The eternal capital of the tsars captivates the heart of every visitor. The former Leningrad is a true city of art built on the canals of the Neva River. The Hermitage is a must-see for art lovers, one of the most prestigious museums in the world, but the Pushkin and Dostoevsky Museums, not forgetting the Russian Museum, are not to be missed either. For an unforgettable experience, come during the White Nights in June and take in an opera or a ballet under the midnight sun. The city's nerve centre, the incredible Nevsky Prospekt stretches across 2.8 miles from the Winter Palace (the residence of the imperial families until 1917) to the Saint Alexander Nevsky Lavra or Monastery. As the city's main avenue and commercial hub, it's where most tourists like to stroll, and also where you can find a multitude of museums, art galleries, theatres, cinemas, shops, palaces and churches. Its extraordinary architectural, religious and literary heritage makes St. Petersburg one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Organised cruises on the Volga depart from St. Petersburg towards Moscow. The Karelia region spanning from Lake Ladoga to the Arctic Circle, and from the Finnish border to the White Sea, is the perfect place to discover Russia's nature with its lakes and deep forests.
Surface area : 1839500.0 km2
Population : 7800000 inhabitants
Time difference : St. Petersburg is 4 hours ahead of the UK in winter in 3 hours in summer.
On your list of things to take back home should be the obligatory bottles of vodka, tins of caviar (check the storage conditions), matryoshkas (Russian dolls), shapkas (fur hats) and, for collectors, badges and medals bearing the effigy of Lenin, stamped with the red star or the hammer and sickle. As far as luxury products, clothing, alcohol, cigarettes and perfume are concerned, the market is overtaken by imitations, so much that the prices are sometimes absolutely unbeatable. Traditional artisanal crafts (glossy wooden boxes, china figurines, amber necklaces, embroidered scarves, samovars, Caucasian rugs, icons) and fur (fox, mink) are safe buys, but exporting antiques is strictly forbidden. Most shops are open from 9:00am to 8:00pm from Monday to Saturday, though some shut for an hour or so at lunchtime. Some food stores are open 24/7. Gostiny Dvor, the city's most famous department store, is worth a visit.
Breakfast is generally very substantial and consists of cheese and cold cuts. Lunch and dinner start with a 'borsch' or a 'shchi' (stock based vegetable soups) and 'zakouskis' (varied starters): cold meat, cured sausages and salted or smoked fish such as herring, salmon, sturgeon or sprats. To this are added tomato or cucumber salads and marinated vegetables that are flavoured with herbs. Main courses consist of roast or grilled meat, meatballs, stuffed fish or chicken served with rice, potatoes, cabbage, buckwheat and 'pelmeni' (ravioli with crème fraîche). Among the more famous dishes are the 'chprotis' (smoked fish in oil), 'salianka' (sauerkraut), 'schaschlik' (Caucasian meat kebabs), and 'pirojkis' (savoury or sweet stuffed brioches). The highly prestigious black caviar (beluga, osietra or sevruga) is spread on blinis and served with vodka. Russian cuisine is very diverse, as proven by the many different types of soup, or the thousand and one ways to marinate vegetables, mushrooms and berries, as well as the multiple influences from the former Eastern and Western Soviet states.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians have seen their way of life change radically. They lost the advantages of a protective State to discover freedom of expression, the possibility to go abroad, the shows and street events, a high unemployment rate, crime, inflation, shops full of goods, millionaires and beggars, casinos and charity meals. Torn between their attraction to the Western world and their desire to bind again with old Slav values, confronted to an unstable society, many express their disappointment with the brutal appearance of this disorganized liberalism. But, in a country close to chaos, they have also found their spirit of initiative and autonomy again, after having been deprived of it for some time. But don't be deceived by the more relaxed approach to morals of the post-Soviet society. Ladies of the night prowling in hotels, bars and night clubs in search of a businessman or a tourist in need for love, won't fall for you without any mercantile idea on their mind. The race for dollars has become national sports and parallel economy is booming. But this system in which you have to cope and make do with small trafficking, and the rise of individualism plus the search for enrichment have not managed to distort what one calls "the Russian spirit". All at the same time passionate and compliant, tender and wild, capable to endure the worst and overcome any obstacle but mostly of unequalled generosity. If you have been invited at someone's house, it is advisable to dress up and take a gift to your hosts (wine, flowers, chocolate). You would generally take your shoes off on entering their home and put on some slippers. The meal is punctuated by many speeches and vodka toasts - all good opportunities to drink to the British-Russian friendship. Finally, the tradition of the dachas - small country houses, has become popular again. A spruce wooden isba, surrounded by a tiny garden in which four flowers and three potatoes are growing, this is the urban Russians' idea of happiness.
Individual travellers who don't speak Russian and can't read Cyrillic may find it useful to be accompanied by a guide who can act as an interpreter. You just need to ask a local travel agency or your hotel reception. Other than that, it can be handy to write down the address of your hotel or of the place you're going to and essential to show it to taxi drivers. The Russians like to offer and receive gifts, so you may want to take some small British souvenirs with you. Smokers, don't stock up at the duty-free - cigarettes sold in the city centre are at an absolutely unbeatable price. In handicraft shops, you'll often be expected to haggle. Check your change when you take the bus, tourists are easily conned!