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Insider’s guide to the Venice of the north

By POLLY COCKER [email protected]

Polly Cocker, 17, has lived in the Algarve for 13 years, near Almancil. A top student, achieving outstanding results in English Literature, Biology and Maths, Polly plans to pursue her journalism career in the Algarve. She did two weeks’ work experience with the Algarve Resident in October.

Russia’s “window to the West”, St. Petersburg, is the country’s second largest and most European city. Built on the delta of the River Neva, a series of canals split the city into 101 islands giving it the nickname “The Venice of the North”.

After living there for a year and soaking up as much culture as I could on the numerous city tours we did with family visitors, this is a more personal insider guide on the things you must see and know about this beautiful city. 

St. Petersburg is a northern city and so the seasons are extremely different. In winter, which normally lasts from September to late April, the city is in permanent dusk and covered in thick snow. Temperatures are normally around -10°C but the winds can make it feel much colder.

Although when I lived there I was always moaning about the time spent piling on layers before I could step outside the apartment, now in the Algarve I miss the snow and the magic it seemed to cover the city in. Locals tend to stay indoors for most of the time in winter, although on the weekends you can find families at the parks ice skating over the frozen lakes and canals.

Russians celebrate Christmas on January 6 so for the first two weeks in January the city essentially shuts down as families celebrate at home or in the church.

For this reason it’s best to avoid visiting the city at this time. However, if you want to see a traditional Russian festival, Maslinitsa, which translated means “butter festival”, takes place for a week before lent and families take part in events like sledging, feasts of blinis (Russian pancakes), fortune telling and a bonfire on the last day of celebrations where a scarecrow is burnt.

Although the festival is dwindling in popularity in the city, some events are still held in the streets so make sure you have a look.

During summer months, the city seems to take on a new life. The snow is replaced by White Nights, which occur from late May through to mid-July, where the sun only sets for an hour or so every day. The permanent light can be quite disorientating but it’s incredible

The Hermitage museum is world-renowned and great for art and culture
The Hermitage museum is world-renowned and great for art and culture

to witness. Sleep seems to become a second priority as people are out at all hours of the day having parties and roller-skating in their hundreds on the streets. It is prime season for tourists, so the cultural attractions are heaving and American accents can be heard all over the city!

There are hundreds of cultural and historical attractions to visit in St. Petersburg, from museums to Winter Palaces. If you want to take in the sites but don’t have much time then a canal tour is perfect (believe me, I went on three!) and not too expensive.

The Hermitage museum is world-renowned and great for art and culture junkies – it will take more than a few hours to walk around though. Watching a ballet at the world famous Mariinksy Theatre is amazing and definitely worth doing! Tickets are undoubtedly expensive but if you have a student card you can get discounts. The price for locals and residents is pennies in comparison to tourist prices for most things so it often pays off to be nice to your local guide!

There are a few tourist markets where you can pick up souvenirs; in my opinion the best one is the simply named Souvenir Market opposite the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, modelled after the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. The vendors will try and rip you off so definitely use your bargaining skills – it’s half the fun of it anyway!

As you can probably guess from above, St. Petersburg is not a cheap city. However, there are a lot of ways to save money when you are there. Using the Metro is a great, reliable and cheap way to get around.

The cost of one zheton (token) is 14 rubles (around 32 cents) and that is a flat fare for any route. It helps to be aggressive when using public transport! A joke between locals is that people who use the Metro are like sardines because of the way they get packed into the carriages, so expect to elbow your way out at your stop.

The St. Petersburg Metro is one of the deepest in the world so the escalator trip takes at least five minutes and can be a bit scary when people race down past you!

Another way of saving money in the city is to take advantage of the free attractions. You can get into the St. Peter and Paul Fortress and Alexander Park for free and viewing the bridges and monuments of course costs nothing. From June, the famous fountains at Peterhoff are turned on, which you can view for free, and in winter an ice palace and sculptures are made in Palace Square, opposite the Hermitage.

St. Petersburg is a main tourist destination and so most people in the hotels, restaurants and attractions will speak English. I speak Russian and found that people are suddenly much friendlier if you speak their language – it’s not easy to pick up, so learn some phrases before you go.

Russian people are incredibly hospitable once they know you but they tend to be more hostile to strangers, so don’t be surprised if locals don’t smile at you on the streets or don’t help you if you ask for directions.

This attitude is mainly due to the old Communist regime so the younger generation of Russians is more westernised and friendly.  

After living in St. Petersburg for a year, there are plenty of stories to tell but my main memory of the city is how beautiful it is, and that is something even the travel books can’t do it justice for.

Despite being dubbed the most European city in Russia, there is a huge amount of history and traditions still alive among the locals which make it distinctively Russian.

Visiting St. Petersburg is not without its difficulties (beware of the customs at the airport!) but certainly worth it.