Politics, schmolitics. If you can obtain a visa to the biggest country in the world (and it's not as hard as you think), then go and visit. The land of bears and vodka is also home to some of the most grandiose palaces, historic museums, and gorgeous churches — not to mention 6.6 million square miles of beautiful nature. However, traveling in Russia can be a pain, especially if you don't know the language, but nobody wants to look like a clueless tourist. To make you look a little more cultured, here's a list of must-do things and events that will make you fall in love with the Motherland. Ura!
Head to the suburbs.
Resist taking a taxi! There are plenty of ways to get around St. Petersburg, and the best involve some combination of subway, bus, and train. You can't miss spending a day in the many parks in Pushkin and Pavlovsk, and no trip to Russia is complete without seeing the fountains at Peterhof. Take some time to see the palaces if you want (Pushkin was the summer home of the tsars), but on any day of the week, you can find the locals out enjoying nature. It's difficult to beat gardens that were intended for royalty.
See a ballet.
The theater scene in St. Petersburg is very strong, but if you don't want to worry about language barriers, then seeing a ballet is your best option. Plus, the Russian ballet is world-famous and a top-notch way to experience culturally significant art and music altogether. Of course, my top recommendation is “Swan Lake.” The only challenge is booking tickets – it must be done weeks in advance – but if you can nab seats at the Mikhailovskiy Theater or the spectacular Mariinsky Theater, it's definitely worth the cost and effort. The Mikhailovskiy Theater is also in the heart of St. Petersburg, meaning that you can schedule the ballet for the end of a day of sightseeing.
Go to a dacha.
Most Russians have a cabin in the country, which they call dachas. You can try to rent one in a resort location, but it's much better to actually stay with a Russian friend. If you're lucky, they'll have a banya (a sauna), which is one of the most Russian things you can experience. Don't forget to have shashliki – pork skewers marinated with lemon and onion – on the grill. Late-night grilling and taking turns in the banya are essential parts of a weekend at a dacha. It's important to be comfortable with your companions, though—at the banya, clothing can be optional!
Buy some books.
St. Petersburg has a ton of opportunities to buy books. If you're looking for one of the most picturesque bookshops, check out Dom Knigi on Nevskiy Prospekt, which is inside the historic Singer Café (named after Singer sewing machines). Under its famous translucent blue dome, you can find thousands of books, including guide books and maps in English and a variety of other languages. If you want something a little less crowded, swing by the summer or winter book alley, also on Nevskiy Prospekt. The stalls are open regardless of rain, shine, or snow, and really demonstrate St. Petersburg's dedication to literacy.
Learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
Yes, I mean it. You don't really have to know Russian to get around St. Petersburg, but everywhere else is woefully lacking in English phonetic. Thankfully, there are a lot of cognates between Russian and English, but you'll never know them if you can't sound out the words on signs. It doesn't take much to learn how to pronounce Cyrillic letters; there are 33 letters and several of them sound the same as they do in English. A one-day crash course at the university of Google should definitely set you up (just print a guide to carry in case you forget).
Enjoy a time café.
The coolest thing about time cafés (also called anticafés) is that they're a great deal. You check in when you arrive and pay for the time you spend there instead of what you eat or drink (snacks are free). Although you can find them anywhere, the time cafés in the center of the city are more popular and better-equipped. On a Saturday night, you can definitely find local twenty-somethings enjoying the atmosphere, playing board games, and listening to live music. Anticafé Freedom comes highly recommended and is located on Nevskiy Prospekt.
Do a nighttime bridge cruise.
An essential part of the tourism industry in St. Petersburg is the boat tour; the city is divided up by canals and the impressive Neva River. To avoid getting the same old recorded tour in your ear, shake it up by heading out to the Neva in the middle of the night. Hundreds of boats take Russians and visitors alike out onto the Neva after midnight to witness the raising of the bridges over the river. And while the sights themselves are spectacular, there's also nothing quite like the energy of hundreds of boats all motoring under the historic bridges.
Take a freezing dip.
If you find yourself in Russia in the winter, you might get a chance to participate in Kresheniye, which is the practice of going into the frozen river to purify your soul. It's practiced mostly by members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but if you can do it, it's an amazing experience. It can be done among dozens of other Russians with holes cut in the ice, or in small groups in forest streams, surrounded by nothing but quiet and snow. Make sure to have lots of layers that can be easily put on after the icy dip, but don't be worried about getting sick -- many Russians believe that if you take part in Kresheniye, you will be healthy all spring.
Eat the fast food.
While Russia does have fast food chains like McDonald's and Subway, their home-grown fast food chains are a little classier than ours. Pop into any Chaynaya Lozhka or Teremok to get quality bliny (Russian pancakes), which can be dressed up with dozens of different fillings; salmon, potato and onion, cottage cheese, and jam are some of the most popular choices. Teremok also offers Russian classics like borscht, and both places serve mors (a traditional Russian juice). It's a cheap way to experience Russian food culture, and you're sure to see dozens of locals there any day.
Stay up all night.
There's a saying that “Moscow never sleeps,” but that can be applied to the whole country, especially in the summer. St. Petersburg's location in the north means that there are White Nights, and the sun is only down for a couple hours. Head out for a midnight stroll to experience a northern twilight, or indulge in one of the many all-night restaurants in the city. It's not rare for Russians to come home when the morning is already in full glory. Since St. Petersburg residents say they “pay for” White Nights with the depressingly dark winter, there's no time to lose when the sun is around. It may seem intense for a tourist, but you can sleep when you get back from your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Russia.
Of course, you should take the time to do the touristy things in St. Petersburg – Peter and Paul Fortress, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Hermitage – they're incredibly popular for a reason. But instead of making your trip like any other vacation, make it the experience of the lifetime, and get a peek into the culture of the biggest country on the planet. You'll definitely want to go back.