Shopping in St. Petersburg can produce precious porcelain or a bag full of cheap lacquer boxes, depending on your energy level, resourcefulness, and pocketbook. The matryoshka nesting dolls are so plentiful and ubiquitous that you probably won't be able to leave without one. For more original ware, visit Lomonosov Porcelain Factory, which has a museum and shop featuring imperial china patterns. Soviet banners and Red Army gear are a draw for some, though Moscow features more of a selection, since St. Petersburg prefers to emphasize its royal heritage rather than its Soviet past. Amber from the Baltic region is a bargain compared to what you'd pay anywhere else, and the selection is much broader. St. Petersburg is fast on its way to competing with Moscow as a luxury shopping capital, with plenty of French, Italian, and local haute couture aimed at the nouveau riche. The city's dearth of multinational retail chains is likely to change in the coming years, for better or for worse.
The Shopping Scene
The chief challenge in finding unique souvenirs and gifts in Russia is in determining whether you're allowed to bring them home.
Hotel gift shops and the souvenir stands on Nevsky have higher prices than elsewhere. The outdoor markets are a better bet, such as the one across from the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. Be ready to bargain, and beware of counterfeiting. If something sounds suspiciously cheap, there's a reason. The monasteries and cathedrals have the richest selection of icons.
Several of the city's souvenir stores are grouped under one umbrella, with fairly standard and relatively high prices. Still, their selection beats most others around, and quality is guaranteed. You can see a sampling of their wares (and even make purchases) online at www.souvenirboutique.com, but the selection and price range is much broader in the stores. Two of the group's stores, Babushka and Katarina, are in our listings. Another, Onegin, is widely advertised in St. Petersburg but has higher prices for the same goods.
St. Petersburg has no sales tax, but be clear with the vendor about what currency is being cited. In shops most prices will be printed in rubles. Street vendors will sometimes cite in dollars or euros, though they're technically forbidden from accepting anything but rubles. VAT is always included in the price, but it is not refundable at the border as it is in some European countries.
If you want to ship home large items such as paintings or carpets, try DHL, 4 Izmailovsky Prospekt (tel. 812/326-6400), which can take care of any Customs clearances you need. Also, some of the stores listed below, including Babushka and Katarina, can arrange Culture Ministry approvals of valuable artwork and ship it to you, for a fee.
Credit cards are not accepted as widely as you might expect. Shops and shopping centers are generally open 7 days a week from around 10 or 11am until 7 or 8pm, and a very few still take an hour off for lunch between about 1 and 2pm. Most are closed on Russian holidays.
Box That Up -- Lacquer boxes have become a staple of Russian souvenir shops, but with a little context they take on a greater meaning. The practice of painting on papier-mâché boxes started in the village of Danilovka outside Moscow in the 1700s, and quickly spread to surrounding towns. Today, the towns of Palekh, Fedoskino, and Mstera are among the leading lacquer-art producers. The boxes sold now are made of several layers of papier-mâché pressed together, cut, and oven-dried. Generally painted on a black background, the colors are primarily scarlet- and gold-based, and the finished product is lacquered in clear varnish, often in multiple layers, for radiance and durability. The images usually represent scenes from Russian fairy tales or legends, and can vary widely depending on the artist's interpretation. Study several before buying a lacquer box. The box should be lightweight, and the detail should be impeccable, since the better artists spend up to 2 months painting them using special magnifying glasses.
For a gift for a whole family, buy a lacquer box together with the English-language translation of the fairy tale depicted (on sale at many souvenir shops and bookstores).
Amber -- The Baltic Sea coast from Kaliningrad up toward St. Petersburg holds nearly all of the world's amber. This strange gem of petrified tree sap is ubiquitous in Russia's imperial capital. Rings, necklaces, brooches, cigar holders, pens, and other souvenirs made of amber are widely available. Although they're not cheap, they cost much less than in other countries farther from the source. Any souvenir market, crafts store, or jewelry shop is bound to have a decent selection. Keep an eye out for the more unusual shades of pale green or yellow.
Wine & Liquors -- See Kalinka Stockmann and Lenta. Both have good, inexpensive selections of Russian vodkas and wines from Georgia, Crimea, and Moldova that you're unlikely to find at home. The spirits sold in the ubiquitous kiosks around town are sometimes counterfeit and not worth risking despite their lower prices.
Fine Russian Filigree -- The Russian version of the lacy, openwork metal design known as filigree makes for a precious souvenir to bring home. It's one of the few things you can really find only in Russia, as it's not widely sold at Russian-themed stores abroad. Top suggestions include a silver filigree box with a Russian lacquer lid, silver filigree necklaces embedded with Siberian stones, and Russian-themed filigree Christmas ornaments. Smaller items from rougher metal can cost as little as 300 rubles; more elaborate or delicate items can cost hundreds.
Chocolate -- Russian chocolate has come a long way from the waxy stuff sold in Soviet shops, though it's still sweeter than what you'll find in Switzerland or Belgium. A few ounces of these chocolates in their cheerful, Russian-lettered wrappings are a sure way to please any underage friends or family back home (though you might want to sample them first, since a few are made with liqueurs). The big supermarkets also usually have small wrapped chocolates for very reasonable prices. Try Belochka, 28 Sredny Prospekt, on Vasilevsky Island (tel. 812/323-1763; metro: Vasileostrovskaya); or Nevskiye Berega, 32 Naberezhnaya Makarova (tel. 812/323-5919; www.cake.spb.ru; metro: Vasileostrovskaya).
Toys -- DLT, has modern, international toys. Vernisazh, offers more original toys like wooden Russian puppets and unusual chess sets.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.