St. Petersburg, Russia Travel Tips
St. Petersburg, Russia is one of the world's most beautiful and historic cities. It is the home of several of the finest art collections in the world, legendary ballet and opera companies, sumptuous palaces, a rich literary tradition, and more.
Like any foreign city, however, it is helpful to be aware of cultural difference, health and safety risks, and other issues before getting off the plane.
I lived in St. Petersburg for four months in autumn of 2002 and saw a number of unpleasant situations that might have been avoided with a little more preparation.
Here are some tips I picked up from my experience in St. Petersburg to help you prepare for a safe and pleasant trip:
#1 - Don't Drink the Water
The water in St. Petersburg is infested with an unpleasant intestinal parasite called Giardia lamblia that causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, bloating, and frequent gas, among other digestive issues.
The locals are immune to it, but if you're a tourist, never drink tap water unless it has been boiled for at least ten minutes. It's a good idea to use boiled or bottled water when brushing your teeth, too, though showering doesn't seem to be a problem.
#2 - Watch Out For Killer Icicles
No, seriously. Every year several people are killed by falling icicles, some as big as small children, during the spring thaw.
#3 - Expect To Pay More
Most Russian attractions have two prices: one for tourists and one for locals.
Some of the smaller and less famous attractions (ironically, the ones who need the money most) will wave off the extra money and let you in for the local price, but don't count on it.
The larger and more famous attractions, on the other hand, can get downright vicious about enforcing the price difference. Unless you can pass for a Russian, don't even try to sneak by.
#4 - Dress Up
Russian women put on makeup and high heels to run out to the market for milk, so if you want to blend in (and not scream "foreigner!") to the local pickpockets, the local police, and others you don't necessarily want to attract the attention of, pack clothes with some style, especially if you're a woman. Also remember, though, that you'll probably do a lot of walking, so be especially careful when choosing your shoes.
Men have it a little easier, but a neat and put together look is still preferable to a sloppy one.
#5 - Look Grim
Like many Europeans and big city residents in general, St. Petersburg residents smile significantly less in public than most Americans. Unless there's something funny to smile about, it's not generally necessary to smile for politeness's sake, and smiling at random strangers on the street is a sure way to get funny looks. If you're a woman and you smile at a strange man, it can also be interpreted as a come-on.
On the other hand, Russians will think nothing of invading your personal space and do not generally mean anything sexual by it, because their own personal space radius is far smaller than that of the average American. In some cases, especially on public transportation during rush hour, a certain relaxation of personal space boundaries is not only culturally sensitive but necessary. I once spent an awkward 15 minutes in an extremely crowded bus with one man's leg between mine and another man's front pressed against my back.
That said, groping is just as inappropriate in St. Petersburg as it is in America, so if an invasion of personal space goes from an accidental side effect of sardine-can conditions on a bus or metro car to a deliberate attempt to cop a feel, don't be shy about making your objections known.
#6 - Bring Your Own Condoms
If you intend to be sexually active in Russia (and possibly even if you don't), bring your own condoms. Russian condoms are uncomfortable (or so I've been told) and not as reliable as one would like.
#7 - Never Get in a Drinking Contest With a Russian
Even if you win (unlikely), getting drunk makes you vulnerable to all sorts of dreadful fates, from forgetting the bridge schedule and getting stuck on the wrong side of a canal to getting shaken down by an unscrupulous police officer for bribes.
And those are relatively mild - teams of Russian men and women are known to work together in some areas to rob unsuspecting foreigners who've had one too many drinks. In a few cases, the victims have been beaten or killed.
#8 - Inspect Hands
If worst comes to worst and you do get stopped by the police, ask to see their hands before you allow them to search you. Police are occasionally known to plant drugs on foreign travelers in an attempt to extort a higher bribe. Russian drug laws are very strict, so being accused of owning or selling drugs is a very serious problem.
Also try to avoid having loose bills or other money in your pockets, since the Petersburg police can be as light-fingered as the pickpockets and thieves they're supposed to catch.
You are most likely to be stopped by police if you are a young or middle aged man walking alone or in a small group at night. The chances of getting stopped also rise proportionately with your level of inebriation.
Sadly, your chance of being stopped also rises if you are dark haired or swarthy. Racism is a serious problem in Russia, and terrorist attacks by predominantly dark ethnic groups such as the Chechnyans have not helped the situation. I, a woman of obvious Northern European descent, wasn't bothered once in the four months I lived in St. Petersburg. A male Indian-American acquaintance of mine, on the other hand, was once stopped eight times in two days.
African-Americans are less likely to be suspected of terrorist sympathies and stopped by the police than people of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Central Asian descent, but can expect to be stared at, sometimes to the extent of slowing traffic, since black skin is still a comparative novelty in Russia.