You can now visit St Petersburg, Russia, for 3 days without a visa.
At first we checked out visiting Russia WITH a visa. It’s quite a hassle and you need to tick a lot of boxes, like getting a sponsor, providing a full itinerary including acceptance from all the hotels you will stay in. And you have to pay a lot of money. I have read where some people even tried to do it but gave up in frustration when their first attempts were rejected and they consequently forfeited their money.
But there is another way. So if you are visiting other countries in Europe, especially Scandinavia or the Baltics, we would highly recommend that you take up the option that we did: a 3 day visit to St Petersburg without a visa. It was a wonderful experience.
The St Peters Line runs a ferry service from Helsinki in Finland. You leave in the evening, travel overnight (with a nice cabin with en suite) and then arrive in St Petersburg the next morning. You have all of that day and the next 2 days in St Petersburg, so you need to book two nights accommodation. You can do this through the St Peters Line on their website, or you can do what we did and simply find your own using a hotel booking site like Hotels.com. I have also heard of people using Airbnb but from what I understand this involves obtaining extra documentation, so could get tricky.
The total cost for us for the return trip, including cabin for 2 nights and free bus shuttle in and out of St Petersburg from the port, was 255 euros. You then must pay for your accommodation on top of that. But when the cost of a visa can be something like $300 anyway, you are way in front!
St Petersburg is a great city to simply wander around. You can check out all the brochures and websites like Tripadvisor for all the best things to see and do. The two highlights for us were definitely:
1. The Winter Palace aka The Hermitage
2. The canal boat tour
The Winter Palace is simply unbelievable. You will be amazed by the scale and the opulence of the place. I always wonder when I see places like this, how royalty used to surround themselves with so much luxury when many of ‘their’ people must have suffered so much. The furnishings, the art work, the ceilings and finishings, have to be seen to be believed. It is truly one of the most incredible buildings on earth. With paintings by many of the great masters, its current value must be in the billions of dollars. It gets crowded, especially near the entrances, but it is so big you are often clear of the masses. Book online to save time, or use an automated ticket machine near the entrance to by-pass the queues.
A canal boat tour is also a must for seeing St Petersburg. You get a totally different perspective of the city from along the canals. Many of the expensive buildings and palaces were built facing the canals, so this is the best way to see them. And there are lots of interesting bridges and tunnels along the way. You can join English-speaking canal tours which leave at regular intervals during the day. We tried bargaining but they all seem to be a fixed price, which was quite reasonable. Save it for a nice fine day if possible and you will enjoy it even more.
Another highlight of our time in St Petersburg was seeing a kind of ‘youth games’ in the main square while we were there. Admission was free but there were lots of cash prizes in various categories, obviously provided by sponsors. Some of the categories included skate-boarding, rap and break dancing, gymnastic feats and DJ work. The crowds were right into it, as were the performers. It all seemed a long long way from the Cold War era when all kinds of western influences were banned.
Is 3 days enough to see St Petersburg? No, but you can certainly pack a lot in and we would strongly recommend that you do it if you get the chance.