Russia expert Lindsay Comer shares her knowledge of the country with advice and recommendations on how best to immerse yourself in local culture in Russia and go beyond the guidebook through this fascinating destination.
1. For those wanting to have a unique St. Petersburg experience, bear in mind many people only visit the city center of St. Petersburg and miss seeing some of the more unattractive but interesting places. I have an obsession with old Soviet block style housing (called Khrushchyovkas). If you take the metro out a few stops, you will be surrounded by what feels like a very different city. There are usually local markets and vendors not far from the metro stops. For photographers, the dilapidated buildings are eye candy. The best places to find Khrushchyovkas, I would say, are usually at the last stops of any metro line — such as Komandantskiy Prospekt or Prospekt Veteranov.
Also, I recommend visiting some of the lovely parks and going for a walk in nature — something very special and important to Russians. My favorite park is Yelagin Island, not far from the metro stops of Krestovskiy Ostrov or Staraya Derevnya on the purple line. If you are a bit more adventurous and want to head further outside of the city center, Park Sosnovka is an interesting area — but I was warned as a female not to walk alone there at night. At both parks, you should be able to rent bicycles or roller blades. And on Yelagin Island, you can also rent a small boat for rowing.
Watching the bridge open in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Comer.
2. For those wanting to experience local culture in St. Petersburg in summer and spring, I would absolutely recommend heading down to the Peter & Paul Fortress so you can check out the sunbathers. After a long and dreadful winter with very little daylight, people from St. Petersburg know how to appreciate the sun. When the temperatures reach 40 or 45 F, you will see people out on the beach surrounding the fortress, even if there is still snow on the ground. And in summer, there is no shortage of locals soaking up the rays on beaches and in parks.
Also, notice how they all stand with their hands on their hips, rotating to follow the sun. Tavricheskiy Garden — not far from metro stop Chernyshevskaya metro — tends to attract the lazier locals who prefer to just bathe in
their underwear on lunch break or as they are passing through the park. No bathing suit, no problem. A bra and panties will work just fine.
Another thing locals love to do in summer months is watch the bridges open. You’d never imagine something could be so entertaining, but around 1 a.m., locals will gather down by the banks of the river with Champagne in hand and cheer on the boats as they pass through the open bridges. Everybody is very happy and enjoying the long White Nights — it’s like a 24-hour party in St. Petersburg center. You will hear people out and about all night long. There are many Russian stereotypes, but I think not many realize how they love to celebrate the little things in life, like the opening bridges. This is one of the things I love about St. Petersburg. In summer, everyone is just SO happy.
3. For those wanting to experience local culture in St. Petersburg in winter, it is harder to find the local culture, as everything moves indoors and the daylight hours are minimal. However, you can always hop on an
Elecktrichka (local train) and just ride out into the countryside a bit and observe local Russians going about their daily life. Or head to a local cafe and have a pot of tea with friends or fellow travelers. I remember when I first moved to St. Petersburg in 2011, one of my American friends was saying how he loved that Russians could share anything
over a pot of tea. It is such a tea culture and there are places all over city center where you can go and get a nice pot of tea, warm up from the winter blues and share in a longstanding Russian tradition. For the more adventurous traveler, if you happen to be there during the days surrounding the festival of the Epiphany in January, you can try to find the local Orthodox Russians who participate in ice-hole swimming. They cut large cross-shaped holes in the ice of lakes and rivers and submerge themselves into the freezing waters on the eve of the Epiphany. This is on my list of things to participate in, next time I am there in winter.
Khinkali. Photo courtesy of Rowena.
4. For someone wanting a traditional meal in St. Petersburg, Russian food is something you eat in somebody’s kitchen. That being said, of course there are a handful of Russian restaurants in St. Petersburg, but I would pass just about any of them up for Georgian food, which is pretty much the best thing ever and very popular in Russia. There are quite a few Georgian restaurants in St. Petersburg, but my personal favorite is Lagidze on Ulitsa (street) Belinskogo. Also very good is cafe Rustaveli on the Moika River Embankment. When eating at a Georgian
restaurant, come with a hungry stomach, be sure to ask for their house wine, and definitely try the Khatchapuri (a pastry dough filled and topped with cheese and baked to perfection) and Khinkali (spicy and savory meat dumplings served piping hot) and come with friends to share in the feast.
For those who really want good and reasonably priced Russian cuisine, I will always recommend Idiot Cafe, also on the Moika Embankment. It has a great atmosphere and each guest is given a complimentary shot of vodka. Otherwise, I would suggest popping into any Stolovaya (spelled Столовая in cyrillic) in the city center for a cheap buffet and Soviet style meal at a price that can’t be beat – just don’t expect great service.
5. For those wanting to partake in some adventure in St. Petersburg, life in Russia tends to be a bit extreme in general, so just visiting there will offer a sense of adventure; however, two adventurous activities I have participated in are roofing and communal banya. Roofing is technically not legal in St. Petersburg (to my knowledge), but there are tours offered on the Sputnik8 website. You pay for an experienced roofer with key access to take you up and see the lovely views and unique roof architecture of St. Petersburg. It is not safe and done at your own risk, but it is really fun. Just bring suitable shoes – the rooftops can be slippery! When I went, we got chased off the roof by one of the tenants and had to make a run for it.
Communal banya (which is like sauna) is another activity offered for females on the Sputnik8 website. I went to Communal banya with Sasha and it was such a great time! If I had known about it when I was living there, I would have gone weekly, as it is very good for health. Communal banya differs from private banya in that it is much cheaper
and, of course, communal. Everyone is in the nude and sweating it out together. Take heed, communal banya is not for the faint of heart. The sauna is incredibly dry and extremely hot — I thought I would pass out at one point. After roasting in the sauna and being beaten with soaked birch branches, you go and jump into a giant tub filled with ice
cold water. The process repeats for a couple of hours until you are so exhausted you are ready for a nap. It’s so much fun — really!
St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Comer.
6. For backpackers and extreme budget travelers heading to St.Petersburg, things will be much easier for you if you learn a little Russian or even just the alphabet. If you have no desire to do so, download Google Translate or other translation app onto your smartphone and take advantage of the many places with free WiFi all over St. Petersburg. The city seems to be currently working on setting up a city free WiFi zone, but right now it only works at some metro stops. Russia can be hard to navigate if you don’t speak any Russian, although English is becoming more prominent.
6a. There are many affordable ways to get around St. Petersburg, but a lot of people don’t know about them. For instance, you can pay a taxi $30+ to take you from the airport to wherever you are staying, or you can pay about 25 or 30 Rubles (less than $1) to take a local bus or marshrutka (which is like a shared taxi) from the
airport to the metro and then take the metro into the city center. The metro costs another 28 rubles, so your whole trip is less than $2. I’ve made this trip with a large suitcase and it was fine.
In general, getting around via bus and metro are the way to go for budget travelers. Once on the metro, you can travel as far and wide as you want for the token fee. There are also plenty of local buses and marshrutkas that operate for about the same price as taking the metro. The only thing to keep in mind is that most public transportation stops at midnight, so it’s best to get to where you need to be by then or be prepared to walk.
In summer months, you will also have bridges to contend with — they open at night to let the boats pass through and if you are staying on one of the islands, this can be problematic for getting to where you need to be when the metro is no longer running. Get to where you need to be by 1 a.m. to make sure you don’t get stuck at a bridge. Although, in summer time, watching the bridges open during the white nights is another fantastic and free activity.
6b. There are plenty of budget places to eat in St. Petersburg. Of course, there is McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and Carl’s Junior. But there are also some cheap Russian eats available. I’ve mentioned already the Stolovaya — these are the best places to find good cheap Russian food and they can be found all over the city. Also, there are a few great Russian fast food joints I would also recommend. Teremok is a great place to go and get cheap Russian blini (which are like crepes). Another similar place is Chainaya Lozhka, which means “teaspoon” in Russian. And of course, right off of Nevskiy Prospekt in the center of the city there is Kroshka Kartoshka — a fast food baked potato
In general, I highly recommend referring to the In Your Pocket website guide for getting around on a budget because all the local routes, bus/marshrutka numbers are available there for free. Every weekend during summer, I would look up something new to do on there and find my way there using their instructions. That guide is priceless for getting around.
6c. Which brings me to another point I mentioned already — aside from museums and theater, there are a lot of cheap or free interesting things to see in St. Petersburg. Like I said, you can head outside the city center to see what will seem like a completely different city. The metro itself is fantastic and has a lot of cool metro stops — a few of my favorites are Ploshchad Vosstaniya, Avtovo, Komandantskiy Prospekt and Ploshchad’ Muzhestva. There are lots of interestig murals, intricate details or memorials to various Soviet heroes to be seen at many of the metro stops. Avtovo is incredibly beautiful.
Peoplewatching on the long escalator ride down to the platform is always a fun and free activity. Many of the local parks are also free (some will charge a small fee on weekends in summer, such as Yelagin Island), so those are always great activities. And the apartment museums are also fairly inexpensive and really interesting. You can visit an
apartment museum where Dostoyevsky lived, or Kirov’s apartment museum (for those who know their Soviet history).
The city is quite large and walking around or exploring via metro offers a great free or inexpensive way to see the sites. I would regularly go for long walks and just take pictures of anything and everything. Just be aware that public toilets are few and where they are, they will usually cost about 30 Rubles (about $0.83 USD). Best to find a McDonalds or other fast food restaurant for a free toilet.
Dancing in the summer in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Comer.
7. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, personally, I think it’s pretty hard to offend Russians, but I would have to say that just being basically respectful of people is a good rule of thumb. Russians tend to be a bit
more patriarchal, so being aware of that is always good to keep in mind, as it affects many aspects of the culture. Whenever I go to Russia, men regularly offer to help me carry things and always open doors for women. Also, along this note, seats on the metro are reserved for women with children, the elderly and people with disabilities. If it’s crowded and you have a seat and somebody that fits into one of the above categories gets onto the metro, offering your seat is well appreciated.
8. When looking for a place to stay in St. Petersburg, I personally try to always stay with friends in St. Petersburg or rent an apartment or room in someone’s apartment. I would strongly recommend trying to rent a room or apartment on Airbnb or other website — there are a few of them that come up when searching for accommodations in St. Petersburg. Booking.com is also great for finding apartments to stay in. I recommend an apartment for many reasons, mainly because it’s way more comfortable and convenient than staying somewhere without a kitchen.
It’s also a better cultural experience, getting to stay where other Russians live; however, for registration purposes (which is only necessary for when you are staying longer than seven business days in Russia), it is sometimes easier to stay at a hotel or hostel. Apple Hostel and Soul Kitchen were recommended to me by my Russian friends.
I’ve also stayed one weekend with my husband at Nevsky Hotel Grand on Bolshaya Konyushennaya St. For the price it was great, but I much prefer the atmosphere of renting an apartment and being able to cook breakfast for myself. You can view some apartment rentals by clicking here.
Woman on Yelagin Island. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Comer.
9. For a drink paired with a beautiful view in St. Petersburg, go to a local Produkti (like a small grocery store) and grab a bottle of wine, Champagne, beer or other beverage of choice and head down to the River Neva. Enjoy the scenery, especially in the very early morning hours (between 1 and 3 a.m.) when the bridges are up and the boats are passing through. This is a very Russian thing to do. Just be sure to bring cups, as drinking out of the bottle is technically illegal.
Otherwise, I’ve heard from friends that PMI Bar has a great rooftop view. Rooftop cafes are another great way to see how beautiful the city is and their are plenty of them.
10. To party like a local in St. Petersburg, Dumskaya Street is where to go for the best nightlife (or chill daytime bar experience, foosball tables and all). There are tons of little places there, such as Fidel or Dacha. It’s a fun and crazy crowd at night, and during the day, it’s a great place to chill out, escape a thunder storm and meet cool locals. Radiobaby and Mod Club are also cool. In summertime, Dunes is also fun — it’s like a sandy beach bar in the center of the city.
Sunbathers by Park Sosnovka. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Comer.
11. For a must-experience day or weekend trip from St. Petersburg, there are many parks and palaces to run off to and escape the pace of city life. I think Peterhof, Pushkin and Pavlovsk are all worth visiting. Peterhof can be very touristy, but the park is beautiful and the lower half is right on the Baltic Sea, which makes it very peaceful. It’s easy to lose yourself for hours in any of the palace parks. Pavlosk is the least touristy of the three parks and is really lovely if you just want to be in nature. All three parks are very large and perfect for strolling around and having a picnic. Timewise, if I could only visit one, Peterhof for sure. It’s definitely the most impressive.
12. For solo travelers heading to St. Petersburg, know that street smarts are important in Russia, especially for a foreigner. I had one experience where a man tried to follow me into my courtyard at night. He recognized my foreign accent and got out of his car to follow me. The next morning I noticed my wallet was missing. Keep your valuables in a safe location and don’t carry tons of cash — I’ve known at least two other friends who’s wallets were stolen without them even realizing it.
Also, in case your wallet is stolen, keep your passport separate. If you are staying at a hostel, have them make an official passport copy for you and only carry that. I wouldn’t recommend walking around late at night alone, unless it is summer when it doesn’t really get dark. There is a rule of thumb: keep your head down and don’t speak when you feel unsafe. The biggest thing that will make you a target to shady people is the foreign accent or language. All in all, have good street smarts as if you were walking around in New York City or anywhere else. I wouldn’t recommend going to certain parks alone late at night either because I was warned against it by locals.
Contributed by Lindsay Comer.
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor’s, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn’t really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.