The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Russia: Greg Tepper of Exeter International.
Soon after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Greg established himself as a leader in high-end, hassle-free travel to Russia and Eastern Europe. Today he has offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Prague, and Dubrovnik. He and his team troubleshoot everything for you—they even pre-book all museum visits so you can skip the lines—and negotiate upgrades and other perks at the best hotels in the country. Thanks to his 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.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Rocco Forte Hotel Astoria has been a part of St. Petersburg’s history for more than 100 years. Book one of the Deluxe Junior Suites, all of which have views of the enormous, gold-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral. At certain times of the year, I 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
Dolma. This charming, family-owned restaurant focuses on the food of the Caucasus; although much of the menu is Georgian, the owners are Armenian. Everything they serve is homemade, and the khatchapuri (cheesy bread) is among the best to be had anywhere. The lobio (warm kidney beans with herbs) and tsatsivi (cold chicken breast in a walnut sauce)—and, of course, the dolma (stuffed vine leaves)—are all recommended. You will get a warm welcome, even more so if you order vodka with your meal, just like a local. Good Georgian red wines also available! Dolma is also perfectly located, just a short walk from the Rocco Forte Hotel Astoria and the Four Seasons Lion Palace.
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, but it’s the freshest, most delicious, and often the most affordable cuisine in Russia.
Travelers always ask about caviar. As wild sturgeon are now protected in Russia, this black gold is no longer the affordable luxury it once was there (the wild sturgeon are still fished, and some are being farmed, but in far smaller quantities than in the past). If you do want to splurge and have a memorable experience, our favorite place to do so is the Xander bar at the Four Seasons Lion Palace. Come in winter to sit beside an open fire in this gorgeous, wood-paneled bar, a glass of frozen vodka in one hand and a caviar spoon in the other.
What to See and Do
If you are in St. Petersburg in August, do not go to the ballet. The Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) and the Mikhailovsky (the second imperial theater company) are on international tour then, and often into the second week of September. Although seeing any Russian ballet may be tempting, the quality of the performances at this time of year is poor. The Hermitage Theater is also to be avoided year-round: You will never see a Russian here, as the museum sublets their theater to a local ballet company that is for tourists only.
The Summer Gardens of Peter the Great, a small gem of a park where locals recite Pushkin as they stroll under the linden trees. 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 World War II. Be sure to check out the crystal room, with its crystal furniture and glass-beaded wallpaper. The Chinese Pavilion is open only when the weather is nice (no heavy rain) from mid- to late May through September.
Take a completely private, after-hours tour of the Hermitage, Europe’s largest museum and the most important sight in the city. See the extraordinary wealth of artwork, and have it completely to yourself. You’ll get to go through the entire museum, including the Winter Palace, without a single other soul. I can even arrange for the famed Peacock Clock to come to life. Alternatively, if your passion is the famed collection of Impressionists paintings of the Hermitage, I can arrange an after-hours tour of the General Staff Building that now houses these works on the other side of Palace Square. These special tours usually must be booked at least a month in advance, and are available every day of the week except Wednesday and Friday (when the museum is open until 9 p.m.).
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 that Peter’s horse is trampling; that’s Sweden!) and back up Nevsky Prospect to Nuryev’s home on Rossi Street. If you want to see how locals enjoy their free time, go to the small island of New Holland, close to the Mariinsky Theater, which has been developed into a multi-use arts and culture space with good restaurants and seasonal activities such as ice skating.
September 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 in August the premier ballet, opera, and symphony stages are dark.
Trying to obtain a visa on your own. Not worth the risk. Hire a visa service.
Just steps from Catherine Palace is a red-brick, imperial-era water tower that has been converted into a restaurant complex. At the very top of the tower is a vodka bar with over 300 specialty vodka varieties! Above the vodka bar is a small roof terrace with fabulous views of Catherine Palace and its golden cupolas from above.
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, and never hail a taxi on the street. Ask your hotel to provide a car, or use Uber Black.
If you’re traveling between May and October, you’d be wise to pre-arrange all museum entrances. The top museums, such as the Hermitage, Catherine Palace, and Peterhof, all have extremely long public lines in all but the deepest winter months. Some, such as the Yusupov Palace, are open by appointment only.
The airport terminal is light, airy, and easy to navigate. Just have the transfer to your hotel set up before you board your flight to St. Petersburg! During peak season, if you wish to avoid lines on both arrival and departure, VIP airport services are recommended.
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.
If traveling in the summer: 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.