We are doing our first cruise, the Baltic Cruise, and have 2 days in St Petersburg. I have always traveled the "Rick Steve's" way so this is new to me. I don't want to do the big ship tours, we like going on our own. What would you suggest?
It depends on what you are interested in, but in my opinion these are the top sites.
Church of the Spilled Blood, do not miss this one.
St. Isaacs Cathedral
Hermitage, as much time as you can allow, not just an art museum but a beautiful palace too.
Peterhof Palace, take a boat one way and a bus the other if you like. It will blow your socks off.
We were there 7 days last fall and rode the subways with ease and some of the stations are beautiful and worth seeing. Beware of pickpockets. Not kidding on this. Wear a money belt. Not dangerous however and felt safe everywhere. Not many people speak English so use your translator on you phone to read signs and directions.
Thank you. Do you think we can do all that you mentioned in two days?
I was pick pocketed in Prague :-) Ive learned my lesson!
Before you disdain the ship's tours, do enough research to make sure you don't get something special for all that money. For example, when our ship went to the Catherine Palace (which I wanted to see more than Peterhof, even), our group admission skipped a huge ordinary-customer line. On the last day, you should also consider that if the ship's tour is delayed by traffic or something else, the ship will wait for its own tour. The ship will not wait while you get back from the wrong leg of the subway system ... Our river (not ocean) cruise was docked within walking distance of a subway stop, but it was pretty far from midtown.
Now, one of the minuses of the ship tours was that they tried not to miss the "prepaid" meals on the ship. That meant early departures, and repeated HEAVY traffic delays as the bus went to and from the ship, twice a day. If you're planning a meal in town, that would be extra touring time. Regarding those admission lines, I'd draw your attention to the fact that Russian life has some aspects of a developing country - that is, favoritism for an elect class, which gets better treatment. (Oh, wait, am I talking about the U.S.?) Anyway, traveling Rick Steves style may result in surprising latency times for public transit, long lines for proleterian entry tickets, and credit-card number theft at folksy restaurants. (That's all speculative, it didn't happen to us, because except for the "free afternoon", when we took the subway, we used the ship's tours. I think they were included, because it was a RIVER cruise.)
Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the Hermitage are all within reasonable walking distance. You could easily get to all of them in one day, though of course you need to decide how much time you want/need at the Hermitage. Some people spend two days just there; I am not a "museum" person" and was satisfied with just a few hours there. It is really something, though, and a lot to see!
If you want, just walk around the city and explore; it is really beautiful in parts (especially at night when everything is lit up!). I suggest taking a working smart phone if you can for walking + public transit directions. Google Maps on my phone guided me everywhere very easily so I didn't need to try to read a Cryillic bus schedule or anything - just told me which bus to get on, where to get off, etc. On the bus, buy a ticket (40 Rubles I think) from the conductor or driver in cash (get the receipt but no transfers). Very easy.
You can see my pictures from my 2016 visit on my website(s) - visit my profile to see.
We are also taking our first Baltic cruise this summer. Like you, we have always traveled independently. For St. Petersburg, however, we are using a tour through TJ Travel. The cost and hassle of getting Russian visas are part of what convinced me. http://www.russianembassy.org/page/visa-processing-fees . You can't get off the ship without a visa unless you are part of an organized tour through the ship or another company.
For us, the Rick Steve's way includes choosing economical options, this is why the TJ Travel tour made sense to us. They don't put you in groups of more than 16. They even gave us a Cruise Critic discount (I just created an account and joined the Roll Call for our cruise), dropping the cost for a two day tour to $240 for each adult.
Is it the perfect tour? No, but it suffices and I appreciate the relative cost savings so we can also enjoy our other ports of call more along the line of Rick. It allows us to see the major sites recommended by the other posters. I am happy enough with that for now.
Have fun planning!
We're doing a two-day tour with Alla Tours on a Baltic cruise in May, not purchased through the ship but organized by another passenger via Cruise Critic. It will cover all the sights you mentioned and more, pretty fast paced, but they also offer a "comfort" option that visits fewer sights with more down time. I can't speak from experience but it seems to me like a good value. We're not worried about missing the ship departure because the company does these all the time and they're very careful about that. The cruise line sells what looks like the same tour for a lot more money. As you probably know, the cruse lines contract with local operators for these.
Besides the efficiency of covering a lot in two days, we're opting for this tour because we don't need visas to do it. Getting visas takes time and costs a lot, and having spent that money you're on your own in a big city with signage in an unfamiliar alphabet. Check out the RS "Northern European Cruise Ports" guide for his take on St. Petersburg. I generally like the "RS way," but in this case I went for what the late great Edward Abbey called "industrial tourism."
Dick, I can't read a word of Cyrillic nor speak Russian, and I had no trouble at all getting around St. Petersburg alone. My phone helped a lot but mostly with walking directions and bus info. I would still have managed just fine without my phone, really. It did save me time. Otherwise, I wasn't intimidated by St. Petersburg at all. Some signage is in the Latin alphabet, and the town is actually quite touristy.
Getting visas would be expensive (though not difficult - there are agencies that will do it for you if you send them your passports) - I'm surprised you need them with a cruise port stop. I didn't need a visa with the ferry stop-over with the St. Peter Line a few years ago where I spent two nights on my own.
We used a tours by locals guide to the Catherine Palace which provided transport and facilitated entry without a line; it cost a lot less than the cruise offering which was a bus tour. when arriving by cruise the next year, we didn't take the cruise tour of the Peterhof but took a car out and the hydrofoil back for about half what our peers on the cruise paid for a bus tour that they were very disappointed in.
A private guided tour may facilitate enjoyment especially for distant sites with difficult entry like the Catherin Palace, but it is easy to do the main sites in Petersburg itself; I would not want to be herded around there.
Andrew - the St. Peter line has a special arrangement, which means you don't need a visa. Other cruises do not work this way.
Denise - as others have said above, Rick talks about two options for seeing St. Petersburg, while in reality there are three.
1) You can go totally on your own, and this requires a visa you get on your own.
2) You can go with the ship's tours, and you do not have to get a visa.
3) You can go on a tour with an authorized tour agency (Alla Tours, SPB Tours, Red October, etc). They get a "visa equivalent" for you, and you do not need to get your own visa (it's not officially called a "visa equivalent," but that's what it functions as). Note that these companies have both set tours for small-ish groups (15 or so), and can also do custom tours for any number. If you don't see what you want from their set tours, you can use Cruise Critic's Roll Call to find others on your sailing who may be interested in joining your private tour, lowering the per-person cost.
Here' the Cruise Critic Roll Calls: https://www.cruisecritic.com/rollcalls/
And here's their Northern Europe and Baltic Ports Forum, with lots of discussion about St. Petersburg options: https://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=192
I think you can do it in 2 days with no problem. The churches and the Hermitage are fairly close to each other, we walked. And Peterhof is maybe a half a day, but totally worth it. IMHO, it beats Catherine’s Palace. We were on our own the whole time, so we had to get visas. Not that hard, but quite pricey. So maybe a tour without having to get a visa would make more sense for you.
We are also doing a 2 week Baltic Cruise this August. We tend not to do the ship's ex, but we are cruising with Viking and there is 1 included shore ex per port. The 2 day SPB tour is not included of course, but we opted to hire the highly touted Alla-tour Co.
Like TJ travel we rec'd a disc. from cruise critic and for early booking. You send them a pic of your passports and they take care of everything and send you tour vouchers to print. So far their correspondence has been excellent... including arranging gluten free lunches for one member of our party.
It's about $250 for 2 days, but the ship wants $469!
For anyone afraid of missing the ship....they do this same tour all the time and i'm sure know how to ensure that doesn't happen. Besides, if something unforeseen did happen they guarantee to get you to the ship's next port. In our case Tallinn.
We are doing a custom private 2 day tour with Alla Tours. Expensive ($680 per person), but worth it to us to be able to do what we want, when we want, and for how long we want, without having to worrying about 14 other people. I know the price is expensive, but I figured a tour for a van that holds 16 was going to be around $500 - 600 anyhow, so I am willing to spend the extra money to be by ourselves since this is most likely a place we will only visit one time in our lives. Anyhow, just figured I would throw that out as an option if you are looking to be by yourselves.
The Hermitage, Peterhof Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress must be visited necessarily. But for two days for everything will be extremely short. If you still find the time, then I would advise you Trans-Mongolian Railway Tour St.Petersburg-Beijing 18 days - http://rusrailtravel.ru/tours/St%20Petersburg-Beijing . Incredibly entertaining journey . You can see almost all of Russia and China.