Visiting Russia St. Petersburg
This was an incredible experience! Forget all the worries about Russia not being friendly to Americans! I had the pleasure of meeting a variety of friendly people many who spoke English. From Uber drivers, to my AirBnB host, to the Professors at EUSP, to just everyday people at restaurants, shops, and museums – all were polite. This made for a warm feeling on this memorable trip.
Polkovo Airport, SPB
The only negative I can mildly complain about is upon arrival at the Polkovo airport in St. Petersburg
Our luggage didn’t make it with us. we had to stand in line at a desk with heavily made-up young women who never smiled. We were required to fill out paper forms in quadruplicate! If one little mistake was found, you had to redo the whole piece of paper again. That happened twice. Another example was that no blue ink pens were accepted, just black. You had to completely itemize, from memory no less, the contents of your suitcase and attach a value to each item. After about 1 ½ hours of going through this tedious bureaucratic process we were allowed to leave the customs area. We were given a print out with vague instructions to call a number in the lost luggage department. I was so exhausted and exasperated at the same time I got the giggles. I’m sure they thought “What a crazy American!” as they threw me the side-eye from time to time.
Getting Around by Taxi & Uber
Our taxi driver was waiting for us the whole time outside customs as I was able to text our AirBnB host what was going on. (Our AirBnB host had arranged the taxi transfer) We met up with our taxi driver Sergei next to the Starbucks in the Polkovo airport. He spoke very little English but when he smiled his gold teeth showed he was eager to help us out. Sergei’s driving was a bit like Mr. Toad’s wild ride at Disneyland. I don’t know if that’s because he had to wait so long for us to leave customs and he had another job to go to, or this was just how driving is in St. Petersburg. It took me the 2 weeks to realize the latter.
Later, on other occasions to get around the city, our Uber drivers took risks I wouldn’t, but then, I had to consider the layout of the city being from the 17th century. It was never designed to hold millions of vehicles, just horse carriages. Thus, the modern-day result was that Russian drivers became very savvy about congested one-way streets and speed was essential to navigate. In other words, buckle up and hold on!
Nevsky Prospekt=Main Street
We made it to our apartment on Nevsky Prospekt. I rented it through AirBnB and found it accommodated our basic needs very nicely. The location was fantastic on the Nevsky Prospekt, which is the main boulevard through the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. Many tourist places, such as museums, shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. are within an easy walking distance. The bus is also available, but I found they run a bit slow and are very crowded. It never took more than 20 minutes to get around town and see the sights. Even McDonalds was located around the corner and at 1130pm at night was open, busy, and between my very basic Russian and the cashier’s limited English, I managed to order the equivalent of 3 Big Mac meals for the equivalent of a few dollars. Gotta love that exchange rate between Rubles and Dollars!
We came here independently, without the services of a tour operator or travel agent and managed to do so many things on our own. We even got our tourist visas independently. See my article here on that topic: How To Get A Russian Tourist Visa
More on this trip to St. Petersburg will be broken down into separate articles by places visited; Summer Garden, Hermitage Museum, Palace Square, Peter & Paul Fortress, Marble Palace, Mikhailovsky Castle, Starbucks, Peterhof, Mariinsky Theatre, Dostoevsky Museum, Pushkin, Catherine Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and Faberge Museum.
Get a comprehensive Guide to Visiting St. Petersburg Russia HERE
Follow these helpful tips
I travelled to Russia on my own, without the help of a tour operator. And so, I had to apply for a Russian Tourist Visa myself.
Russia REQUIRES an invitation letter to start the visa process. If you are booking through a travel agent or tour operator they can help you get the process going making things smoother for you.
But if you are travelling independently as I did, you need to figure out how to get it on your own.
Here is how I did it.
Russian Website St. Petersburg Guide
I used St. Petersburg Guide for $19.99 USD per person with fast turnaround service in a couple of days.
I then went to the Russian Consulate website for my area in the USA and filled out the Russian visa application form. After following all the instructions and filling out the forms, I sent my application off along with the $193 fee in a cashiers check. Seven days later I picked up my passport in person with the visa page inserted and was ready to go to Russia!
Allow Enough Time
I started this process about 2 months in advance of my travel.
I got a tourist visa which is valid for only up to 30 days. The dates you state on your visa application must be within that time frame. For example, I picked July 15 to August 15 as my dates of travel but actually arrived on July 18th and left on August 3rd. They are strict about not wanting the traveler to enter BEFORE the initial date stated, nor can you leave AFTER the date stated.
Get Your Migration Card Upon Arrival in Russia
Once you enter the borders you will get a migration card. It is a little piece of paper that fits inside your passport. (Don’t lose it!) You use that migration card to register within 7 days of your arrival. They are strict about that too. Usually your hotel can do this service for free. But in my case, I had rented an apartment from Airbnb.com. so I was able to use the services of St. Petersburg guide again.
St. Petersburg Guide arranged to go to the Post Office to obtain the stamp and bring the card to me. This was most helpful as I don’t speak Russian proficiently and didn’t want to stand in a line all day. I agreed to meet Max, the liaison, at the local Starbucks to retrieve my card. It was as simple as that.
Streamlined Process with Experts
If you are going to Russia on your own, I would recommend you use St. Petersburg Guide. Max (a young Millenial) is whom I emailed with and eventually met in person. He was most helpful and congenial. They are a legitimate company of knowledgeable people.
No visit to St. Petersburg, Russia is complete without a self-guided tour of the Hermitage Museum.
I have been to the Louvre in Paris. I would say there is a comparison in terms of the huge size of both art museums. Both have 3 floors. The Louvre, however, is considered the largest museum in the world.
But let’s get to talking about The Hermitage Museum. What did I see, feel, hear? Is it worth the 1 hour wait in line outside to get in? (That’s without a ticket in advance) I would say most definitely it’s worth a wait in a long line to get in on any day. Because once you’re in, you are transported to the elegance and refinery of the Russian Noble Era.
This Museum started with several art pieces as donated by Empress Catherine of Russia in the 17th century. Do you want to see the paintings that captivated Russian Royalty? Both in portrait and in spirit.
The Hermitage Museum, built in 1764, contains everything from pre-historic art and Egyptian antiquities, to Italian Renaissance, modern art and nine centuries of Russian art. It simply is breathtaking in its scope of objects spanning a good chunk of history.
I went through it in about 7 hours with a stop for lunch at their snack café. And I didn’t even finish viewing all the wings. I paid extra to get a private tour of the early Rus people. That intrigued me due to my Russian heritage. I wanted to get a feel for what these people were like. They were certainly not village peasants but rather had a system of organized hierarchy, including a Queen and King. I mention that because in this private room, there was lots of gold jewelry and ornaments. I didn’t expect 9th century people to be so good at crafting objects of art and adornment.
It really becomes a marathon session to take in the Hermitage. Just like the Louvre, you can’t run through it in even half-a-day let alone a whole day. It’s just too exhausting because you are pushing up against throngs of people all vying and trying to view the same important works of art.
I made it a point to move around a lot when it got too crowded so that I could relish things more quietly and on my own time. I like to be contemplative when in the presence of these relics so that I can let my mind wander freely. I can’t do that when people in 10 different languages are shouting in my ear.
The views of the Neva River from the windows also added to the ambience of antiquity. It gave a sense of grandeur and spaciousness. From that same area, was a room where Russian and European Royalty and Governmental Officials would gather in their soirees. I got the vibe their ghosts still haunted the scenery.
As I was leaving the Hermitage, trying to make my way down the grand marble staircase with red carpet, I heard some laughing between a boy and a man. The boy was running ahead of the man, fast down the stairs. The man, as he flew by me, stood out because he was wearing an old-fashioned peasant type Russian shirt in green. He had a beard. He was pale. It turns out his son (I’m assuming his son) was making a bee line to the rest room downstairs. But this man wasn’t dressed in modern clothing. I heard him speaking Russian to the boy as they disappeared into the toilets downstairs. That whoosh as they went by woke me up a bit, enough to finish getting myself to the exit of the museum.
Once outside, don’t forget to take photos of the Palace Square that surrounds the Hermitage. The Alexander Column sits right in the middle of the square – you can’t miss it at 155 feet tall. Statues of the 2-headed Eagle adorn the iron gate that envelops the statue. Step right up close to view the artwork.