage to be staying with a local anyway, as you’ll benefit from their knowledge of the city and of local customs. When you’re entering the country, though, be sure to have ample documentation of your accommodation, as Russian immigration is pretty strict. Another thing to note about St. Petersburg is that it’s a city made of a whole bunch of islands that are connected by drawbridges; at night these drawbridges are opened, and will prevent you from getting from one part of the city to another, so be aware of where in the city your accommodation is, and don’t stray too far at night or you’ll risk being stuck all night! It might be best to stick to the eastern part of the city that’s home to the Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, as this is a fairly touristy area where the people are used to hosting foreigners, and you’ll have less risk of getting stuck across the river.
Where to eat: Because St. Petersburg is located right on the Baltic, its culinary traditions are an interesting mix of those of the Baltic region and traditional Russian dishes. It’s quite common to see caviar at restaurants, so if that’s your thing, this might be the place to try it. Beyond that, just go in search of places that aren’t advertised to tourists- you’ll probably see a lot of homey meat and root veggie dishes, and they’ll probably be great! Just be brave enough to give new things a shot, and consider bringing a pocket Russian dictionary to help decipher the menu.
What to do: There are an incredible amount of things to see in and around St. Petersburg, and it’ll take several days for you to see all of it without driving yourself crazy. St. Petersburg is home to an extensive collection of beautiful Russian Orthodox churches, as this city was one of the few where these buildings were spared during the Soviet era. (Granted, they were used for storage and might have some damage, but they’re still there for you to see!) The most famous of these is the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood- it’s an absolutely incredible example of this classic Russian Orthodox architecture and is definitely not to be missed. The other recognizable one is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which is less colorful and spectacular than the first, but it’s still incredible in its own right. The benefit with this one is that you can actually climb to the top of the dome for a view over the entire city. The Hermitage Museum, formerly The Royal Winter Palace, is also located in the city, and is definitely worth a visit. The Hermitage is often compared to the Louvre in Paris, and is certainly comparable in terms of the art collection and the actual building itself. Try to avoid visiting when cruise ships are in town, as you’ll end up waiting on very long lines only to be herded like cattle once you’re inside. You can download an app on your smartphone which explains the museum and the collections that are on display. Outside the city of St. Petersburg there are other truly amazing places that shouldn’t be missed. The first is the palace located at Peterhof, which is often referred to as the Versaille of Russia- and it truly lives up to that name! The gardens and fountains at Peterhof are what really make this palace special, so try to get there to see them turn on the big fountain around 11 am (from May until mid-October), as it’s truly a site to see. There are several options for getting to Peterhof from St. Petersburg, which can be found here. The other major palace outside of St. Petersburg is Catherine’s Palace at Pushkin. Catherine the Great, who was married to Peter the Great was the driving force behind the construction and furnishing of this palace and its grounds, as well as much of the art collection of the Hermitage Museum. The grandeur of this palace is unparalleled, and it truly made me understand the anger towards the monarchy that this type of wealth incited. The overwhelming wealth exhibited here, however, makes this an incredibly important place to visit when you’re in St. Petersburg. The history is truly incredible, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. There are several ways to get to Catherine’s Palace, which can be found here. Of course there are many other things to see in St. Petersburg, but this is my list of things that shouldn’t be missed!
Additional Information: Visiting Russia is a bit tricky right now, especially for many Western European citizens and most especially for American citizens. Unlike most other countries in Europe, you can’t just show up and be allowed in as a tourist for a short period of time- you’ll need to apply for a visa in advance, even if you’re planning on visiting for a single day. For further information on visa requirements (for US citizens), please see this website. Fortunately, traveling to St. Petersburg is still very safe, as its industry is largely driven by tourism, and it’s far north of any conflict occurring near the Ukrainian border. Still, be sure to look at federal travel warnings before you decide to go anywhere with the potential to be an unsafe place, as these travel warnings change regularly. With that said, please don’t let stereotypes and media scare tactics prevent you from what might be the trip of a lifetime! I visited St. Petersburg in June 2014 (while there were serious problems in the south of the country), and I felt completely safe. Just prepare in advance for questions about the purpose of your trip (including transportation and accommodation plans) at immigration, and you’ll be fine!
Overall Opinion: I am so glad that I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in St. Petersburg, but two days wasn’t nearly enough! This city is the definitely of history coming to life, as its history is very complex and has had a wide range of interesting events. St. Petersburg is one of the most well preserved pre-Soviet cities in Russia, and as such, is probably the best to visit if you’re looking to get a glimpse into “old Russia”. Of course, there are footprints of the Soviet era throughout the city, both those are equally as interesting! I would absolutely recommend traveling to St. Petersburg, and I hope that I have the opportunity to go back in the future.