I am Dr. Hal Lemmon. I just returned from a ten day trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, so I can only speak for that city. The trip was essentially perfect, a few minor difficulties, too minor to mention.
I was on a private tour, just myself, the tour guide, and a driver. There were a very few days that I didn't have a guide. For example I spent three days at the Hermitage museum, the first day with the guide, and the second and third by myself. This worked out perfectly. Though on the 2nd and 3rd days I didn't have a guide, the Hermitage provides recording so you almost have a guide, and it has the advantage that you can quickly skip over rooms in which you have no interest. The Hermitage is huge, you can easily spend a week or two there.
My guide and driver also took me to the usual tourist sites in St. Petersburg. I would rate my tour guide twelve stars out of ten. Excellent English, knew Petersburg and its history, and was pleasant to be around. I also had a day or two on my own, which for the most part I used to catch up on my sleep. So busy every day, plus the jet lag...
I went to the Mariinsky Theatre almost every evening. I saw four operas and three ballets. The Mariinsky Ballet is possibly, maybe probably, the best in the world.
You can tell they are something special from the moment the current goes up. And of course the orchestra is fabulous. There are now two Mariinsky Theatres, right next to each other. The first about 250 years old, the second quite new. The acoustics are excellent. The theatres are in the classical horseshoe shape. If you go may I suggest you get the BEST seats that are available. Actually ALL the seats are excellent, but you know this is an experience of a lifetime.
The Russians are very friendly people and gracious hosts. They are invariably helpful and kind. One evening at the ballet I was sitting next to two elderly ladies, a mother of about 75 and her mother of about 95.
The Russians are very friendly people and gracious hosts. They are invariably helpful and kind.
We had interesting conversations during the intermission and at the end of the ballet they invited me to come to their apartment the following Saturday for lunch. Which I did.
There are numerous ATM machines all over, so just bring your credit card or even better, your debit card. It is better to bring your debit card because the credit card people charge a handsome fee, whereas with a debit card there is no fee, or just small one. You can also easily make purchases with either card at most places. Also the typical ATM machine only allowed to withdraw about $60 at a time, which when you are travelling isn't much.
Here is an interesting thing. At the hotel, once you checked in everyone knew your name. Even the waitress in the restaurant.
The St. Petersburg people did not look as I expected them to. First they are almost all thin. It was like American back in the fifties, before the fast food places caught on. The second thing is they look much younger than they are. A person of 35 or so has the a face with glowing and tight skin of a teenager. Due I am sure to the fact that SPB has only 60 days of sunshine a year.
Also I had an image of all the ladies being huge and bulbous. Not so. The women of SPB are very lovely. Typically with beautiful blond hair and that teenage face, a lovely smile and friendly.
Almost every evening at the ballet or opera I had interesting conversations with the persons next to me.
About the economy. Obama says Russia's economy is in taters. And so does the news. But this was not my observation. The ballet and opera were sold out every night. The streets are full of shoppers, and so are the stores and the museums. I avoided all conversations about politics and religion, but occasionally I caught a complaint about inflation. I asked if this is going to be a serious problem and they didn't think so.
The news also reports an aging population. But I saw children everywhere. Allow me to tell you the Russian children are really cute.
For what it is worth allow me to suggest you also avoid conversations about politics, the economy, and religion. Just go and have a good time.
Be prepared to re-evaluate your opinion of Russia and Russians. You will find the country to be great to visit, and the people warm and hospitable. Other friends have mentioned the same thing to me.
I found the company, the driver, and the guide to be all excellent.