St. Petersburg is a gem of world culture and Russia’s most European city” ~ Valentina Matviyenko.
Ever wondered what the secret is to having the most enjoyable trip possible? Welcome to my “Be Invisible” series – your ultimate guide for how to avoid looking like a tourist on your next adventure and guaranteed to boost your entire travel experience.
Bursting with helpful tips and tricks, I’ve asked locals from particular cities around the world to share their insider knowledge on the best ways travellers can become “invisible” when visiting their city and enjoy it like a local. If you’re ready to challenge travel stereotypes, overcome language barriers and embrace what I like to call invisible tourism, you’ve come to the right place!
|This do’s and dont’s in Russia guide was written by Lesia from Dutch Wannabe. The best way to see St. Petersburg is by being an invisible tourist, so I’m very excited to share her top Russia travel tips and advice for how to best blend in amongst locals. These tips also provide a great insight to Russian values and culture.
If you’re planning a trip to St. Petersburg, these tips for visiting Russia from a local’s perspective will help you have a more enjoyable experience and know what to expect before you go. Read on for more!
This post contains affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
If there is one city in Russia you should visit at least once in your lifetime, it would have to be St. Petersburg. Hailed ‘Northern Venice’, St. Petersburg has long earned its reputation as the cultural jewel of Russia. The city inspired by the Amsterdam canals is still relatively new: just over 316 years old. But for such a short time it has amassed a stunning amount of cultural heritage and has even been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
Sure, it’s not the easiest place to get to thanks to special visa requirements, and, well, let’s face it, the travel distance. Even so, it gets more and more tourists eager to explore the museums, palace grounds and city streets. Most of them stick out like a sore thumb.
But I’ll let you in on a secret – acting a bit more like a local won’t be such a hurdle after you read these Russia travel tips. Since I’m a St. Petersburg native, you can trust me on this. And if this post inspires you to venture to St. Petersburg, you might like my 3 day St. Petersburg itinerary.
There are quite a few cultural do’s and don’ts in Russia that can be applied to visiting St. Petersburg. This guide will help you handle public transport like a pro, learn how to eat Russian food the correct way, discover the right lifestyle and how to get a basic grasp of the Russian language.
1. Do be mindful of the foot traffic on Nevsky Prospekt
There is no easier way to tell a tourist apart from the general crowd than to walk through Nevsky Prospekt. St. Petersburg’s central avenue is long and wide, and gets a ton of footfall from tourists and locals alike. That means, however, that when people suddenly stop in the middle of the road, they cause hold-ups and frustration to everyone else.
Nevsky is not the kind of place where you can stand in the middle of the road to snap a picture of the facade. If you’d like to stop, veer to the side of the building or the road-side, allowing others to pass next to you. This small but thoughtful act will be appreciated by the locals and will set you apart from the general tourist crowd.
2. Do use the metro to get around
St. Petersburg’s metro system is absolutely fantastic. The underground trains run every 2 to 3 minutes, the stations are beautiful and the network can get you anywhere in the city. The stations in the city centre are open till 12:30 AM, and they’re very safe. While in St. Petersburg, make use of the metro if you want to travel like a local and blend in.
3. Do know your way around the metro escalators
Most of the metro stations are nestled deep in the ground, meaning the escalator ride alone might take about two minutes. When you’re descending, stick to the right to let all those in a hurry through. When going up, people usually take up the whole escalator because no one wants to go up all the way.
4. Don’t smile on public transport
Smiling on public transport or greeting strangers with a smile is a dead giveaway. This habit will most likely be knocked right out of you as soon as you enter the metro. We Russians are known for our golden hearts but grumpy exteriors.
Quite honestly, smiling at other people is considered weird behaviour, implying that you either find something funny in their appearance or are being odd. This kind of behaviour is considered invasive, which means you will quickly catch on once you notice the way other Russians keep to themselves.
5. Do just forget about bus schedules
The bus will come when it comes, and the announcements are in Russian only. That’s why traveling by metro is especially convenient. If you want to travel by buses and trams anyway, better turn on your GPS and watch your route on Google Maps to make sure you get where you want to go.
By the same method you can also use a ‘marshrutka’ which is a commercial minibus, going by the same routes as the buses but a bit faster and for a higher price. The downside is that it doesn’t stop unless you ask the driver to stop in a certain location. Too scared? You can always resort to sweating nervously until someone local calls the minibus to a jarring halt.
6. Don’t get stranded on Vasilievsky Island
If you want to pass for a local, you’ve got to remember that the bridges over the Neva river part to let the big ships sail through for several hours during the night. So if you’re out for a night on the town and have to make your way back to Vasilievsky Island, you might be in for a bit of a wait. The schedule can be found here.
7. Do try and get used to a 3-course lunch
Lunch is a big deal in Russia. If you want to eat like a local, try eating a three-course meal like we do. Usually Russian lunch consists of a salad, a hot soup and the so-called ‘seconds’ which is a meat dish with a side. Afterwards, we still drink tea and have dessert.
P.S.: It might seem a bit excessive, but it’s actually a great way to live. I haven’t even realised no one else was eating so much during lunch until I moved to the Netherlands where they literally eat one sandwich during lunchtime.
8. Do eat traditional food where the locals are
Eat traditional Russian food like a local. For everything to do with pancakes, head over to Teremok. The fast food chain serves pancakes, dumplings (‘pelmeni’), basic soups and salads, and it’s McDonald’s biggest competitor.
For a variety of tasty pies try Stolle (‘Штолле’). This is the perfect place to try savoury pies with cabbage, potato, fish, meat, and others.
If you’d like to dine in a typical self-service canteen, head to any Stolovaya (‘Столовая’). You can usually choose your meal step-by-step, starting with salads, soups and proceeding to hot meals and desserts. With a side of rye bread, of course.
9. Do enjoy tea time together with dessert
If you want to drink tea like a local, you need to know this. Russians don’t generally drink tea with their milk. So if you are ordering tea anywhere but perhaps the best 5-star hotels, you will have to ask for your milk additionally.
Or just do it the Russian way and add some sugar, and of course, dessert. Dessert can be anything from a savoury bun to a pierog or a piece of cake.
10. Do stay out till late
There is no reason to turn in early when you are in a city like St. Petersburg. The shops are generally open from 10 AM to 10 PM, and bars, cafes and restaurants are open till late, some into the early hours of the morning. You will see that there are always people on Nevsky, as well as 24h shops. And, of course, staying out late is the perfect way to watch the bridges part!
11. Do enjoy the St. Petersburg hipster scene
St. Petersburg is a very vibrant modern city, generally modelled after Europe. There is, however, the concept of the anti-cafe which you won’t find anywhere else. Anti-what, you might wonder? Well, in this cafe you only pay for your time. In return, you get unlimited coffee and tea, biscuits and usually a whole array of board games. Sounds like fun? Here are some other unusual things you can do in St. Petersburg.
12. Do remember to layer up in winter
If I had a penny for every time I was asked ‘Why are you cold? Aren’t you Russian?’ I might actually have saved up enough for a car now. Okay, maybe not a penny, but a $100 per question would certainly do it. I’ll let you in on a little secret—we don’t get cold because we make sure to dress warmly, with layers upon layers of sweaters, winter coats, funny earmuffs, and more.
My best winter advice to you is not to underestimate the weather and treat your visit like you’re going to a ski resort, but maybe with more stylish jackets. Most importantly, don’t forget woollen socks to keep your feet warm. If you’re coming from a warm country, don’t worry, Russian grandmas sell them next to metro stations, especially during the cold winters.
Once you’re bundled up, walk like a penguin to avoid any ice skating adventures and watch for icicles on buildings. Basically, go where the locals go and avoid whatever they avoid.
13. Don’t be afraid to dress up
We love dressing up for the occasion, which can be anything, from an outing to a nice restaurant to going to the theater. Sometimes just by walking down Nevsky you will get the impression Russian girls are on parade. By the way, if you are going to the theater, make sure to dress the part.
Don’t come in casual clothing or sneakers, instead treat it like the special event it is. You can always make use of the cloak rooms, which most hospitable restaurants have as well.
14. Don’t wave your money around
One thing you will learn in Russia is that Russians are generally very savvy when it comes to being aware of their surroundings and avoiding trouble. If you’re out to spend money, be discreet and don’t put wallets where it’s easy to lift them. Your back pocket is a big no-no.
Just remember that you can of course file a report with the authorities if stuff will get stolen, but it would be considered a waste of time and you won’t get your stuff back. In general, if you use a little common sense, Russia is not dangerous at all. As we say, better safe than sorry.
15. Don’t mix your babushkas and matreshkas
That mistake is often perpetrated in popular movies and series and it can really drive a Russian crazy! Actually, the famous Russian nesting dolls are called ‘Matryoshka’ while ‘babushka’ is the Russian word for grandma.
16. Do learn to read Cyrillic
It will be very helpful if you can get a basic grasp of the Russian language. If you take the time, reading Cyrillic will make your trip to Russia so much more easier. Since many people still don’t speak English, reading the basics will help you with ordering food, keeping track of metro stations, and feeling more comfortable in the country overall. The words read phonetically, and you will find some quite similar to English as well.
17. Do learn a few Russian phrases
It won’t hurt to memorise a couple of words to impress locals with your courteous greetings. These basic phrases will help you in the most simple situations.
- Zdrávstvuite – Hello
- Dobry den – Good day
- Spasibo (accent on the i) – Thank you
- Pozhálusta – Please
- Do svidaniya – Goodbye
- Nyet – No / Da – Yes
- Skolko stoit? – How much does it cost
- Izvinite / Prostite – Excuse me
- Pomogite – Help
18. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Russians are very generous and will not leave you in a lurch. Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re lost, and don’t worry about your lack of language, they will do their best to help even if you have a language barrier between you.
There you have it – my top tips to making the most of your time in Russia and not looking like a naive tourist as you hit the streets of St. Petersburg! Oh, and one other thing – if you’re really wishing to camouflage, don’t forget to loudly complain about the horrible weather and you’ll fit right in.
Have you been to Russia? Would you consider visiting in the future?
|For more tips and advice about visiting Russia, head to Lesia’s blog Dutch Wannabe or follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter!|
Ready to be invisible in St. Petersburg?
Now you’ve discovered the best secrets for how to act like a local in Russia, perhaps you’re ready to make the trip! Why not compare hotels in St. Petersburg? If you’d like some more travel ideas, here are all my articles about Europe to get you started, or how to “blend in” at more destinations around the globe.
Until next time,
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