Russia is not the easiest place to visit. Most nationalities require a visa in order to enter the country; a visa that requires many pages of paperwork and several weeks to obtain. We recently discovered a loophole in the Russian visa law that allows visitors to spend 72 hours visa-free in St. Petersburg. The trick is to travel on the St. Peter Line ferry. If you sign up for a mandatory 'tour' (which is essentially ground transportation to and from the port), you can spend 3 days exploring the sights of St. Petersburg without a special visa. Purchasing the ferry ride and visa-free excursion is clearly built into the St. Peter line purchase flow. As an added bonus, the ferry runs overnight in both directions and the fare is way less than two nights of hotel for two people. Visiting St. Petersburg on a visa-free ferry tour is also economical. Here's how we spent our 72 hours in Russia's picturesque St. Petersburg.
Cruise Your Way to St. Petersburg from Helsinki via the Bay of Finland
Ferry tickets in hand, we boarded a large cruise ship equipped with a number of bars and restaurants and even a night club. There was plenty to do as we crossed the placid Bay of Finland. After a hearty dinner and a good night's sleep, we arrived at our destination: St. Petersburg!
Acknowledge the Contrasts in St. Petersburg
The first thing we did upon disembarking the ship was acknowledge the contrasts in St. Petersburg. A gorgeous powder blue building hinted at St. Petersburg's luxurious past while smokestacks poking up behind it was a reminder of the communist era. We saw many examples of these contrasts during our 72 hour stay in Russia.
Embrace the Russian Culture and Don't Smile
We'd heard that Russians are wary of people who smile a lot and quip that they are either American or crazy. Apparently during the Cold War, communist propaganda reinforced this suspicion. As an American, my natural inclination is to smile nervously when I'm out of my comfort zone. This was an instinct that I tried hard to surpress in St. Petersburg. We rode the metro a lot during our 72 hours in St. Petersburg. The long escalators are great for people watching and I took to counting the riders that were smiling. Turns out it was about 2 in 100. I'll need to repeat this experiment sometime in an American city but I'm sure the number would be much higher.
Experience a Russian Style Musical Greeting
Despite the lack of smiles, we still felt very welcome upon our arrival. A quartet of older gentlemen serenaded our arrival with a Russian musical greeting.
Look for Familiar Western Brands in Cyrillic Characters in St. Petersburg
I suspect things have changed a lot since the Cold War ended. We got a kick out of spotting popular western brands with signs in Cyrillic characters. McDonald's and Starbucks were two of the most obvious nods to western culture that we saw in St. Petersburg.
Enjoy a Hearty Meal at a Self-Service Restaurant in St. Petersburg
Personally, we avoided the American and European chains in favor of local self-service restaurants. We paid less than the equivalent of $20 USD for two courses and a beverage for two people. The experience reminded us a bit of a Polish milk bar.
Explore St. Petersburg on the Economical Metro
The economical metro is a fantastic way to get around and explore St. Petersburg especially since the city is so spread out that it's impossible to walk everywhere. Subway tokens cost the equivalent of about $0.50 USD at the time of writing. As an added bonus, the metro stations featured really cool artwork, much of it dating from the communist era.
Admire the Pastel Art Nouveau Architecture
Outside the metro, much of the architecture was in Art Nouveau style and lent St. Petersburg a certain charm. St. Petersburg is well known for its decadent pastel buildings.
Admire St. Petersburg's Stunning Church of the Spilled Blood Inside and Out
The Church of the Spilled Blood lured us in for a closer look with its colorful turrets. The church does have a dark history and is noted as the place where Czar Alexander II was fatally wounded in 1881. Once inside, my jaw simply dropped. The interior of this former church is covered in bright blue mosaics. I could have stood here snapping photos for hours. The Church of the Spilled Blood was by far the architectural highlight of our visit to St. Petersburg.
People Watch in St. Petersburg Near the Admirality
The pointy spire of the Admirality is a great spot for people watching. We'd been walking a fair bit and took a well-deserved sit on a park bench. We enjoyed watching a pair of young kids toddling after the local pigeons.
Explore the Architectural and Artistic Delights of the Cavernous Hermitage
The Admirality is located just next to St. Petersburg's most famous museum: the Hermitage. No visit to St. Petersburg is complete without paying homage to the Hermitage which is amazing both for the art inside and the architectural marvels of the palace that houses them. Each room was grander than the last.
Get Close to the Works of the Great Masters in the Hermitage General Staff Building
The General Staff Building Annex of the Hermitage houses paintings from the great Impressionist masters like Cezanne and post-impressionists like Picasso. We were even allowed to take photos inside (a rarity in an art museum).
Experience Soviet-era Throwbacks in St. Petersburg
I great up in the 1980s during the tail end of the Cold War. Because of this, I was especially intrigued by the Communist Era throwbacks that we found in St. Petersburg. One of our favorite diversions was the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. I loved playing video games back in the day so was excited to get a glimpse of the games that Soviet children were playing while I was breaking records at Pac-Man. Games ranged from feats of strength (I nearly threw my back out trying to yank the handle and achieve a ranking of anything other than 'mouse') to tests of the local road signs (not being able to read Cyrillic characters was definitely a handicap for this one.
After playing our hearts out at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, we feasted on Soviet era cuisine at St. Petersburg's Kvartirka Soviet Cafe. We washed down hearty dumplings, meat and potatoes with homemade liquor.
Sample Georgian Cuisine and Wine
When in St. Petersburg, also make sure to sample Georgian cuisine (we enjoyed ChaCha, not far from the Church of the Spilled Blood). The wines are the best in the region and Georgian cheesy bread is comfort food at its finest.
Visit Peter and Paul Fortress
With 72 hours to play with, we budgeted half a day to visit St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress. The cathedral on the fortress island is the burial place of the czars including Peter the Great. We stumbled upon the daily cannon firing ceremony at high noon.
Step Onto the Beach at Peter and Paul Fortress
The waters of the Neva River lap up to the walls of Peter and Paul Fortress creating a beach of sorts. We found our way to water's edge. I smiled when I saw a man looking sheepishly at three ladies sunning themselves in bikinis. They look positively delighted with themselves! Apparently Russians do smile...sometimes.
Enjoy Panoramic Views from St. Isaac's Cathedral
St. Isaac's Cathedral was another architectural highlight of our trip. Not only was the church beautiful in its own right but it also offers sweeping views over St. Petersburg if you climb the tower.
Experience Russian Ice Hockey at Its Finest and Get Tickets to a St. Petersburg SKA Game
Even though we only had 3-days to spend in St. Petersburg, we made an effort to get off of the tourist trail and go where the locals go. I love ice hockey and the St. Petersburg SKA happened to be in town to coincide with our visit. We cheered SKA on to victory along with about 12,000 other rabid local fans. For more on how Russian Ice Hockey in the KHL compares to the National Hockey League in the US and Canada, check out my post devoted to the subject.
Admire the Imperial Eggs at the Faberge Museum
Back on St. Petersburg's tourist trail, we budgeted an hour to explore the fascinating Faberge Museum. The highlight was the signature Faberge Imperial eggs. Each egg took almost a year to construct and came with an ingenious surprise inside. It was a gift fit for a king, or in this case, a czar and his family. Positively stunning.
Get Off the Tourist Track and Try a Hipster Coffee in St. Petersburg
En route to our final tourist attraction, we wandered the streets of St. Petersburg and stumbled upon the Coffee Owl. Half bar, half coffee shop, this place has cred as a hipster coffee joint. It's well worth a stop to fuel up after a couple days of hardcore exploration.
Tour St. Petersburg's Yusupov Palace
We love getting tips from locals. One of my colleagues hails from St. Petersburg and recommended that we check out Yusupov Palace for a more authentic experience. Incidentally, Rasputin was murdered here which lends a certain macabre ambiance to the place. The palace was finely decorated with period furnishings.
The highlight of Yusupov Palace was the sumptuous theatre. An acapella trio serenaded us with a selection of Russian songs. It was a magical experience.
Watch the Sunset Over St. Petersburg Port
Before we knew it, our 72 visa-free hours in St. Petersburg were drawing to a close and it was time to catch our 'tour' back to the ferry port. As we waited to lift anchor, we were treated to a positively stunning sunset over the St. Petersburg Port and Bay of Finland. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the jam-packed experience we had exploring a culture quite different from our own. Whether on the tourist trail or off of it, a 3-day visa-free stint in St. Petersburg should be at the top of your travel bucket list. Based on this sample of Russia, I'd definitely consider applying for a visa so we can go back and explore more of what Russia has to offer beyond St. Petersburg.