The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Russia: Greg Tepper of Exeter International.
Greg founded Exeter International in 1992, soon after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, establishing himself early on as a leader in high-end, hassle-free, independent travel to Russia and Eastern Europe. Today he has offices in Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague, and London. He and his team troubleshoot everything for you—they even prebook all museum visits so you can skip the lines—and negotiate upgrades and other perks at the best hotels in the country. Thanks to Greg’s extensive connections on the ground and friends in high places, he can also get you inside Russia’s most exclusive venues that are off-limits to the general public. Think the Grand Kremlin Palace, where Russia’s president entertains visiting heads of state, and the Hermitage’s storerooms, which contain four-fifths of the museum’s possessions, including not-to-be-missed imperial carriages and Romanov treasures. Greg was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Hotel Astoria has long been the city’s “it” hotel. Book one of the new Junior Suites with a view of the enormous gold-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Outside of the peak period from late May through early July, Exeter can arrange to get clients a fourth night free and can sometimes even get a complimentary upgrade to the Junior Suite from a lower-category room.
Restaurant the locals love
Chic locals dine above the city at Mansarda, a rooftop restaurant with stunning views. The restaurant is within walking distance of many top hotels—no need to risk an encounter with Russia’s generally unscrupulous cabdrivers.
Khachapuri! Everyone loves this uniquely Georgian cheesy bread, served hot out of a brick oven. You can’t find much Georgian cuisine in the West, and it’s the freshest, most delicious, and often the most affordable cuisine in Russia.
What to See and Do
The beautiful Catherine Palace is so awash in visitors during peak season that the administration divides the palace into tracks and you don’t get to see the whole thing. Better to skip it entirely and mosey instead through Alexander Palace, Gatchina, or my favorite, the Chinese Pavilion of Oranienbaum (see “Don’t miss,” below).
The Summer Gardens of Peter the Great, a small gem of a park where locals recite Pushkin as they stroll under the lindens. If the modest Dutch-influenced Summer Palace is open, step inside: Peter’s passion for learning is reflected in the collection of eighteenth-century artifacts, which includes paintings, engravings, beautiful Dutch-tiled heating ovens, and a device for measuring the speed and direction of the wind.
The Chinese Pavilion of Oranienbaum was built by Catherine the Great for her relaxation and entertainment. Compared with other imperial palaces, this one is tiny (about ten rooms) but wonderfully refined. Best of all, it is completely original and the only one of St. Petersburg’s imperial summer palaces that was not destroyed in WWII. Be sure to check out the crystal room with its crystal furniture and glass-beaded wallpaper. Open only when the weather is nice (no heavy rain) from mid to late May through September.
Tour the Hermitage, Europe’s largest museum and the most important sight in the city, with a deeply knowledgeable curator who can not only help you navigate the 1,000-plus rooms filled with an extraordinary wealth of artwork, but make it all come alive. You’ll get to see pieces from Catherine the Great’s original collection (she opened the museum in 1765, in what was then the royal residence of the world’s wealthiest family) and even visit the storage rooms, 40 minutes away and stuffed with rarely seen treasures. There are only a handful of curators at the Hermitage who can do this, and you have to know someone who knows someone to arrange it, but the experience is unforgettable.
How to spend a Sunday
Follow the locals to Nevsky Prospect for shopping, dining, and moseying, taking in premier sights along the way. The French-designed boulevard, often likened to the Champs-Elysee, is lined with beautiful buildings—but St. Petersburg is a city of waterways, and Sunday strollers are inevitably drawn to its granite embankments. Nuryev had a favorite walk that began at the Mariinsky Theater and followed the Canal Griboyedova to the Field of Mars, a green space where Paul I once played military games with real soldiers. Circle back along the Neva River to Catherine’s tribute to Peter the Great, the Bronze Horseman statue (be sure to notice the snake Peter’s horse is trampling; that’s Sweden!) and back up Nevsky Prospect to Nuryev’s home on Rossi Street. I can think of no better way to spend a Sunday in St. Petersburg.
October through May, when the cruise ships are gone, theater is in season, and local children are in school. Russia does cold better than hot—imagine shuffling through the Hermitage in 90-degree heat with tens of thousands of other tourists. If you just can’t bear chilly weather (St. Petersburg is about as cold as New York City in the winter), go in early May, late September, or October.
June through August, when cruise ships disgorge 40,000 tourists a day. In July and August, especially, palaces are crowded and hot (no air-conditioning), and the premier stages are dark. Instead of the Mariinsky, you get third-string dancers performing Swan Lake for tourists in a rented theater.
Trying to obtain a visa on your own. Not worth the risk. Hire a visa service.
The rooftop bar at the hip Hotel W overlooking St. Isaac’s Cathedral and historic St. Petersburg. The best time is dusk when city lights are just coming on.
Lomonosov porcelain is elegant and affordable. The handcrafted dishes and figurines have been made in St. Petersburg since 1744, when Lomonosov became the first porcelain maker in Russia and only the third in Europe. There are two blue-and-white designs that go back to the eighteenth century and fit with almost any decor. Most pieces are inexpensive enough to use everyday. Buy them at one of several Lomonosov shops in the city (the main one is on Nevsky Prospect).
Stay away from taxis on the street in Russia: They are all scam artists and sometimes worse. Never arrive in Russia without a transfer to your hotel (there are signs at airport baggage claims warning travelers not to hire the cabdrivers in the arrivals hall), and never hail a taxi on the street. Ask your hotel to provide a car, or call one of the local car services.
The new terminal is light, airy, and easy to navigate. Just have your arrival transfer set up before you board your flight to St. Petersburg!
This is not a tipping city, so tip no more than 10 percent at restaurants and always in cash. If you leave the tip on your credit-card slip, your server is unlikely to get it.
Mosquito repellent. St. Petersburg was built on a swamp, so while most urban centers don’t have a mosquito problem, St. Petersburg does. Repellent is a good idea from dusk till dawn.