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Baltic ports on your own - esp St. Petersburg.

I find myself, uncharacteristically, going on a cruise. (Don't ask). Does anyone have advice about these ports in terms of what to do on your own without a ship tour.
Kiel, Copenhagen, Wuremunde(?), Helsinki, Tallin, St. Petersburg, and Norwegian ports.
Is it true that you don't need a Russian visa if you are only in Russia off a ship? I heard that it's ok with a ship tour but not on your own. How can you get to the Hermitage for an adequate amount of time on a tour? Can you hire your own guide?


Posted by
11294 posts

You should immediately buy a copy of Rick Steves Northern European Cruise Ports. The book has detailed answers to all your questions.

Specifically for St. Petersburg, you have three options coming off a cruise:

  1. You can take a tour offered by the ship, in which case you do not need to get a visa.
  2. You can take a tour from one of the companies authorized to get a "visa equivalent." That's not what it's called, but that's what it in effect is. If you do this, you will get a smaller group than with the ship's tours, or even a private tour if you wish, and you have much more ability to customize your itinerary.
  3. You can go on your own, or with a guide who cannot get you a "visa equivalent." If you do this, you must get a visa. The cost and hassle of getting a visa is not to be underestimated, but some do prefer the total flexibility this gives you.

Here are four companies (among others) that do various kinds of group and private tours and who can get the "visa equivalent" for you. I have no connection with any of them:

There's also LOTS of information on Cruise Critic. Here is their Northern Europe and the Baltics Ports Forum:

Here is their St. Petersburg Port review:

And here are their Roll Calls, where you can "meet" other people on your sailing. This is particularly handy if you want to set up a small group tour:

Posted by
22979 posts

There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing a cruise so don't know why you are trying to make an excuse. We have been on seven European cruises and believe there are the most economical and convenient way to see a lot of Europe. Don't apologize. It is very rare for us to take a ship's tour.

In St. Petersburg you must have visa arranged in advance if you want to leave the ship on your own. Otherwise you have to have arranged a private tour or use one of the ship's tours.

Just do you homework via the internet. is a good source. We often hit the TI which is near the port. It is easy to go on your own but you have to do the homework.

If you want to remove you other posting, then use the delete button. Probably a good idea to do so.

Posted by
5314 posts

note: I moved this from your other post and then deleted there.

For St Petersburg, you don't need a visa when visiting by cruise, but you do need to book a tour/guide with an authorized company in order to visit visa free. It doesn't need to be one of the ship's tours.
I booked a group tour through TJ Travel last year and thought the guide was excellent. I checked with a number of companies and the going rate for a private tour was around $600/day for a guide and driver. The small group tours were between $150 and $170 per day.
You might check the cruise critic boards where people traveling by cruise post their experiences.

Posted by
795 posts

We are in St. Petersburg, Russia each year and visit the Hermitage which has so much you could never see it all but in our case, we have academic research and have a visa which allows us to travel around on our own. If you don't have such an official situation like that, you will need to take a ship's tour (I never recommend this) or sign up for a tour group and stay with them at all times. Wandering off can cause serious trouble for you. You can sign up for a guide to just visit the Hermitage and nothing else which is ideal since this place has so much to see (and most of it is not even on display). You can get options to let you see some art that is not on view to the public. My recommendation for your tour is White Nights Tours. You can choose an existing tour or they will customize one for you. They are good people and very reliable.

Posted by
97 posts

Thanks for the excellent advice, all.

Another question - I read through some of the tour companies and a couple of them give a little free time. Has anyone done that? How does it work out?

(And I will attempt to take off my other posting..)



Posted by
2679 posts

We are doing St Petersburg on our own even though there is an outcry of this is bad. Yes it's going to be complicated, but it will give us a lot more freedom. There is a guide in the cruise book. Qq

Posted by
5314 posts

We are doing St Petersburg on our own even though there is an outcry of this is bad

Carol, not sure what outcry you mean but there really is nothing "bad" about visiting on your own. The only hassle is getting the visa (supposedly ... I used St Peter Line and there visa-free option). Getting around St Petersburg is not difficult.

Posted by
4058 posts

I do not understand the persistent view that getting the VISA is a hassle . I have not found that at all . As Laura said , what outcry ? The only interpretation that I would make is that the VISA free option gives you little time in a place filled with great treasures , both figuratively and literally .

Posted by
2679 posts

The "bad" refers to the outcry of "you must get a tour guide" that appears on here anytime this topic comes up.

I looked into private tours, but decided that meant someone was following us around when we just wanted to wander about or sit and have a drink so....

Posted by
11294 posts


The outcry of "you must get a tourguide" is based on two things:

  1. Getting the visa is difficult and expensive (I agree with this). But if you're prepared to jump through the hoops and pay the fees, they can certainly be gotten.

  2. Getting around St. Petersburg is so difficult on your own that a guide is needed. I don't agree with this at all - provided a city of 5 million people where almost all signs are not in the Roman alphabet is something the person can handle.

If you are going on your own, I do recommend/insist that you learn the Cyrillic alphabet, so you can start to understand signs in the Metro, etc. But in the tourist areas (restaurants, museums, etc), I found enough English for my needs. And with a guidebook, getting around and seeing sights is no harder in St. Petersburg than in any other large city.

So, your plan is fine as far as I'm concerned!

Posted by
2679 posts

I am working on the Russian alphabet now! I have until late June :)
Yes, a Visa is a pain, but...we think the freedom will be worth it for us.

We do have a Russian friend who is giving us assistance with the planni

Posted by
2679 posts

Well I got the Visa. While it was not cheap it was not the horrid experience it is made out to be. By shopping around we got the cost down some. We got our invitation from one vendor and used a second for the visa processing.

Really excited to be able to explore on our own. I am looking at an evening tour of the Fabrage Museum to maximize out time.

Posted by
2679 posts

Visa update...

Just in case anyone else is doing this.

I got a one entry visa as until very recently it appears that the immigration authorities felt that what I was doing, coming off a cruise line, was "one entry"

I have been reading on various message boards and it appears that may have changed (My Visa agency says they are getting mixed responses from the Consulate so who knows?)

In order to deal with this I have booked a fairly inexpensive, but decent looking hotel for the one night we are in St. Petersburg. I just won't get back on the ship until it's time to depart. (I have checked with the cruise line, they don't care) My traveling companion has a 3 year multi entry so he can come and go at will. I actually think this will be more fun as we are there when it's light almost all night and we can wander around at will. It is however, a little more costly but considering the late notice I got on this issue I really didn't have time to start the entire Visa process back over.