St. Petersburg was built as Russia’s “Window to the West,” and it remains perhaps the most “European” part of this enormous nation.
Tree-lined avenues, charming bridges, elegant architecture and a network of canals that rivals Amsterdam and Venice make this the perfect walking city. Even under Soviet oppression, St. Petersburg managed to keep a lightness and an air about it that other parts of the country simply could not manage.
St. Petersburg is to Moscow what San Francisco is to New York. Culture and nightlife are explosive, yet there’s a sense that people aren’t in nearly as big a hurry. As such, this remains Russia’s most gay-friendly city, with venues situated right on the street and not hidden down a back alley.
While still not as accepting as the rest of Europe, St. Petersburg appears to be a place where it’s OK to be gay. Cruise down the river Neva to Peterhof - Russia’s Versailles. Wander room after room of the Hermitage - the world’s largest art collection. Sip champagne in a waterside cafe. Whatever you do, don’t rush. This is St. Petersburg, where life will never pass you by.
The lay of the land
St. Petersburg is situated along the river Neva. Nevskiy Prospect - the city’s main avenue - extends from the river to the train station and is lined with shops, churches, monuments and people.
The Winter Palace, which houses the Hermitage, is just east of Nevskiy Prospect, squeezed gently between the river and Palace Square, where the Bolshevik Revolution came to fruition over 90 years ago.
The canals spiral outward from the river and most canal-side streets intersect Nevskiy Prospect. Over the river is Peter and Paul Fortress as well as several other museums. Make Palace Square your point of reference and explore from there.
NOTE: Clubs, bars, restaurants and even sites are opening and closing constantly. In addition, due to high inflation, prices increase without notice. Be advised to use the following information as a general guide only and verify prices online closer to your departure.
Perhaps where Russia is most different from its European counterparts is over gay rights.
While homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 1999, there is currently no legal recognition of gay marriage and public support stood at just 14 percent for such legislation as of 2005. In an odd split of opinion, 43 percent of Russians support re-criminalizing homosexual acts while 43 percent of Russians support a legal ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Hate crimes are less common but still do occur, though they are rare in larger cities. In short, this is a tough place to be gay, though Russian gays are pretty darn tough, too.
A sizable gay scene does exist in Moscow and St. Petersburg, though what happens inside stays inside. No cameras or recording equipment are allowed for fear of blackmailing clients. This is pretty full-on.
There isn’t really a gayborhood per se. No doubt Central Station has become the hub as it is St. Petersburg’s largest and most popular gay venue. While the gay scene is growing, it is still intimate enough that everyone sort-of knows each other. Make friends with a local and take their advice on what’s happening.
Must-Sees and Must-Dos
_ The Hermitage (36 Nab Dvortsovaya, Metro Nevskiy). The world’s largest art collection at 3 million pieces. Clearly not all of them are on display at once. Beyond the art (which is exceptional) the architecture inside is absolutely mind-blowing. There is a room made entirely of gold. Admission is free for all students and about $8 for adults. Plan to spend an entire day here.
_ St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Metro Nevskiy or Sennaya Ploschad). Capped by a dome made of 550 pounds of solid gold, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is monumental to say the least. Make sure to climb the 270 steps for spectacular views over the city. Entry $6.
_ Church of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood (Metro Nevskiy). Very similar to St. Basil’s in Moscow, this gem is home to the world’s largest tile mosaic. Its canal-side location is also rather charming. Entry $5.
_ Peter & Paul Fortress (Metro Gorkovskaya). Where the city all began, the fortress is now the final resting place of Russia’s last Tsar and his family. One ticket allows admission to all sites inside. Don’t miss the Chapel of St. Catherine The Martyr, the Peter and Paul Cathedral and Trubetskoy Bastion (prison) where both Trotsky and Dostoevsky were held at one time. Entry $6.
_ The Museum of Political History of Russia (Kuybysheva 2, Metro Gorkovskaya). Another exceptionally curated collection of artifacts tracing Russia’s darkest days, the museum visit includes a 120-page guide in English that gives descriptions of every item in the museum. Don’t miss Gorbachev’s letter of resignation, among other incredible relics. Entry $3.
_ Dostoevsky House (5/2 Kuznechnyy, Metro Vladimirskaya). Where the man himself lived and wrote “The Brother’s Karamozov.” For anyone who has ever survived a Russian literature class, a visit here somehow makes it feel all worthwhile. Entry $3.
_ Along Nevskiy (Metro Nevskiy). St. Petersburg’s major thoroughfare, the avenue is dotted with churches, monuments and history. Don’t miss the Admiralty and the Bronze Horseman of Peter the Great at end near the river, the Kazansky Cathedral and the statue of Catherine the Great.
_ The Ballet (Book tickets at Nevsky Souvenir, 3 Nevsky Prospect (on the corner where Nevsky Prospect ends at Admiralty), +7 (812) 312-68-02, www.nevskysouvenir.com). St. Petersburg is home to the world’s greatest ballet and you should absolutely indulge in a performance. The Mariinskiy Theater (1 Teatralnaya) is the nation’s most famous. As such, prices are a bit steep, ranging from $75 to over $200. Alternatively, the Palace Theater (13 Italyanska, Metro Gostiny Dvor) offers a regular season of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. While this is supposedly “the tourist show,” watching the St. Petersburg Ballet Company and listening to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra felt pretty perfect. Tickets range from $30 to about $100.
Like all of Russia, dining out is expensive, even at fast food kiosks on the street. Fortunately, the concept restaurant is alive and well in St. Petersburg, which means you’re not only getting food but an entire “experience.” Cafe culture is huge here, as is American-style country cookin’.
_ Teremok (60 Nevsky pr, Metro Nevsky). A “fast food” chain in St. Petersburg that’s not all that fast in a good way. Made to order blinis filled with pretty much anything you like, delicious soups and delectable deserts make this a great option. Meal for one around $8.
_ Yolki-Palki (88 Nevsky pr, Metro Mayakovskaya). Quite possibly “too Russian,” this “authentic eating experience” comes complete with stuffed roosters, staff in “authentic costumes” and buffet-style Russian grub. Not bad at all. Meal for one around $12.
_ Pyshki (25 Bolshaya Konyushennaya, Metro Nevsky). Stop in with the Russians for a quick hot, fresh donut...or maybe a dozen? At 25 cents each there is nothing more affordable. The 50-cent cup of coffee was also top-notch.
_ Khachapurnaya (154 Ligovsky pr, Metro Ligovsky). Quite possibly the most delicious meal this writer has ever eaten. Serving traditional Georgian food, this 5-table wonder will blow your mind with the hot, fresh, and overwhelmingly delicious meals on offer. There is no English menu but try khachipuri, kebab & the spicy soup. You won’t regret it. Meal for one around $15.
_ Trans-Force (88 Nevsky pr, Metro Mayakovskaya). Not just dinner, but an intergalactic voyage through time and space. Sit down behind your control panel, order food from a digital screen and take in the 270-degree 3D virtual space voyage. You’ll have to see it to fully understand. Meals for one around $10.
_ Cafe Zoom (22 Gorokhovaya, Metro Sennaya Ploschad). The coolest-looking menus this writer has ever seen. This place is almost always packed, so arrive before the dinner rush or be prepared to wait. Don’t worry, it’s worth it. Meal for one around $10.
_ Teplo (45 Bolsaya Morskaya, Metro Sennaya Ploschad, www.v-teple.ru). From the adorable wallpaper to freshly baked breads and desserts, Teplo’s soul food will be much appreciated on a cold Russian afternoon. Come for dinner and stay for coffee, cocktails and dessert. You really won’t want to leave. Dinner for one around $15.
Despite its more relaxed vibe, the nightlife in St. Petersburg is absolutely on fire. Whether gay or straight, you’re guaranteed to be out dancing, drinking and jiving until the sun comes up.
_ Cafe Dali (11 Spasskii per, Metro Sennaya). Drag shows on Tuesday and Sunday night bring in the regulars, as does the all-day food and drinks on offer. A very mixed scene.
_ Cabaret (181 Obvodny canal embankment, Metro Baltiyskaya, in the building of the House of Culture). Once the top spot in St. Petersburg, the smaller Cabaret still pulls in big crowds on the weekends. The space itself is worth the visit. Cover prices vary from $5 on up to $15.
_ Central Station (1/28 ulitsa Lomonosova, Metro Nevskiy Prospect). The place to be in St. Petersburg - especially on Friday and Saturday night. Multiple dance floors, go-go boys, 3am drag shows and the most bizarre bathroom ever seen in a nightclub make Central Station a must on any visit to St. Petersburg. Free entry for students all night long. Cover ranges but is usually $10.
_ Liverpool (16 Mayakovskogo, Metro Pl. Vosstaniya). Easily the best pub in St. Petersburg. Just come to relax and drink a beer.
_ JFC Jazz Club (33 Ul. Shpalernaya, Metro Chernyshevskaya). The best jazz in Russia and an excellent lounge scene to go with it.
_ Marstall (5 Nab. kan. Griboedova, Metro Nevsky). St. Petersburg’s current reigning champion in the nightlife scene. The party doesn’t really get going until 3am and it rages on into the wee hours of the morning. Cover can be steep. Expect to pay at least $10.
No trip to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to Peterhof. (Take the train from Baltiyskiy train station at Baltiyskaya Metro. From there, take almost any bus to Peterhof. Look for signs in the bus window. On the way back, take bus number 103 to the metro.)
Built by the Peters and expanded by Catherine as Russia’s very own Versailles, the scale, scope and majesty of this inspired Summer Palace make it a must-see. The palace is split into upper and lower gardens. While the upper gardens are free to wander and beautiful, the lower gardens are home to nearly 100 gold fountains shooting brilliantly into a canal that empties into the Gulf of Finland. Don’t miss the rock fountains. Supposedly, there is just one that makes the water shoot. Can you find it?
Tips and tricks
It’s difficult to get to The Hermitage and other main sites using the metro, as there are no stops nearby. Alternatively, catch almost any bus heading down Nevskiy Prospect and hop off near the river.
Lines at the Hermitage can often be hours long. Arrive before opening to ensure that you have a full day to explore. Also, note that a ticket is good only once. You cannot come in and out!
There is a hydrofoil that leaves from near The Hermitage to Peterhof in high season. While prices are steep compared to the train, it’s a great way to see the incredible buildings that line the waterfront.