CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE
Visiting Russia has a certain allure for travelers. Images of onion domed churches, fur hats, stereotypical communists, stacking dolls, caviar with vodka, and Siberian winters come to mind. For Americans there are all the cultural references reaching back to the Cold War layered behind the developing news stories featuring this world super power and it’s shirtless leader. Plus the enormous size of Russia – largest country in the world – is wonderful if you are looking to color in the map of each country you’ve visited!
Of course there are many ways to visit a country as large and diverse as Russia, but one of the easiest ways to get there is on a cruise. Albeit this is not an in-depth visit; you can’t expect that in a few days (or less), but if you want a taste of Russia you can visit St. Petersburg on nearly every Baltic cruise on any cruise line.
Visiting by cruise means ease. You don’t have to figure out details like lodging and visas. The ship is your traveling hotel room and currently Russia does not require separate visas if you are on a cruise tour. (If you’d like to explore St. Petersburg or any other Russian city on your own, you will need a visa.)
Since exploring on your own is more complicated here than in other ports, most cruisers book a tour. You have two categories of choices: through the cruise company or with a private tour company. Due to the developing situation in the Ukraine during our visit we chose to go through the cruise company. Our reasoning was that if things escalated between the time of our booking and actual tour, the cruise company had a clear refund policy. We weren’t didn’t feel as secure with Russian owned tours even though we had heard wonderful things from our friends about Dancing Bears tour company.
St. Petersburg is often the most anticipated stop on a Baltic cruise. The time in port here will probably be the longest of the whole cruise. Depending on the cruise itinerary you will probably have two or more days here. We had two days on our cruise with Princess Cruises. We docked overnight and were ready to disembark early in the morning. The ship remained overnight and didn’t leave until late in the evening of our second day.
Here are some points to consider as you plan your trip via Baltic cruise to visit St. Petersburg.
Passing through customs
Russian customs is no joke. The first morning in St. Petersburg, getting off the ship included waiting in substantial customs lines for passport inspection. You needed to show proof of your cruise-based tour or visa to explore on your own. Each passport was scanned and stamped (excitingly and rare for EU travelers). There was a shorter inspection getting back on the boat, just slightly longer than getting back on board at any other port. Since the passports were already scanned and stamped, the second day’s customs’ lines were much quicker.
Who thinks of heat when you think of Russian weather? We visited in July and it broke the stereotype. The days were long (both in the sunlight hours and the length of the tour) and it was near 80°F (27°C). Wear layers, but expect to want less as the day goes on. The tours are good about telling you when you can leave your personal items on the bus. Many of the palaces and museums (Hermitage and Peterhof to name a few) have a strictly enforced bag check. If your purse, backpack or other bag is deemed too large, they will force you to check it. This is kind of a hassle and can raise concerns about personal security. Try to streamline your bags as much as possible.
Russia operates on the Rubble, but the Euro or American Dollar are more widely accepted in St. Petersburg tourist locations than some of the other Baltic cities. You might not want to exchange large amounts right away.
The Baltic cruise season is limited to the summer months (May – September) since the Baltic is icy outside of these months. Your ship probably will not be the only ship in the port. We lucked out and there was only one other ship on our first day, but three more had “parked” by the time we left. Topping that off are other travelers taking advantage of the warm weather. The ideal weather and short tourist season means that all the sites will be busy.
Good tour guides and companies have a few tricks up their sleeves to get their groups to the sites away from the crowds. Some sites open for groups earlier and/or later than the general admission. Tour guides will know which sites get crowded at which times. When the tour guides give you time on your own, most groups tend to flock to two places: the gift shop and the bathrooms. This may be your chance to walk around the block instead of seeing yet another store selling postcards, shot glasses and magnets. If the group wanders to the left, break right! Walk a little further into the park before stopping to take your pictures. Please be respectful of the tour guide and your group; Listen carefully to the where and when to meet with the group again. You do not want to be the last one, or even worse, the late one!
We were repeatedly warned about pickpockets during our visit. Where there are tourists there will be those who want to take advantage of the situation. When you are gazing up at the beautiful mosaics, someone lese might be gazing at your wallet. We didn’t have any problems nor did we hear of others during our stay, but it’s always good to be aware.
Other sites on a Baltic Cruise:
Stockholm’s Vasa Museum
Sweden, Denmark, Finland
Berlin (Yes, we know that Berlin isn’t even close to the coast, but many cruises dock at Warnemunde and bill it as Berlin.)
Schwerin, Germany (A much closer destination when you dock in Warnemunde.)