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Tallinn & St Petersberg: On your own

Would love to hear from some travelers who have done St Petersburg and Tallinn, and possibly Helsinki, independently, not on a tour. Would like to book private guides, multi-days. I'm not on a cruise and not in a rush. How did it work out for you? I've got the RS and Lonely Planet guidebooks, and it looks very doable to me. Thanks for your ideas!

Posted by
1533 posts

Ruth,
Thanks for posting as I’m considering St. Petersburg for 4 or 5 days after the Best of Germany tour I’ve booked for 2020. It would be simple to fly from Berlin to St. Petersburg I think.

Posted by
20569 posts

You do need an advance visa to visit Russia. A pain in the butt to get and expensive -- the current cost is something around $200.

Posted by
4684 posts

I have visited all three cities solo - did them on a 2016 Baltics trip.

It IS possible to visit St. Petersburg without a visa - I did it! There is one big limitation: you must take an approved ferry in and out, and you can stay only 72 hours max. I took the St. Peter Line ferry (now owned by Moby) from Helsinki to St. Petersburg in June 2016, spent two nights in St. Petersburg, and then took the ferry back to Helsinki. This was really four nights - two in St. Petersburg, two nights on the ferry total. I got about 2.5 real days in St. Petersburg.

Yes, two and a half days in St. Petersburg barely scratched the surface. It's a big city, and there's a lot to see. I got a very basic overview and that's it. But I think if you're going to go to the trouble and expense to get a visa, I'd add more time for Moscow, too.

Otherwise, the ferry was easy and a lot more fun than expected (I had never been on a ship overnight before). St. Petersburg was something I added pretty late in my planning process, so getting a visa for me would have meant probably not going at all - but it all worked out quite well for me. I'm very glad I went.

I suppose I might hesitate to go to Russia a little more now after all the trouble Russia's government has been creating for the US and other countries around the world - it's a bit scary. Only long after my visit in 2016 to St. Petersburg did I learn that while I was there, a whole building full of Russian hackers in the same town was busy trying to hack the coming US election. Yes, the risk of someone actually getting into trouble there is extremely low, but it would give me pause. I still might go if I had to do it over again.

I found St. Petersburg very safe - I was out late and it seemed like a very bustling town. People were friendly - I spoke no Russian, and very few people seem to speak English, but some tried to start conversations with me, in a friendly way, more than in other European cities I've been to. It was a very touristy town - but mostly the tourists were Asians it seemed, not Americans (given the visa restriction, hardly a surprise). At the time - probably still - things were cheap for me as an American given the exchange rates. I walked miles and miles around the city and took buses and found getting around on my own quite easy.

Posted by
4435 posts

You do need an advance visa to visit Russia. A pain in the butt to get and expensive -- the current cost is something around $200.

...Unless you use the 72 hour visa free option by arriving and departing on the St Peter Line ferry. This is what I did in 2014. While I could have easily spent more time in St Petersburg, 3 days gave me a good taste of the city. We spent one day visiting sights along Nevsky Prospekt, one day on a group tour to Peterhof and the Catherine Palace, and one day at the Hermitage. Here is a post by someone who did this recently
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/russia/72-hour-visa-free-to-st-petersburg

I’ve also visited both Tallinn and Helsinki independently. Both are quite manageable on your own.

Posted by
4684 posts

I spent three nights in Tallinn (also three in Riga, and two in Lithuania). Tallinn is lovely and charming - a great old town, though a bit touristy. It's small. I didn't really need three nights there, but it worked out that way. I did a day trip to Haapsalu, a lovely old spa town. But the old town is not that big and doesn't really require a lot of time. You didn't mention Riga, but it is also very worth checking out and much bigger than Tallinn.

I spent only half a day in Helsinki, and that was probably enough for me. The town didn't sound that appealing to me, and it wasn't. Not a bad place at all, just, to me, nothing that special. Much newer than the other places you mentioned. Very pleasant and relaxing, just not especially charming in my view. We all have different interests when we travel; I'm a photographer, so I value "scenic charm" if you will, and I found it in spades in both Tallinn and St. Petersburg, not so much in Helsinki.

In any case...I was already an experienced solo traveler by 2016, but I still found getting around all of these places completely on my own very easy. I didn't do any guided tours in St. Petersburg; I did a "free walking tour" in Tallinn which was worth doing but not required.

Posted by
6540 posts

We visited Tallinn and St. Petersburg from a Baltic cruise on Norwegian Cruise lines.
We went on a two day guided tour in St. Petersburg, and no expensive Visa was required. We were with about 10 people in a Mercedes bus that was small enough to go down alleys and get to the tourist sights before all the large tour buses made it. The local tour companies simply do a great job and they're reasonably priced. Our guide was like listening to a PhD. in Russian history.
Tallinn is a lovely small town in a green, lush Estonia. And we'd like to go back to spend time there.
We found the cruise ship to be very inexpensive in a region that is deadly expensive. We would like to visit Scandinavia on the ground, however travel there is just costs much more than we choose to spend. TGI Friday's 2 burgers/fries and Cokes--$60--is an example of prices. A cup of coffee is pushing $5, as is a Coke in a 7-11.

Posted by
16609 posts

If you go to St. Petersburg, don't drink the tap water. As far as I know, the city's water supply still harbors the parasite giardia.

Posted by
695 posts

Thank you for all your replies. For clarity, I will have a visa, and I want to stay 4+ days in St Petersburg. The other cities are maybes. Probably traveling with my husband. Most interested in knowing if you found private guides and how that worked out. I have the names of the ones in the RS guidebook as a starting place. And what worked best for getting around the city? Public transport, taxis? Did you find a great place to stay? Don't need luxury, but not looking for budget either, especially if I bring my husband. Lonely Planet guidebook just arrived; maybe I'll find more answers in there. Thanks again for your help.

Posted by
4684 posts

Ruth, I used the buses to get around St. Petersburg - worked well for me. I can't read Cyrillic, but I didn't need to look at a map or a bus schedule. I had a working Android phone with mobile data, and I used Google Maps to guide me around the city. It told me which bus was arriving when, how to walk to it, where to get off. The buses in St. Petersburg are simple: no passes. Pay when you get on in cash (40 Rubles a ride now I think). When you get on, either you pay the conductor or, if there is no conductor, pay the driver. If there's a conductor, she or he will find you, don't worry! Just have the cash - they might make change from small bills, but easier if you have exact change.

There is a subway system too, but I didn't use it.

Posted by
316 posts

Hi Ruth,
I'd probably get a full- or half-day overview tour on your first day and from day two go diy. Most places on the "top attraction" list are easily accessible and tend to offer audio guides, which range from decent to excellent.

An overview tour is helpful, though - it kind of ties the city together, shows you relative distances between the attractions you will visit later, and offers you several hours with a local who speaks excellent English and will be happy to answer any questions about your future itinerary.
If you do that tour, I'd try to include some less accessible or less trodden places that you would have a harder time visiting on your own. I mean places like Piskarevskoe memorial cemetery, museum of the siege, perhaps the Lavra if you are into that kind of thing, maybe Catherine's palace (which is a pain to get to and into otherwise) or some less visited palace like Gatchina.

As to prices - as a family of 4 this past summer we paid the private guide ₽1000 or about $20 per hour plus tickets, if applicable, plus car/van (depends on how many people you have in your party), but for a minibus it's usually about ₽1200 per hour. I would assume going with an established company would be more expensive - they primarily work with cruise crowds, and I *think they start at about $200 per person per half-day, more for "private" tours.
I have a couple of private guide contacts from my last trip - will be happy to share.

Posted by
695 posts

Andrew, thanks for the bus info. Since T-Mobile is my provider, I pretty much am on GoogleMaps nonstop in Europe. Sounds like you might have had a bus app also. I'll look for that.

Perilofp, great info! Would love your list of private guides. The Peterswalk tours look like a good place to start. Like you said, I don't think finding the big sights on my own will be a problem, but I do like focused walks with locals for the context and stories. The RS Snapshot St. Petersburg has been helpful, but the Lonely Planet guidebook has tons of info. Now it looks like we could easily fill a week!

A good friend just returned from the RS St Petersburg tour, and she said doing it on my own should be no problem. That's what I needed to hear! Thank you all.

Posted by
1505 posts

I also have a friend who has been recently and he said a company called Travisa did a lot of the visa legwork for him. He was there 6 days in St. Petersburg and said that was barely enough time to scratch the surface. Good luck in your planning and would surely love to read about it when you return. I loved your TR you did with grandson to London.

Posted by
316 posts

A couple of comments:
Travisa used to be one of the leading third-party providers, but (as far as I know) several years ago they got in some serious trouble with the Russian authorities for mishandling business visa applications. Personally, I wouldn't go with them - or any other third-party facilitators, for that matter.

As to the "app suite" for SPB, here's some that would make your life a lot easier:
Yandex maps (works better than Google maps)
Yandex taxi (plus a couple of other rideshare apps, like Gett, Taxovichkof, etc)
Yandex metro
Yandex transport (that one is awesome, showing real-time gps positioning of all public transport routes, but I haven't used it in SPB, only in Moscow)
Tutu elektrichki (if you're planning on using commuter trains)
Rzd app - if you're planning to purchase tickets to Moscow (best done at least 3 weeks on advance)
Google or Yandex translate (or both)
Some kind of QR code reader (they still use qr codes at some museums and attractions, especially outdoors). I use Kaspersky.
Google Pay/Apple Pay - almost a must.

Also when you're there, Yandex homepage (yandex.ru) defaults to showing you times of all drawbridges being drawn.

Posted by
695 posts

Perilofp, huge thank you! You've saved me a lot of time researching apps!

Posted by
4684 posts

Andrew, thanks for the bus info. Since T-Mobile is my provider, I pretty much am on GoogleMaps nonstop in Europe. Sounds like you might have had a bus app also. I'll look for that.

Actually, Ruth, I just used Google Maps on my phone for everything - it has the bus schedules integrated. I didn't need any other app. I had T-Mobile also when I was in St. Petersburg - worked fine.

Posted by
316 posts

On previous visits I also only used Google maps and was super happy with it - unfortunately the last time there I found some significant differences between Gmaps and Y.transport, as well as some routing quirks (e.g. missing pedestrian underpasses) and positioning issues for pedestrian routes. Very frustrating - and not encountered in any of the Yandex apps.

In any case, for metro Y.metro can't be beat (even in SPB with its relatively small underground system).
In Moscow it's a godsend, even for a regular visitor like me (I'm fairly familiar with the system, but I just can't keep up with all the new developments - over the past two years alone they have opened some 40 new stations).

hi Ruth,
When we did the Baltic it was via a cruise so I am not sure if I can help you a lot. I can just say that we booked private tours via Anastasia travel. So we didn’t have to worry about buying tickets, getting the correct transport. We got the most out of the time we spend there. Our guide made it possible to pass all the lines for the entrances. And oh my, she was so educated and funny. We could ask her anything.

Posted by
1602 posts

We’ve visited St. Petersburg twice on our own and really enjoyed our visits. We also had a visa and have stayed in the city about 10 days total. We did our research first and learned the Cyrillic alphabet. We also used Google maps and translate which were invaluable. St. Petersburg is a fascinating city. We got around mainly by foot, bus and metro. We used the RS Snapshot book on St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Helsinki and found it to be a great resource. We stayed at the 3Mosta Hotel which is about 4 blocks eat of the Hermitage in a very quiet neighborhood. We would stay there again.

Posted by
4 posts

St Petersberg is a fantastic place and so worth to visit, I've been three times, but I was pickpocketed during all three visits, so be very careful of tourist locations, I had a wallet taken from my inside jacket pocket whilst in the catherdral - pushed briefly to the wall and pockets frisked down - it happened in less than 10 secs and I didnt even realise what had happended until a few mins later after which it was too late.

So my tip is take care - make sure you have a couple of different credit cards and keep at least one in your hotel safe.

Posted by
2924 posts

I have traveled to these places in the manner that interests you ( twice to St. Petersburg ) and found it very doable , in fact , no more complicated than any other destination . Typing right now from Germany , my discipline is too weak to go into much detail , but if you go through past posts of mine going back to 2015 , you will find detailed information pertaining to your future plans . Needless to say , any specific queries , please ask .

Posted by
695 posts

Thanks again to everybody who has responded! Steven, I'll check out your posts. Aiming for a 2020 August/Sept trip. I'll probably have more specific questions nearer to then.

Posted by
4057 posts

St. Petersburg is wonderful and there is lots to see there, but some of the best sights are outside the city. The two most important are Catherine's Palace and Peterhof. Book a tour for both.

Don't miss the Cathedral of Spilled Blood and the Hermitage Museum. Also. The Peter and Paul Fortress with Cathedral where the Czars are buried.