In this blog post I’d like to share with you the beauty, history, art, architecture and culture that Russia has to offer. So follow me to explore the beauty of this beautiful European-feel Western-most city of Russia, and the 15 things I learned while visiting St. Petersburg.
It felt surreal to be in Russia, as it is quite literally across the entire Earth from where I’m from in Hawaii. When people asked me where I was from, I responded with, “ya s Gavai” (I am from Hawaii) and they were always stunned. Their jaw dropped and they stared at me as if I were some sort of alien from a different planet. Some had never even heard of Hawaii; some thought it was close to Cuba, some didn’t know it was part of the U.S., and some had heard of it but wouldn’t be able to locate it on a map. I don’t blame them, it’s tiny. I imagine it is difficult for them to fathom such a far away place that is so polar opposite to Russia in every possible way. I felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the culture, though I admit, the grimness of folks on the metro, at grocery stores and in passing on the streets was tough to get used to. From first glance one might think that based on facial expressions or the fact that nobody smiles at you in passing or when you enter an establishment, that Russian people are miserable. However, after spending one month there, I learned that smiling at everyone is simply not part of their culture. Smiling and laughing is reserved for family and people you know.
Traveling abroad has helped me learn not to judge from my “American lens”, rather to accept a place and its people for what it is and try to understand where they come from and what has shaped their cultural ways. Russia has been through a lot of hard times and are still facing difficult circumstances as many other countries are. However, it is always possible to find the beauty everywhere; the key is not to compare to what you are accustomed to.
After spending three weeks in St. Petersburg, here are 15 thing I learned during our travels to Russia:
1) There is no such thing as “pocket niceties”
Going from South America to Russia was a massive culture shock. From expressive fun-loving, smiley and vivacious, colorful Colombians, to grim, cold, bleak, frowning Russians, was a striking dichotomy. I had a hard time accepting that it’s not normal to smile all the time and say hello to or acknowledge everyone I pass. The constant big, genuine smile on my face that I typically walk around with, did not fit in there. In fact, if you do smile at someone in passing, they may think you’re making fun of them or that you’ve just done something naughty. In general, people are not open or outwardly friendly unless they know you. In America, it’s common to say things like “how’s your day going?” Or “did you find everything okay?” while checking out at a grocery store. There’s none of that nonsense in Russia. If somebody asks you how your day is going, they really mean it and want to know an answer. I actually didn’t mind this because in America these niceties can often come across as fake and forced because companies train and sometimes require their employees to make “small talk” with their customers, even if they couldn’t care less about the current state of your day or mood.
2) Conversations with Strangers are Transactional
In St. Petersburg, your Uber driver is considered good if they pick you up on time, don’t talk much if at all during the ride, and say goodbye when you exit the car. Interactions seemed much more transactional rather than emotionally oriented. Of course, not everyone in Russia was this way. We had our fair share of chatty and friendly Uber drivers and restaurant servers. One Uber driver even expressed how happy he was to see American tourists in his home town because he felt that the news and our leaders make us hate each other without understanding why.
3) The Metro Is A Very Serious Place
Besides the fact that the metro is ear-piercingly loud, you won’t see people talking to each other en route. (I realize now that this is likely because you have to yell into your neighbor’s ear in order to hear what they’re saying.) Most people close their eyes or focus on one point, seemingly lost in space, but perhaps meditating and going to a happy place in their head.
4) Russians Are Actually Some Of The Most Hospitable People I Know
Once you get to know someone and they gain your respect and trust, Russians are some of the most kind, generous and hospitable people I have ever met, especially when you’ve been accepted into a family.
5) White Nights Is A Beloved Time For Locals And Tourists Alike
The best time to visit St. Petersburg is in the month of June where the sun never really sets, rather dances across the horizon teasing to disappear but never following through. Because the city is located so far North, during the month of June, days are long and night skies are bright until nearly midnight! In the photo below on the left, you can see from the clock that it is 11:48 PM and still bright outside. We were coming home from the opera.
6) Russia Occupies Approximately 8% of Earth’s Land Mass
On this trip we only visited three cities: St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kazan. You can check out my individual blog posts on the other cities here:
Why Moscow is the Next Must-Visit Destination in Russia
And if you’re a foodie, check out my post on 12 Russian Foods You Must Try!
7) Russia’s Metro System Is The Deepest Underground In The Entire World (Over 100 meters (300 feet))
You can purchase a metro card and continue to reload it as often as necessary. This is a great way to get around if you are staying in or near the city center. As I mentioned before, the metro is very loud. If you’re sensitive to loud noise like I am, bring earplugs and don’t be afraid to wear them. Russians have seen stranger things in the metro.
8) Ubers Are Cheap
Since we stayed outside the city center, it was not close to a metro station so we relied heavily on Uber, which is very popular here and quite cheap (by American standards). For a 20-minute ride from our apartment into the city center, we typically spent on average $3 USD one-way. A ride to a summer home located one hour outside the city, was $22 USD. I always think that a great way to get to know a city and their people is to take Uber and have conversations with the drivers (if you speak a mutual language), who usually don’t sugar coat their feelings on politics, city issues, and pride of their country.
9) There Is Virtually No Homeless In Russia
There are a few beggars who look a bit rough but were completely harmless, and many of them actually performed acts to earn their money rather than just beg. One theory is that the colder an environment is, the fewer homeless there are, simply because they would not be able to survive a Russian winter. During Soviet times cities had programs where they would give apartments to low income earners or large families. The apartments were also given to war veterans or folks with a handicap that made it difficult for them to earn enough money to support themselves with adequate housing. This program still exists, however, the eligibility requirements have become more stringent making it more difficult to obtain.
Overall, SPB is a safe city and the only reason I didn’t feel comfortable going out on my own is because I don’t speak or read Russian fluently, and most people do not speak English if I were to require help. As with all major cities, be smart with your belongings in crowded areas because of pickpockets.
10) The Streets Are Immaculate
The city receives many cruise ships arriving to port on a daily basis, so streets are super clean. I barely saw any graffiti and was impressed with the fact that there were street cleaners outside 24/7. There is also a fair amount of police security around the area to make people feel safer.
11) Chivalry Still Exists, But So Does Sexism
My observation was that chivalry still exists, which was a refreshing sight to witness having grown up in America where most young boys, teenagers or grown adult men wouldn’t even think to stand up when a woman enters a room. On the metros, men stand for women so that they can sit. They also open doors and pull out chairs, as well escort them arm-in-arm while walking. While this is nice to see, it also shows that some of the old mentality of women being “fragile” or “helpless” still somewhat exists. Though customs are slowly beginning to shift and evolve, I noticed that most women still dress “properly”, meaning either in dresses or stockings. Of course many women wear pants or jeans, but the concept of feminism and women being “strong” here doesn’t seem to have caught on just yet. And this brings me to my next point:
12) Nobody Wears Shorts in Russia
Even in June, everybody was wearing pants. Women wear stockings under everything, including pants! Russia is still a proper and conservative culture when it comes to dress.
13) Women Don’t Wear Yoga Pants
This was a strange sight for me to see having lived in Seattle for three years where all girls wear during wintertime is yoga pants. Hey, they’re comfortable, versatile and light weight! Even at the park, I saw women running wearing jeans.
As I mentioned before, the only place where I saw women in fitness clothing was inside the park. While this completely makes sense for a big city, I was surprised to not see many sporty-looking women. It seems to me that girls and women are still expected to be dainty and made-up. Again, this was merely my observation based on the time we spent here and the locations we visited, so this may not be an accurate or inclusive deduction.
14) There Are Loads Of Chinese Tourists
Tourism is starting to pick up in the major cities such as SPB and Moscow, as well as Kazan because of the football (soccer) games. Russia is a huge hub for hosting sporting events, which brings a good deal of tourism here, along with all the cruise ships. China is the #1 tourism influx to SPB, and they typically come in large groups with guides.
15) Lunch (обед) is Served Around 15:00 instead of 12:00.
Growing up in America, I am accustomed to an eating schedule similar to this:
Breakfast – 7:00
Lunch – 12:00
Supper – 19:00
In Russia it’s more like this:
Breakfast – 11:00
Lunch – 15:00
Supper – 21:00
It took me a little while to acclimate to this new eating schedule. I talk more about this in my article about Authentic Russian Cuisine – 12 Must-Try Foods In Russia.
Overall, Russia was one of the richest cultural experiences I have had the honor of experiencing, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to visit.