Advice for Studying Abroad in Russia/ Highlights of St. Petersburg

This blog post might not be as exciting as others for my regular readers, but I figured since I’m now on my last week here in St. Petersburg I should gather up all the lists I’ve made about things I’ve learned here – advice, favorite places, general expectations, suggestions – and gather them into one giant compilation . I know I googled this a thousand times before I left, and there weren’t too many blogs offering much advice. I’ll do my best not to repeat too much! For those of you reading this that have been to Petersburg before, speak Russian fluently, disagree/noticed a mistake, or have anything to add please feel free to let me know in the comments!

So first, imma break some stereotypes down real quick: There are no bears roaming the streets here. Nobody owns an AK-47. Or a matryoshka doll, for that matter. It’s not terribly cold (unless you’re in northern Siberia). Russians are not angry people (perhaps a little pessimistic, but that is their culture and their history). However, there are some rather accurate ones: The women here are very beautiful, thin, and stylish. You’ve been warned. They do drink a fair amount, but don’t always bank on vodka. Baltika beer is quite cheap here. Dash cams do not lie. Borsch is delicious.

Favorite Restaurants/Bars/Clubs/Cafes

  1. Счастье (Schastye): –For the most relaxing and positive cafe experience you will ever have.-
    I am absolutely in love with this small chain of cafes. Each one is more beautiful than the last, and their service is impeccable. They offer English menus and speak fluently, for those of you who are not familiar with the language, but are happy to practice Russian with you if you choose. The food is  delicious (perhaps a little on the pricey side), but tea and snacks are quite reasonable. My favorite location is the one on Малая Морская ул., 24 (Malaya Morskaya Street, Building 24) just kiddy-corner from St. Isaac’s Cathedral. I once spent an entire afternoon studying there, and the waiter brought my friend and I free cookies to help with our study session! So, don’t spend all your time at a Шоколодница (Shokolodnitsa) or a Кофе Хауз (Coffee House)! Visit their webpage here!
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  2. MarketPlace-Cheap, tasty food for the struggling college student.-
    This self-service restaurant is great for those living on a budget. While similar to the Столовая (Stolovaya) chain, MarketPlace seems to be far more immaculate than their competition and provides a comfier atmosphere. There are multiple locations, but it’s especially nice to stop in when you’re wandering along Nevsky Prospekt looking for something a little more inside your budget. (That street is a nightmare for any wallet.) You can visit their website here, but be warned – it’s только по-русский.
  3. Цифербург Анти-Кафе (Tsiferburg Anti-Cafe)-A little hipster, a lot of awesome.-
    I love anti-cafes. There. I said it. The concept is fantastic. Instead of paying for each item you drink or eat, you pay for the amount of time that you spend there! For example, I spent about four hours at Tsiferburg, had a nap, a mug of tea, a glass of hot chocolate, and an entire basket of crackers and I paid the US equivalent of $7. Located on the 3rd floor of the Pasazh (Пасаж) shopping center, this anti-cafe has a great view overlooking Nevsky Prospekt and Gostiny Dvor. Visit their VK page here!
  4. Morrisons: –Favorite bar. I frequented so often that I ended up befriending the bartender.-
    Dumskaya and Lomonosov. The two most notorious party streets in St. Petersburg, and with good reason. However, tucked away close to the canal is my favorite bar in all of St. Petersburg. It’s quite small, friendly, and a favorite of many locals in their twenties. I’ve witnessed some of the best karaoke – ranging from Eminem to Adele to Blink 182 to Celine Dion – some intense foosball games, and was introduced to the Boyarskiy shot here.

    Vodka. Grenadin. Tobasco. Taste the magic for only 100 rubles.

    Vodka. Grenadin. Tobasco. Taste the magic for only 100 rubles.

    Open til 6am, this place is wonderful for having a relaxed atmosphere with friends until the metro opens, and is a great place to meet locals your age! GO THERE. Check out their VK page here.

  5. RadioBaby: – A dance club that is willing to party just as hard as you are.-
    RadioBaby is a must for those wanting to dance all night until the metaphorical sun comes up. (Because…the sun doesn’t rise here until about 10:45a.m. in winter.) The multi-room layout makes it easy to find a place to enjoy spending your night. Whether it is the dance floor, the bar,  foosball, or just relaxing at a table off to the side, they have something forever. It seems to be a very popular bar with foreigners, so you are sure to run into some Americans or Europeans there. (Even ran into an Australian there once.) Always pumped up jams, but no techno/house music allowed. Closes at 7am, has a coat-check (bless them for this), and can be a little difficult to find hidden through an archway a block or two behind Kazan Cathedral, but it is totally worth the trip. Check it out here.
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  6. OpenBar!For those visiting in the summer time, check out this open-air bar at the Peter Spit on Petrovsky Island-
    Whether it is indoors or outdoors, Open Bar has one of the finest ambiances in the city. Live entertainment, delicious food, and a great view of the harbor/Finnish Gulf? What more do you need? Don’t be afraid to make the trek out there in the wintertime either. Last time I was there, I had the best laugh watching a bachelor party attempt a limbo competition. Find it here.
  7. Idiot Restaurant: –For those in need of some cheap, delicious Russian food at a quality restaurant.-
    Omnomnom, I had some spectacular Russian food here. Big ol’ bowl of borsch (with smetana, of course), a plate of mushroom pelmeni, glintvein (A hot, mulled wine with cinnamon and fruit. Perfect for the chilly winter months.) , and complimentary vodka shots. It quite reasonable, and has a beautiful location along the Moika embankment (not too far from Счастье, actually). Named after Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and evocative of the area that he lived and wrote in, this has been a St. Petersburg favorite since its opening in 1997. Bonus? It’s entirely vegetarian. You can visit their website here.
  8. The Green Room Cafe: –For those on a low budget in search of fresh, organic food and a rooftop view.-
    I was so happy to stumble on this place. While the majority of what they serve is traditional Russian cuisine, they did slip a few Uzbeki foods in there! (Try the manti. It’s delicious!) While you’re there, you’ll have the opportunity to check out the Loft Project Etazhi (mentioned below), which was one of my favorite ‘hidden gems’ in St. Pete’s. Visit The Green Room’s website here.

What to Pack for Russia (Clothing Only)
I actually feel I am quite equipped to answer this. I grew up in the bitter cold of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and let me say that if you’re a native from either of these states visiting Petersburg you’ll be fine. Really. I heard someone complain the other day that it was cold out when it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was -15 degree in Minneapolis. Same day. That didn’t include the wind chill dropping it to -36 degrees.

I also found, now that I’m on my last few days here, that I actually underpacked rather than over. Truthfully, this was easier since I do not have to ship anything home or pack an extra bag, and I was also able to buy a few special things here in Petersburg.

Some quick advice on clothing before you leave:
– Girls, if you live in the north buy your tights here in the States. I know you can buy them in Petersburg, but let me tell you that Calzedonia is on my hit list for having the shittiest tights ever made in existence. They will tear and snag if you breathe wrong, I swear. So, bring a pair or two from home if they’re of good quality. You will need tights, though, if you plan on wearing any skirts/dresses. If not, you are considered to be a prostitute. They’re also useful for layering during the cold months. Do not forsake the tights.
– Pack light.
– Bring a duffel bag for overnight trips.
– Choose clothing that can mix and match. If it’s an outfit that you go, “Well I don’t wear it often, but I wore it those couple of times-” STOP. Don’t bring it. You know your wardrobe. Bring only what you rewear every week or so.
– Generally, Russian wardrobes stick to darker colors. Feel free to keep this in mind.
– Bring an umbrella
– Russian women do not wear t-shirts in public. Nor are sweatpants publicly acceptable.
– UGGs are warm and comfy and perfect for winter weather. However, they’re not incredibly popular here. I brought mine and I do not regret it, but I did not wear them as often as I thought I would purely so that I would fit in more. Bring at your own discretion. If you’re unsure, leave them.

  1. One sweatshirt. (Men and women really don’t wear them often. They’re bulky, too.)
  2. Two pairs of jeans or slacks.
  3. Two pairs of leggings (for girls, if you choose)
  4. 1-2 everyday dresses/skirts
  5. 1 nice outfit (ballet or opera)
  6. Pajamas
  7. Underwear
  8. Scarf, mittens, hat (for fall, winter, spring)
  9. Winter coat and boots (only if you’re there during that season, of course)
  10. Comfortable walking shoes.
  11. Wool socks
  12. 1 Autumn jacket (again, only if this applies to you)
  13. 1-2 cardigans
  14. 4-5 tops/blouses

Seriously, that’s it. That’s all I brought. You will want to buy a lot here anyway because Russians are very stylish. I certainly added a couple pieces to my wardrobe. Be warned, shopping is very expensive here, but it usually is of high quality.

Most Helpful Phrases to Know

Basics:
Thank you = Спасибо (Spa-SI-ba)
Please/You’re welcome: Пожалуйста (Pa-ZHA-luh-sta)
Where is the bathroom? (always important to know!): Где туаллет? (G-DE tu-a-LYET?)

  1. Вы выходите? (Vy Vy-КHO- di-te?) – This is your number 1 public transit phrase.  Use it to find out if the person in front of you is getting off at the next stop.  If they aren’t, they’ll move aside to let you through.  Russians have public transit DOWN.
  2. Извините (Простите), пожалуйстa (Iz-vi-NI-te, pa-ZHAL-sta): Means excuse me. And trust me, you’ll be needing this all the time. If you bump into someone/hit them with your bag/etc. make sure you use “pro-sti-te”, which means “pardon me”.
  3. Как добраться до…(Kak do-BRAT-sya doh…): How do I get to/how do I reach? This is helpful for getting directions. Oftentimes, even if you don’t understand (because if you don’t understand you will be making a funny face and Russians will know) they will point and use hand signals so you understand. Some might even just walk you there, just to make sure you don’t get lost. Don’t be freaked out by this.
  4. У вас есть студенческая скидка? (Oo vas est stoo-DEN-che-ska-ya SKEED-ka?): Basically “Do you have a student discount?” This is a wonderful thing to know since many museums, exhibitions, galleries, stores, and even restaurants have student discounts. You can even get into some for free (like the Hermitage)!
  5. без газа/не газ (bez gaza/ ne gaz) – This was a lifesaver for those of you who drink still water by the gallon, like I do. If you don’t want carbonated water, make sure you ask for “bez gaza”.
  6. Сколько стоит? (SKOL-ka STO-eet?): How much does this cost?

Top Tourist Attractions to Visit

  1. Peterhof
  2. St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Make sure you climb to the top and have the best view of the city.)
  3. The Hermitage
  4. Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
  5. Nevsky Prospekt
  6. Catherine’s Palace
  7. Peter and Paul Fortress
  8. Kazan Cathedral

Hidden Gems of St. Petersburg

  1. Пышки (Delicious little doughnut place off Nevsky Prospekt that has been serving the same doughnut recipe since 1958. A true Soviet experience!)
  2. Летний Сад (The Summer Gardens)
  3. Smolny Cathedral
  4. Yusupov Palace
  5. Naval Cathedral in Kronstadt
  6. Erarta
  7. Loft Project Etazhi (Amazing rooftop view of the city!)
  8. Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery

25 Things I Missed Most About America While Studying Abroad

  1. Texas Roadhouse.
  2. Curly fries.
  3. Always having the option to use a credit card.
  4. A dryer.
  5. The general public wearing deodorant.
  6. Delivery Food
  7. Self Checkouts/Orderly Lines
  8. English
  9. Free water
  10. Splitting checks
  11. The sun
  12. Pre-made cookie dough
  13. WiFi accessibility
  14. Free refills
  15. Pandora Music Channel
  16. Southern Comfort Whiskey Liqueur
  17. Bagels
  18. Watching Packer Games at a reasonable time of day. On a television.
  19. Pancakes. (Blinis are great and all…)
  20. Ice cream shakes/malts
  21. Mexican food.
  22. The excessive amount of Christmas music that is normally played this time of year on every radio station in existence in America.
  23. Halloween
  24. Happy Hours
  25. Family, puppy, and friends. 🙂

I thought about writing “What I Will Miss About St. Petersburg”, but I think I’ll have a better list once I’ve been back in the States for a bit!

General Advice

  1. Research before you go. The more prepared you are, the better off you’ll be.
  2. Don’t drink the water. Russian tap water has a bacteria called giardiasis in it that will make you incredibly sick. Brushing teeth, showering, and boiling the water to drink/tea is fine. Just don’t drink it from the tap. I don’t even trust my Brita filter.
  3. When it comes to transportation: If you plan on using more than the metro (trolleybus, tram, bus, marshrutka) to get around the city and to school on a day to day basis, buy the “Electronic Wallet” card option. You put a certain amount of money on the card, and then just swipe it on the little scanners. It’s faster and what everybody uses. Coins and change are a pain. Best part is, the more you use the metro the cheaper it will get with this card. (From 27 rubles down to 20 after 41 rides.) Rush hour is from 8-10am and 5-7pm. Avoid it if you can.
  4. Carry toilet paper/tissue paper on you at all times. Bathrooms here aren’t always equipped with some.
  5. Always Have a Back Up: Be it passport document copies, extra money option, international cards, or whatever. You never know when you might need it.
  6. Speak in “Вы”: It’s always better to ere on the side of being more polite than too informal. Wait for Russians start speaking in ты to you before you switch.
  7. Try to set a budget. Trust me, you will thank me later. Money goes fast when you’re abroad, especially that first month or so when you don’t quite have the conversion chart memorized. In addition to this, bring an extra $500 more than you think you’ll need. The advice I found most helpful was: Lay out the clothing and cash you plan to bring on your trip. Now pack just half of the clothes and double the money.
  8. Try everything once. My mother always said to me as a child that I couldn’t say “no” or that I didn’t like something just because it looked strange. How on Earth could I know I disliked it if I never tried it before? So, go in with an open mind. Try that jelly meat. (It’s disgusting.) Put tobasco in your vodka shots. (It’s delicious.) But don’t hold yourself back from new experiences while abroad. (Disclaimer: THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO DRUGS OR OTHER DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR.)
  9. ALWAYS HAVE YOUR SPRAVKA ON YOU.
  10. Be prepared to take naps. Translating Russian, even if you don’t speak a lick of it to start, is exhausting. You will be very tired somedays and sometimes get headaches. It’s okay, your brain is just working hard to process and understand everything it’s seeing.
  11. Accept the cultural differences. I’m not going to lie to you. You might experience culture shock to some degree when you’re living abroad. Let’s face it, you’re in a different country than the one you grew up in. Language, food, manners, fashion, and weather might all surprise you. The best way to get used to it is to just accept it as being different. Learn to laugh at the communication problems and embrace the new experiences rather than be scared and resent your new home. I promise, it will make your stay far more enjoyable.
  12. Talk to locals. Don’t be that person that just stays in their room and watches Netflix the entire trip. Get out there and get to know the culture. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, you’ll fumble through some awkward conversations. But it gets better. You’ll feel more confident the more you try.
  13. Set a realistic goal. Before I left, I had set one goal: “The purpose of this program will not be to outdo every student in my program, but to improve myself. If I am able to come back from this with a better grasp on the Russian language and culture than when I left, I will consider it to be a success!” Be realistic with your expectations. There are many reasons to study abroad, but it’s up to you to make sure you gain exactly what you want from the experience.
  14. Don’t panic. It might seem scary at first, being in a new country, but just like your first few weeks of college that fear will fade. The more you embrace your country, the easier the transition will be. But when in doubt, ask. Russians are generally very polite and helpful.
  15. Don’t forget to study. This is not a vacation. Keep your priorities in check.
  16. Stock up on necessities. Birth control, tampons, that particular medicine you have to get every year to fight the same common cold. Stock up on them. While you can find similar medicines in whatever country you’re studying abroad in, I think it’s best to go with what you’re familiar with. It’s especially difficult if you’re trying to read the warning labels in a different language. For example, I told my host I wasn’t feeling well and she handed me a box of pills in Russian, then said to take one a day until I felt better. Googled the box and found out these were used to help people with seizures. Needless to say, I did not follow her advice. Russia also is notorious for their “home remedies” (which I will, begrudgingly, admit work sometimes). However, if you’re not comfortable with these it is best to have your own stockpile of medicine. (I’d like to add: If you are seriously sick or injured GO TO MEDEM. The clinic is located on Marata Street by Ploshad Vosstanya. While it’s a little pricey, they speak English and I can say from experience that they are thorough with their examinations.) A lot of people on my program got sick those first two weeks here due to the climate/atmosphere change. Don’t be surprised by this if it happens to you.
  17. Don’t forget to explore. When moving to a new country, it can be scary. You might feel out of place for a while, and you’ll be a little off-balance from a lack of routine. After the first few weeks of getting around, however, you’ll start to feel a little more confident! Don’t fall into the trap of doing the same thing every day. Even if it’s taking a new route home or stopping at a small shop, try to explore the city you’re in as much as you can! You’re only there for a small time. (My favorite way to explore is to get on a city bus and see where it takes me around the area. Not my family’s favorite choice, but I certainly familiarized myself with the city quickly. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but if you’re feeling adventurous – and are certain the bus isn’t going to dump you off in a different town – give it a go. As a disclaimer, you might want to bring a map just in case.)
  18. Don’t take a gypsy cab by yourself at night with only the driver. Actually, don’t take gypsy cabs in general.
  19. Unwritten Rules:
    – Boys pay on dates.
    – Take off gloves to shake hands.
    – Politeness goes along way (for instance, with security guards, bartenders, or bread truck owners.)
    – Smiling in public is strange. People will think you are mentally unbalanced.
    – Don’t put feet up on tables.
    – Punctuality is not a strict rule here. Be flexible.

But really, if there was one piece of advice I could give a study abroad student, it’s this:

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St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city in the world, in my opinion, so make sure you just enjoy it. I’ve been to Paris, Venice, Rome, London, Budapest, Vienna, New York, San Fransisco… None of them compare.

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Or maybe I’m just biased. 🙂

So go have that shot of vodka with some Russians. They’ll welcome you with open arms. Go climb to the top of Isaac’s when the sun is out and see how the city shines. Walk along the Moika embankment at night, take a canal tour, and peek inside the courtyards of old houses. You never know what you’ll find.

**Last six photos out of the twelve were borrowed from Urbanize, Olga Shuruht, Alexander Petrosyan, and St. Petersburg Guide**