If you’re planning a Baltic or Northern Europe cruise that includes a stop in St. Petersburg, Russia, there are a few things you’ll need to know before your visit.
Saint Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, is situated on the Neva River and overlooks the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. It’s Russia’s second-largest city and is considered the country’s culture capital. With so many museums, grand baroque palaces, and elaborate Orthodox cathedrals, it’s no wonder many cruise itineraries include an overnight stay at this port.
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You won’t need a visa if you’ve booked with an approved tour company
Citizens of most countries usually need a visa to visit Russia. Exceptions are former Soviet republics, several Central and South American countries, and a few others. US, Canadian, UK, Australian and NZ nationals all generally need a visa when traveling to Russia.
However, the Russian government allows cruise ship passengers to visit St. Petersburg without a visa for up to 72 hours. But, without a visa you can only go ashore if you’ve booked a tour with a licensed tour operator. You’re also required to live on board the ship, meaning that you sleep there and not at a hotel or someone’s home.
If you’re visiting family or friends, or you want to explore the area on your own, you’ll need to secure a Russian visa prior to your cruise.
You can’t leave the ship unless you’re with your tour group
Part of Russia’s visa-free entry program for cruise visitors to St. Petersburg requires that passengers stay with their tour group at all times.
If you want to make the most of your visit to St. Petersburg, two-day tours of the city’s highlights are available through your cruise line. To save a significant amount of money, consider booking through an independent tour operator.
Some cruisers also opt to take a day trip to Moscow via the bullet train. Normally a 7.5 hour journey by car, the high-speed train cuts travel time almost in half. It’s a long day, but you can visit Russia’s capital city without the hassle and expense of a visa.
Most of the tours offered to cruise ship passengers are daytime trips, but adding on some evening entertainment is a great way to maximize your time in the city. A traditional Russian dance performance is a popular add-on excursion for cruise visitors.
Don’t miss the ship in St. Petersburg
Returning late to your cruise ship when it’s bound for the next port is always a recipe for disaster. If the ship leaves without you, you’re on your own to secure a flight home or to the next port. If you manage to get separated from your tour group in St. Petersburg and miss the ship, it can take up to 20 days to secure a visa to allow you to leave the country.
So stick with your tour guide and make sure you get back on your cruise ship!
Getting a Russian visa
If you really don’t want to stick with a tour group when you’re off the ship, you could apply for a Russian visa. However, it’s a complicated and expensive process, and I don’t recommend bothering with it unless you adamantly don’t want to stay with a guide.
Be sure to start the application process early, because it can take several weeks to obtain your visa. Russian immigration will not issue visas at the passport control desk.
Going through immigration at the cruise terminal
Give yourself plenty of time to get through immigration, especially if you’re meeting a tour group. Depending on the time of day, it can take up to 45 minutes to get through passport control. Each adult passenger needs to go through by themselves, even if you’re traveling with your family.
Immigration officials in St. Petersburg are notoriously stern, so don’t be offended if they don’t make eye contact, smile, or acknowledge your greeting. That’s just how they are.
Have your passport, visa (if you have one), cruise card and tour tickets ready before you approach the window. If you’re entering on the visa-free program, you’ll be given a small piece of paper to tuck in your passport. Don’t lose this paper! You’ll need to present it when you return.
Pack for potentially chilly and/or wet weather
St. Petersburg’s cruise season runs from the end of April to the end of October, with its peak in the months of June and July. Even if your visit is during the height of summer, don’t forget to dress in layers and pack a raincoat or umbrella in your day bag.
The weather in St. Petersburg is notoriously unpredictable. It also might be a bit colder than you’d expect, even in the height of summer. Although the average high temp in July is a little over 70°F (21°C), it can be significantly warmer or cooler.
In the days leading up to our cruise ship docking in St. Petersburg, the weather there had been hot (86°F/30°C) and sunny. During my visit, the warmest part of each day only reached the high 50s (about 14°C). The sun was nowhere to be seen and a chill wind made me wish I’d brought a down jacket!
St. Petersburg is also Eastern Europe’s fourth-rainiest city, with an average of 24.9 in (633 mm) of precipitation each year. Thankfully, many of the most popular attractions for visitors are indoors, and you could easily spend hours exploring the palaces and museums on rainy days.
Tourist attractions around St. Petersburg are spread out
Unlike in many European cities, most of the major tourist attractions in the St. Petersburg area are spread out over a wide area. Since many of the stops on a guided tour are former royal residences with extensive grounds, expect to do a lot of traveling to get from one place to another.
The cruise port itself isn’t very close to most of the usual attractions, with the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood being the closest at about 25 minutes away. Be prepared for long rides in between stops by bringing a paperback or ebook, and keep your devices charged with a portable charger if you want to play a game or read to pass the time.
Be prepared for crowds and long lines everywhere
During our time in St. Petersburg, several members of our tour group remarked (read as: complained repeatedly) to our incredibly patient tour guide about just how crowded most of the sites we visited were.
“Oh, this is nothing,” he smiled. “I’d say we’re only about seventy percent full compared to how it usually is. We got lucky!”
Our tour had skip-the-line tickets (wherever they were available) included in the package. We did have to queue up a few times to get inside some of the palaces, but it was nothing compared to the giant lines we saw for people who didn’t already have tickets.
Even though our waits were much shorter than the lines for tickets, the crowds we encountered inside many of the palaces were a bit overwhelming. This was especially true at the Hermitage, Catherine Palace, and the Peterhof.
Wall-to-wall with people, we shuffled through room after room. We were sometimes packed so tightly that it was impossible to walk normally, so we had to take tiny shuffling steps.
With huge crowds also comes the potential for pickpockets, and we saw several signs encouraging visitors to be aware. Don’t put your wallet or phone in your back pocket, and consider wearing a money belt to keep your cash, cards, passport and phone safe.
Don’t expect that all the locals speak English (but some do)
If you’ve traveled much in Europe, you’ve probably noticed that encountering shop and restaurant staff that speak at least some English is becoming more common. I’ve found this to be especially true in cities and in areas frequented by English-speaking tourists.
In much of Northern Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, English is taught in school starting in the early grades. In Russia, studying a foreign language is required, but it doesn’t have to be English. Although English is more popular now, during the Soviet era, German was the number-one foreign language studied by Russian pupils.
During my two-day tour of St. Petersburg, I didn’t encounter many people who spoke much English, including employees at the major tourist attractions and waitstaff at the restaurants we visited. One notable exception was the cashiers and sales staff at a huge, overpriced souvenir shop that I couldn’t imagine a local ever visiting. They all spoke English very well.
If you (like me) have never studied Russian, it’s a good idea to learn a few basic phrases in the language before your trip. Also be sure to download Russian for offline use in your Google Translate app if you don’t have an international phone plan.
Do you have an aptitude for languages? Spend a little time learning the phonetic pronunciation of the Cyrillic alphabet before you go. Although Russian looks almost as indecipherable as hieroglyphics to me, I practiced sounding out the words on road signs, shop fronts, and buildings as we traveled around the city. I was shocked at how many words I was able to sound out and understand! Plus it was a fun way to pass the time during our coach travel between stops.
Spending money in St. Petersburg
The currency in Russia is the Russian ruble. Dollars and Euros aren’t accepted, even in very touristy areas. You can exchange money at the cruise terminal, but you’ll generally get a better rate by using an ATM. Remember that many shops won’t accept the 5000₽ note (about $66 US).
Or, skip dealing with currency altogether and use your credit card for purchases. American Express, Visa, MasterCard, and Eurocard are commonly accepted, but Discover rarely is. Check to see if any of your cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees to save a bit of money.
Shopping for souvenirs in St. Petersburg
Odds are you’ll want to pick up a souvenir or two to remember your visit to St. Petersburg, especially if it’s your first time in Russia. If you’re booking a guided tour, your guide will usually make a stop or two at some souvenir shops.
The most popular memento that tourists pick up is the hand-painted matryoshka, Russia’s famous nesting dolls. Some of the shops we visited had an enormous selection of matryoshki of varying sizes (and price points). Not only did we find many examples of the classic style adorned with images of women in traditional dress, but hundreds of other styles from cartoon characters to pop culture icons to world leaders.
Other popular souvenirs are Fabergé-style eggs and enameled trinkets, lacquered boxes, amber jewelry, and fur hats. Russian caviar is also for sale at many of the shops, both fresh (in refrigerated cases) and pasteurized.
If you’d like to take home some of Russia’s renowned caviar, check to see how much you can bring into your home country (for the US and Canada it’s 250g). If you have a long flight home, fresh caviar will tend to lose its delicate flavor the longer it’s not refrigerated, so plan to eat it on the ship or opt for a pasteurized version.
Shopping at the cruise terminal
After you get through immigration, there’s a fairly large shopping area where you can buy souvenirs, get coffee or a snack at the café, and exchange money. Consider setting aside time before or after your tour to do some shopping. You won’t need to stay with your tour group to explore this part of the cruise terminal even though it’s located after passport control.
Have you visited St. Petersburg, Russia on a cruise? Did you take a guided tour? Let me know in the comments below!
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