Saint Petersburg is the youngest and most European city in Russia. Built on a swamp 300 years ago, it is a beautiful, creative, and complex city. Piter, as known by locals, endures — from political turmoil to harsh weather. Petersburg’s elegant architecture inspires creativity. No wonder some of the world’s greatest authors, including Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky, called this city home. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned about this complex culture in my two months living in SpB. If you’re planning a trip to this Eastern Venice, here are forty things to know.

  1. Learn the Russian alphabet. Although your guidebook names attractions in English spelling, do not get your hopes up. Nearly everything is spelled in Russian. You will find it extremely useful to know the Russian alphabet before arriving.
  2. Learn about Russia’s history. Russia has a traumatic history that helped shaped today’s society. In order to understand the Russian people and their culture, it is important to understand their history. Lonely Planet’s Russia guidebook has a decent summary to get you started.
  3. Do not drink the tap water. Although Saint Petersburg’s water is officially safe to drink, many of the pipes are old and contaminated with a pesky little pesticide. It is best to boil your water or buy bottled water. When in doubt, ask if the water is safe to drink. You do not want to be stuck for days on the toilet feeling like death as a result of drinking the water.
  4. Buy souvenirs from Bookvoed. This is a large bookstore with several locations throughout the city. There is always a gift section, which is the best place to buy inexpensive souvenirs. Avoid the gift shops at museums because the souvenirs are overpriced!
  5. Wait for the green man. Russian driver’s are crazy. Just wait.
  6. Marschrutkas are not that scary. The State Department warns against marschrutkas, believing the drivers are unsafe. Marschrutkas look like buses and use regular bus stops, however they are not publicly-owned transportation. Some are large vans, while others look like mini-buses. Marschrutkas are popular amongst Russians because, although a little pricier than regular buses, they drive routes public transportation does not. I recommend not riding a marschrutka unless you can speak a fair amount of Russian because you have to call out where you want to stop. However, they are not something to fear. Sometimes you get a crazy driver, but that’s more of an annoyance rather than a safety concern.
  7. Speaking English draws attention. If you are at a KFC at 2am, there will be a drunk Russian who approaches you when they hear you speaking English. If you speak English while walking down the street, little kids will look at you like you are an alien. Speaking English draws attention, especially since English-speakers are naturally loud. Be generally aware of your surroundings so you don’t draw unwanted attention.
  8. Saint Petersburg never sleeps. Stay out at least once on Nevsky Prospekt, the main street, until the metro opens again at 6am. Watch as the sun sets at the Hermitage, watch a late-night movie, drink a midnight coffee, eat at KFC in the early morning, and watch as the sunrises over the Neva river.
  9. Russia’s ideas of temperature are contradictory. You must always wear socks and slippers inside a home. Children walk around in snowsuits during the winter, even on warmer days. Russians will drink burning hot tea. Never go outside with wet hair, unless you want several people to warn you of the sickness you’re asking for (I never got sick, but my hair did freeze). The list continues…but Russia’s ideas of temperature are very contradictory. Just laugh and go with it.
  10. Russia is a land of contradictions. Temperature isn’t the only thing that is contradictory, but you will learn to love these contradictions. It is one of the many reasons why Russia is unique.
  11. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Another Russian contradiction. The buildings may look dingy on the outside, but do not let this fool you for what is waiting inside. Russians seem to not bother keeping up with the exteriors of buildings, and I think it is because the weather is so temperamental. Why would they clean something for it to just get dirty again? Some of the most beautiful places I’ve visited are also the ones I was certain I would be mugged getting to.
  12. Russians are kind. They may wear a face of disgust, annoyance, and anger the majority of the time, but they are generous. Kindness is wired inside them. Russians realize they depend on each other for support and survival, just as they had for generations (again, history is important to understand their culture). If you ask for help or need something, Russians will generally help.
  13. Russia is often frustrating. For example, my boot’s zipper broke. It was icy and snowy outside and I need working boots. I went to four cobblers asking if they were able to repair it. The first cobbler was on vacation, the second was too busy, the third (supposedly) didn’t have the tools required to fix it, and the fourth fixed it with a few hammer swings for free. Russia can be incredibly frustrating and infuriating at times. Why can’t everything be efficient and easy?! Go with the flow. Everything will work out.
  14. Buy off the street. Many Russians own small businesses and sell items on the street. It may be a grandmother selling knitted garments in front of the metro with a cardboard box as a display. The small business may also own a small building in the middle of the square. Either way, if you want to support the locals, buy off the street. You can buy nearly anything, including desserts, souvenirs, fresh fruit, corn on the cob, perfume, and sweaters.
  15. Avoid the mafia. The mafia is very small in comparison to a few decades ago. However, it is still present. I was told to avoid the begging grandmothers on the streets or people asking for money in the metro.
  16. You may be mistaken as a photographer. If you own a DSLR, you may be asked to take a photograph for someone. Many Russians do not own expensive cameras. If you own one, you are assumed you know what you’re doing behind the camera. Please try to take an amazing photograph for them!
  17. Pay in exact change, or close to it. Cashiers prefer to give change in bills, not coins. If something costs 280 roubles, hand the cashier 250 roubles in bills and 30 roubles in coins. Let me tell you about my Alaskan friend at the stolovaya (aka, cafeteria). He handed the cashier 300 roubles for a meal that cost 240 roubles. The cashier asked if he had 40 roubles, which he did not. The cashier, in turn, gave him 60 roubles change in small coins. Russians become very frustrated if you do not pay in exact change, or close to it.
  18. Keep an eye out for coupons. Sometimes checks will include a coupon stuffed inside or on the back of the receipt.
  19. Buy the deals. Many restaurants offer lunch deals, discounts for buying a specific coffee and cake together, or cheaper house dishes. Order these!
  20. Russia is inexpensive. Getting to Russia is difficult (I’m looking at you expensive visas), but once you’re here it’s easy to stay on a budget. Compared to prices in many Western nations, Russia is cheap. While my classmates studying abroad in Italy are rarely able to eat out, I eat out at least once a day without making a dent in my wallet (note: not at fancy restraints, but at small businesses).
  21. Don’t take English translations literally. English translations are often full of detrimental grammatical errors and mistranslations. It can be very funny or very frustrating. Just roll with it. Dear reader, if you work at a museum in Russia please hire me to fix the translations.
  22. English won’t get you everywhere. Many Russians speak English, and many Russians do not. Main attractions and restaurants on Nevsky will have English-speaking workers and translations. Public transportation and local activities may not. Don’t let this scare you into missing out on an amazing, off-beat Russian experience! Just be aware and master the art of charades.
  23. Eat what the locals eat. I highly recommend “теремок” for Russian pancakes. Although this is a chain restaurant, the pancakes are delicious and will destroy any diet you may have. Order the apple & caramel блины if you want to taste heaven. Also try the пышки (resembles donut-shaped funnel cakes) restaurant on Nevsky Prospekt. It is near the Hermitage and a restaurant with a cow-mooing speaker outside (welcome to Russia, where nothing is strange).
  24. Always check your coat. If you think you’ll be cold walking around the museum, bring a light sweater and wear that instead. Coat checks are free, thus museum workers have the ability to force you to check your coat.
  25. Take museum tours. Russia’s museums are massive. If you can, take a tour with an English-speaking guide. Guides will show you the main attractions and answer any questions you may have. If there is a particular exhibit you want to spend more time in, you can revisit it later (and ask for directions how to get there).
  26. Documents are no joke. Always carry your documents. Before leaving anywhere check to ensure you have your documents. Keep your documents in a secure spot. Carry your documents with you everywhere. Even if you’re buying milk across the street, always carry your documents. Why am I stressing this so much? Russian police have the right to stop anyone at anytime and ask to see their documents. If you are unable to produce them, even as a tourist, the police will detain you until they can confirm who you are. This process will take up to several days. Again, always carry your documents. I cannot stress this enough.
  27. The customer is always wrong. As this is a cultural difference, it is difficult to explain. Just have fun experiencing it! This is another reason why Russia is an amazing cultural experience.
  28. Russia is safe. Let’s be honest for a moment — you probably have connotations of gunfights on the street between Russian mafia and police, terrorists everywhere, and total disarray. You probably think Russians are mean and hate all Americans. Wipe these thoughts from your head immediately. I have never felt safer in any country, including the States, as I feel in Saint Petersburg. People don’t care about you, even if you’re an American. Everyone minds their own business. As long as you aren’t actively drawing attention to yourself and not making stupid decisions, you’ll be safe. I have seen zero gunfights and every Russian I’ve spoken to has been kind (whereas I’ve met several explicitly rude French, English, etc.). Russians realize the American government and Americans are different.
  29. Navigating the streets is difficult. Sometimes street signs are there, and sometimes they aren’t. Even if a street sign is present, it’s generally no help. The name of the street may have recently changed, making any maps or guidebooks useless.
  30. Explore the metros. Some are a bit lackluster, but many are beautiful with columns, murals, and more. No one else may be photographing the metro, but you’ll regret not having photos of these beautiful stations.
  31. Navigating the metro. Expect to stand on the escalator into or out of the metro for several minutes. Also, metros are not accessible for wheelchairs as there are no elevators — only escalators or stairs. Many metro stops have several exits and taking the wrong one could potentially mean walking another 15 minutes. The app CityMapper tells you which exit to take.
  32. Flickering lights in the metro. As the metro approaches a stop, the lights will often flicker. I realize traveling in a country without a familiar alphabet is scary, so please do not freak out when the lights flicker. It’s normal.
  33. Born & raised in different cities. Russians like to change the name of their cities. Saint Petersburg was also once named Petrograd and Leningrad. On many Russians’ documents, their birthplace is Leningrad and their residence Saint Petersburg.
  34. Don’t touch the hot water heater. Hot water is controlled by the state, so playing around with the hot water heater will only break it. Don’t worry — you will have plenty of hot water. There is no reason for you to mess with the heater anyway.
  35. Bridges don’t come back down. During the summer months, the bridges in Saint Petersburg will rise around 1:30am…and won’t close until around 5am or 6am. Watching the bridges rise is beautiful, but don’t get stuck on the wrong side of the river!
  36. CrossFit. CrossFit is huge in Saint Petersburg, and I believe across Russia in general. Maybe the icy winters discourages running and other outdoor, cardio-related sports? Who knows?
  37. At the gym. Many Russians wear khakis, jeans, or non-athletic leggings and a collared shirt or nice t-shirt to the gym. And it’s normal. Also, most women participate in workout classes instead of lifting weights.
  38. Gray skies. Saint Petersburg rarely sees blue skies. My flight into Pulkovo Airport had zero visibility until the wheels hit the ground! When there are blue, sunny skies, though, expect to see everyone outside.
  39. Sleep on the couch. Russian apartments are small in comparison to Western apartments. It is 100% normal for someone in the family to sleep nightly on a futon in the living room.
  40. Love for literature. It seems like every Russian carries a book with them at all times and can recite at least one poem from heart. Many Russians will spend hours in the bookstore reading. I can count at least one shopping bag from a bookstore daily. This is certainly a reading culture.

Saint Petersburg is considered European, but it is a completely different experience from any other European city. Russian culture is an experience. The forty tips above is a start to understanding this fascinating culture, but if you’re interested in learning more read this book.

Will you visit Saint Petersburg? Russia's culture is complicated and, often times, frustrating. Here's what you should know to make your time there easier! Read only on Getaway Girl

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