I'm planning a visit to Helsinki this summer (late June/early July). I'd like to make a brief visit to St Petersburg. As I understand it, tourists arriving on a ferry who will visit for less than 72 hours do not require a visa, but I get the impression that traveling in Russia may be a bit more "complicated" than elsewhere. I'm not the most seasoned traveller, but I have made several trips to Western and Central Europe, and I've been comfortable making all my own travel and accomodation arrangements, and finding my way around strange cities on my own. However, for St Petersburg, I'm leaning towards a ferry/hotel/tour package. Any advise would be appreciated. Thank you.
First, information about traveling in Russia gets outdated much faster than in western Europe. So, bear in mind that my trips there were in 2001 and 2010. On both trips, I went with my sister, who speaks Russian. And I had learned the Cyrillic alphabet and basic phrases - please, good day, where's the toilet, and the numbers from 1 to 10. 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) And outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, I would have really been stuck without my sister. A package would certainly make things easier for a first visit. If you do go on your own (or if you have free time in your package), the things that were the most memorable for me were the Yusupov Palace (seen in 2001), the Sheremetov Palace (musical instruments museum in a lavish old mansion, seen in 2010) and the Russia Museum and Church on the Spilt Blood (seen on both trips because they were so spectacular). I didn't get to the palaces outside the city. And while the Hermitage is amazing, it was less special than the others I just mentioned (you can see Matisse in a lot of places). For guidebooks, look at Rough Guide and Lonely Planet; if you have no clear preference, choose the one with the most recent publication date.
It has been over 10 years since I took a similar trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and the government had just changed so things were a bit more unsettled than they are now. I was very glad that I took a 3-day bus tour from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. I met some people on the tour bus and together we took the metro and walked around the city and shops when there was downtime on the tour. The tour was wonderful and worry free. All accommodations and meals were provided. Plus, the tour guide has lots of history and information to provide along the way. We saw all the usual sites (palace outside the city, Hermitage - which I was awestruck by - cathedrals, all the top sites) and I was able to really enjoy them without the concerns or fears of getting to them. Best money I ever spent.
I spent 9 days on my own in St. Petersburg, in April/May 2012. First of all, double-check with the Russian Embassy, but it was true last year about not needing a visa for a quick return trip from Helsinki by ferry. I found it easy to get around (including bus and metro), order food and see the sights, without speaking Russian. Harold gave you good pointers about what to see, but I disagree about the Hermitage - I spent 3 half-days visiting its extensive collection. If there is a ballet performance, do include an evening out - I went 3 times! The best value (quality for the reasonable price) for souvenirs I found was at the Yusupov Palace's small gift shop. I highly recommend the SwissSTAR B&B in StP. I found it to be a great value and very centrally located - I had a private room with an ensuite, the use of a communal kitchen, with breakfast included: http://www.swiss-star.ru/index.php/home-en If you've already done it on your own in Central Europe, you'll be fine in StP! CAVEAT: Don't try to include Moscow in your 72 hours:
1) I don't believe that it is permitted; 2) Moscow is not as tourist-friendly; and, 3) you have so little time to devote to StP to begin with...
We traveled from Helsinki to St. Petersburg via ferry in June, 2012. The ferry company is St. Peter Line. Last year, the 72 hour visa-free rule applied; I don't know if it has been changed. Visit their website (www.stpeterline.com) for the ferry/hotel/tour package you are interested in; they sell them. Since the ferry arrives in the morning and departs in the evening, you can stay a maximum of 2 hotel nights. Or two days and one night, or just make it a day trip from Helsinki!?! We stayed two nights, purchased a tour for day 1 from the St. Peter Line, bought a tour for day 2 from another company (Alla Tours, but there seem to be several recommended tour companies), and on day 3 used a taxi the hotel called for us (they advised not to hail a taxi) and a city bus for transportation. There were English speakers in the hotel, at a couple restaurants, and some tourist sites. My advice: Go, its a wonderful city to visit, and, with the hesitation I'm sensing from your post, buy tours or the whole package from the ferry company. Send a PM if you want more information. Have a great trip.
Just to clarify: I'm not saying the Hermitage is not worthwhile; it's the second largest collection in the world after the Louvre, and it's in an amazing palace to boot. But it is huge, crowded, expensive and overwhelming. And, as my sister is fond of saying, it has great paintings - by artists you can see in lots of other museums. The Russia Museum, on the other hand, has wonderful paintings, but by artists you've never seen before. If I had 9 days like Diane did, and saw it in 3 half days like she did, I'm sure I would have had a better impression. Someday I'd love to be able to do that. I stayed at Griboedova 29, which is wonderfully located. The room was 80 euros a night (a bargain for St. Petersburg) and while the bathroom was not ensuite, there were 2 showers and 2 toilets (in separate rooms) for 4 rooms, so there was never a wait. http://www.hostelbookers.com/hotels/russia/st-petersburg/3991/
Thank you all for the advice and encouragment! I'll be making firm plans soon.
Well, I just booked a flight to Helsinki. After short visits there and in Tallinn, I'm taking a cruise ship to St Petersburg, where I will will stay for two nights. As I am arriving/leaving via ship and staying for less than 72 hours, I do not need a visa. I could have arranged things all on my own (as I will for the Finland/Estonia portions of the trip), but for a variety of reasons, I've opted for some "hand-holding". I'll be in a group for the entire first day from the time I get off the boat, but plan to go off on my own in St Petersburg on the second and third day. Thanks again for the advice. I'm looking forward to the trip.