For many people (myself included) visiting St. Petersburg was the primary motivating factor for booking my Northern European cruise. It’s a city that enchants from afar like no other but it’s also a destination that will be unlike most any other port you’ve ever visited on a cruise. So if you’re arriving by cruise ship in the “White City” here’s all you need to know and what you should plan for to make the most of your visit.
You will go through passport control each and every time you leave and return to your ship
Unlike at ports in the Caribbean and everywhere else in Europe, before you can officially enter Russia you have to pass through passport control. This means stopping at a booth while your passport is examined and ultimately stamped. If it’s your first time leaving the ship, you will also be given a Russian entry visa which is turned back in on the return trip through passport control. It goes without saying to make sure the Russian entry visa is in a safe place at all times. I’m pretty sure it would be a huge nightmare if you were unable to produce it. The second I passed through passport control (for my evening port excursion), it took a lot less time and no Russian entry visa was given out. And only one person at a time goes through passport control. Regardless of your being married or not, officers were somewhat anal about this, in a not so friendly fashion.
You do NOT need a Russian visa if you book an excursion through your cruise line
When traveling to Russia one needs a visa to enter if arriving by air. If arriving via cruise, you do not need to get a visa, provided you book an excursion through your cruise line. Your port excursion ticket (which your cruise line provides to you) essentially serves as your visa; once at passport control this is what grants you the actual Russian entry visa. If you do not have a port excursion ticket, you are not be allowed to pass through Russian immigration, period.
There are, however, a select number of tourist companies recognized by the Russian government through which you can book a private tour and essentially see St. Petersburg on your own without having to procure a visa. Anastasia Travel was a company that many people on my cruise booked with.
Ride the metro if given the chance
It’s not the first activity most travelers would think of when visiting a new city, but St. Petersburg’s metros are renowned from a beauty and architectural perspective. So when it came time to plan my customized itinerary for my private tour, I requested that we visit the Avtovo Station, which is truly a striking masterpiece. Our guide made the experience even neater as we got to ride the metro for a couple of stops. We rode in new cars ( built for this year’s World Cup that Russia hosted), but personally, I would have preferred riding in the old-school style ones.
I found it extremely interesting to see all of the Soviet Union/Communist icons that were featured prominently in the stations. I would later learn that most were constructed at the height of the Soviet Union’s power in the 1950s and 1960s. This will be truly be one of the neatest and definitely most authentic of Russian experiences while there.
It costs more but book a private tour
Even though I was limited to booking a tour excursion through Disney if I were to get off the ship in St. Petersburg, there was no way in HELL I was going to do some 50 person group excursion for a city I had dreamt about visiting my entire life. So for the first time after taking eight cruises, I booked a private car which included both the driver and our guide/translator. It was quite pricey, but it was one set price for everyone; a sedan could fit three people and there was also the option of booking a van, which I saw larger families doing.
How it worked with Disney Cruise (and I’m assuming other cruise lines are the same) is that you select the places you’d like to visit ahead of time and your itinerary is then scrutinized by the overseas company that handles the booking to see whether it’s feasible or not. By booking a private tour I could see everything that I wanted to, no disappointments of having to pick that “one thing” to see while in port if I were to have booked a group excursion. I got to see everything from Peterhof Palace to two of St. Petersburg’s most famous churches to riding the metro.
And for perspective, it cost less to book an eight hour private car in St. Petersburg than a four hour one in Stockholm (I did not end up doing this).
Don’t underestimate the crowds
Granted I was visiting during the summer and on a weekend day no less, but I was still taken aback by the sheer volume of crowds at the many popular tourist spots such as Peterhof Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Church of the Savior on Blood. St. Petersburg can receive countless ships into its harbors on the same day, everything from smaller vessels (ferries, river cruises) to large cruise ships. On the day we were there, there were three cruise ships in port in addition to one river cruise and a large ferry.
The lines to go through security at Peterhof were insane; obviously it doesn’t help matters when individual travelers have to queue up behind large groups. Thankfully our tour guide asked her counterpart who was leading a large group if we could go right before them and she agreed. One of the travelers in that group told us we were lucky, as he said his group had been waiting for almost two hours. My recommendation would be to arrive well before opening.
The same can be said of the Hermitage. I ended up booking a private tour that allowed me to visit with a small group in the evening after regular hours. This was ideal since it allowed me to avoid the excessively long lines of people waiting to get in during the day. You CAN buy tickets online. You’d be a fool not to.
Be sure to try the food & drink
I know, a common pitfall of cruises is that you don’t have enough time in the ports to really soak in the local culture, namely in the way of food. Your time in port is too short where you either don’t end up trying any of the local cuisine or you undoubtedly end up at some overpriced and non-authentic eatery along with dozens of other tourists.
Russia is definitely a country where you want to try at least some of the local cuisine especially since in most American cities (remember, I write this blog as an American), Russian restaurants are not overly plentiful. And lest you think Russian food consists of nothing but caviar and borscht. I have one word for you-pelmini, Russian style dumplings. These come with a variety of fillings including beef and lamb. And then of course there’s stroganoff, a dish that’s a common fixture in most American homes and yet is completely Russian in origin as it was developed there by a Count Stroganoff back in the mid-19th century.
When I was there I had a delicious lunch of beef pelmini and then a new dish for me, pirozhki, a Russian puff pastry which in my case was a savory kind (they can also be sweet). D did have the stroganoff although we discovered in Russia, stroganoff comes with mashed potatoes, not noodles as is the case in America. For dessert, we tried blini, a Russian style pancake, something I had always heard about (namely from reading enough historical fiction novels over the years concerning Russian immigrants).
And of course there was vodka, drunk by yours truly.
St. Petersburg is an amazing city, of all the cities I’ve visited in the world, it blows my mind to think of how much it has witnessed in its relatively short existence (as European cities go) since it wasn’t founded until the 18th century. I look forward to the day when I can return and explore in so much greater detail and depth.
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