On 24th February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This unjustified attack violates the UN Charter, and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Until such time that Russia ends this aggression, I will not visit Russia and would encourage my readers to do the same.
From my travels in Russia, I know that the current aggression and conflict will not have universal support among its people. However, tourism facilitates the transfer of money, and in this case, it will fund the aggression against Ukraine. I visited Russia a number of years ago and this post is an account of my time visiting St. Petersburg plus the travel advice relevant for that period. Please review travel guidelines to Russia provided by your government.
WHY VISIT RUSSIA?
It was a series of subliminal coincidences which prompted me to visit Russia. A local production of Chekov’s The Bear had me hooked and over the subsequent days the passion and musicality of the performers’ accents in my head were joined by an unusual amount of Russia-themed songs played on radio stations, most notably Boney M’s disco classic Rasputin. I took it all as a sign and began making travel arrangements.
GETTING TO ST. PETERSBURG
As I had already planned a holiday to Estonia, St. Petersburg was the obvious destination of choice in Russia. Time-rich and cash poor, I could afford to take the six-hour €35 return LuxExpress bus journey from Tallinn, although the inward journey back to Estonia took nine hours when the Russians closed their border for no apparent reason. Lesson: Bring plenty of patience, sandwiches and accept the unexpected.
WEATHER IN ST. PETERSBURG
Given that Russia has eleven time zones, its climate will be equally varied. With the exception of the white nights of the summer months, St. Petersburg’s weather can be anything from cold to frozen-over. Do your research when it comes to weather and appropriate clothing.
DO I NEED A VISA TO VISIT RUSSIA?
Yes, more than likely. It appears the more connected your country is to the US the more expensive your Russian visa will cost, hence why mine cost twice as much as applicants from other EU countries. St. Petersburg was the first place I’ve visited where I didn’t meet a German tourist. I also noticed that the bulk of visitors were from countries with a communist past or present. Lesson: Geopolitics matters.
The visa process is laborious, firstly requiring an invitation letter from your host or accommodation provider. I found the Way to Russia website excellent in explaining the visa process and in providing an invite letter although the instructions of the Russian Embassy of the country you are based in will ultimately dictate the process.
IS ST. PETERSBURG SAFE?
Security checks entering the country were extensive. Crossing the border from Estonia took an hour and a half with everyone ordered to leave the bus with their entire belongings for visa, customs and security check whilst the bus was thoroughly examined by army-clad officials and a sniffer dog.
Places with large gatherings such as the Mariinsky and the railway stations have airport-like scanners for both bags and people at entrances. Security personnel are widely visible in these places as well. I felt as safe as I would in any large European city.
GETTING AROUND ST. PETERSBURG
St. Petersburg is one of Europe’s largest cities and will not be easily walked. There’s a clean, efficient, architecturally stunning, safe metro system with tickets costing 35 rubles (approx. €0.50) at the time of visit.
One could write a comedy sketch based on my first experience of purchasing a metro ticket. But at once I figured out the token system, it was the best way to travel around St. Petersburg. For non-metro travel, knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet is essential.
It pays to follow currency fluctuations when it comes to the Ruble. The economic sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Crimea and other regions in Eastern Ukraine meant the ruble fell to its weakest in years. Despite the weak ruble, imported goods were still relatively expensive.
I discovered that Vladimir Putin is well-received in his own constituency. Post-communist Russia experienced economic and social chaos, and Putin is credited for overseeing stability since coming to power in 2000. However, others lamented the suppression of political opposition and independent media as part of Putin’s strategy.
Putin is perceived by many I spoke to as the strong, shrewd leader required to protect Russia’s vast resources and territory. Others pointed out that with a suppressed opposition and a controlled media, people simply believed the pro-Putin propaganda that they were fed.
ST. PETERSBURG HISTORY
St. Petersburg has an extensive history. The city’s imperial history is dealt with in my Romanov St. Petersburg post.
St. Petersburg’s 20th Century soviet era is examined in my Communist Tour St. Petersburg blog post.
A general travel guide can be found in my Russia Travel Tips post.