Getting there & around
St Petersburg is the most accessible Russian city, thanks to its proximity to Europe. It is also relatively easy to navigate. Keep in mind that metro stops are quite spread out, so you’ll likely spend a lot of time on your own two feet, unless you learn a few bus routes or spring for a taxi. Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services.
On long-distance trains, your ticket will normally give the numbers of your carriage (vagon) and seat (mesto). For a detailed look at travelling on Russian trains, see Lonely Planet’s Russia & Belarus or Trans-Siberian Railway.
Compartments in a 1st-class carriage, also called soft class (myagkiy) or sleeping car (spalnyy vagon, SV or lux), have upholstered seats and convert to comfortable sleeping compartments for two people. Not all trains have a 1st-class carriage. Compartments in a 2nd-class carriage, usually called ‘compartmentalised’ (kupeynyy or kupe), are four-person couchettes. Trains that are not running overnight may also offer ‘seated’ places (sidyashchiy or sid), which are basically seats in an open carriage.
Reserved-place (platskartnyy), sometimes also called hard class or 3rd-class, has open bunk accommodation. Groups of hard bunks are partitioned, but not closed off, from each other. This class is low on comfort, privacy and security.
The regular long-distance service is a fast train (skory poezd). It stops more often than the typical intercity train in the West and rarely gets up enough speed to merit the ‘fast’ label. Foreigners booking rail tickets through agencies are usually put on a skory train.
Generally, the best skory trains (firmenny) have cleaner cars, more polite attendants and much more convenient arrival/departure hours; they sometimes also have fewer stops, more 1st-class accommodation or functioning restaurants.
A passenger train (passazhirskiy poezd) is an intercity-stopping train, found mostly on routes of 1000km or less. These can take an awfully long time as they clank and lurch from one small town to the next.
When taking trains from St Petersburg, note the difference between long-distance and ‘suburban’ trains. Long-distance trains run to places at least three or four hours out of the city, with limited stops and a range of accommodation classes. Suburban trains, known as prigorodnye poezda or elektrichky, run to within just 100km or 200km of the city, stop almost everywhere, and have a single class of hard bench seats. You simply buy your ticket before the train leaves, and there’s no capacity limit – so you may have to stand part of the way.
Most stations have a separate ticket hall for suburban trains, usually called the Prigorodny Zal and often tucked away at the side or back of the station building. Suburban trains are usually listed on separate timetables, and may depart from a separate group of platforms.
The city’s main bus station is Avtovokzal No 2 (766 5777; nab Obvodnogo kanala 36; Ligovsky Pr), a recently remodelled building a little out of the city centre. (There is no No 1, in case you were wondering.) Domestic and international services leave from here. Note that buses to Moscow are all en route to somewhere else, which means you will be dropped off in the northern Moscow suburb of Khimki. It is far more convenient to take the train. In any case, it is recommended to buy bus tickets in advance, especially for long-distance journeys.
A few private companies operate international bus routes to Helsinki and the Baltics:
Eurolines (438 2839, 441 3757; www.eurolines.ee; Admiral Business Centre, Mitrofanievskoe sh 2; 9am-9pm; Baltiyskaya) Runs five daily buses from Baltic Station to Tallinn (R700-770, seven hours), including one express (R850, 5½ hours). Daily buses go from Baltic Station to Rīga (R850, 11 hours) and from Park Inn – Pulkovskaya to Turku (€45, 11 hours) via Helsinki (€33, eight hours).
Sovavto (740 3985; www.sovavto.ru; Park Inn – Pulkovskaya, pl Pobedy 1; Moskovskaya) One daily train departs from the Park Inn – Pulkovskaya to Helsinki (eight hours) and Turku (11 hours). Buses are timed to arrivals and departures of the Silja Line and Viking Line ferries from Turku to Stockholm.
St Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest air hub, although it lags far behind Moscow in terms of the number of long-haul connections. It’s well-connected throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union, but from Asia, Australasia and the Americas you’ll usually have to change planes in either Moscow or another European hub to fly into St Petersburg.
Any airlines flying to and from St Petersburg not listed below will likely have an office at Pulkovo Airport:
Aeroflot (SU; 438 5583, 718 5555; www.aeroflot.ru; ul Rubinshteyna 1/43; Dostoevskaya)
Air France (AF; 336 2900; www.airfrance.com; Malaya Morskaya ul 23; Sadovaya)
Alitalia (AZ; 334 4451; www.alitalia.com; Nevsky pr 30; Nevsky Pr)
Austrian Airlines (OS; 331 2005; www.aua.com; Nevsky pr 32; Nevsky Pr)
British Airways (BA; 380 0626; www.britishairways.com; Malaya Konyushennaya ul 1/3a, office 23b; Nevsky Pr)
CSA Czech Airlines (OK; 315 5259; www.czechairlines.com; Bolshaya Morskaya ul 32; Sadovaya)
Delta Airlines (DL; 571 5820; www.delta.com; Bolshaya Morskaya ul 36; Sadovaya)
Finnair (AY; 303 9898; www.finnair.com; Malaya Konyushennaya ul 1/3, office 33b; Nevsky Pr)
LOT Polish Airlines (LO; 273 5721; www.lot.com; Karavannaya ul 1; Gostiny Dvor)
Lufthansa (LH; 320 1000; www.lufthansa.com; Nevsky pr 32; Nevsky Pr)
Rossiya Airlines (FV; 333 2222; www.pulkovo.ru; Nevsky pr 61; Mayakovskaya)
SAS Scandinavian Airlines (SK; 326 2600; www.scandinavian.net; Nevsky pr 25; Nevsky Pr)
Transaero (579 6463; www.transaero.ru; Liteyny pr 48; Mayakovskaya)
St Petersburg has two terminals at its Pulkovo Airport, 17km south of the city. Pulkovo-1 (704 3822; www.pulkovoairport.ru/eng) handles domestic flights, as well as flights to some non-Russian cities within the former Soviet Union. The international terminal is Pulkovo-2 (704 3444), a small, well-run airport that was given a decent face-lift for the tercentennial in 2003. There are plans to build a third terminal here because of increased demand.
There are ATMs in both terminal buildings, but make sure you have euros or US dollars to change just in case they are not working.
Bearing in mind the frequently dire quality of roads, lack of adequate signposting and keen-eyed highway police, driving in Russia may not be for everybody. To legally drive your own or a rented car or motorcycle in Russia, you will need to be 18 years or older and have a full driving licence. Technically, you also need an International Driving Permit with a Russian translation of your licence, or a certified Russian translation of your full licence. Rental agencies are not likely to ask for such documentation, but the traffic police are.
Expect to pay about €50 per day to rent an economy-class car in St Petersburg. The rental process is fairly straightforward, but driving is another matter. Unless you are going out of town, it is often easier, and around the same price, to hire a car and driver. The major international rental agencies have offices in the centre (listed here), as well as at Pulkovo-2 airport terminal:
Astoria Service (712 1583, 164 9622; www.astoriaservice.ru; Borovaya ul 11/13, office 65; per hr R270-460; Ligovsky Pr)
Europcar (703 5104; www.europcar.ru; Pulkovo-2 Airport)
Hertz (326 4505, 324 3242; www.hertz.ru; Malaya Morskaya ul 23; Nevsky Pr)
Between April and September, international passenger ferries leave from the sea station (morskoy vokzal; 322 6052; pl Morskoy Slavy 1; Primorskaya). It’s a long way from the metro, so it’s actually easier to take either bus 7 or trolley bus 10 from outside the Hermitage.
At the time of research, however, there were no regular ferry services from St Petersburg to the Baltic or Scandinavian countries. Once a week, Trans Russia Express (703 5410; www.tre.de) operates a combined passenger-cargo vessel between St Petersburg and Lubeck (Germany), offering the experience of ‘the real life of seamen’. Other companies have operated services to Tallinn (Estonia), Helsinki (Finland), Kaliningrad (Russia) and other destinations, so it’s worth checking with a travel agency such as the Ferry Centre (Paromny Tsentr; 327 3377; www.paromy.ru in Russian; ul Vosstaniya 19; Pl Vosstaniya) or Baltic Tours (330 6663; www.baltictours.ru; per Sergeya Tyulenina 4/13; Nevsky Pr) for an updated schedule. These companies also sell tickets for one- and two-week cruises that depart from St Petersburg and sail around Scandinavia and the Baltics.
From June to August, regular river cruises depart from the River Passenger Terminal (262 0239, 262 6321; Obukhovskoy Oborony pr 195; Proletarskaya) and float along the Neva to inland Russia, including cruises to Valaam, Kizhi and Moscow. Prices and schedules vary, so book through a travel agency such as Solnechniy Parus (332 9686; www.solpar.ru in Russian; ul Vosstaniya 55; Pl Vosstaniya) or Cruise Russia (764 6947; www.cruise-ru.com; Ligovsky pr 87; Ligovsky Pr).
For long-distance trains, it’s best to buy tickets in advance. Tickets can be purchased directly at the train stations, but in some cases it may be more convenient to buy tickets at the Central Train Ticket Office (762 3344; nab kanala Griboedova 24; 8am-8pm Mon-Sat, 8am-4pm Sun; Nevsky Pr) or the Central Airline Ticket Office (315 0072; www.cavs.ru; Nevsky pr 7; 8am-8pm Mon-Fri, 8am-6pm Sat & Sun; Nevsky Pr). It is also possible to buy train tickets from local travel agencies, although they charge a small fee for issuing the ticket. Always take your passport when buying a train ticket. For general information about timetables, contact Russian Railways (055; www.rzd.ru).
The St Petersburg metro (www.metro.spb.ru; 6am-midnight) is a very efficient four-lined system. The network of some 58 stations is most usefully employed for travelling long distances, especially connecting the suburbs to the city centre.
Look for signs with a big blue ‘M’ signifying the entrance to the metro. The flat fare for a trip is R14; you will have to buy an additional ticket if you are carrying a significant amount of baggage. If you wish to buy a single journey, ask for ‘odin proyezd’ and you will be given a zheton (token) to put in the machine.
If you are staying more than a day or two, however, it’s worth buying a ‘smart card’, which is good for multiple journeys to be used over the course of a fixed time period. Smart cards are plastic cards that the machine reads when you touch the circular light. The prices of smart cards at the time of research were as follows:
10 trips/7 days R115
20 trips/15 days R220
40 trips/30 days R432
Getting around on the metro can be a bit of an adventure if you do not read Cyrillic. Metro maps in English are available in the tourist publications that are distributed around town, but they are not posted at metro stations. Furthermore, even if you do read Cyrillic, the signs in the stations are difficult to read from the trains.
Listen out for the announcements: just before a departing train’s doors close, a recorded voice announces ‘Ostorozhno! Dveri zakryvayutsya. Sleduyushchaya stantsia (name of next station) ’. This means ‘Caution! The doors are closing. The next station is (name of next station) ’. Just before the train stops at the next station, its name is announced.
A confusing aspect of the St Petersburg metro is that where two lines cross and there is a perekhod (transfer), the two stations will have different names. For example, Nevsky Pr and Gostiny Dvor are joint stations: to all intents and purposes they are one and the same (you don’t need to go outside to change), but each has a different name because it’s on a different line.
Bicycles are becoming more common on the streets of St Petersburg, but cycling is still difficult: pothole-riddled roads and lunatic drivers unaccustomed to cyclists make it a dangerous proposition. That said, the city’s relatively compact size means that it is easy to get around by bike – and often much quicker than public transport. Many adventurers swear by their bikes as the ideal form of transport in St Petersburg (at least from May to October).
Especially when you are unfamiliar with traffic patterns, it is advised to stay off the busiest, traffic-clogged roads. Stick to the back streets and sidewalks. Both sides of the Neva River have wide sidewalks (with few pedestrians) that are perfect for pedalling. Car-free Yelagin Island is another excellent place for cycling, although bikes are not allowed on weekends and holidays.
Adventurous riders can cycle all the way to Tsarskoe Selo by heading due south on Moskovsky pr. It’s a nightmare getting down there, but once you are south of the airport you are surrounded by lovely countryside. Look for the statue of Pushkin and appropriate signs that mark the turn-off to Tsarskoe Selo, which is about 25km south of the city. It’s a long ride, but you can take your bike on the elektrichka (suburban train) to return to St Petersburg.
Note that bikes are prime targets for thieves, so be sure to lock up your bike with a serious bike lock, which is normally provided by the rental shop. Helmets, on the other hand, are not normally provided (nor will you see anyone wearing one).