Baltic cruises are becoming increasingly popular routes and many cruise lines are choosing to make a port stop in St. Petersburg. The once-elusive Russian city is now becoming a reality for many people and the best/worst part is that you don’t need a Russian visa. However, without a Russian visa your freedom in Russia is greatly limited.
To be fair, two days is not nearly enough time to see St. Petersburg. I could spend a week there and still feel as though I hadn’t seen it all. But if you have the opportunity to spend any time in St. Petersburg you should definitely jump on that opportunity.
A cruise to St. Petersburg is much different than arriving via airplane or a land border. To begin with, you are not required to get a visa because Russia literally won’t let you. For typical tourists to Russia, you have to be ‘sponsored’ by either a private person or a hotel. Since cruisers don’t have a hotel other than the ship, they can’t meet that requirement.
Yay, now you don’t have to send off your passport to the Russian embassy and spend upwards of $300 on a visa! But in order to get off the ship in St. Petersburg, you are required to have a guided tour. What does that mean? Basically, Putin is trying to prevent you from running amuck while in St. Petersburg with a cruise ship. When I first learned that I had to be on a tour the entire time, I was livid. As a general rule, I despise being part of an organized tour, especially in a country where I didn’t want to be a part of a massive tour group that moved slower than molasses.
Going Through Russian Customs
My parents and I took the adventurous route and saw St. Petersburg with a personal guide. We booked it through TJ Travel. Consequently, we had to go through customs there in St. Petersburg on our own. And so did about 800 other people. The line to get through customs took nearly two hours. Yes, you read that correctly. Each person had to go to a customs agent individually, unlike some countries that allow families to go together. Each of those people spent around five minutes being questioned by Russian border agents. I was ready for the KGB to come out and take me hostage any minute. Thankfully, they never did.
If you choose to see St. Petersburg with a tour that isn’t affiliated with a cruise line, get off the ship as soon as the local authorities clear it. Otherwise you’ll be stuck in the awful customs line. Even if they make you wait until independent tour people can go, you will at least be the first of the independent people to get to Russia.
When going through customs, you need to have a printout of your tour ticket and your passport. It’s a good idea to have a copy of your passport and tickets with you as well. You hand your passport and ticket to the agent and grumpily take it and check your background. They asked me if I was a military woman, to which I said no. They then asked me if I was a policewoman, to which I also said no. But when my dad went through customs right after me, they asked the same things and he told them that he was a police officer. No big deal right?
While going through customs to get back on the boat, my dad was detained because he was a police officer. They took him into a back room (I was convinced he would be sent to Siberia or something) and asked him a few questions about if he knew any Russian officers. Since he had nothing to hide, they let him go after about 10 minutes.
Other than the awful line trying to get in to Russia, there were no problems with border control. It’s similar to every other country and as long as you have the things you need there won’t be any problems.
Options for Tours in St. Petersburg
There are an indefinite amount of options for tours to take in St. Petersburg. However, some are better or worse than others for different reasons. Tour companies know that the customs line can take a while on the first day so they will wait for you to get off the ship, even if it’s delayed by a few hours.
Cruise Ship Tours
These are by FAR the most expensive ones. As much as I hate to say it, these tours are typically geared toward the most ‘boring’ traveler. The cruise line arranges the tour and all of the organization is done through the ship. You will receive your tickets in your stateroom and the day of the tour you will gather in a certain room on the ship and are guided to your busses en masse.
- You don’t have to do much thinking because your tour guide does all the work for you and you get to sit on a huge air conditioned bus
- If something happens to your tour (i.e. you return after the ship is supposed to leave), the ship will wait for you because it’s a ship-organized excursion
- Usually consist of around 60 people in a group. Which means you’re only as fast as the slowest person
- Easy to identify. St. Petersburg is home to many pickpockets and if they see you in one of these big ‘cruise ship groups’ you could be more of a target
- You will either get an annoying earpiece to wear around your neck that allows you to hear your tour guide or your guide will just shout and its possible you can’t hear him or her. Either way I find those two methods very irritating
- You work on their schedule. Which means that you can’t take any detours because there are 59 other people who want to stick on the schedule they were told about
As you can probably tell, I am NOT a fan of cruise line tours. There are only some occasions where they can be useful, like when I took it to see Chichen Itza in Mexico. Keep in mind that a lot of people who take these Baltic cruises are more… advanced in their age. Which means that you can’t sprint through the Hermitage with everyone. So if you’re a fast-paced traveler like me, this may not be the option for you.
External Tour Groups
Cruise lines typically offer the basic tours in every port, especially St. Petersburg. You will likely have the option to go see the highlights of St. Petersburg, the culture of St. Petersburg, or maybe a very in-depth visit to the Hermitage. But what happens when you want to explore Soviet history or go on a specialized culinary tour? That’s where external tour groups come in extremely handy.
A lot of these outside tour groups will have an option for a St. Petersburg Walking Tour. I definitely recommend that you take a walking tour. The one that I took was a two-hour walking tour at night. Just don’t anticipate for it to be dark, because you’ll probably be there in the summer where it never gets dark.
Objectively speaking, try to find a tour that offers some sort of vodka tasting. Even if you aren’t a drinker, these tours give you an opportunity to see what the history and cultural importance of Vodka is all about. My mom recommended that we go on one and it was an incredible adventure. In addition to five vodka shots, we were also fed authentic Russian food and shown around the real St. Petersburg by our guide.
- The tour can be specialized to what you want to do
- Guides pick you up right outside the ship terminal
- Smaller tour group size
- There are usually other people in the group with you
- Still have a schedule that is dictated by other people
- Pricier than large groups
If you want a tour that is more personalized for you, I suggest booking a private tour. It will be more expensive but for many people, traveling to St. Petersburg is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Like my grandma always says, “memories are expensive.”
Our tour was private and included the “Highlights of St. Petersburg.” Boy, did we hit the highlights and hit all of them. After talking to other cruisers who had chosen to do different tours, my parents and I were so thankful we took the private tour that we did. Our guide, Julia, was incredible and so knowledgeable about Russian history. Here are the places that we went to with in just 18 hours spread over two days.
The Hermitage: Our time there was cut short due to the 2-hour customs line. We flew through the Hermitage in just 2 hours and still managed to hit all the highlights of it. That couldn’t have been done if we had been traveling with more than the four of us.
Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood: It’s a beautiful church and doesn’t take a lot of time to see. The longest part is just dealing with all the tour groups.
Isaac’s Cathedral: Everything is bigger in Russia, especially the cathedrals. Isaac’s Cathedral is actually the fourth largest church in Christendom, behind St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Florence Duomo.
Peterhof Palace: This palace is situated a bit outside of the city and you need a guide to go there. It was modeled after the Palace of Versailles. A must-see for anyone going to St. Petersburg.
Driving Around: Since there were only the three of us on the tour, Julia took us on a personalized driving tour through St. Petersburg. Whenever we wanted, we’d pull over to the side for a photo op. This let us see the Peter and Paul Fortress, Pavlov’s House, the Hermitage from the water, and other sites super early in the morning before the tour groups.
Government Souvenir Shop: Like many communist(ish) countries, the tour guides will take you to the souvenir shops that are run by the government. That’s exactly what we did. Julia promised us ‘authentic’ amber but we didn’t care at all about Amber, so we marveled at the high price tags and purchased some postcards. We only had about 20 minutes there but the pit stop would’ve been nearly impossible with a larger group. Are you catching on to a trend here?
Catherine’s Palace: This is also outside of the city. Catherine’s Palace is another example of the Russians having too much money and not enough cents. It’s beautiful though and we were able to actually go inside the palace. Plus, we got to wear these super cute booties to preserve the floors. Another reason Catherine’s Palace is so famous is because its home to the Amber Room. The Nazis stole the Amber Room in WWII and then lost it, but historians have managed to restore it to its former glory. The history nerds in my mom and me were going berzerk at this.
Metro: Since we were in such a small group, Julia was able to take us on the famous St. Petersburg Metro. Apparently the Moscow Metro is more beautiful but I still thought St. Petersburg was impressive. The metro is one of the deepest ones in the world and has beautiful decorations.
Kazan Cathedral: Slightly resembling the Vatican, the Kazan Cathedral was built specifically to hold the relics of a Russian saint. It’s a very impressive church built right along the Nevsky Prospekt.
New Amsterdam: This was an example of somewhere we otherwise wouldn’t have seen if it weren’t for our small group. It’s a new development in a residential area that is extremely modern and clean for a place like St. Petersburg. It was still a bit chilly in May so the flowers weren’t out yet, but this would have been a lovely place in the summer.
- You can mostly see what you want
- You travel at your pace
- Personal tour guide
- Easier to cut lines and get where you need to go within museums
- Really expensive, especially if you want it to only be YOUR traveling companions
- If you like the comfort of large groups, this is a very one-on-one experience
Since my parents and I had taken the walking tour at night, we were able to see several sites that otherwise Julia would have shown us. This allowed us more time to drive around St. Petersburg and to stop at the souvenir place.
If you are still unsure of what tour can help you see St. Petersburg on a cruise ship in 2 days, consider checking ahead what other cruise ships will be in port. On my first day, there were four ships total in port. That made for a lot of tourists descending upon the same sites in the city. The second day, there were five cruise ships. According to Julia, St. Petersburg’s port can hold up to 10 cruise ships. If you average each cruise ship to have around 3,000 passengers, there could hypothetically be around 30,000 tourists in St. Petersburg on any given day. And don’t forget, cruise ship passengers can’t get a visa so they HAVE to also be on a guided tour. Just something else to consider when planning your trip.
Everyone has different traveling styles and it’s okay to choose whichever when visiting St. Petersburg. But my number one recommendation is to not spend your evening (if it’s a two-day port) sitting in the dining room on the ship. Get out there and see as much of the city as possible. Like I always say, you can sleep when you’re dead. Make the most of your time in St. Petersburg and see everything that the city has to offer!