Rick Steves Snapshot St. Petersburg, Helsinki & Tallinn


By Rick Steves

By Cameron Hewitt

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You can count on Rick Steves to tell you what you really need to know when traveling in St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Tallinn.

In this compact guide, Rick Steves covers the essential spots of each city, including the Hermitage, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Linnanmäki (a classic amusement park), and Toompea Castle. Take a day trip to the lavish palace at Peterhof, stroll through Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki, or see the best of contemporary Estonian art at Talinn’s Kumu Art Museum. You’ll get Rick’s firsthand advice on the best sights, eating, sleeping, and nightlife, and the maps and self-guided tours will ensure you make the most of your experience. More than just reviews and directions, a Rick Steves Snapshot guide is a tour guide in your pocket.

Rick Steves Snapshot guides consist of excerpted chapters from Rick Steves European country guidebooks. Snapshot guides are a great choice for travelers visiting a specific city or region, rather than multiple European destinations. These slim guides offer all of Rick’s up-to-date advice on what sights are worth your time and money. They include good-value hotel and restaurant recommendations, with no introductory information (such as overall trip planning, when to go, and travel practicalities).



This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebooks Rick Steves Scandinavia and Rick Steves Scandinavian & Northern European Cruise Ports, introduces you to the three great cities of the eastern Baltic Sea: St. Petersburg, Russia’s showpiece “window on the West,” which was custom-built by the czars to impress the world; the slick Finnish capital of Helsinki, with a livable urban core, world-famous architectural gems, inviting harborfront market, and a knack for design; and the charming Estonian capital of Tallinn, with fine viewpoints, oodles of cobbles, and an irrepressible Estonian spirit. At these chilly northern latitudes, the summer travel season is short, but the charms are ample. Ogle St. Petersburg’s opulent palaces, boulevards, and onion domes. Squeeze between Finns and squat on a wooden bench to sweat in a sauna. And browse the charms of Tallinn, one of Northern Europe’s most atmospheric old towns. With its ties both to Scandinavian kings and to Russian czars of yore, you’ll see how East meets West here in Europe’s north. All three of these cities are well-connected by short and scenic boat trips.

To help you have the best trip possible, I’ve included the following topics in this book:

Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time

Orientation, including tourist information (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints

Sights with ratings:

▲▲▲—Don’t miss

▲▲—Try hard to see

—Worthwhile if you can make it

No rating—Worth knowing about

Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range

Connections, with tips on trains, buses, and boats

Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, staying connected, accommodations, transportation, and more.

To travel smartly, read this little book in its entirety before you go. It’s my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you’ll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.

Счастливого пути..Hyvä matkaa... Head reisi...Happy travels!




Enigmatic. Intimidating. Fascinating. Boasting some of the most spectacular cities, churches, and fortresses on earth, wrapped in a culture that’s as monolithic and xenophobic as its onetime rival (read: us), Russia is an exciting frontier for adventurous Western travelers. Though no longer the great military and political power that it was during the Cold War, Russia remains a country of huge natural resources—energy, minerals, forests, rivers, and arable land.

Russia was poor and remote for centuries, with a good part of the population bound in serfdom until the 1860s. In the late 19th century, Russia began to industrialize, built closer ties to Europe, and fostered writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov.

One of the new ideas that came to Russia from the West was communism. Led by Lenin and Stalin, the communist experiment lasted almost 75 years before it collapsed in 1991. Since then, despite widespread corruption, Russia has managed to build up something akin to a free-market economy. In urban shopping districts, you’ll watch Russians perusing at least as many choices as American shoppers have.

Recently, Russia has taken baby steps toward making it easier for tourists to come on short visits to St. Petersburg, especially by ship. But a wildly fluctuating currency, still-improving service standards, limited knowledge of English, and a general lack of user-friendliness continue to challenge. And complicated, expensive visa requirements make Russia an uninviting destination for independent American travelers. However, the travel experience in Russia is slowly improving, year by year—particularly as the country geared up for the world spotlight as the host country of the 2018 World Cup.

Traveling in Russia—or even just tuning into the news from there—leaves a strong impression of a place that, while massive and powerful, is still trying to assert itself in the post-communist world. Yeltsin-era reforms and optimism have faded. Recent changes in the law have alarmed lovers of free speech, gay-rights advocates, and anyone who supports democratic ideals. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in Western elections have increased tensions. And, more than two decades into his quasi-authoritarian rule, Vladimir Putin casts a long shadow over the world’s largest country.

Today’s Russia is wrestling with an ostensibly free-market economy that’s dominated by the monopolistic instincts of the communist past, troubling concerns about ethnic diversity, and an increasingly stratified society (with a tiny and extremely wealthy upper class, a huge and desperate lower class, and little room in the middle). Bribery is an integral part of the economy—estimated at 20 percent of GDP. A corporate survey found it’s harder to do business in Russia than in Bangladesh, Yemen, or Pakistan.

You’ll see many “Asian” (most are actually Siberian) Russians, a reminder that this vast nation stretches from Norway to China. The friction between ethnic Russians and their eastern countrymen—which erupts violently in the form of periodic hate crimes—demonstrates that that gap between rich and poor has left a growing number of Russians desperate for scapegoats.

Yes, Russia is challenging, both for Russians and for tourists. But it’s also a richly rewarding destination for those willing to grapple with it. The following chapter focuses on St. Petersburg—Russia’s “window on the West”—the country’s northwestern outpost, peering across the Baltic Sea to Europe. In addition to advice on sightseeing, hotels, and restaurants, you’ll also find tips on the Russian language (see here) and cuisine (here).

Russian Survival Phrases

Russia comes with a more substantial language barrier than most of Europe. In general, young Russians know at least a little halting schoolroom English; hoteliers and museum clerks may speak only a few words; and older people speak none at all.

For help with decoding the Cyrillic alphabet, see the sidebar on here.

English Russian / Transliteration Pronunciation
Hello. (formal) Здравствуйте. / Zdravstvuyte. zdrah-stvee-tyeh
Hi. (informal) Привет. / Privyet. pree-vyeht
Goodbye. До свидания. / Do svidaniya. dah svee-dahn-yah
Do you speak English? Вы говорите по-английски? / Vy govoritye po angliyski? vih gah-vah-ree-tyeh pah ahn-glee-skee
I (don't) understand. Я (не) понимаю. / Ya (nye) ponimayu. yah (nyeh) poh-nee-mah-yoo
Yes. Да. / Da. dah
No. Нет. / Nyet. nyeht
Please. Пожалуйста. / Pozhaluysta. pah-zhahl-stah
Thank you. Спасибо. / Spasibo. spah-see-bah
Excuse me. Извините. / Izvinitye. eez-vee-nee-tyeh
(Very) good. (Очень) хорошо. / (Ochen) khorosho (oh-cheen) kha-roh-show
How much? Сколько стоит? / Skolko stoit? skohl-kah stoh-yeet
one, two один, два / odin, dva ah-deen, dvah
three, four три, четыре / tri, chetyre tree, cheh-teer-yeh
five, six пять, шесть / pyat, shest pyaht, shyest
seven, eight семь, восемь / sem, vosem syehm, vwoh-sehm
nine, ten девять, десять / devyat, desyat dyeh-veht, dyeh-seht
Where is…? Где…? / Gdye…? guh-dyeh
…the toilet туалет / tualet too-ahl-yeht
men мужчины / muzhchiny moo-shee-neh
women женщины / zhenshchiny zhen-shee-neh
(to the) right (на) право / (na) pravo (nah) prah-vah
(to the) left (на) лево / (na) levo (nah) leh-vah
beer пиво / pivo pee-vah
vodka водка / vodka vohd-kah
water вода / voda vah-dah
coffee кофе / kofe koh-fyeh
Cheers! (To your health) На здоровья! / Na zdorovya! nah zdah-roh-veh



Once a swamp, then an imperial capital, and now a showpiece of vanished aristocratic opulence resurrected from the dingy ruins of communism, St. Petersburg is Russia’s most accessible and most tourist-worthy city. During the Soviet era, it was called Leningrad, but in 1991 St. Petersburg reverted to its more fitting historic name, honoring the Romanov czar who willed the city into being. Designed by imported French, Dutch, and Italian architects, this is, arguably, European Russia’s least “Russian” city.

Palaces, gardens, statues, and arched bridges over graceful waterways bring back the time of the czars. Neighborhood markets brim with exotic fishes, meats, and produce, and bustle with gregarious vendors offering samples of honey and pickled goodies. Stirring monuments—still adorned with hammers, sickles, and red stars—tower over the masses, evoking Soviet times. Jammed with reverent worshippers, glorious Orthodox churches are heavy with incense, shimmer with icons, and filled with hauntingly beautiful music. Topping things off are two of the world’s premier art museums—the Hermitage and the Russian Museum—and one of its most opulent royal houses, the Catherine Palace.

St. Petersburg can challenge its visitors, most of whom have to jump through hoops to get a visa—and then struggle with not enough time, limited English, and an idiosyncratic (and not quite Western) approach to “service” and predictability. But most visitors leave St. Petersburg with vivid memories of a magnificent city, one that lives according to its own rules. While this place can be exasperating, it is worth grappling with. Beyond its brick-and-mortar sights, St. Petersburg gives first-timers a perfect peek into the enigmatic Russian culture.

Save time on a sunny day just to walk. Keep your head up: The upper facades are sun-warmed and untouched by street grime. While Nevsky Prospekt—the city’s famous main boulevard—encapsulates all that’s wonderful and discouraging about this quixotic burg, get beyond that axis. Explore the back streets along the canals. Stroll through the Summer Garden. Shop for a picnic at a local market hall. Go for a canal boat cruise. Step into a neighborhood church to watch people get intimate with an icon. Take a Metro ride anywhere, just for the experience. Climb St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the view. When the Baltic Sea brings clouds and drizzle, plunge into the Hermitage or the Russian Museum.


St. Petersburg is fantastic and gigantic. Two full days is a great start; with more time, you can squeeze in some of the out-of-town sights. A longer stay makes the visa hassle and expense more worthwhile.

St. Petersburg’s much-bandied “White Nights,” the 80-some summer days of nearly round-the-clock daylight, are a boon to travelers, stretching available sightseeing hours into the bright night.

If you’re arriving by cruise, you’ll most likely have two days here. To make the most of your daytime sightseeing, find out whether your cruise line offers an evening visit to the Hermitage (and keep in mind that the museum stays open until 21:00 on Wed and Fri).


With just one day, you’ll have to make some tough decisions. Devout art lovers should tour the Hermitage, then follow my self-guided Nevsky Prospekt walk. For a wider-ranging experience, skip the Hermitage and follow this ambitious plan (if you’re not up for it all, omit the Russian Museum):

9:00 Follow my self-guided Nevsky Prospekt walk (about 2 hours), stopping in the Kazan Cathedral (30 minutes), Church on Spilled Blood (30 minutes), and Russian Museum (2 hours). Along the way, grab a quick lunch (30 minutes) and take some time to shop and linger (30 minutes).
15:00 Take a canal boat cruise.
16:00 Ride the Metro to the Peter and Paul Fortress, and tour the Romanov tombs at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral.
18:00 Walk back across the Neva, pausing at Strelka for a panoramic view.

Evening Attend the ballet (seasonal), a concert, or the circus; explore some of the city’s hipster dining and nightlife neighborhoods; or simply enjoy the city’s famous “White Nights.”

St. Petersburg in Two, Three, or More Days
Day 1
9:00 Follow my self-guided walk along Nevsky Prospekt to acquaint yourself with the city.
11:00 Visit the Kazan Cathedral and Church on Spilled Blood, and grab a quick lunch.
13:00 Tour the Russian Museum.
15:00 Take a canal boat cruise.
16:30 Visit St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
18:30 Dinner.
Evening Ballet, concert, circus, etc.
Day 2
10:30 Plunge into the Hermitage.
13:30 Grab a quick lunch, then walk across the Neva River to the Strelka viewpoint, continuing to Peter and Paul Fortress.
15:30 Tour the Kunstkamera and/or the Museum of Russian Political History; for a break, stroll through the Summer Garden.
18:00 Visit the Fabergé Museum.
19:30 Dinner.
Evening See above.
Days 3, 4, and 5

With more time, do days 1 and 2 at a more relaxed tempo, and consider splitting your Hermitage visit over two days (one for the main exhibits, the other for the Impressionist galleries). Let what you don’t get to spill over to days 3, 4, and 5. Other choices are to visit other museums that interest you; ride the Metro to less-touristed parts of the city (such as the back streets of Vasilyevsky Island; see here); or go to Peterhof or Tsarskoye Selo for the day. WWII history buffs should consider a visit to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Orientation to St. Petersburg


On Sale
Oct 30, 2018
Page Count
260 pages
Rick Steves

Rick Steves

About the Author

Since 1973, Rick Steves has spent about four months a year exploring Europe. His mission: to empower Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable, and culturally broadening. Rick produces a best-selling guidebook series, a public television series, and a public radio show, and organizes small-group tours that take over 30,000 travelers to Europe annually.  He does all of this with the help of more than 100 well-traveled staff members at Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds, WA (near Seattle). When not on the road, Rick is active in his church and with advocacy groups focused on economic and social justice, drug policy reform, and ending hunger. To recharge, Rick plays piano, relaxes at his family cabin in the Cascade Mountains, and spends time with his son Andy and daughter Jackie. Find out more about Rick at http://www.ricksteves.com and on Facebook.

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Cameron Hewitt

About the Author

Born in Denver and raised in central Ohio, Cameron Hewitt settled in Seattle in 2000. Ever since, he has spent three months each year in Europe, contributing to guidebooks, tours, radio and television shows, and other media for Rick Steves’ Europe, where he serves as content manager. Cameron married his high school sweetheart (and favorite travel partner), Shawna, and enjoys taking pictures, trying new restaurants, and planning his next trip.

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