St Petersburg: Tips for getting the best out of Russia’s Tsar attraction
written by Julia Hammond
Russia’s most European city can be somewhat daunting for travellers. Though the main sights are for the most part concentrated into a compact part of the city centre, their popularity – and in some cases vast scale – can make them a challenge when it comes to itinerary planning. If you’re keen to visit the beautiful Imperial capital of St Petersburg when global travel kicks off again, here are Mundana’s tips for getting the best out of the city.
Take to the water
In late spring, the rivers and canals open for business, freed of the shackles of winter ice. A boat trip is a good way to get your bearings. Figure out the layout of the city while chugging beside its palaces at a leisurely pace. Better still, try something a little more active, like a standup paddleboarding or kayaking tour, and get a different perspective. If you’re planning to visit Peterhof (and you should) there’s a convenient hydrofoil which operates from late spring to early autumn.
Buy your tickets ahead of your visit
Cut out the wait times by buying tickets for popular visitor attractions ahead of your visit. Suburban Tsarskoye Selo (Catherine Palace), for instance, gets booked up fast. Ensure that you obtain your ticket as soon as you know when you’ll be in St Petersburg. Its Amber Room is a must. You can also purchase entrance tickets for the Hermitage, St Isaac’s Cathedral (including the colonnade which gets you up to its roof) and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. You’ll sometimes need to go to a separate entrance where you’ll be asked to exchange your e-ticket for a regular ticket. Allow time for this and take a printout. You’ll also need photo ID such as a passport to prove who you are.
If you’re keen to secure tickets for the opera or ballet, then consider the historic Mariinsky Theatre. Nearby Mariinsky II is newer, with better acoustics, but for the real deal stick to the original. Buy tickets well ahead, or right at the last minute. The best view is for the front row of the Tsar’s box, which overlooks the stage head on. These seats are often reserved for VIPs and diplomats, but if they don’t want them, they’re returned at the last minute. Snap them up and feel like royalty.
Have a plan for tackling the Hermitage
With three million works of art on its books, to see every one of the Hermitage’s vast collection would take, someone estimated, around 13 years. If you’re only in town for a few days, you’re going to need a plan. Use the museum’s website to identify which rooms contain the paintings, sculptures or other works that you especially would like to see. Download a map, or better still engage the services of a guide who can take you right there. Note that many of the more modern works of art, such as those by Gauguin, Monet or Van Gogh, are located in the General Staff Building across Palace Square from the Winter Palace. Build in time for both.
Don’t overlook the city’s smaller museums
St Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia and as such isn’t short of museums. Space them out so you appreciate the treasures they hold. But don’t miss the Fabergé Museum with its elaborately crafted, bejewelled eggs, created for the Tsar, or Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin met a grisly end. For something a little more contemporary, go and have some fun at the Museum of Arcade Games. This unusual museum, housed in what was once the Imperial stables, holds an impressive collection of working arcade games as well as a cafe. On weekends, head out to the suburbs to visit the Street Art Museum, housed in a paint factory.
Make use of public transport
Getting around the city by taxi can be a frustrating business and overcharging isn’t uncommon. Instead, make the most of the excellent metro system, which like Moscow’s subway, is an attraction in itself. Line M1 (red) is where you’ll find most of the splendidly ornate stations. Buy a Podorozhnik and load it with multiple rides to save time at ticket machines each time you begin a new journey. Simply tap in on the turnstiles and off you go.
On buses there’s a flat fare. Some will have a conductor; on others you pay the driver. The current fare is displayed by the driver’s window. Google Maps shows the arrival time of the next bus and lists the stops. On the most modern buses these are displayed on an electronic screen too. Older, smaller buses are actually marshrutka. These are cheaper and stop more frequently. In the centre of the city, you’ll find the many parks and canalside streets are a delight to explore on foot.
Why not use the leisure time you have now to plan for your next big trip? St Petersburg won’t disappoint, even if you’ll have to wait a bit longer before it opens its doors again.