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The second largest city in Russia. Saint Petersburg is a federal subject of Russia and home to around 5 million people.
Created by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 in order to have a sea port for trading, Saint Petersburg was built by conscripted peasants and Swedish prisoners of War. It was the seat of the Russian Government until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In 1924 it was renamed Leningrad and besieged by German forces in World War 2.
Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Saint Petrsburg suffered from economic decline. It managed to pick itself up and is now a major centre of trade, aerospace engineering and the gas and oil industries. Tourists are attracted to its stunning architecture, amazing culture and up-market shopping opportunities.
For information about gay rights and the situation in Russia, please check out our Gay Moscow City Guide page.
By Russian standards, Saint Petersburg is a fairly liberal city, but it is very far behind Western Europe. You shouldn’t have problems in major hotel chains but be prudent in regards to displaying public displays of affection. Be very careful when using hookup apps as there have been cases of homophobes using the app to target gay people.
St Petersburg’s gay scene is mostly underground, with those in the know frequenting the best parties. There are some gay bars and clubs, but there isn’t really a particular gay scene.
Sestroretsk is a nudist beach located around 45 km from the city – popular with gay visitors but be discreet and exercise caution if cruising.
Pulkovo Airport (LED) is located 23 km from the city centre and is Russia’s third largest airport. It is well-connected to destinations in the former Soviet Union and is a hub for the airline Rossiya. It offers connections to Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and North Africa.
City buses 39, 39Ex and minibus K39 operate from the airport to Moskovskaya Metro Station from 5.30am – 1.30am. The journey to the metro station will take 35 minutes and cost you RUB40. A metro from the metro station to the city centre will take 20 minutes but closes at 12.20am so you will need to take a night bus if arriving late.
Taxis can be requested from the service booth on arrival however it is convenient to order your lift in advance. Do not take a cab with one of the many touts in the arrivals area as they will rip you off. A journey to the centre should cost between RUB1000-1500. Car hire is available at the airport and the drive will take 30 minutes without traffic.
Lappeenranta Airport (LPP), located across the border in Finland, is in commutable distance of Saint Petersburg. It is unlikely that you’ll arrive here as it mostly serves holiday destinations in Europe and some cities. Some cheap deals can be had by travelling this way however visa matters can complicate entry into Russia from Finland.
St Petersburg has 5 main train stations. Baltiysky Station, Finlyandsky Station, Ladozhsky Station, Moskovsky Station and Vitebsky Station. They are well connected to destinations across Russia and offer several sleeper services to locations in Europe and the former USSR.
Saint Petersburg is a popular destination on Baltic Cruises. On these cruises you do not need a visa for entry but you must stay with the tour at all points. St Peter Line offer a scheduled ferry service to Stockholm and Helsinki. At the ferry port you can take a taxi or hire a car to get into the city.
Due to the city’s immense size, it is only really practical to walk within specific neighbourhoods. Certain precautions should be taken, especially when walking at night or during football matches, but for the most part you will be fine if staying within the city centre. Ice in winter can be a problem and snow falling from shopfronts is a nuisance.
Saint Petersburg’s Metro system is the second largest in Russia and is a sight within itself due to its ornate stops, many of which have grand chandeliers illuminating them. Services are fast and regular with 30 second gaps between trains in Rush Hour. Services tend to run from 5.45am to midnight but this can vary.
All journeys cost RUB45 but it is possible to buy 10-ticket passes for RUB355 which must be used within a week of buying. You can buy pre-pay cards (similar to Oyster Cards) or insert tokens into the turnstile. Station names will be in the latin alphabet but announcements will be in Russian.
By bus, trolleybus or tram
Buses, trolleybuses and trams may feel like an “authentic” experience as they are frequently cramped and the stern conductors are not likely to speak English. A single journey will cost 40RUB and offer a more comprehensive mode of transport than the metro.
Taxis are expensive and the city has a problem with unregistered taxis. Agree a flat fare to avoid paying over the odds. At best they may try to rip you off, at the very worst you may be drugged and mugged. Be prudent and act the instant you feel suspicious! Uber and other taxi apps are available. Drivers are unlikely to speak English.
For a list of recommended hotels in Saint Petersburg, please check out our recommended hotels in Saint Petersburg page.
The Hermitage Museum and Palace – this art museum is immense and houses over 3 million works of art (from Michelangelo to Rubens). Queues are long but booking online and paying extra will speed up getting in. It may also be worth forking out on a tour guide who can impart extra wisdom and take you straight to what you want to see.
Russian Museum – an excellent counterpart to The Hermitage in that this museum solely exhibits Russian art instead of Western art. Here you will find fantastic art works by artists who are unknown outside of Mother Russia.
Peter and Paul Fortress – while the island itself is quite nice to walk around, the church on this fortified island is the main attraction. Here the majority of the Romanov Czars of Russia are buried here.
Kirov Museum – the former home of Leningrad’s mayor, Sergey Kirov, from 1927-1934. Here you can get a fascinating insight into what life was like in the early Soviet Union.
Mariinsky Theatre – a visit to Russia would not be complete with taking in some world-class ballet in one of the world’s most beautiful performance spaces.
Passazh – a stunning, high-end store where the wives of Oligarch’s jostle against each other to spend, spend, spend!
Tikhvin Cemetery – a pilgrimage location for aficionado’s of the arts. Here you will find the final resting place of the composer Tschaikovsky and the author Dostoevsky amongst others.
Mikhailovskiy Theater – from the outside, the Mariinsky is a more impressive performance space but the inside of the Mikhailovskiy is just as impressive. Here you can catch the best in Russian (and international) opera and ballet.
Due to the city’s latitude, Saint Petersburg receives almost 24 hours of daylight in the summer and the reverse in winter. Summers are cooled by the Baltic and are pleasant. Winters are bitter and can be very unpleasant. Most tourists arrive in May or June.
Throughout the year there are a variety of cultural events and festivals of interest in Saint Petersburg. May 9th’s Victory Day is full of military pomp and circumstance commemorating the Nazi defeat in World War 2. The Scarlet Sails summer solstice festival is very popular. New Year’s Eve is unmissable (but cold).
Most visitors will require a visa to enter Russia. You can find a useful list of visa-exempted countries here. Getting a visa is quite a complex process. It is best to plan your visit including hotel stays well in advance.
After booking your hotel (through any online system), you will need to contact the hotel to obtain an official invitation for your period of stay. You will need to repeat this for every hotel you book, so you have official invitations to cover your entire period of stay. Once you’ve received your invitations, then apply via a visa service company or do it online here.
Whilst in Russia, you must carry our passport at all times, not a copy. There is a good chance that any tourist might be stopped by a police officer. If you are unable to produce your passport when requested, then you will incur a fine. It is equally important to keep a copy of your documents in your hotel in case you lose your originals
It is also a very good idea to keep the contact number for the Embassy of your country stored in your phone.
The currency of Russia is the rouble (RUB). Some items may be advertised in dollars or euros, but the final bill will be in the local currency. You will not struggle to find ATMs or legitimate money changers in Saint Petersburg.
Cards are accepted in a lot of places but it may be worth informing your bank of your travel dates to avoid complications.
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