Did you know there’s a simple (and 100 per cent legitimate) way to visit St Petersburg without going through the visa process? The only catch is you have to enter the city by cruise ship. But hey, cruises can be pretty fun.
I first heard about the loophole through a friend – who had heard it from someone he met at a hostel when he was in Moscow. The loophole allows you to visit Russia for up to 72 hours as long as you’re part of an organised tour starting from a cruise.
My first thought was this couldn’t be true – you board a ship and you’re able to get around the visa rule? My antenna was up and it sounded like a scam. But I did a bit of research and it seemed like it was true and so I booked my passage on a cruise ship from Helsinki in Finland.
First step to entering Russia is to book your cruise and figure out how you’re reaching Finland. As part of the visa free rule, you have to book a return passage on the ship.
One itinerary that will tick a few countries off your bucket list and provides a cheap way to get around is to start from mainland Europe in Estonia. Spend a few days exploring medieval Tallinn – and then catch a ship to Helsinki.
A number of companies travel between Tallinn and Helsinki every day of the week during the summer months. The voyage takes around two hours and gives you the chance to stock up on cheap alcohol before getting price shock in Scandinavia.
Cruise ships operated by the St Peter Line will take you to St Petersburg. You can book your own cabin or opt to share a cabin with another solo traveller.
As part of the deal in visiting Russia without a visa, you have to purchase a ticket for transport to and from the ship and also a four hour group tour. But don’t worry, you will be given free time to explore the city.
Through the no visa scheme, you can only stay in Russia for a maximum of 72 hours. I opted to only stay for a day – which wasn’t long enough but hey I still made it to Russia – and then I was back on the boat later that night.
The ship leaves from Helsinki at 6pm and you’ll disembark the ship in St Petersburg around 9.30am. The ship then leaves at 7pm that evening, arriving in Helsinki at 8am the next morning.
There’s not a lot of food choice on board – just an Italian pizza restaurant, Japanese and a café selling sandwiches – so you may want to bring some food on board with you from Helsinki.
But there’s plenty of bars on board so you can drink and then dance the night away while sailing to your destination.
Cabins are very basic but you’re only sleeping there so who cares.
So what can you do in St Petersburg in just a day? With a bit of research beforehand to determine what you’d like to see combined with the group tour on arrival, you can get around to a fair bit of what you’d like to see.
The good thing about the four hour tour as you step off the ship is that it gave me my bearings I, saw some of the main spots and then from there I knew what I wanted to go back to and explore further with the time I had left.
On the group tour, you’ll see St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Rostral Columns by the Neva River, the opulent Winter Palace and expansive Palace Square, Peter and Paul Fortress, Smolny Convent and Hermitage Museum, and take a drive past all the other beautiful buildings throughout the city. You’ll also hear a bit about St Petersburg’s history.
You can leave the tour at the Hermitage and then head out on your own and see what you can do in the four or so hours before you have to get back to the ship.
If museums are your thing, then you might want to spend some time at the Hermitage but be warned it’s huge and won’t leave you much time for a lot else.
On my own I chose to continue around the centre and returned back to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. This colourful and majestic was definitely the highlight of my trip to St Petersburg – so different to all the other churches I’ve seen on my trip.
I also enjoyed the Summer Garden. This is the city’s oldest park and dates back to the early 1700s. It also features Russia’s oldest collection of park sculptures. Take the time to wander through the gardens and check out the archways, fountains and sculptures.
Also take a wander down Nevsky Prospekt – St Petersburg’s main avenue – to see more of the city’s beautiful buildings.
I left the St Isaac’s Cathedral to last as this is where you can get the shuttle back to the ship. There’s also another three places you can get picked up from the shuttle at allocated times and you’ll be provided with a map and timings before you leave the official tour portion of the day.
Make sure you climb up to the bell tower of the cathedral. Entry is $A4.50 and you can buy them from ticket machines out the front of the cathedral.
Take the 277 steps to the top to see panoramic views of St Petersburg. Hopefully you’ll have a sunny day to enjoy it!