The old Russian capital of Saint Petersburg is a magical place with pastel-coloured palaces, endless canals and atmospheric streets. A city trip to this architectural city had long been on my wish list. So it was the perfect gift for my graduation by my mom! Preparing for this destination might need a bit more work than for other city trips. In this blog I therefore share the 10 most important things to keep in mind before you travel to Saint Petersburg!
#1 The number of daylight hours
Saint Petersburg is quite in the north of Europe, so it has a large fluctuation in daylight hours. The winter days are short and the summer days very long. The period in the summer that the days are the longest is called ‘White Nights’. The sun just doesn’t set, the festival season is starting and there are people on the street all day and night. June is therefore the most popular time to visit the city.
#2 The winters are cold and dark, but the snow is beautiful
I visited Saint Petersburg myself in the summer months, but the pictures of the city in the winter are very romantic. Because of the intense cold there is almost always snow in this part of Russia in the winter months. The sight of the beautiful architecture with all the snow is truly magical!
#3 Arrange your visa for Russia well in advance
The doom stories about getting a Russian visa are only partly true. It is not that difficult to get a visa, but it takes some time and you need to arrange it in advance. So make sure you apply for your visa in time. You can do that at the Russian embassy in your country, where you must hand in quite some paperwork. An important part of that paperwork is an invitation to come to Russia. So request it even more in advance at your first hotel or hostel.
Tip: in this blog I tell you exactly how to arrange your visa!
#4 Saint Petersburg is not typically Russian
Don’t expect to see the real Russia as a traveller in Saint Petersburg. The city actually looks very European. The Russian tsar Peter the Great – and his successors after him – once built a new capital on this spot and wanted to make it even grander and better than the famous city of Paris. It was no secret that Peter the Great was a fan of the Netherlands as well, so you will recognise our capital Amsterdam in the layout of the city!
#5 The city is built on a swamp
Before the arrival of Tsar Peter the Great there was virtually nothing at the exact spot of Saint Petersburg. That was not so strange, as there was only a large swamp around the Neva River. To build a city here, the land had to be drained, canals were dug and ramparts were built to fight the water. The result is a city that consists of dozens of islands. That’s why it looks a bit similar to the canals of Amsterdam and it’s called the Venice of the North.
#6 Take plenty of time to visit the Hermitage
The biggest attraction of St. Petersburg is the Hermitage Museum. The largest art collection in Russia is displayed at several museums throughout the city, including the famous Winter Palace. Expect a lot of visitors, but also a lot of art. You will not be able to see everything of the Hermitage, so make priorities. And don’t forget to look at the palaces themselves. The Winter Palace in particular, where the Hermitage’s main building is located, is breathtakingly beautiful. I would also have visited this beautiful place just for the palace, even it it weren’t a museum.
Tip: read this blog for more practical information for your visit to the Hermitage!
#7 You can find the most beautiful palaces just outside the city
Speaking of palaces: besides the Winter Palace in the city center you will find the most beautiful palaces outside the city. The beautiful Peterhof with its famous fountains, the Catherine Palace with the impressive room of amber and the Alexander palace of the last tsar family make perfect day trips.
#8 Practice the cyrillic script
Russian has a different alphabet than the classic Latin alphabet we use. Most Russian signs use both alphabets, but that is unfortunately not always the case. The metro is one place which can be difficult to navigate, as the signs are only in Russian.
#9 Prepare for your trip with the Netflix series The Last Tsars
St. Petersburg played a major role in the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the city where the last Tsar Nicholas II lived with his wife Alexandra and their five children. It was the place where the famous prayer healer Rasputin gained so much power and got his place within the Russian nobility. You will learn more about this unique part of Russian history in the series The Last Tsars, a combination of a drama series and documentary.
#10 You can easily get to and from the city by train
The rail network in Russia is the best way to travel around the European part of the country. All major cities are connected with good train connections. So don’t let your visit to Russia stop at Saint Petersburg! I myself traveled to Saint Petersburg with the night train from Moscow. You can also opt for the fast train, which would only take about 4 hours. And did you know you can also travel from St Petersburg to the Finnish capital Helsinki? The train journey only takes 4.5 hours!