VISAS: Russia's grinding visa regulations make short-notice travel essentially impossible. Start the application a couple of months ahead of departure. Paying a visa-assistance agency's fee is a good investment unless the traveler wants to stand in glacial lines at consulates staffed by uncivil servants.
GETTING THERE: St. Petersburg has no direct flights from the U.S. Connect through Moscow or major Western European cities. The midnight sleeper trains from Moscow take eight hours; security, once infamously dicey, is tight in the top-class cars (though the bathrooms still are primitive). Three trains a day run from Helsinki, Finland, about a six-hour trip.
CULTURE VULTURES: Many museums charge foreigners twice the admission prices that Russians pay; the cashiers have sharp ears and it's next to impossible to fake them out. But even the higher prices are reasonable — 350 rubles or $13 — for the Hermitage (and free admission on the first Thursday of every month). Tickets for performances at the Mariinsky Theater can be bought online at www.mariinsky.ru/en.
DON'T DRINK THE WATER: Rely on bottled water or the coolers of purified water that some hotels provide.
GET READY TO WALK: Visitors from car-oriented cultures should be prepared to be footsore. Many major tourist sights are a long walk from subway stations and bus stops; sidewalks often are in poor repair. The subways and buses are generally inaccessible to the physically challenged, and the linguistically challenged will be flummoxed by the near-total absence of route maps, street signs and other info in any language other than Russian.