Playing Tour Guide
If you are spending a prolonged period in Russia, you may be lucky enough to have friends or family from your native country coming to visit. My mum and sister came to visit me last week, and as with them, it is probably unlikely that a group of visitors will know any Russian or will have been to Russia before. Bearing this in mind, I’ve compiled some thoughts if you’re stuck for ideas about how to advise them and what to show them in St. Petersburg:
Before they arrive
The fact that you have to get a visa to travel to Russia was something which my mum particularly stressed about, which was obvious from the fact that she got hers four months in advance compared to my trip to the visa centre a week before my flight. It is tricky but just encourage them to check and re-check their paperwork so they don’t have to make multiple trips.
Also, make sure they pack for all weathers. Considering St. Petersburg often takes us from summer to mid-winter and then to summer again in the space of a single day, a waterproof for the torrents is just as handy as a pair of shorts.
Ask them to read up in a guidebook or online about what kind of things they’d like to, so you don’t have to think up an itinerary all by yourself. Having said that, I left a guidebook with my family for 6 months and they still managed to arrive with no clue what they wanted to see, apart from the odd comment along the lines of: “…I’ve heard the Hermitage is worth a visit.”
Try and brush up on your knowledge of the city and its buildings. I didn’t and found it suitably embarrassing when I couldn’t answer any of the “what’s that building for?” questions.
What to see
Obviously, the Hermitage is worth a visit. Booking in advance is highly recommended, especially in peak season, where even with an ‘internet voucher’ you can expect to queue for about an hour to get in. In order to avoid grumpy parents and siblings, gently encourage them to bring a book or think up some philosophical questions which spur on enthusiastic, long-lasting debate. The interiors are mightily impressive and make the waiting time worth it – and the museum is so big that everyone will find something they want to see.
The Church on Spilled Blood is another popular, touristy choice, and the history behind it is interesting. Plus, audio guides are available in many languages besides Russian. If you leave the Church and the sun is shining, go for a walk in the gardens onto the Palace Embankment and up to St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
The Museum of Political History is also a good choice for any history-lovers among your cohort, or for those just wanting to understand a little bit more about Russia’s tumultuous past. There are audio guides in English, French, German + and an interactive permanent exhibition which takes you through the last two centuries.
I cannot recommend the ballet enough. Not only does it tick the “stereotypical Russian activity” box, but there is also no language barrier to be seen and so can be enjoyed by all kinds of visitors.
What to eat
For a gradual introduction to the wonders and delights of Russian cuisine, a first-night trip to Pelmenya on Fontanka Embankment is a nice idea. It is very cheap, tourist-friendly and offers all kinds of delicious pelmeni and vareniki (plus other varieties of dumpling) flavours. Café Rasputin is next to the Hermitage and does excellent potato draniki, coupled with a cosy, authentic interior. The Idiot on Moika Embankment is also well worth a visit for its moody interior, excellent Russian food and wide selection of liquors. You even get a complimentary shot of vodka!
Georgian food is also worth sharing. I opted for the ChaCha chain but there are more Georgian restaurants than can be counted in the city. Khachapuri (cheese bread) and wine – who wouldn’t like that?
If you’re really brave, you could even take them to a Stolovaya. While this would mean a truly Russian canteen experience for your guests, it does mean a truly stressful experience for you, as if they know no Russian you’ll have to accompany each one and order for them as they go.
When it comes to souvenir buying, this obviously depends entirely on the individual. However, everyone wants to bring home some postcards, and Dom Knigi in the Singer building on Nevksy Prospekt is an attraction in itself. It’s perfect to pick up a few postcards or some books with magnificent photos of the Hermitage, Peterhof, Tsarkoe Selo etc.
Any keen linguists among your guests might even pick up a bit of basic Russian so they don’t have to sit mutely while you order in the restaurant or pick up tickets. However, attempts to teach them anything can have varying degrees of success: although I repeated спасибо several times – “it’s pronounced spa-seeee-bah” – my mum and sister managed to consistently smile politely and carefully pronounce “placebo” to slightly bemused staff.
This post was written by Claire, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz.