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Independent Travel to St. Petersburg

We generally travel independently but looked into cruises for St. Petersburg -- after reading detailed reviews we have decided that isn't for us. (even the positive reviews described trips we didn't really want)

We want to tour the Winter Palace and spend at least two days at the Hermitage. What advice do travelers who have done this about booking hotels in St. Petersburg, arranging visits to major tourist sites like the Winter Palace and making sure we have a couple of days of tickets for the Hermitage?

Things to pre-arrange? Things to avoid? Surprises? Would love to hear your stories and advice as we begin to plan.

Posted by
4686 posts

I went to St Petersburg visa free on the St Peter Line ferry last August. We took the ferry R/T from Helsinki. You can stay 3 days / 2 nights and unlike the cruises, you can sightsee on your own while you are there. You have to buy the St Peter Lines "city tour" which is just a shuttle to and from a couple points in the city. We booked the hotel through them (Sokos Hotel Vasilevsky). The hotel was a pretty long walk from the main sites, but we did use the metro too. This is one of the hotels that the ferry shuttle stops at. Hotel was typical chain hotel with huge breakfast buffet. We had dinner at a terrific Georgian restaurant near the hotel. You can choose to book a hotel on your own; tripadvisor has some posts from people who have done this. We booked through the ferry so we didn't have to worry about any issues with paperwork on arrival.

It was about noon by the time we arrived the first day. We spent that day walking along Nevsky Prospect visiting various churches and sites along the way. The second day we took an organized tour which included Peterhof Garden, Catherine Palace, and Peter and Paul Fortress with TJ Travel, joining a tour that was really targeted for cruise ship passengers. They picked us up at the hotel. We really wanted to see both Peterhof and Catherine Palace and going with a guide was the only way we could fit both in given that we only had 3 days. The final day was spent at the Hermitage. Absolutely buy your ticket online. I've never seen a longer line or more crowded museum.

The cost of the ferry ( b class cabin), hotel, and shuttle totaled just over 600 EUR for two people which we felt was very reasonable considering it covered 4 nights and r/t transit.

I think the ferry is the best option if you are going the visa free route, but the downside is that you just have 3 days. If I were going to go through the hassle and expense of getting a visa, I'd definitely plan a longer trip.

Posted by
524 posts

I didn't know you could enter Russia without a Visa. The organized tours you chose sound efficient and a secure way of moving around in a country where little English is spoken.

Posted by
3458 posts

Have just arranged two and a half weeks for St , Petersburg for the fall , the hotel , Visas , museums , etc , are not nearly the problematic issues usually alluded to . You can visit for 72 hours Visa free , but looking at your post and interests , it does not look like it will work for you . Besides , you will go all the way there and not go to Pushkin to see the palaces there ? Pm me , and and I will be happy to share how I have been contriving my upcoming trip , All my best ,Steve

Posted by
14891 posts

I visited as a cruise stop in 2009. Here are things I wasn't aware of before I got there.

  1. Hardly anyone speaks English, even at big tourist attractions like the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. With taxi drivers, it was hit-or-miss.
  2. Currency. I used an ATM to get local currency. Some places took credit cards, taxi drivers were happy to take dollars.
  3. Hardly anything is posted in Latin letters. Learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet. At the Hermitage, except for a few exhibits, mainly in the painting galleries, everything was labeled only in Russian. We didn't get the audio guide, but I did notice that in many rooms there was only one piece that was included in the guide, and none in some rooms. At the Winter Palace, we were lucky and were invited to join a small tour group in English to see the private apartments.

My friends and I had 2 wonderful days on our own and loved everything. Get to the Winter Palace early and watch the show as the fountains are turned on. Plan to spend a day there to wander through the gardens. Some of the small fountains are very clever and amusing.

Edit: I read "Winter Palace" and "palace" was what stuck in my head. Everything I wrote about the Winter Palace should read Peterhof, which I believe was the Summer Palace. Loved it, got there by taxi from the port, returned to the city by jetboat.

Posted by
12040 posts

My experience was over 8 years ago, and I'm sure, given the international climate, things have probably changed since then, but here goes anyway.

I looked to arrange everything myself... and quickly gave up. There were too many Byzantine details for me to figure it out, so I used a travel agency that specializes in Russian travel to book my stay and transportation connections. They arranged a homestay for us on Nevsky Prospekt, all the appropriate paperwork and booked the train travel out of the country to Lithuania (it's not as simple as just buying a ticket). With these details arranged, I found navigating St. Petersburg on our own no more difficult than any other large European city. I spoke almost no Russian, but having a working knowledge of Cyrillic script helps. Certain words important to tourists in Russian sound similar to their English cognates, but the writing looks very different.

BTW... the Winter Palace and Hermitage are the same thing.... well, techinically, the Winter Palace is the complex of buildings and the Hermitage is the museum that occupies those buildings, but that's splitting hairs. You don't have to arrange tickets in advanced, just walk up to the window and pay for entry when you want to visit.

Posted by
4686 posts

I would highly recommend buying your Hermitage ticket online in advance. When we visited, there must have been at least 500 people in the ticket queue and that was before the museum even opened. When we left, the queue was even longer. I was so thankful that we had purchased online. There was a separate window in the courtyard for internet purchases (no queue) where you could exchange your voucher for tickets and then you could walk to the front of the queue where there was a separate lane to enter.

Posted by
11286 posts

I was there in 2001 and again in 2010. I agree that things are more changeable in Russia than in, say, France or Italy, so evaluate my information with that in mind.

The first time, I got my own visa (since I live in New York, I could go to the consulate directly). The second time, they had changed the procedures; I tried but gave up, and ended up using a service.

On both trips, I was with my sister, who speaks Russian. In 2010 in St. Petersburg, I found enough English that I would have been comfortable on my own (with a guidebook). This applies to the central area and the top tourist attractions - Russia Museum, Church of the Spilt Blood, Hermitage, etc. As long as you learn the Cyrillic alphabet, you can navigate the subway (I've read somewhere that they are starting to put Roman alphabet signs in). Restaurants in the central area had English menus; even though not all restaurant staff spoke English, pointing to the menu worked fine. I say this as someone who doesn't always find lots of English when I travel (Spain is particularly notable in this regard; St. Petersburg without Russian is definitely easier than Spain without Spanish). However, outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow, I'd have been completely lost without a Russian speaker.

I see you've done some research on what you want to see. Some other places that were my favorites were the Russia Museum, Cathedral on the Spilt Blood, the Yusupov Palace, and the Sheremyetov Palace. If you go to the Russia Museum, don't miss The Wave by Aivazovsky - it's breathtaking.

While the Hermitage is amazing, it's also humongous, so your idea of spending two days there is a good one. We actually skipped it - deliberately - on our second trip, because it's so overwhelming. We did not get to the palaces outside the city (Peterhof and the Catherine Palace are the two most famous, but there's more).

In 2010 I stayed at the Griboyedova 29: http://www.hostelbookers.com/hotels/russia/st-petersburg/3991/. The location is fantastic, right near Nevsky Prospekt, the Metro, lots of restaurants, and many attractions (we walked almost everywhere). The bathrooms are not ensuite, but there are two showers and two toilets for 4 rooms, so we never had to wait. And for St. Petersburg, it was a bargain (we paid €80 for a double). There's a small kitchen, but we got breakfast at a nearby place that had breakfast specials for good prices (sorry, can't remember the name - it's across the canal from the hotel). Again, this breakfast place had English menus and the staff spoke enough English to take our orders.

Posted by
6609 posts

I appreciate the info on learning the alphabet. We had no trouble navigating the subways in Quangzhou China because they also use our alphabet for the pidgin signing along side the characters. We are excited to St. P independently and realize that being able to read those signs will be important.

Posted by
11286 posts

I used the book Teach Yourself Beginner's Russian Script. I see it's out of print, but used copies are cheap on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teach-Yourself-Beginners-Russian-Script/dp/0071419861/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1420416108&sr=8-2&keywords=teach+yourself+the+cyrillic+alphabet

It breaks down the alphabet into categories: letters that look and sound the same as English, letters that look the same but sound different, etc. This makes it easy to learn the basics. Russian is mostly phonetic (albeit with some tricks), so you really can sound out words and recognize Metro stops. And Russian has more cognates and borrowed words (from various European languages, including English) than it appears to at first glance. For instance, PECTOPAH is pronounced "restoran" and is indeed a restaurant. The word for cloakroom is similar to the French garderobe, although the accent is in the middle (roughly, gar-DAIR-robe). And almost any food that isn't native to Russia has borrowed the word from some other language. The fun is guessing which one; for instance, tomato is from Italian (roughly, pomodor) and potato is from German (roughly, kartoffel); sorry I can't type the real Cyrillic characters.

One tip: the script "t" looks like an "m" to us. My sister taught me a valuable trick: the M always has points at the top (both lower case and upper case, printed or script). If the tops are rounded (like the lower case "m" I just typed), in Russian that's always a "t." This is useful because trolleybus stops are indicated with a "t" and Metro stops with an "M". Other than that one situation, you will mostly encounter printing, not script.

Posted by
11286 posts

Another tip: for food, you can always use Il Patio/Planet Sushi. This is a chain that started as two separate restaurants (Italian and Japanese) that then merged. Now, they serve both cuisines, usually in different sections. Simply say "sushi" or "pizza" to be directed to the correct section. They also have non-smoking sections. They have English menus; this is where I remember that even if the server didn't speak much English, pointing to the menu worked fine. They are open long hours, often 24 hours a day.

Posted by
3458 posts

Harold , you are an absolute gem ! I've just ordered a copy !

Posted by
1724 posts

We were in St Petersburg last April for 8 nights as independent travelers and had no trouble. My husband knew the alphabet (which helped) but many signs were in English. Also, many of the hotel and restaurant staff knew some English. We stayed at the 3Mosta and really liked it. It's a small boutique hotel but not too fancy or expensive. It's located near the Church of Spilled blood and only a few blocks from the Hermitage, in a quiet neighborhood. We didn't have the breakfast plan but had no trouble buying yogurts at nearby stores and great pastries and coffee at the Stolle bakery about 2 blocks away. Each room has a table and chairs so it's easy to picnic. Plus, the bathrooms are very nice.
We used Rick's St Petersburg cruise book restaurant ideas often and were never disappointed, though our favorite restaurant was the Georgian restaurant just around the cornner from the 3Mosta.

Posted by
3458 posts

Becky , wonderful information ! please post more of your experiences , Thanks , Steve .

Posted by
1724 posts

Some of our favorite restaurants in Rick's book were the Zoom Cafe, Pelmeniya (different dumplings) and cafe Botanika (vegetarian). We ended eating at each of these places, plus the Georgian restaurant near 3Mosta, twice.
We really like art, and ended up going to The Hermitage 4 x- even then we missed alot. They let you take in a small dayback or large purse, and we snuck in some fish pasteries from Stolle for lunch. There's several areas (on the enterance floor) where you can sit and eat, plus buy food and beverages as desired. We also really liked the Russian Museum.
We found Nevsky Prospect rather congested and are glad we decided to stay a ways away from it.
We spent one day just roaming around neighborhoods off the tourist path. We always felt safe.
When are you going? We really liked the long days in April. And lucked out weather-wise. We hear it can be cold in April, but last year we had all suuny days and temperatures around 60.

Posted by
3458 posts

Becky , will be in St Petersburg for two and a half weeks starting the first of September , buying a multi- day ticket for the Hermitage . Did you get down to Tsarskoye Selo on your trip ?

Posted by
12040 posts

Someone else mentioned it, so I'll second the recommendation. If you only visit one museum in St. Petersburg (but you'll probably visit more...), make it the Russian Museum. Yes, heresy to chose this over the Hermitage, but here me out with this one. True, the Hermitage hosts a more impressive collection in one building than some countries have in all their museums put together, but here's the rub... it's the same standard Old and New Masters that you can see in any other of the Great Museums of Europe. Just much more. 9 years after I visited, the only part that really stands out in my mind was the Military Gallery, and that's mainly because I'm fascinated by the Napoleonic Wars (and it's nice to be able to put a face to several of the characters in War and Peace).

But the Russian Museum... nowhere else in Europe will you see such a collection. Russian themes and historical events illustrated from a Russian point of view using unique Russian styles.