Published: 11 June 2019
How to take a visa-free trip to St Petersburg
For a number of years there was a ferry route from Helsinki to St Petersburg and back to Helsinki, that allowed passengers to disembark in St Petersburg and stay for a maximum of 72 hours without the need for a Russian visa. The service was suspended temporarily, but has recently been reinstated and we were invited to try out the new visa-free cruise to St Petersburg this spring. It is no bad thing to save money on visa costs, or to avoid the inconvenience of going to the Russian embassy to give your fingerprints (a fairly recent unappealing requirement for many applicants), but is 72 hours in St Petersburg enough time to truly savour this extraordinary city? Linas, Jurga and family tell all...
Like everyone who takes this visa-free ferry service, we had to get to Helsinki. Helsinki is where the ferry to St Petersburg departs from, and returns to. This involved a long drive from Baltic Holidays HQ in Kaunas, Lithuania, up through Latvia and on to Tallinn. In Tallinn we left our car and travelled as foot passengers on the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki (a really great service that many of our clients use during their Baltic tours).
All of this is perfect research for us, as many of our clients travel this route (although they get to stop overnight in lovely places and enjoy sightseeing and local foods, whereas we were short on time and on a mission!)
You can see from the photos above, we had to stop for those beautiful Latvian trees in the morning sunlight. The view from the ferry leaving Tallinn, with old town in the background. And we had very little time to sightsee in Helsinki but our girls loved the Sibelius monument and it made for fun family photos!
We stayed overnight in Helsinki city centre in one of our handpicked hotels. In the morning, we awoke to beautiful blue skies and explored Helsinki in the early morning hours (always our favourite time to explore before the crowds arise!) The iconic Helsinki Cathedral was so bright in the morning sun (pictured above).
We recommend a minimum stay of 3 nights in Helsinki prior to your visa-free cruise to St Petersburg, there is much to see and do within the city and on day trips out of town; Porvoo old city, or hiking in Nuuksio national park perhaps...
After a day of exploring Helsinki, we headed to the ferry terminal where we checked in for the ferry service, got allocated our cabin and began to explore the ship.
On board & in your cabin
There is a choice of cabins onboard, we had a tour of all the different types.
The blue room is a 'Commodor' cabin. When you book this, you get access to the relax room (pictured) - which is nothing special, no bar, just somewhere quiet to sit and relax.
The other room is 'Deluxe'. The different room types are very similar, maybe slightly different sizes being the main difference. All rooms are double beds, it is not possible to have a twin bed room. With both rooms, you get access to the SPA centre - what a treat you might think, a nice way to while away the hours onboard, but unfortunately, we wouldn't recommend you bother with this unless you like cold baths.
Our cabin is not pictured, it was a 4 berth family cabin with 2 bunks on each side of the room. It was perfectly adequate for us, after all we only went there to sleep!
The time went very fast for us, first we went out on the deck to watch Helsinki disappear into the distance. Then we went inside and found a nice place to sit, have a drink, read books and talk. If you are looking for more entertainment, there are concerts, performances for kids, a casino and cinema onboard too. In summer there is a bar on the deck, and it is nice to go outside and experience being 'at sea'.
There are several restaurants on the ferry, but we highly recommend having dinner and breakfast in the main restaurant, there is a big choice and you can eat as much as you want. We had breakfast in a different restaurant and regretted it - stick with the main one! Basic beer and wine is also included with dinner, with better choices available to buy too. The girls enjoyed several ice creams!
You can pay in EUR, USD or RUB on the ferry, but we paid for everything by card easily.
Approaching St Petersburg
This is a really very interesting part of the journey, we highly advise waking up early and going out on deck to experience this. The Neva Bay is separated from the Gulf of Finland by the St Petersburg Dam - a complex of dams extending for 25km. The dams are there to protect the city of St Petersburg from storm surges, and all shipping is channeled through quite narrow gates. The surrounding areas are not exactly attractive, but fascinating; docks, cranes, factories, Soviet housing blocks, and there is a point when we all stood aghast watching whether the boat would fit under the bridge above! An eye-opening start to your visit to St Petersburg.
Disembarking and in to St Petersburg
We highly recommend paying extra for priority disembarkation - you will then be in a priority group that leaves the boat at 09.00 (the rest leave at 09.30) and you are at the front of the queue for passport control. Passport control is as gruff and unfriendly as to be expected, but the process from there on works very smoothly indeed. After passport control, an English speaking representative and minibus will be waiting to transfer you into the city centre, and we can arrange for our guide to be there to meet you, take you to your hotel or to start your walking tour. The exact details all depend on where you choose to stay and your personal itinerary for the 72 hours in St Petersburg.
And here we are, in the heart of St Petersburg! Without the need for a Russian visa.
This is where we can help you get the most out of your time in St Petersburg. There is so much to see here, that normally we recommend a 5 night stay in order to cover the many highlights and enjoy the atmosphere. With only 72 hours to see the sights, you want to be organised with a local guide to hand for beating queues and getting you to the iconic sights as swift and smooth as possible. We met with our guide Maria, who provides a wonderful welcome and introduction to St Petersburg. She will get you acquainted with the city and take you to the sights you want to see - the Hermitage art museum? Peterhof palace and park? Catherine's Palace at Pushkin? Flea markets, canal tour, Orthodox churches, or foodie tours sampling local cuisine?
On our visit we were only sightseeing as we worked, we visited our handpicked hotels and checked everything was OK, met with guides, of course took our girls for photos to the Hermitage and the iconic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
For Jurga, this trip brought back memories of when she travelled to St Petersburg as a young girl on a school trip. Back then, Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union and a trip to St Petersburg was full of excitement and the beauty of the city was as awe-inspiring then as it is now. We think Jurga needs to tell us more about this previous trip in another blog!
NB: you will get a minibus transfer service back to the ferry at a pre-arranged time and place, you MUST be there! Going AWOL on one of these cruises is not recommended! The same ferry takes you back to Helsinki.
Is a 72 hour visa-free cruise to St Petersburg worth it, or should I pay for a visa and stay longer?
It really depends on your motive for visiting St Petersburg.
If you want a taster, an introduction, to say that you have been to St Petersburg; then this is the ideal way to do it. 72 hours in town is enough to see the main sights and enjoy some good restaurants. One benefit of doing this more independent ferry trip rather than a longer Baltic cruise, means you can tailor your 72 hours to suit you and stay in a charming hotel in St Petersburg historic centre for 2 nights, rather than be a cruise ship daytripper in a big organised group.
If you want to really explore St Petersburg with time to savour the culture, the museums, parks, take day trips out of town, then we recommend you pay for the visa and stay longer. You then have the option to add on Moscow (and maybe the Golden Ring) with travel by train or river cruise between the main cities. After all, if you are paying for a visa to Russia you should make the most of it and see as much as you can!
If you would like to talk through the options with Phil, Sarah or Jurga, we are here to help on [email protected]
Finally, some more highlights from our short research trip to St Petersburg; a sweet shop window full of fascinating and delicious looking characters, map-reading as we had a lot to cover during our time in St Petersburg, and enjoying local 'blini' pancakes which reminded us of our childhood when food was more natural. Then it was goodbye St Petersburg, see you again soon!
Published: 11 June 2019