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Backpacking in St Petersburg
November 5, 2008 17:37

Although twice the capital of Russia in the past, elegant St. Petersburg is now the country’s second city. However, that’s not to say that it has any less history, culture or significance that it’s main rival, Moscow.

Less expensive (for the most part) and home to some of the country’s most beautiful architecture and fabulous art, St Petersburg is undoubtedly an attractive proposition for backpackers in Russia.

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Getting Started

Like Moscow, the city has a major international airport that is served by a variety of flights from across the world every day. Backpackers arriving from the capital can take one of the frequent trains into St Petersburg, with the overnight service proving the most cost-effective (if not necessarily the safest) way to travel.

Once in St Petersburg, travelers are required by the government to validate their visa, both on their initial arrival in the country, and when moving on from elsewhere in Russia.

There are a number of great St Petersburg hostels which cater for backpackers and budget travelers exploring the city, and all of these will help complete the mandatory legal processes.

In addition, the hostels provide lively and sociable accommodation in the form of cheap dorm beds and affordable private rooms, often with extras such as bars, self-catering facilities and games rooms attached.

However, the government also stipulates that the first few nights’ accommodation (the visa process can take 24 to 48 hours) must be pre-booked. It’s a good idea – especially when on a relatively short visit to the city – to check the St Petersburg hostels map in advance and consider the proximity of sights on your itinerary.

Furthermore, there are still no official tourist centers in St Petersburg, and so the hostels helpfully act as information points for backpackers and travelers exploring the city (and beyond) independently.

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Seeing the Sights

St Petersburg is packed with amazing sights and cultural attractions, although the two beautiful cathedrals – St Isaac’s and Peter and Paul – are particularly noteworthy. The city is also home to the quaint Summer Palace of Peter the Great on the river bank at Nevsky Prospeckt.

The Russian Museum and Hermitage Museum are also both impressive sights, the latter housing approximately three million works of art – one of the largest collections in the world. Started by Catherine the Great in 1764 and spread across six buildings (including the Winter Palace), it has a stunning array of both Russian and European exhibits.

With its romantic canals and gardens, the city is very different from modern, bustling Moscow. The broad avenues and impressive architecture have a more European vibe than much of this country which, uniquely, straddles two continents and features a host of cultural influences from each one.

St Petersburg is also surprisingly green – there are over 200 parks and 700 leafy squares in total. Highlights include the Botanical Gardens (the only one in Russia) and the glamorous Alexander Garden, laid out along the front of the main Admiralty.

Although rather less grand than Moscow’s chandelier and marble decorated metro, St. Petersburg has its own underground service along with an extensive tram network, both of which are inexpensive to use and make every part of the city accessible to backpackers.

Moving On

However, while St Petersburg is undoubtedly spectacular, there’s much more to Russia that its biggest cities. The majority of tourism (even for backpackers) revolves around St Petersburg and Moscow, but the city can also be used as a gateway for experiencing a rather different – and more scenic – side of Russia.

From the sumptuous parks and fountains of Peterhof to the ancient churches of Novgorod, backpacking in St. Petersburg can be merely the beginning of discovering what this sometimes challenging, but always rewarding, country has to offer.


Alice Woolliams


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