Summer Baltic Sea cruises are among the most popular and sought after of sea voyages. And the crown jewel of each itinerary is the visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. Yet the majority of those who cruise the Baltic do not fully maximize their time when in St. Petersburg. Many cruise itineraries offer only an overnight stay with two full days available while the more upmarket cruise lines provide a two night stay, which gives you three days in which to explore this incredible city.
In this article I am offering my expertise, as someone who thoroughly knows the best way to see this historic city that is so filled with monumental palaces, churches and so much more than the tourist brochures promote. I am a retired professor of geography who has made 42 visits to St. Petersburg over the last eight years. And as a student of Russian history and geography and also one who is moderately fluent in the language, I believe I can be of assistance in your planning before you take this journey that for so many is a once in a lifetime adventure. Here are my suggestions for maximizing your visit to St. Petersburg:
For the greatest amount of freedom of movement it is worth the effort to obtain a Russian Visa. The process is a bit arduous, but worth it in the end. With a visa you can freely come and go from the ship and you are not bound to always be part of a group or private tour. This is especially valuable if you are adventurous enough to want to get around on your own, especially if you are willing to try using local transportation. But for the majority of visitors even those exploring privately through licensed agencies, the visa is not necessary.
Choose a cruise line that will be using smaller ships and will be docking at either the English Embankment or the Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment, both of which are located along the Neva River in the city center. The large mega cruise ships dock in a rather isolated cruise port that is well outside of the city center and requires either that you be part of a tour or have a car and driver to get anywhere. Even with a visa, you will need motorized access to see anything. And public transport is daunting to use unless you are somewhat familiar with the spoken language and capable of reading the Cyrillic Alphabet.
All cruise lines offer group motor coach tours, but they have very specific itineraries that show you primarily the major points of interest. They give you little or no time to explore the city or get to meet any Russians. And wherever you go, there will be large crowds of visitors.
If you are able and willing to spend a bit more money for your overall cruise experience, I highly recommend that you have a private car and driver/guide while in St. Petersburg. You can arrange such private excursions without need for a visa either through your cruise line, or you can go on line to various travel agencies in Russia that will provide the same services. But if you go outside of your cruise line’s offering, be sure that the company can affirm that they are licensed by the Russian government and able to provide the necessary equivalent of a temporary visa for each day you are out. You will need this paperwork to pass through immigration every time you leave the ship.
What can you see and do privately that you cannot do on a group tour? That is a valid question I am sure many of you are asking right now. As for visiting the major venues such as the Winter Palace (Hermitage), Peterhoff Palace, Catherine’s Palace and the major cathedrals of St. Isaac, Peter and Paul and the Church of the Savior on Blood, the only advantage is that you will have your own private guide right with you. But you will still face the same massive crowds that those who go on group tours will experience. But there is so much more to St. Petersburg than those six most recognized sites. And there is a city of six million residents with many fascinating neighborhoods to explore. This is something missed by most visitors. So how can they really say they have been to Russia? That is a very valid question. Among the many distinct experiences available when you are out with your own car and driver/guide I have listed ten of the most interesting that will give you a whole new approach to visiting Russia that will give you so many memorable experiences:
Taking a walk down Nevsky Prospekt and visiting Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, Gostiny Dvor shopping complex, the Eleiseevsky Gastronom or Dom Knigi (House of Books) and just mingling with the people.
The Russian State Museum if you want to see the finest collection of Russian fine art as well as folk arts and crafts.
The Kuznetchny Market to explore a massive food hall where ordinary Russians do their shopping
The 900-Day Siege Memorial dedicated to the million or so who lost their lives during the Nazi siege of World War II on Leningrad (St. Petersburg).
Park Pobedy is a beautifully landscaped large park with monuments to the heroic military leaders who saved the Soviet Union in two great wars.
Ride on the St. Petersburg Metro and see the many elegantly decorated stations that became the pride and joy of the city during the Soviet Era.
Visit Petrogradsky Island and explore its distinctive Art Deco architecture from the early 20th century.
St Nicholas Cathedral is one of the major working churches in the city where you can observe a religious service and listen to the melodic chanting of the priests and the choir.
Explore the Russian Artillery Museum if you are interested in weaponry used in Russia from medieval times right up to the present. This site has great appeal to young boys and the “boy” in us adult men.
Take a drive out into the countryside to the shores of Lake Ladoga along the “Road of Life,” that thin ribbon of concrete that helped break the 900-day siege during World War II. And you can stand on the shores of Europe’s largest fresh water lake.
The recommendations above are but a handful of typically Russian places to visit that will broaden your perspective on Russia and its people. And also remember than when you are out on your own, you can have your guide recommend a good restaurant for lunch where you can sample Russian cuisine. And if you invite your guide and driver to join you, there is a chance for some lively exchanges.
So maximize your visit to St. Petersburg and do not just visit the handful of very famous sites where you will be among fellow tourists as part of a massive crowd. You will never be able to say you really experienced Russia.