I live in France, but I am half Russian, so at least twice each year I go to St Petersburg to visit family and spend time on my own savoring the city I've known since childhood. Paris, arguably, may be called the capital of Europe, but St Petersburg is the capital of my personal world.
Several airlines fly two or three times a week from most European gateway cities. Pulkovo II airport bulges with travelers whenever I arrive.
Knowing that taxi drivers may charge anything up to $100 for a 20-minute drive to the nearest Metro Station I always join the crowd waiting for bus 13 outside the Arrivals exit. I know the bus will be packed, but no matter, I will concentrate on planning my stay as the conductor elbows her way through the crowd to collect the ridiculously cheap fare – the equivalent in rubles to about .25 cents.
While waiting I enjoy listening to the soft, homely accents around me. Few locals speak English even in banks and airports, and signs in the streets and subway stations are mostly in Russian.
First-timers, unless you speak Russian or you enjoy the challenge of maneuvering in a strange language, I suggest you forget the trial-by-error method and stick with a prearranged hotel or tour package. Transfers to the hotel would be included, and the confusion and stress of finding your way around deciphering Russian would be avoided. Besides that, you'll also need help obtaining a visa, which must be done in advance.
One three-star hotel I like is the Okhtinskaya-Victoria. It is pleasantly situated on the bank of the Neva river opposite Smolny Cathedral. Its rooms have a soothing pink-and-blue decor, and its friendly English-speaking staff will happily share advice on places to see and visit. The hotel is located 5 km (3 miles) from the city center and 25 km (16 miles) from the airport, but a shuttle service connects the hotel to St Petersburg's main avenue – the Nevsky Prospect.
This short, broad street can be covered on foot from one end at the Moscow Railway Station right down to the Hermitage museum complex.
In summer, daylight lasts around the clock, thickening into twilight for only a couple of hours. Many travelers find the midnight sun disturbing, but my body seems to need less sleep with the long hours of daylight, which is good because I stay up longer and see more.
After a breakfast of blini (small light pancakes served with melted butter, sour cream, and other garnishes such as caviar) I put on comfortable walking shoes, head for the Nevsky and only then decide which direction to take.
Facing the Admiralty spire, to my right there are many shops and cafes; to the left, one of the world's oldest department stores – Gostiny Dvor (The Merchants' Yard), and the majestic Kazan Cathedral.
I usually decide to give shopping a miss and begin with a sightseeing stroll. Most stores are open till 8 or 9pm, and you can't lug around souvenirs all day.
The Kazan Cathedral sports a colossal semicircle of columns, a collection of captured Napoleon banners, and a museum of religion *#8211; its Inquisition torture chamber is enough to give you the creeps for weeks afterwards.
Tired tourists compete for the benches in front of the square. To your right, a short walk reveals the Savior-on-Spilt-Blood that Petersburgers jealously call the most beautiful church in the country.
Finally, the Nevsky opens into the Palace Square complete with the Alexander Column, once the tallest in the world, and the palatial Hermitage State Museum, which was first commissioned in the 18th century by Empress Catherine the Great. Over three million works of art are housed here in four connected buildings: Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage. The Hermitage Theater is a venue for lectures and concerts.
Here you can descend to the river edge of the Palace Embankment and take a panoramic boat tour. Planning the city in 1703, Peter the Great had Venice in mind. He wanted the numerous rivers and canals to play the role of extra roads. That's why all the major sights can be accessed by water. A trip lasts an hour and costs about $8.
Getting hungry is no big deal, with all the cafes and kiosks around, everything from Western-type fast food places, cafés or even a shoarma stall (fast-food Turkish dish of fried mutton in pita bread) – $5-10 should suffice for lunch. I'd rather munch on a freshly baked roll in one of the gardens.
Now for the Hermitage. Many people don't shell out for a guided tour. Instead, they pay the admission fee (approx US$8), then, once in the building, they keep close to various tour groups to listen and learn. This way an excursion will take two hours. In reality, if you devoted one minute to each exhibit, you'd have to spend ten years inside the museum. Admission fees to museum grounds vary and change often. Expect anything from $10 to $20, and more for posh art exhibitions. Most museums are open between 11am and 6pm.
Few can stand straight after a complete tour around the Hermitage, so I would board a trolley bus back to the Nevsky then call it a day. If you are still determined to do some shopping, you can certainly do it on the Nevsky. Gostiny Dvor may be among the oldest malls in Europe, but I prefer the opposite Passage Arcade.
Souvenir shops carry inexpensive jewelry with Russian ethnic designs, which I buy for myself, linens embroidered with folk patterns, to say nothing of the ubiquitous wooden dolls. Folk pottery pieces like clay carafes and teapots make nice gifts for my European friends. All these items cost under $10.
Foods include caviar, Russian chocolate (dark and rich), Georgian and Crimean wines.
Book shops carry rarities, such as early editions of 19th century French, German, and English classics, although prices vary, and in shops frequented by tourists you might have to pay more than the real value.
Some of the main theaters are situated in the Nevsky area, with both matinee and evening events scheduled year round. Aleksandrinsky Opera and Ballet is next to Gostiny Dvor department store. The Hermitage Theatre is in Palace Square adjacent the museum. The Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theatre is at the Arts Square (Ploschad Isskustv).
If you plan to visit a ballet or opera, ask the hotel receptionist or your travel agent to arrange it. Shows are packed, and finding a spare ticket takes some effort. Theatergoers should dress-up: in Russia, theater is a black-tie venue. Tickets for foreigners will probably be full price – the equivalent of $35 to $40.
The same goes for casinos. If the midnight sun doesn't let you sleep, one casino in the center of the Nevsky is open all night. It is called Premiere, and it is considered one of the safest of its kind. You'll hardly notice any of the city's Godfathers who might be the businesslike gentleman sitting next to you.
While much has been written about crime and the Russian "mafia," statistics show that St Petersburg is still safer than New York. In most big cities I feel lost in the crowd but not in St Petersburg. In every passerby I sense a possible friend always ready to help. Certainly, I would not deny myself a leisurely 2am stroll with other city lovers during the bright White Night season in June and July; I would simply take the same safety measures against pickpockets and thieves that I would in any large city.
In St Petersburg I can be on my own, but I'm never alone.
Getting There By Air: Major airlines operate international flights to and from St Petersburg's Pulkova II International Airport. Approximate flight time from London is 3 hours 45 minutes; New York 12 hours 25 minutes; Los Angeles 17 hours; Toronto 12 hours; Sydney 28 hours.
By Rail: It is possible to travel to St Petersburg from most of the European capitals via Warsaw, Berlin, Helsinki or Moscow. There are daily services to Moscow (8 hours), Berlin (36 hours) and Warsaw (26 hours). The Finnish VR operates services to and from Helsinki (7 hours). Coach: There are two main bus terminals in St Petersburg. Avtovokal N1 (Bus Terminal 1) is located on Dnepropetrovskaya ulitsa and operates the intercity and international bus service. Finnord operates a daily coach service to and from Helsinki from their office at Italyanskayu ulitsa 37.
By Boat: Baltic Line operates a twice weekly 30-hour journey to Stockholm.
Internet Resource: World Travel Guide
Money (2002): US$1.00 = 31 rubles; C$1.00 = 21 rubles; EUR 1.00 = 30 rubles. For convenience, prices quoted in this article are approximate equivalents in US dollars. NOTE: Trading in dollars is illegal in Russia, so all payments are made in rubles, although in many stores you may find the prices indicated in the equivalent US dollar. Foreign currency can be exchanged for rubles at commercial banks, exchange offices, and hotels.
Credit Cards: Most hotels and larger stores in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities now accept major credit cards. Keep receipts and check against credit card statement for any fraudulent charges.
Tipping: Tipping is not required, but becoming more common where foreign visitors frequent. A 10% tip at a restaurant is normal.