Personal Observations, Saint Petersburg
Traffic in Russia is a nightmare. It looks like nobody really cares about speed limits or traffic rules. Cars drive at almost full speed in the city centre, especially on the multi-lane prospekts.
For pedestrians it is sometimes very difficult or even dangerous to cross these wide boulevards. It might be better to consider taking another route, it could save your life!
St Petersburg is a wonderful city and it's people is a gem. But I would recommend every tourist to hire a local English- (German- or French-) speaking guide. You will get much cheaper tickets to most of the attractions and you run a much lower risk of being exploited by the police (yes, the police). My guide was constantly paying off someone even the police (at least three times). I would not have a clue how to do this myself. A guide is relatively a very cheap investment.
St. Petersburg is a city of 6 million people, but we feel much safer here than in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Most hotels are very respectable, they are rated, have staff that speak English, and normal security. People are out walking in the center 24 hours a day in summer and it feels safe on all main roads. Perhaps the stories you heard were from the first years after the fall of the soviet union when there was more confusion. I would be curious to know the origin of such stories.
Come to St. Petersburg, use the normal common sense, stay in public areas, at night don't go alone, take a taxi at night. ( Telephone 600 00 00 for taxi if you get lost)
Use a necklace purse under you clothes and no pickpockets will find your money.
Like every big city there are some guys looking for an easy purse or camera snatch. Don't have loose cameras hanging behind you, keep all close to you.
Have a great trip, plan to be safe and all will be wonderful.
Here is a wall of the Peter and Paul Fortress near the water, and if you look closely, you will see some people in their underwear enjoying the sun. I also saw some swimming in the waters, but I read somewhere that water in this area is not too safe. So, you can undress to sunbathe but just don't bathe!
History says that the fortress was quickly constructed by Peter the Great in the 1700's as he was expecting an attack from the Swedes from the Gulf of Finland. Today, it is a favorite beach area, with some sand around the fortress and a nice place to walk around in (specially the elevated "walk" along the perimeter of the wall for which you have to pay a little entrance fee). I did not see any Swedes attacking...
When I arrived in St Petersburg and followed the "Arrivals" sign and down an escalator, I was thrust into a crowd lining up toward immigration. Maybe too many planes landed at the same time? Unfortunately for a great and beautiful city like St Petersburg, the arrival hall is small and was not big enough for all these people. There was also no security telling the crowd where to line up and to keep straight- no guiding ropes, no poles...From where I stood, I could see women were also lining up for the bathroom which was only a small one (one poor lady obviously had to go - twirling about). Then I realized I was at the wrong line after 15 minutes (for Russian and Belarus citizens only?) since the person in front of me (another foreigner) moved to another line in dismay... So, if you are of a foreign land, stay on the windows on your right hand side (when facing them). After handing over my passport, it only took 10 seconds though. Getting the bags were easy because my bag was already waiting on the floor for me and it was easy to spot my taxi driver holding my hotel sign (I guess he figured out I was going to be late)--- advisable to book a taxi beforehand through your hotel since airport can be really confusing. But once on Nevsky, I let go of the "more-than-one-hour" lining up experience, and enjoyed walking around this unique and wonderful city.
Well, when any VIPs visit there is a danger that you cannot get to where you want to go. Roads may be closed, restaurants may be closed and even palaces may close.
The Constantine Palace is open for tours except when holding meetings.
It was closed during the G8 conference in 2006 when the Bushes and other leaders were here.
The same goes for Russian VIPs, Red Square was closed for an Edinaya Russia party event after the 2007 elections:
Here is a short clip of the pro-putin rally.
The first time you enter a drug store and find a jar of medical leeches on the counter don't be too scared. They are seen increasingly.
The golden day of the leech as a cure all ended at the end of the 19th century, but they are making a comeback.
Some leeches are used in modern surgery to carefully drain some congested blood.
A leech feeds for 15 minutes and drinks between 2-5 grams of blood.
I don't understand it, but hirudotherapy is explained here.
The saliva of the leech is said to be highly beneficial ...
I think after one application I would be cured of anything, I would say anything to avoid a 2nd application!
Thought ther are laws about curbing your dog and not unrinating in public, it is a common occurance.
The streets are full of nasty dirt, it is a good reason to take off your shoes when going into your apartment.
Public urination is one problem that bothers us most about streets in Russia. If anyone knows how to solve it please share.
And there are public toilets 50 meters from all these photos.
We recommend you don't look at these pictures, but it is a real problem.
Many hazardsous open holes may be found on the street and sidewalks.
Always watch the ground for unmarked holes and the sky for falling ice or water.
In Russia you are responsible for your own safety.
What kind of fool falls into a hole?
It can be exciting to see helicopters landing at the Pweter and Paul Fortress. But just as they get near the ground a huge cloud of dust, rocks and plant debri comes towards you like a tornado!
Video of landing fun!
If the weather is bad or you are tired you might turn on the TV... and watch DOM2!
Russia has the longest runnning reality show in history, Dom-2 on the TNT network.
It has been on for about 3 years. Fifteen people, men and women, are together building a house at a location near Moscow. They fall in love there and willinf to stay as much as possible. One lucky couple will win the house and it will be a lickiest day in the world!
It is on several times daily on the TNT channel and you can see any moment you think you missed.
Critics say its promotes too much sexuality....
But it is being watched and continues...
The museum wardens, usually 100-year old Babushkas in uniform, take their job rather seriously and watch you like a hawk during your museum visit. So be careful and check if you are allowed to take photos in the exhibition, otherwise they will punish you severely! (:-)
There is the Mariinsky Palace and the Mariinsky Theatre. Both look theatre-ish, but they are several blocks apart. The info person mixed them up. Good to get some aerobic exercise--and then the hike up to our cheap seats.
No a very safe city. Better to visit with a tour. And beware of your cameras and other electronics you may carry. The waters are polluted. Even if you see people bathing as in a beautiful beach: DO NOT GO INTO THE WATERS!
If you are coming from the US or most places in Western Europe you will need a visa to be allowed into Russia. The visa application process is relatively complicated because you need a hotel or other "host" to sponsor you. There are many agencies that specialize in helping people to get visas, but be aware that many of these are exorbitantly expensive. Russian visas have both entry and exit dates, and you can be arrested if you are not out of the country by your exit date. There are also special rules for people traveling with children.
An alternative to the traditional visa is the tourist visa which is given on a 24 hour basis to travelers who are visiting in organized groups. There are special rules that apply to this also, such as the group must be led by a Russian guide and travelers in the group are not allowed to stray from it for any reason. It is more restrictive, but in many ways safer for most people who can't speak Russian. This was the option that I ended up taking because I was traveling with my 6 year old daughter and I was pretty nervous about something going wrong. In the end, it worked out well though, and we were still able to see and do many things.