ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) -- The ruble's weak. The warnings about a complicated visa process were wrong, at least with a travel agency's help. And current geopolitical tensions make this a good time to temper headlines about Russia with everyday people and places.
Consider the prices, at least outside the summer tourist rush: A round-trip air ticket between New York and the lovely St. Petersburg this fall was less than $600, and winter prices are looking about the same. Hostel beds start at around $6. A balcony ticket to the ballet at the famous Mariinsky Theatre is about $10. Tickets for most runs of the high-speed, four-hour train between St. Petersburg and Moscow are around $55.
Three weeks of exploring western Russia left me with the following impressions, along with a number of useful words and phrases. By the way, make the effort to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, which doesn't take long. It helps in getting adjusted and in buying tickets for the train, which is the best, and most social, way of getting around.
St. Petersburg makes for a soft landing in Russia. Peter the Great's vision of a Europe-facing nation plays out here among the miles of canals, the fantastic art-filled Hermitage overlooking the Neva River and a younger generation more comfortable with the world abroad.
The Soul Kitchen hostel, which overlooks one of the city's waterways, has both dorm and private rooms and thoughtful touches like freshly baked apple cake in the collective kitchen every morning and classical music playing in the bathroom. Highly recommended.
A nice surprise was Kaliningrad, a fragment of Russia tucked between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea for which I found same-day flights for as low as $40 from Moscow. I easily filled a couple of days with a bus tour for about $17 to the Curonian Spit, a fragile sand dune peninsula on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and with places like Kvartira, a cafe-art spot in an apartment building that would hold its own in Brooklyn. Don't be surprised if people try speaking to you in German, as Kaliningrad was once the German city of Konigsberg.
Art, more art, Orthodox churches, urban exploration and cherry dumplings. A bluff overlooking the Volga River is about as much altitude this part of Russia offers, so go for the culture instead of the sweeping views.
Moscow has plenty to offer beyond its high-end shopping and nightclubs. Be prepared for long weekend lines of art lovers at both branches of the State Tretyakov Gallery. And there's always the Kremlin.
In St. Petersburg, the Russian Museum is a worthy afternoon if the Hermitage left you wanting more, and the Erarta museum is a good collection of more modern art with the rare benefit of detailed descriptions in both Russian and English.
The word "hipster" has entered the Russian language -- just aspirate the "h'' and roll the "r'' -- and you can feel like one at places like the Red October cultural complex in Moscow or the Museum of Soviet Lifestyle in Kazan. The owner aspires to make the collection of late-Soviet-era cultural items a kind of Russian rock-and-roll hall of fame as well. Also in Kazan, as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg, you can fill your pocket with old 15-kopeck coins and play at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines.
Need more reasons to go? Consider the historic small town of Suzdal outside Moscow. The stunning changing skies over the Neva in St. Petersburg. The Soviet-era "pishki" donuts and sweet coffee (25 rubles, or about 35 cents, a cup) at 25 Bolshaya Konushennaya in St. Petersburg. The caviar on buttered bread at the Mariinsky Theatre. The chandeliers. Your first view of Red Square from the Resurrection Gate. The inexpensive but classy stolovaya, or cafeteria, at the lavish GUM department store in Moscow. The ubiquitous color red, from meaty borscht to creaky-old trams. The collection of old Soviet statues in the park near the new Tretyakov gallery in Moscow. The honey-spiced hot drink called sbiten. The old Lada cars here and there. Near-strangers gifting you books.
If you're a budget traveler, fall and winter are when you'll find bargains. Of course that also means bundling up in gloves and down jacket. Hot drinks and ever-warming vodka help too. Hard-core travelers wrap themselves in blankets to cruise the St. Petersburg canals on the decks of small boats in fall and at night as well. Being near the sea keeps St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad temperatures more moderate than places like Kazan and Nizhy Novgorod in the interior.
If You Go ...
It's useful to download free apps like SpeakEasy Russian and iTranslate, add a Russian-language keyboard to your smartphone and even get a Russian SIM card to stay online and benefit from Google Translate. Most locals appreciate the effort.
The Man in Seat 61 website offers a useful beginners' guide to Russian train travel, http://www.seat61.com/index.html.