Dangers & Annoyances
- Foreigners tend to find Russians quite brusque and even unfriendly. Remember, this is a cultural thing, and try not to be offended by it. Russians take a while to warm up, but when they do they're exceptionally friendly.
- There has been an ongoing epidemic of racist attacks in St Petersburg. If you look very obviously non-Russian, it's a good idea to avoid the suburbs and take taxis at night.
- Due to legislation criminalising the 'promotion of homosexuality' to minors, levels of homophobia are higher now than they have been for some time. Gay travellers are advised to remain discreet.
If you’re a student, bring an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) to get discounts – cards issued by non-Russian universities will not always be accepted. The Hermitage is the blissful exception, where anyone with a student card from any country gets in for free. Senior citizens (usually anyone over the age of 60) are often also eligible for discounts, so bring your passport with you as proof of age.
The St Petersburg Card (https://petersburgcard.com) is sold online and by the St Petersburg Tourist Centre. It gives a range of discounts on tours and sights such as the Hermitage, Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo (the savings aren't huge), as well as acting as a stored-value card for public transport.
Electricity in Russia is supplied at 220v/50hz, and European-style plugs are used.
Embassies & Consulates
Despite not being a capital city, St Petersburg has a good level of consular representation. If your country is not represented here, contact your embassy in Moscow in an emergency.
Emergency & Important Numbers
Entry & Exit Formalities
You'll almost certainly need a visa to enter Russia – allow at least a month to arrange it. Once in the country you'll also need to make sure your visa is registered; this is usually taken care of by the hotel or hostel you are staying in.
Customs controls in Russia are relatively relaxed these days. Searches beyond the perfunctory are quite rare. Apart from the usual restrictions, you are limited by the amount of cash you can bring in. If you are carrying more than US$3000 – or valuables worth that much – you must declare it and proceed through the red channel.
Otherwise, on entering Russia, you can pick up your luggage and go through the green channel, meaning ‘nothing to declare’.
If you intend to take home anything vaguely ‘arty’ (manuscripts, instruments, coins, jewellery) it must be assessed by the Cultural Security Department. Take along your passport, a sales receipt and the item in question. The experts will issue a receipt for tax paid and a certificate stating that the item is not an antique. It is illegal to export anything over 100 years old.
Nearly all visitors need a visa, which will require an invitation. Tourist visas are generally single entry and valid for up to 30 days.
Types of Visa
The primary types of visas are tourist visas (valid for a 30-day stay) and business visas (for 30- to 180-day stays). The specific requirements of Russian embassies in each country differ slightly, so check with the website of the embassy you’re planning to apply through. Be aware that unless you live abroad, you won’t usually be able to obtain a Russian visa anywhere but in your own country.
Generally for all visas you’ll need to submit your passport, a photo, an invitation from either a hotel or a travel agency in Russia, a completed application form (downloadable from the embassy website) and in most cases a certificate of health insurance coverage.
Passport holders of a handful of countries, including Israel, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand and many South American nations, enjoy the positive luxury of 30- to 90-day visa-free travel. Those arriving by cruise ship and ferry in St Petersburg can also take advantage of a 72-hour visa-free regime, though it comes on condition that a tour is purchased through an officially recognised travel agency (which need not be the one offered by the cruise company). This is a restrictive way to travel, but perfect if you just want to spend a few days in St Petersburg.
The most annoying part of the visa process is the need to provide an invitation (also called visa support) from a hotel or travel agency. If your hotel doesn't offer this service – most do and you'll sometimes have to pay for it – then you'll need to get in touch with a travel agency. You'll normally need to fill in a form online and give your planned travel dates, but you can leave generous room with these to allow yourself some flexibility. Invitations are normally processed within a week.
The following agencies can issue the invitations needed to apply for a Russian visa:
Express to Russia (www.expresstorussia.com)
Travel Russia (www.travelrussia.su)
Way to Russia (www.waytorussia.net)
Apply as soon as you have all the documents you need (but not more than two months ahead). Processing time ranges from 24 hours to two weeks, depending on how much you are willing to pay.
It’s possible to apply at your local Russian consulate by dropping off all the necessary documents with the appropriate payment or by mailing it all (along with a self-addressed, postage-paid envelope for the return). When you receive the visa, check it carefully – especially the expiry, entry and exit dates and any restrictions on entry or exit points.
A third option is to use a visa agency. It's more expensive than doing it all yourself but it’s a great way to delegate the hassles to someone else. Some agencies charge very reasonable fees to submit, track and collect your visa. The following are some recommended ones:
Comet Consular Services (www.cometconsular.com)
Real Russia (http://realrussia.co.uk)
On arrival you will be issued with a filled-out immigration card. This will be stamped along with your visa; one half of the card will be given to you, while the immigration officer will retain the other half. When you are checking in at a hotel, you’ll have to surrender your passport and immigration card so the hotel can register you with the authorities. Usually they are given back the next morning, if not the same day. Some places (usually hostels) will charge for this service (around R250).
If you’re not staying at a hotel, you will need to have your visa registered if you are staying for more than a week. The easiest way to do this is to take it to a travel agency where staff will usually offer registration for between R500 and R1000. If you are staying in Russia for fewer than seven working days, there is no need to register your visa.
Registration is very rarely checked these days, but can theoretically be demanded at any time, including at immigration on your way out of the country. While it's a pain, registering your visa remains wise.
- Meeting People Handshakes are the standard form of greeting. Do not shake hands over thresholds, though, as according to Russian folklore this will lead to an argument down the line! Remove your shoes and coat when arriving in someone's home.
- Presents If you're visiting friends in their home it's courteous to bring a small present. Flowers are always popular, but do be sure to bring an odd number, as even numbers of flowers are given only at funerals.
- Drinking You'll be expected to drink a vodka shot in one go if you're a man, but women will not be judged too harshly if they sip. Once a bottle is finished, put it on the floor, not back on the table, as that is considered to bring bad luck.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
Despite a Russian law outlawing the 'promotion' of homosexuality to minors, St Petersburg remains a generally safe place for gay travellers. Hotels are normally problem-free about two men or two women sharing rooms, and while discretion is the safest policy on the streets, there is a thriving gay scene that's worth exploring.
While St Petersburg is liberal by Russian standards, it is still far behind the rest of Europe. It should be no problem at all to book a double room for same-sex couples, although outside top-end hotels you can expect some curiosity from staff. Same-sex public displays of affection are never a good idea, however: always err on the side of caution.
Sadly, homophobia has been steadily growing, stoked by first a local, then a national law prohibiting 'gay propaganda'. While having few legal ramifications for most people, this has unleashed some latent homophobia in a country where so-called 'non-traditional orientations' were previously little discussed and thus largely ignored.
There is a busy and growing gay scene, but it remains fairly discreet. Gay pride marches are routinely attacked by far right groups and the police often harass protesters. Coming Out (www.comingoutspb.com) is the site of a St Petersburg–based support organisation.
A few other useful links:
english.gay.ru The English version of this site includes club listings and tour guides, plus information on gay history and culture in Russia.
www.lesbi.ru An active site for lesbian issues; Russian only.
www.xs.gay.ru The local gay and lesbian portal. Russian only.
We strongly recommend taking out travel insurance. Check the small print to see if the policy covers potentially dangerous sporting activities, such as diving or trekking. For medical treatment, some policies pay doctors or hospitals directly but most require you to pay on the spot and claim later (keep all receipts and documentation). Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home. Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Internet access is excellent and practically universal. Nearly all hotels have free wireless internet. Many restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs also have wi-fi. You may have to ask for a password (parol) to get online, and also input your mobile phone number. Sometimes this will need to be a Russian number (ie one starting with 7); if you don't have one, ask a local if you can use their number.
It’s not unusual to see police officers randomly stopping people on the street to check their documents. This checking tends to be directed at those with darker skin colour, but the police have the right to stop anyone. In the past travellers have complained about police pocketing their passports and demanding bribes, but reports of this nature have decreased of late as the Russian police slowly become more professional and accountable. The best way to avoid such unpleasantness is to carry a photocopy of your passport, visa and registration, and present that when a police officer demands to see your dokumenty. A photocopy is sufficient for such enquiries, despite what the officer may argue. Threatening to phone your consulate usually clears up any such misunderstandings.
Newspapers & Magazines There is no English language newspaper but the free bi-monthly In Your Pocket (www.inyourpocket.com) magazine is worth picking up for events listings and other background information.
TV As well as the main state TV channels, St Petersburg has several local channels. Satellite TV is available at most top-end hotels.
ATMs are everywhere and debit and credit cards are accepted in most places. Still, it's always a good idea to carry some cash.
ATMs are widespread, and credit cards accepted in most restaurants, cafes and shops.
US dollars and euros are easy to change around St Petersburg, but other currencies will undoubtedly cause more hassle than they are worth. Whatever currency you bring should be in good condition, as banks and exchange bureaus (обмен валют) do not accept old, tatty bills with rips or tears. Be prepared to show your passport when exchanging money.
Credit & Debit Cards
Credit cards, especially Visa and MasterCard, and various debit cards are widely accepted in hotels, restaurants and shops. You can also use your credit card to get a cash advance at most major banks in St Petersburg. You may be asked for photo ID when you use a credit card in a shop or restaurant, but this is increasingly rare as their use becomes more and more common.
The Russian currency is the rouble (рубль), abbreviated as ‘р' in Russian or R in English. There are 100 kopeks in a rouble and these come in coin denominations of one (rarely seen), five, 10 and 50. Also issued in coins, roubles come in amounts of one, two, five and 10, with banknotes in values of 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 roubles.
- Restaurants Leaving 10% on the table is the norm, when service has been good. Not necessary at very cheap places.
- Bars Not expected unless table service is provided. Then 10%.
- Taxis Not expected, but round up or add R50 for a long trip.
- Hotels R50 per bag.
Banks 9am–6pm Monday to Friday, some open 9am–5pm Saturday
Bars & clubs 6pm–2am Monday to Thursday, 6pm–6am Friday to Saturday
Museums Hours vary widely, as do their weekly days off. Nearly all shut their ticket offices an hour before closing time. Many close for a sanitarny den (cleaning day), during the last week of every month.
Supermarkets & food stores 24 hours
Although service has improved dramatically in recent years, warnings about delays and disappearances of incoming and outgoing mail apply to St Petersburg. Airmail letters and postcards take up to two or three weeks to Europe, and up to three or four weeks to the USA or Australasia.
To send parcels home, head to the elegant main post office. Smaller post offices may refuse to send parcels internationally; most importantly, your package is more likely to reach its destination if you send it from the main post office. You will need to provide a return address in St Petersburg – your hotel name will be fine.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Russian Orthodox Christmas Day 7 January
Defenders of the Motherland Day 23 February
International Women’s Day 8 March
Easter Monday April/May (varies)
International Labour Day/Spring Festival 1 May
Victory Day 9 May
Russian Independence Day 12 June
Unity Day 4 November
Russia introduced a comprehensive smoking ban in 2014. It is no longer legal to smoke inside except in your own home.
Taxes & Refunds
There is an 18% VAT rate in Russia and, while it's always included in goods and services, it is sometimes conveniently left off hotel rack rates, so do check before booking, as this could be a very nasty end to your stay.
VAT Refund Scheme
At the time of research a pilot project was in the process of being set up to allow visitors to recover part of the VAT paid on purchases (other than food) of R10,000 or more. The project will involve a limited number of outlets, mainly fashion and luxury brand retailers in St Petersburg such as some Bosco stores, DLT and shops in the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe.
Russia’s international code is 7. The international access code from landline phones in Russia is 8 followed by 10 after the second tone, then the country code and number. From mobile phones, however, just dial +[country code] to place an international call.
Local SIM cards (giving internet data as well as calls) can be bought for as little as R200 and used in unlocked phones.
Mobile phone numbers start interchangeably with either the country code (7) or the internal mobile code (8), plus three digits that change according to the service provider, followed by a seven-digit number. Nearly all Russians will give you their mobile number with an initial 8, but if you're dialling from a non-Russian number, replace this 8 with a 7.
To call a mobile phone from a landline, the line must be enabled to make paid calls (all local numbers are free from a landline anywhere in Russia). To find out if this is the case, dial 8, and then if you hear a second tone you can dial the mobile number in full. If you hear nothing, hang up – you can’t call anywhere but local landlines from here.
Main mobile providers include Beeline, Megafon, MTS and Sky Link. You can buy a local SIM card at any mobile phone shop, which you can slot into your home handset during your stay. SIM cards cost as little as R200, and usually include free internet data, meaning you only pay to make calls. You'll need to bring your passport to buy one.
Topping up your credit can be done either via prepaid credit cards bought from kiosks or mobile phone shops or, more commonly, via paypoint machines found in shopping centres, underground passes, and at metro and train stations. Choose your network, input your telephone number and the amount of credit you’d like, insert the cash and it’s done, minus a 3% to 10% fee for the transaction. Confirmation of the top-up comes via a text message (in Russian) to your phone. You can also use the websites of mobile phone companies to top up your phone with a credit card.
Around nearly all metro stations and tourist attractions there’s at least one blue Portakabin-type toilet staffed by an attendant who will charge you around R35 for the honour of using it. There are also pay toilets in all main-line train stations and free ones in museums. As a general rule, it’s far better to stop for a drink in a cafe or duck into a fancy hotel and use their cleaner facilities.
Tourist Information Bureau Maps, tours, information and advice for travellers.
Travel with Children
With its focus on art, history and architecture, St Petersburg may not be an obvious place to bring children, but there are actually plenty of activities that children will love, especially during the summer months when the whole city is something of an outdoor playground.
Museums and other Attractions
Top museums for children include the Museum of Zoology, with thousands of stuffed animals (including several mammoths) on display; the Railway Museum, where you can see a range of scale locomotives and model railway bridges; the Central Naval Museum with its superb collection of model boats; the ghoulish Kunstkamera, which is not suitable for smaller kids; and the Artillery Museum, which is great for any children who love tanks. Three fascinating old Soviet naval craft on Vasilyevsky Island can be great fun to explore: take a tour of the Krasin, an Arctic icebreaker, or either the People’s Will or the C-189, two Soviet subs now open to the public. Also sure to entrance kids and adults alike are the incredibly detailed scale models of early 18th century St Petersburg at Petrovskaya Akvatoria and the even more epic model village of Russia's greatest sights at Grand Maket.
The Great Outdoors
One of the best parks to take kids in the city to is on New Holland where there's a great kids playground, a wooden model of a frigate to climb around, a giant chess set and free pétanque (a form of boules). Amusement parks, boats and bikes for hire, and lots of open space make the Kirovsky Islands, on the Petrograd Side, another great outdoors option just a short journey from the centre of the city. Kids will love the fountains at Peterhof, as well as the hydrofoil ride to get out there. Alexandrovsky Park, on the Petrograd Side, is a great place for youngsters too – with the zoo, planetarium and plenty of other diversions among the trees. Another fun outdoor activity is taking a boat trip on the beautiful canals of the historic heart. For a fun day at the seashore (and eating snacks at beachside vendors) go to Beach Laskovy in Repino. Take a cruise (with Reeperbahn among other outfits) to visit various nearby islands in the gulf.
There is no shortage of family-friendly restaurants with playrooms, children’s menus and high chairs for toddlers. Some of our favourites include Yat, Teplo, Botanika, Moskva, Khochu Kharcho, Sadko, Zoom Café, Koryushka, Stroganoff Steak House and Pryanosti & Radost.
For child-friendly snacks on the hoof, try ubiquitous bliny outlet Teremok (Теремок), found all over the city, for cheap and delicious sweet or savoury pancakes.
Puppet & Circus Shows
Russia has a proud tradition of both puppetry and circus shows that will appeal to adults and children, and to non-Russian and Russian-speakers alike.
The excellent Bolshoy Puppet Theatre has been producing wonderfully innovative shows since its inception in the dark days of Stalinism, becoming a much-loved local institution. It currently boasts 22 shows for children – including an excellent version of The Little Prince.
The Demmeni Marionette Theatre is also an excellent venue, with a large range of shows, including Gulliver’s Travels and Puppets and Clowns (a lively hour-long circus-style show performed by puppets).
Travellers with Disabilities
Inaccessible transport, lack of ramps and lifts, and no centralised policy for people with physical limitations make Russia a challenging destination for travellers with restricted mobility.
Toilets are frequently accessed from stairs in restaurants and museums; distances are great; public transport can be extremely crowded; and many footpaths are in a poor condition and are hazardous even for the fully mobile.
This situation is changing (albeit slowly), as buildings undergo renovations and become more accessible. Most upmarket hotels (especially Western chains) offer accessible rooms and have lifts, and the Hermitage is also now fully accessible.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Go Overseas (www.gooverseas.com) list several volunteering options for St Petersburg. A useful online article about volunteering in Russia is also available at http://students.sras.org/volunteer-opportunities-in-russia.
Weights & Measures
Weights & Measures The metric system is used.
Foreign women are likely to receive some attention, mostly in the form of genuine, friendly interest. An interested stranger may approach you and ask: ‘Mozhno poznakomitsa?’ ('May we become acquainted?'). Answer with a gentle, but firm, ‘Nyet’ ('No') and it usually goes no further, although drunken men may persist. The best way to lose an unwelcome suitor is to enter an upmarket hotel or restaurant, where ample security will come to your aid. Women should avoid taking non-official taxis alone at night.
Russian women dress up and wear lots of make-up on nights out. If you are wearing casual gear, you might feel uncomfortable in a restaurant, club or theatre.