St Petersburg is a city that makes you think in exclamation marks. Built on the network of islands, crisscrossed by 65 rivers and canals, its beauty is equalled only by its rich history.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, it was the capital of the Russian Empire for more than 200 years. One year after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the capital moved to Moscow.
After the death of Lenin in 1924, the city was renamed from Petrograd, the name it had adopted during WWI in an attempt to make it sound less German, to Leningrad. In 1951, 54% of those voting in referendum chose to revert the city’s name to St Petersburg.
Over these years it has witnessed several uprisings, assassinations, sieges and is closely associated with the lives and fate of the Romanovs, Russia’s Imperial family, and notable residents such as Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Today, it is a vibrant city stuffed full of museums and boasting an extraordinary performing arts agenda, particularly during the summer White Nights.
St Petersburg has also become an increasingly popular stop on Baltic Sea cruises. But with a plethora of enticing places screaming out to be visited, how do you make the best of one or two days there? And what’s the deal with Russian visas?
To help you with these tricky choices, here is my guide to visiting St Petersburg on a cruise ship.
Which cruise company should I use to visit St Petersburg?
Choosing your cruise line is a little like choosing your perfect partner. In a sea of choice (!), you have to pick your perfect match, deciding if your personalities match and if he/she will meet your expectations. Each cruise line has its own character – and budget – and you will need to do a little research to decide which will be the right fit for you.
Therefore, to a certain extent, the choice of operator on a Baltic Sea cruise to St Petersburg will depend on whether, for example, you want a more traditional cruising experience or an emphasis on fun. And, of course, how much you wish to spend.
But first and foremost, I urge you to look closely at the cruise itinerary. I would rule out any cruise that gives you just one day in St Petersburg. Instead, look for a cruise that docks in St Petersburg overnight, giving you two full days to explore the city. You are going to need it.
I sailed with Celebrity Cruises on the Silhouette in May 2019.
Will I need a visa to visit St Petersburg on a cruise?
As long as you have booked your shore excursion with an operator approved by the Russian authorities, you will not need a visa to visit St Petersburg on a cruise.
However, if you choose to visit St Petersburg independently, most visitors will need to apply for a visa before leaving on their cruise. Where reciprocal agreements are in place, citizens of some countries do not require a visa.
How much will a Russian visa cost?
As of June 2019, the consular fee for a standard Russian visa for UK citizens was £76
If you choose to use an agency to streamline this process, which many people do, this will increase the cost. For example, using Real Russia, a reputable London-based agency, increases this cost to £144.
However, I argue that cost is not the main consideration. The Russian visa application process is notoriously challenging and UK residents need to visit the Russian consulate for biometric (fingerprint) scanning.
In my view, if you are visiting St Petersburg on a cruise for a few days, it isn’t worth the hassle applying for a visa. I’m an independent traveller at heart but even I could see the sense in using an organised tour in St. Petersburg.
Should I book one of the ship’s shore excursions or an independent tour?
If you decide to visit St Petersburg with an authorised tour operator, the next decision you will need to make is whether to take one of the shore excursions offered by your cruise company or make your own arrangements.
Advantages of booking the ship’s shore excursions
Let’s consider the advantages of the ship’s shore excursion first.
Firstly, they will guarantee to get you back on board the ship on time. If the tour is delayed for any reason, they guarantee that the ship will not sail away without you on-board. Great for peace of mind, yes?
Secondly, if you are booked on one of the ship’s St Petersburg shore excursions you will be one of the first off the ship (day one only). Celebrity Cruises told us that this was a mandatory process, enforced by the Russian Marine Façade.
But do these factors really matter? In my experience, no.
I booked the two-day “Must See” tour with Alla Tours, an established tour operator authorised by the Russian authorities. In their 13 years of operating, they have never left any passengers behind. Also, if they fail to make it back to the ship on time, they assume responsibility for getting you to the next port of call.
In terms of disembarkation on day one, local tour operators are aware of the time that those who have made independent arrangements are allowed to leave the ship. Consequently, they set pick-up times accordingly. In any case, independent operators were not allowed in the terminal before the agreed disembarkation time.
Having said that, to avoid potential delay, be ready to disembark as soon as you are given the signal that you can do so. At least you will amongst the first of those who have made independent arrangements to get off the ship.
It’s interesting to note that feedback on disembarkation from people who had bought the ship’s shore excursion was not positive. They reported a very early assembly time and then waiting in the ship’s crowded main theatre for a considerable further length of time before being allowed to disembark the ship.
The cost of shore excursions
Celebrity’s shore excursions were relatively expensive.
For example, two-day St Petersburg shore excursions from the ship were priced from $419 for the cheaper tours by bus (larger groups). A smaller group size, using a minibus, increased this cost. By contrast, my two-day tour with Alla Tours cost $250. Our tour group numbered 13.
Other passengers who used alternative companies – for example, SPB Tours – had positive experiences similar to mine.
In a nutshell, given the choice again, I would not hesitate to book a shore excursion to St Petersburg with an independent operator.
Clearing Russian immigration at St Petersburg’s cruise terminal
Once granted permission to disembark, clearing Russian immigration at St Petersburg was surprisingly quick and painless. Just don’t expect banter from the officials.
You’ll need to hand over your passport and shore excursion ticket. In exchange, the official will stamp your passport and you’re good to go. On day one, you will also be given a printed receipt. Keep this safe as you will need to hand it back to immigration when you return to the ship. You will not receive this receipt on day two, when this process is significantly quicker.
On your return to the ship, you will need to clear Russian security and immigration, where you will need to show your ship’s sea pass and passport. Queues can be long
What are the ‘must-sees’ in St Petersburg in two days?
Your ‘must-sees’ in St Petersburg will, of course, depend on your interests and preferences. To me, these included The Hermitage, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and riding St Petersburg’s metro. Outside of the city, the Catherine Palace and Peterhof Summer Estate were on my list. In including these places on their itinerary, the independent tour operator trumped what was on offer from the ship.
In roughly chronological order, let’s take a closer look at the highlights of my St Petersburg tour, starting with the sights inside the city itself.
St Peter & St Paul Fortress
The birthplace of St Petersburg, St Peter & St Paul Fortress was originally constructed from wood in the early 18th century as a defence against Sweden. Subsequently rebuilt in stone as a military fortification, it later became political prison.
Today, the grounds of the fortress house the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, which is the burial place of many Russian emperors and empresses, starting with Peter the Great (1672-1725) and ending with the last Tsar, Nicholas II (1894-1917).
The Hermitage, the beating heart of St Petersburg, is not exactly a well-kept secret. On an average summer day, it hosts between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors. Therefore, to beat the crowds, make sure that your tour operator offers early entry. It will still be busy, but not nearly as rammed as the crowds snaking around the building in the early afternoon would suggest.
The building is as jaw-droppingly extravagant as the Hermitage’s collection of 3 million exhibits. And that’s saying something. Second only to the Louvre in Paris in size, the complex comprises five interconnected buildings, the most famous of which is the former Romanov Winter Palace.
The Hermitage’s collection was started by Catherine the Great and grew over the generations into one of Europe’s most important art collections. All of the major European schools are represented here with a particularly fine Renaissance collection.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
Designed by the French architect Auguste de Montferrand and built between 1818 and 1858, St Isaac’s is St Petersburg’s biggest cathedral. Highlights are its mosaics and monumental columns carved from lapis lazuli and malachite.
Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Officially known as the Church of the Resurrection of the Christ, this is the site of the 1881 assassination of Emperor Alexander II. A canopy made from rhodonite and jasper marks his assassination spot.
With this unmistakable brightly coloured onion domes piercing the sky, this is a St Petersburg landmark. Sadly, the main dome was encased in scaffolding during my visit.
The interior of the church is equally stunning, with its 700 m² intricate mosaic panels created by a who’s who of artists of the time.
St Petersburg canal cruise
Thanks to its labyrinthine network of rivers and canals, St Petersburg is known as the “Venice of the North”. Gently gliding along the city’s waterways gives you a different perspective on its magnificent architecture.
At least, that’s what’s the marketing material will tell you. In reality, this one-hour boat ride left me underwhelmed. Although the weather didn’t help – it was grey and wet – the trip concentrated on the city’s main waterways rather than the smaller canals. But, as I say, under bright blue skies this may have been a different experience.
Taking a ride on St Petersburg’s metro
This was a St Petersburg “must-do” for me and it was one of my highlights of this cruise stop.
St Petersburg’s metro is relatively young – first opened in 1955 – and is beautiful. It’s not often that a functional means of transport is turned into multiple works of arts.
We started our one-stop journey at Sportivnaya, next to St Petersburg Stadium. In keeping with its location, it had a sports theme, its murals depicting Olympic athletes and Greek gods. Even the lamps along the station are created to resemble the Olympic flames.
The next stop with Admiralteyskaya, one of the newest and also deepest stations. Located next to the Admiralty, this station has a nautical theme.
On the second day, my St Petersburg tour focused on the sites outside the city: Catherine Palace and Peterhof Gardens.
Located in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, 30 km south of St Petersburg, the Catherine Palace is a glorious fake.
This was the summer residence of the Russian Tsars. Originally presented by Peter the Great to his second wife, Catherine I, in the early 18th century, it was rebuilt in the more flamboyant rococo style around 40 years later.
When the Siege of Leningrad was lifted in 1944, the retreating German forces destroyed the residence, leaving a hollow shell. Only 10 of the palace’s halls escaped destruction. Therefore, although magnificent, what we see today is a reconstruction.
Even the famed Amber Room is a facsimile. Due to the fragility of the amber panels, it was not possible to remove these to safe location along with other precious artefacts in Leningrad. When the German forces reached St Petersburg, their soldiers disassembled the Amber Room’s panels, foiling the Russians’ attempt to hide their splendour beneath mundane wallpaper.
Hence, the Amber Room that draws visitors from near and far is the result of an extensive and expensive 24-year reconstruction which was started in 1979. The fate of the original panels is not known.
Tips for visiting Catherine Palace
- Coats are not allowed to be worn in the Catherine Palace. Wrap up warm.
- A free cloakroom is available.
- Photography is not permitted in the Amber room.
Peterhof Gardens and fountains
29 km west of St Petersburg, this UNESCO World Heritage site was built by Peter the Great in the 18th-century. Rebuilt after the ravages of World War II, like the Catherine Palace, Peterhof Palace is largely a reconstruction.
However, the star of the show is the Grand Cascade, a collection of more than 140 gravity-fed fountains and canals, engineered by the great man himself. The most spectacular of these are the gilded fountains in front of the palace. It’s easy to understand why Peterhof is known as the “Russian Versailles.”
What was it like to visit St Petersburg on a cruise?
As a city, St Petersburg did not disappoint and it was the highlight of my Scandinavia & Baltic Sea cruise on Celebrity Silhouette. Whilst I stand by my decision to see the city on an organised tour, this did come at a price.
Visiting Russia without a visa curtails your freedom. If, like me, you like to set your own pace and agenda, being rapidly shuttled from one site to another with barely an opportunity to take a photo was, at times, frustrating. Part of the difficulty was that there was a lot to see in two days, which meant that I had to be pragmatic and accept that visits were going to brief through necessity.
Also, on an organised tour, you can only move as fast as the slowest person. That said, I was lucky. We were a group of 13, all great people and despite two of the group pushing 90, there were no issues with a few members holding others up. I only hope that I have half of these older ladies’ energy and joie de vie at their age!
But this did make me question what it would be like visiting St Petersburg in a group of 50 or 60. If I was returning to St Petersburg on a cruise, I would consider a private guide. Yes, this will come at a price, but it should provide more of an opportunity to set the agenda and pace of the visit.
In common with other tour groups, on both days we were shepherded into a souvenir shop, which I presume was government-run. Prices were high, and I got a better deal on souvenirs onboard the ship a few days later.
Finally, two days is nowhere near enough time to see Russia’s Imperial Capital. However, visiting St Petersburg on a cruise gives you an enticing taster of this glorious city. Accept that you are not going to be able to do it all, expect it to be busy and enjoy your visit.
Useful information for cruise passengers visiting St Petersburg on a cruise
- Language – Russian.
- Currency – Rouble (R). Credit cards are widely accepted. I did not bother getting local currency and used my card instead.
- Tipping – The etiquette in Russia is to tip 10 – 15% of your bill in cash, giving this directly to the waiter. The suggested tip for guides is 10%; drivers 5%.
- St Petersburg cruise terminal – Most ships berth at the Marine Façade Complex, 5 km northwest of the city centre.
- Getting from the Marine Façade Complex to St Petersburg city centre – If you have a Russian visa you can walk or take bus #158 to Primorskaya, the nearest metro station, 2km away. The fare is approximately 30 RUB
You can also arrange a taxi at the Marine Façade Complex. Prices are listed on a board. It helps also to have your destination written in Russian as many drivers do not speak English.