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Stay in or cruise for St. Petersburg?

Have always wanted to visit St. Petersburg & have thought about a Viking (or other) cruise through Russia. However, we like to have a good amount of time to see a destination at a more leisurely pace & experience the must see sights along with getting a real look at a place.
But, no Russian spoken so can this type of independent trip be accomplished with a certain amount of ease? How long to stay (reasonably), what month might have good weather...NOT hot, cool is fine as long as it’s not raining a lot, where to stay? Should we hire a local guide? Any suggestions are appreciated.

Posted by
4684 posts

You should do some research on individual visas for Russia. We went some years ago, but then you needed a "sponsor" invitation letter - which you could probably get from a travel agent specializing in semi-independent travel in Russia. The point is that Russia doesn't encourage truly independent travel. You may be able to do something close, but start looking at visas now. Even though we were on a Viking cruise (Moscow to St. P), we needed real individual visas, not some one-day cruise-port deal.

Posted by
74 posts

Thanks, Tim. So, I’d need to book a tour guide at minimum in order to get that invitation?

Posted by
2936 posts

The invitation letter is easy to acquire - The hotel you book with will usually provide it . The visa is not a very big deal , this subcontractor for The Russian Federation handles the process - http://ils-usa.com/ St Petersburg is not , in my experience , very much different than any other major European Capital , and if you do appropriate preparation , a guide is unnecessary . For now , though , two other comments - If you take some to learn the Cyrillic alphabet , not really very difficult , you will be well served .. and this fine book will give you an understanding of Russian history and culture that is incomparable - https://www.amazon.com/Land-Firebird-Beauty-Old-Russia/dp/096441841X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1526672422&sr=8-1&keywords=the+land+of+the+firebird&dpID=51CPK13XKGL&preST=_SX218_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch One of the advantages of visiting on your own is the ability to tailor your time without being tethered to a tour schedule , allowing you to dwell on things that you would otherwise be rushed through . September is a good time to visit

Posted by
74 posts

Many thanks, Steve. We have already decided to forego the cruise. They sound & look lovely but on the ground works best for us. I will use your tips & start planning.
No one has yet offered opinions on best time to go. I like cooler weather, don’t mind wearing a light jacket & would like to be able to enjoy the miles of walking without extremes of a lot of rain. Weather being so changeable offers no guarantees, but we try. Thanks all!

Posted by
5700 posts

We spent 9 days in Petersburg 3 years ago and rented an apartment and it was wonderful. We had a 3 year visa so we sent back the next year and took a cruise from Moscow to Petersburg, adding 3 extra nights on each end. I absolutely would not recommend doing a river cruise. First of all, it isn't a river, it is a reservoir system and remarkably unscenic and boring; the stops are for the most part tourist traps designed for cruise passengers. It was a waste of 7 days that. could love to have back to have toured some other towns in Russia.

It is easy to get a visa and it is easy to travel independently in Moscow and Petersburg and they are each incredibly interesting cities. Petersburg is in addition, quite beautiful. This is one to do on your own. We did get a private guide through Tours by Locals for one day in Moscow and one day in Petersburg. In Moscow she took us to the Novodivichy Convent and on a tour of he subway. It was money well spent (and about the same as the cruise company was charging for a half day tour of these same things in crowd on a bus -- they did 3 subway stops, we did 10). A second benefit for us was that we learned how to use the subway system that first day and then could easily tour on our own for the rest of our time before the cruise started. In Petersburg we hired someone to take us to the Catherine Palace providing transportation from our apartment and arranging entry. Also money well spent.

But it is easy around town to manage independently and we discovered wonderful restaurants and loved picking up lunches at bakeries/delis and shopping in the local grocery when we cooked in.

Posted by
16765 posts

St. Petersburg is way the heck north. Pre-climate change it was subject to chilly, wet weather from time to time even in the summer. Now, things may have changed. I suggest going to wunderground.com, entering St. Petersburg (be sure you don't get Florida!), selecting History and Monthly, then looking at likely months in 2017, 2016, 2015, etc. That should tell you what happened on a day-by-day basis during your potential travel months in recent years.

I don't find average-temperature stats very helpful, because they hide extremes. However, the weather chart in Wikipedia's city articles (including the one for St. Petersburg) is useful for its stats on average hours of sunshine and rainfall. September looks rather wet and not very sunny, but it might still be OK for you. My choice would definitely be spring rather than fall.

Posted by
74 posts

Janet, thanks for all the detail which was so valuable in deciding to do our usual independent land visit. Now, I will take all the advice & tips shared here & start my research & planning!
So many thanks to all of you!

Posted by
74 posts

James, Acraven...thanks for your tips as well. So appreciate forums & fellow travelers willing to impactful their knowledge & experiences.

Posted by
524 posts

Barbara, we used express to russia for a group tour to Moscow and St Petersburg. We were very very happy with it . nice hotels, guides were great and made traveling there easy. We had never done a group tour and really enjoyed it. Company was very easy to deal with and very responsive to my questions and requests. We loved Russia . The website is expresstorussia.com

Posted by
5700 posts

Acraven. I almost booked tickets for an opera in St. Petersburg Florida when I was booking tickets for Petersburg Russia.

Posted by
7167 posts

Look at www.toursbylocals.com for local guides for St Petersburg. That's where we hired our guide to take us to Catherine's Palace in Pushkin.

Posted by
1 posts

Good Day,

I was in SPB July 2017. I did a Baltic cruise with 2 days in SPB. I opted to get a Visa to where I could exit the ship without having escort of a tour company (this is how you get around needing a visa if you are on a cruise, you surrender your passport to the Agents on the cruise and they vouch for you as long as you are on a guided tour). There is a cheaper option of tour companies outside of the cruise company called SBP tours that may also offer guided tours at a reasonable price, I used them in Estonia and was very pleased (guided tours through the ship was at @ $400 USD per person, per day ). As for the Visa, I opted to go through a company in DC where I live to assist with the process, (and through referral from the State Dept) and it was fairly painless. It was about $400 USD and as a previous person mentioned you can get the visa for 3 years. I technically was not staying in SBP so I didn't rightfully have a sponsor, so the company handled through SPB Federation. I was able to stay off of the ship the entire time until time to leave the port. I was there as mentioned in July and it was not overly hot but warmer than any other part of the Baltic area that I cruised (places like Finland and Sweden there was the need for a jacket), and if I recall my friend was surprised that we had 2 days of warm weather.

As for the subway/metro system I relied on my friend for navigation and at that time there was not English translations for the stops or announcements in English. The metro system itself has an interesting history, it is one of the deepest (underground) in the world and each station is a work of art. You have probably researched where to go but some of my highlights were St. Issac's Cathedral. You can climb up the 300 or so steps to the observation walkway at the base of the cathedral's dome and enjoy the breathtaking views over the city, and we happened to make it up by noon in time for the church bell to chime next to us. See the Singer House (house of Books) and have lunch in their café with spectacular view of Kazan Cathedral. Definitely take the Night water cruise on the Neva River and see the opening of Palace Bridge (be sure to ask the time as I think it was around midnight). We also took to the water to go to Peteroff and it was like $12, and a mini-bus back. Not a specific highlight but an interesting one I suppose, one of the tiniest sculpture in Saint Petersburg a little bronze finch- Chizhik Pyzhik, people toss coins where it is located - a day water cruise would most likely stop at it. Two day was definitely not enough time to see SBP, you need more like 5 days I think.

We stayed in a Bed and Breakfast of sorts, we were responsible for our own food but it had its own bathroom and kitchenette and table for eating, and you could acquire hot water for tea in a common area and it was super cheap, comfortable.

Hope that I haven't provide too much useless information but I think SPB is a wonderful city to visit.

Posted by
74 posts

Ahh, Jupiter, no information is useless! Quite the contrary...I relish the details you & others provided.
Thanks so very much.
We are probably going to do a trek through Eastern Europe next spring & finish up in St. Petersburg...perhaps in June sometime. All plans keep evolving, however, so we will see exactly what we decide on for when. We’re fluid...

Posted by
321 posts

Two day was definitely not enough time to see SBP, you need more like 5 days I think. Quote/unquote

Previously I was here with children or senior family members, and we never managed to see enough over the course of 5 days or a week. I always thought it was due to our pace limitations.

This time around I'm here with a group of able-bodied young adults, averaging about 25 thousand steps per day over a course of 9 days, if my Fitbit is to be believed.
We have seen most "must-sees" (we've been doing one or two each day, plus ample sampling of nightlife), but I still have that nagging feeling we have just managed to scratch the very surface.
For instance, we haven't seen Grand Maket, Oranienbaum, Yusupov palace, Artillery museum, Kunstkamera (ethnographic museum), the Museum of the Russian Navy, Kronshtadt, the main museum of the Siege, etc, etc, etc. The only trip out of the city we took was to Vyborg (and its small but excellent museum of Karelian Isthmus hostilities). There is so much more out there!

Posted by
1605 posts

We visited St. Petersburg twice on our own and thoroughly enjoyed it. Having a good map and being familiar with the cyrilic alphabet was essential. We also used the Russian-English language app as needed (like buying last minute tickets at the Mariinsky Theater). As for hotels, we stayed at the 3Mosta Hotel along a canal about 1/2 mile east if The Hermitage. Staff are very helpful and rooms are nicely appointed. They definitely can help with letters of invitation. We also stayed several nights at the Art Hotel Demetra because it was close to a metro station and bus line. He loves the adventure of trying local transportation. We often planned our routes with the Google Maps direction feature.

Posted by
321 posts

Also, as far as apps go, I suggest installing a QR-code reading app, such as Kaspersky qr reader.
Most museums (including such unlikely locations as the Lavra necropolis) have QR codes posted right next to most exhibits. You just scan the code and it gives you all the basic info (and more) on the exhibit, its provenance, and the like.
The technology is a little obsolete, but I tried it out at the Russian Museum today, and it worked like a charm.

Posted by
4128 posts

We did a River Cruise in Russia with Vantage that was great. We stayed in five star hotels in Moscow and St. Pete instead of staying on the boat and having to waste time commuting into the cities.

If you take a river cruise, make sure that you have hotels instead of staying on the boat.

We also, did Kiev, Ukraine prior to the Russia tour and cruise then we did the three Baltic Countries after Russia. It gives you a perspective on how some of the countries in the former Soviet Union are doing as independent countries.

I have read a lot about modern Russia, as well as Russian and Soviet history. On a tour you are protected more than you would be on your own. Just trying to read the street signs or signs in the METRO in Cyrillic Russian is a problem.

In and around the city center and the modern hotels, tourists sites, the country look not so bad in terms of infrastructure and modern buildings, etc. However, get off the beaten path, especially outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg, Russia looks a lot more like a Third World Country. You don't want to get lost there.

I suggest reading a great book about modern Russia.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
https://www.amazon.com/Nothing-True-Everything-Possible-Surreal/dp/1610396006/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1527785295&sr=1-3&keywords=books+about+russia

Posted by
321 posts

Totally agree with staying off the ship part.

As to Cyrillic or getting lost -
All metro stops are announced in both Russian and English.
All signage is transliterated.
All metro lines are color-coded, totally user-friendly and have free WIFI available. Most buses have WiFi too. Bus and train schedules are available online via public transit apps. Public transit infrastructure in big cities is light-years ahead of anything I have ever seen in the US.
All major sites have QR codes with notations or augmented reality.
All major (and some minor) museums have English-language audio guides available for a small fee ($4 to $8).
All major map/gis providers (Yandex, Google, Waze, 2GIS) work perfectly well, including public transit options.
All major rideshare/cab app services (Uber, Yandex, Gett) are in English and cost a fraction of what you would pay back home.
The vast majority of places, including seemingly unlikely ones, will take cards (but they prefer visaWave/applePay/Google pay/samsungPay). I went for days totally cashless - and cardless. Made for a few awkward moments when my phone battery died :-)

A Sim card with 30 gigs of data will cost you 8 dollars, good for 2 weeks. That an awful lot of data, more than you will ever need for maps, guides, and online translations. U can pick it up at the airport - just make sure it's activated before you leave, or you will have to find the carrier's store in town to fix it.

In other words, I wouldn't worry too much about the language barrier or finding your way around.

Posted by
74 posts

Perilopf.. and everyone else...your info & tips are priceless. I can’t wait to be there & want to take time to do St. Petersburg justice. Also, there’s a bit of Russian in me so I’ve always felt that tigon my heart! I will be revisiting this forum many times as I create our itinerary so will, I’m sure, have many more questions. Thanks!

Posted by
5700 posts

River cruises are apparently wonderful many places but the stretch between Moscow and Petersburg is a giant bore -- so don't do that one. VERY unscenic. Total waste of time that could be spent in Russian cities and towns. We spent 9 nights in Petersburg on our first trip and it was perfect. I would not try to do this city with fewer than 5 nights. Same with Moscow. We only had 3 extra nights there before joining a river cruise and it was not nearly enough. While Petersburg is more beautiful and manageable on foot, Moscow has lots of really interesting things to see and do and it takes time.

It is easy to get a visa and do it on your own or perhaps hire a local guide for this or that.

Posted by
4 posts

Can anyone give more info on Uber, etc. (I'm not familiar with the other companies mentioned.) vs "official taxis?"
I will be on my own for a few days after a cruise to St. Petersburg at the end of the month. I'm older, retired, and although I speak Russian (rusty after years of disuse) I'm a little concerned about getting myself to the airport for my departure. Or what about marshrutki?
I'll be staying in a small hotel in Vladimirskaya area. I want to see some sights off the tour path, like Akhmatova's flat museum and the Dom Knigi (House of Books).
Any suggestions? It's the first overseas trip I've taken on my own and I'd like to feel more secure about this last thing, getting to the airport.

Posted by
321 posts

Hi,
"Uber, etc" are the new "official taxis", except safer and much cheaper.

The leading apps are Yandex Taxi, Uber, Gett, Taxovichkoff, -probably in that order. All have English interface, all will take cash (but in case of Uber you still need to have a credit/debit card linked to the account). I suggest you download them before your trip and just play around with options to get used to different interfaces.
Also, the driver will sometimes want to communicate with you via phone or text - some apps have their own messaging features, but mainly they will try to call or text the phone number your app is linked to. This is when having a Russian SIM card pays off.

Marshrutki are still a thing in some places (usually for out of town transit), but buses, trolleys and trams are back in the game - they run on schedule (see Yandex Transport app or Google maps, public transit option) and use bus lanes, which sometimes makes them a preferred alternative to car/taxi.

Dom knigi is very much on the touristy route - if you plan to have a stroll down Nevsky, you will inevitably run into it. Vladimirskaya is still quite central, but some distance away from where the main sites are. All metro-accessible/Uberable. There is a small but interesting memorial apartment of Dostoevsky right by the metro, and a weird but fascinating Kuznechny market.

With some mastery of Russian, however rusty, you are in a better position than millions of fellow tourists. You have nothing to worry about :-)

Posted by
4 posts

Thanks. I have used Uber and have the app. I can download the others.
And thanks for the tip on the Dostoevsky site - I saw it in RS's guidebook and wondered if it was worth a stop. I'm debating a second trip to the Hermitage since obviously you can't see it all in one afternoon.
I thought of another question this morning - as an old single woman (but not handicapped in any way), might it be risky to try to go to the drawbridge raising? I'll be there during the White Nights so it won't be dark, when I'm normally circumspect about going out alone. (I don't think I look "elderly" or frail, but I do get senior discounts these days without asking. I'm tall and walk fast so I'm used to not feeling vulnerable, but as I age, that's changing.)

Posted by
321 posts

In my opinion, not risky at all - if my experience of last week is anything to go by, the streets downtown are far from empty pretty much throughout the night - and it was not even a full-blown white night. At two am there were more people in the streets than in DC around 7 pm. Pedestrian traffic does gradually subside by four or five.
That said, if you have any concerns, you can opt for watching the bridges from the water - but keep in mind it sounds better than it looks, as the whole affair quickly turns into chasing the next bridge raising - and not always getting there in time to actually see it.
All bridge raising times are shown on Yandex home screen (www.yandex.ru) once you are in SPb.
I was there on City day and, in addition to fireworks and numerous concerts, they had someone walk a tightrope connecting the two raised halves of a drawbridge. Maybe they'll have something similar for the Scarlet Sails festival.

If you are there at the end of the month, you'll hit a lot of World Cup traffic. That would be my primary concern, both in terms of prices (including Uber) and overall comfort.

Posted by
4 posts

Yeah, I will be catching World Cup crowds at the end of my trip. It wasn't on my radar at all, so I booked before discovering it would be happening. Oh well. I'll deal with it.
Just hadn't considered it relating to Uber - demand pricing, right? And extra busy.
Well, my flight is at dawn (er, or it would be dawn if the sun had set) , so I'll probably be going to the airport in the very wee hours, or even late the night before. Maybe that will cut down the competition some.
Спасибо большое for the helpful suggestions!

Posted by
321 posts

Not only surge pricing - also road closures and probably some site closures (open only for those with tickets/fanIDs). Yandex maps should have all the up-to-date info.
Overall - No Fear and enjoy your trip!

Posted by
321 posts

I was there the day of the finals - my train was leaving within half an hour of the final whistle, in fact - but everything turned out just fine, even traffic wasn't too bad.
I still keep questioning the city's decision to set up fan zone right by the Spilled Blood cathedral (rather than somewhere less central and more isolated, like the New Holland park), but it worked out fine in the end. And people (me included) had a blast!