Secrets of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is on many travelers’ bucket lists, but for LGBTQ travelers, travel to Russia raises questions about safety. Greg Shapiro worked as a cruise ship crew-member on a Baltic itinerary in summer 2015. He visited St. Petersburg for overnights multiple times and escorted many excursions there. In this article, he distills his best tips for gay travelers visiting St Petersburg.

If you want to explore on your own, consider applying for a tourist visa

St. Petersburg is definitely not a “cruise-card” port. Make sure you have your passport handy since you’ll have to go through customs and immigration each time you leave and return to the ship. Americans may only be able to disembark if they have booked a tour organized by the cruise line. However, if you apply for a tourist visa well in advance, you can explore the port on your own.

Greg shares a kiss with his (now) husband Ricardo in front of St Petersburg’s Church of the Savior on Blood after a night out

Most large ships dock quite far from the city center

Your experience in St. Petersburg will vary dramatically depending on where your cruise ship docks. Smaller cruise ships dock either at the English Embankment or Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment along the Neva River. Both these ports sit conveniently close to Nevsky Prospekt, the city center.

Large cruise ships dock at the Marine Facade complex, which requires more a trek to access the city center. An excursion bus or taxi ride from Marine Façade to Nevsky Prospekt takes about 20-30 minutes. If you’re using public transportation, Bus 158 travels between Marine Facade and the nearest metro station, Primorskaya (40 RUB). From there, purchase a token to take the metro to Gostiny Dvor (45 RUB).

The Winter Palace ballroom, covered in gold

Don’t miss the Hermitage’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection

Most Hermitage shore excursions only take you to the Winter Palace, which is just one of six buildings that house the collection of over three million works of art. The Winter Palace is not to be missed. Few tourists realize an admission ticket to the Winter Palace also enables access to the eastern wing of the General Staff Building, located right across the plaza. Not only is this part of the museum less crowded, if also offers room after room of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from private German collections taken to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The collection includes works by Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso, many of them formerly deemed lost.

Everything’s bigger in Russia, even the shopping malls

If you’re interested in shopping, look no further than the “Galeria” shopping center, the largest mall in St. Petersburg.  This gigantic five-floor mall is located just a 5-minute walk from Nevsky Prospekt, and is also near the Moskovsky railway station. From the Primorskaya subway station, it’s a direct subway ride (#3 Green) with just three stops to the Mayakovskaya station, located right in front of the mall. With over 290 stores featuring both international labels and local Russian designer brands, the selection is vast and the exchange rate will work in your favor.

Nightlife in St. Petersburg

Central Station, located in the city center, is St. Petersburg’s main gay club with multiple bars, dance floors, and a men-only dark room. The club is open on weekdays, but gets its biggest crowds on Friday and Saturday nights. Central Station becomes the city’s “after-party” spot at around 2 AM when nearby straight bars close.

Before your night out, keep in mind that drawbridges that cross St. Petersburg’s canals are “open” from around 3AM – 6AM, making it impossible to take a cab back to Marine Facade during those hours. Public transportation also shuts down during these hours.  If your ship is docked at Marine Facade, your options are: either head back to the ship at midnight (before the party gets going) or stay out until morning.

If you head out to experience St. Petersburg nightlife, you’ll notice balloons being sold at bars and on the street. These are filled with nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

Is it safe to go to gay bars in St. Petersburg?

As you’ve seen in the news, homophobic propaganda and violence towards the LGBTQ community exists in Russia. Personally, I never witnessed or experienced any prejudice while frequenting Central Station or going to and from the club. I took precautions by keeping an eye on my drink and staying with a larger group. Heading back to the ship one weekend, I asked the cab driver how he felt about gay people. He said that most Russians don’t have a problem with homosexuality and that homophobic propaganda is a tactic the Russian government uses to create a social scapegoat distracting the public from other issues, like economic struggles.

The sun rises behind Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, after a different night out

Getting to Moscow on a budget

If you’re feeling adventurous and don’t want to hand over $600+ for a shore excursion to Moscow, it’s possible to get there on your own for less than half the price. First, if you don’t speak Russian, download an offline map and translation app to your smartphone to help you navigate.  Flights between St. Petersburg and Moscow run regularly, so I just bought a ticket ($79, 1-2-hour flight) as soon as I got to the St. Petersburg airport. As with airline purchases anywhere, book in advance to get the best price. For my return, I purchased a high-speed train ticket from Moscow to St. Petersburg ($80, 3-4-hour ride). If you take the train, allow plenty of time to get back to the Marine Facade terminal before your ship leaves. This journey requires nerves of steel, as you’ll be almost 500 miles away from the ship.

Final thoughts

If you’re ready to make the most out of your visit to St. Petersburg bring comfortable shoes and plenty of cash. Make sure you’re well-rested and ready for an adventure.

Greg Shapiro is a millennial travel hacker and author of 12 Hours in Havana. From backpacking South America to sailing around the world, he’s visited over thirty-five countries and counting.  Follow his travels on Facebook and Instagram.