Visiting Russia Without a Visa on the St. Peter Line Ferry

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Visiting Russia usually requires going through a grueling visa process — but did you know you can visit visa-free if you go by ferry? You can visit Russia free as long as you arrive in St. Petersburg by ferry and stay for less than 72 hours.

I’ve wanted to visit Russia for a long time, but the hassle of getting a visa deterred me. But a short visa-free journey to St. Petersburg? That definitely interested me. I could go on this trip and plan a longer trip to Russia if I liked it.

This month, I bought myself a ticket and took the ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and back.

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2020: I took this journey in August 2017. Recently I’ve been hearing from other people who have taken the journey that St. Peter Line is now forcing people to use one of their official hotels. I can’t confirm this since things could have changed in the 2.5 years since my journey.

I hope this post remains a resource to show you what the St. Peter Line journey is like, where to buy your tickets, where to find the ship, and how to spend your time in St. Petersburg, but please check directly with St. Peter Line about the hotel rule.

I was shocked at how little information is out there about this ferry, even after you book your ticket!

The information on the web about the St. Peter Line ferry is scant at best. I avoid TripAdvisor as much as possible, but TripAdvisor reviews were literally the only place where I could read information about what this journey was like.

I couldn’t find out through the St. Peter Line website, for example, whether I was supposed to stay on the boat overnight or in a hotel in St. Petersburg, or whether I had to book one of their official hotels, or whether I could book a different hotel that they didn’t mention, or whether I had to be on a group tour the whole time. That’s kind of basic information, and it took a million TripAdvisor reviews to figure out what the answers were.

It didn’t get better on board, –there was no information! We weren’t given schedules or any other papers upon arrival. Even upon booking, our tickets had next-to-no information on them. The only information came from rare announcements on the ship.

Because of this, most of the passengers were walking around, trying to figure out where we debarked (hint: it was on Deck 4), what time the restaurants opened (7:00 PM), even where we got our keys (our boarding cards doubled as keys). It was the complete opposite of the Carnival cruise I took earlier this year, where they were constantly giving you schedules and falling over backwards to over-inform you.

I’m glad I took this journey, but it was confusing from start to finish. And I travel for a living! I can only imagine how confusing it was for less experienced travelers. That’s why I wrote this post — to help you with your trip.

How do you book the St. Peter Line ferry?

You book it through the Moby/St. Peter Line website here.

Be forewarned — even after you book your ticket, there is hardly any information. That image above is what I received in my email — and that was literally it. No information on where to go, when to get there, or any information about the boat itself. It didn’t even say where or when to embark.

This was literally the only confirmation I received prior to checking in at the terminal in Helsinki.

How much does the ferry cost?

I booked the three-night journey from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and back. I had the cheapest cabin class — B2V — which was a private, windowless, ensuite room with two twin-sized beds, one lofted on top of the other. The cost was 168.50 EUR ($200 USD).

Prices on the website are now higher. The cheapest B2V rooms now cost 189 EUR (224 USD) for one person and 204 EUR ($242) for two people; the most expensive rooms, the LX2, cost 531 EUR ($629 USD) for one person and 546 EUR ($647 USD) for two people and include a queen-sized bed, a window, a TV, and two armchairs. Breakfast is included in this luxury room.

Extra fees: All passengers must pay an extra 25 EUR ($30) per person for the mandatory City Bus Tour, which covers the shuttle service to St Isaac’s Square in St. Petersburg. There is an additional 15 EUR ($18) fee charged per person. These two fees are added on to your bill and are not negotiable.

St. Peter Line Ferry Schedule, Helsinki to St. Petersburg to Helsinki:

Wednesday, 3:00 PM: Check-in begins in Helsinki.

Wednesday, 7:00 PM: Ship departs Helsinki.

Thursday, 9:00 AM: Ship arrives in St. Petersburg. Passengers with young children may begin to debark at Deck 4 at 9:00 AM; all others begin at 9:30 AM.

Thursday, 9:15 AM-10:15 PM: Shuttles run to and from St. Isaac’s Square runs every 15-30 minutes.

Friday, 9:00 AM-5:45 PM: Shuttles run to and from St. Isaac’s Square ever 15-30 minutes.

Friday, 7:00 PM: Ship departs St. Petersburg.

Saturday, 8:00 AM: Ship arrives in Helsinki. Passengers with young children may begin to debark at Deck 4 at 8:00 AM; all others begin at 8:30 AM.

Where does the St. Peter Line ferry leave from in Helsinki?

There are multiple ferry terminals in Helsinki. The St. Peter Line Ferry Terminal is close to the West Terminal. The address is Tyynenmerenkatu 8, and if you look for “St. Peter Line” on Google Maps, it points you to the correct spot. There is a tram stop right in front of it, Länsiterminaali T1, which goes straight to downtown Helsinki.

If you’re interested, Helsinki’s infamous “Bad, Bad Boy” statue is right across from the terminal.

I got to the terminal early, and I was able to check in just before 3:00 PM for the 6:00 PM departure. I was given four small white cards, each the size of a credit card: my boarding card, my Russian arrival card, my Russian departure card, and a coupon for 10 EUR ($12 USD) off a 100 EUR ($118 USD) purchase at the ship’s duty free shop.

Upon arrival at my cabin, I had no idea how to get in; I expected that the key would be waiting in a cubby outside my door, like the Carnival cruise, but there was no cubby. An employee demonstrated that my boarding card also served as a key. Ah.

What are the rooms like on the St. Peter Line ferry?

The entire boat is dated, resembling something out of the early 90s. I found my B2V room, on the lowest price tier, to be empty and bland.

My room was very small (as is standard for any ship) and had two single beds, one on top of the other. There was a tiny desk and chair next to an outlet, which was good for working. The ensuite bathroom had a surprisingly good shower with hot water and nice water pressure.

But the fact that the boat was so old really put a damper on things. I mean, when was the last time you saw one of these?

I usually sleep well on ships, but I slept terribly both nights. The mattress was uncomfortable — I could feel the springs poking into me all night. And my cabin was located on Deck Six, just beneath the nightclub. I couldn’t sleep because “YMCA” was reverberating through my room. Earplugs did not help. I fell asleep sometime around 2 AM.

What is there to do on the St. Peter Line ferry?

This ferry is not as decked out as a regular cruise ship, but they do have some things to do. While the ferries connecting the Baltic and Northern cities are notorious for their debauchery, this cruise is far more sedate. My Eckero Line ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki felt luxurious by comparison, with multiple musical acts performing on the short two-hour crossing!

The ship, the Princess Anastasia, has several standard cruise ship offerings: a casino, several bars including a sports bar and a nightclub, a small children’s area. There is a spa area with an adult pool, a children’s pool, a Finnish sauna, and a jacuzzi. You need to pay to use the pools. There is a small fitness center as well.

A few musicians perform in and around the restaurants: think smooth jazz.

There are supposedly “creative classes,” but the only description I could find was, “Each workshop is structured so it transmits practical secrets for beginners and all enthusiastic participants.”

There is a duty free shop, an exchange office, and a medical center.

I spent most of my time in the bar drinking 5 EUR ($6 USD) glasses of prosecco and reading Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. When I came back after our time in St. Petersburg, the bartender greeted me while holding up a champagne glass. I loved that!

Is there wifi on the St. Peter Line ferry?

Yes, there is wifi on the ferry, but you have to pay for it. One hour costs 4.99 EUR ($6 USD); two hours costs $8.99 ($11 USD); six hours costs 13.99 EUR ($17 USD).

The wifi was frustratingly slow and would frequently stop altogether. After my initial six hours were up, I couldn’t get back online; I faced difficulties getting online on the entire journey back.

My advice? Don’t rely on being able to use wifi, and definitely don’t plan on using wifi to get work done. Bring enough books to entertain yourself in case the wifi doesn’t work.

What is the food like on the St. Peter Line ferry?

There are several restaurants on board, including the high-end New York restaurant and a buffet called the Mascalzone Latino. Both nights, I got pizza at Napoli Mia, the Italian restaurant. It was decent.

For breakfast, I recommend checking out the Bake and Coffee cafe, which has hot breakfasts, coffee, beverages, and pastries for sale.

See descriptions of all the restaurants and bars on board the Anastasia here.

What kind of people take the St. Peter Line ferry?

Most of my fellow passengers were 50+, from Europe and China. The Chinese passengers tended to be part of organized tours; the Europeans tended to be independent travelers. There were a few Americans and Canadians; I did not notice any other nationalities.

Is the St. Peter Line ferry good for kids?

There were some children on board. The ferry has a children’s play area and the restaurants have kids’ menus. You can definitely survive this trip with kids, but just keep in mind that this is not a traditional cruise ship that caters to families with events around the clock.

Children age seven and up require their own bed in the cabin.

How is the crossing from Helsinki to St. Petersburg?

Smooth as glass.

What is the debarkation and immigration process like in St. Petersburg?

Honestly, debarkation in St. Petersburg was rough — this was the worst part of the trip. First of all, nobody had any idea where we were supposed to get off — this was not announced or written anywhere. For the record, it’s Deck Four. Follow the crowds. Also, keep in mind that there are lots of stairs; don’t bring any luggage you can’t carry yourself.

After we debarked, it was absolute chaos at Russian immigration. While several windows were open, people did not form lines — people were just a giant blob, everyone jostling each other and trying to cut each other. Some passengers were polite, but others were quite rude and I thought a fight was going to break out.

Even so, the line moved much faster than I anticipated. It took about an hour for me to get to the desk; I heard horror stories of three-hour waits from some of the TripAdvisor reviews.

I noticed that Americans spent much longer at the counter than European and Chinese passengers; they had their passports closely scrutinized as well.

My questioning took about 20 minutes, much longer than anyone else. I was questioned about the state of my passport: I was in a shipwreck in Indonesia in 2011 and my passport spent time underwater, leading to several pages being a bit blurry. Since the shipwreck I’ve visited more than 60 countries on this passport and while some agents ask me how it got wet, nobody has ever used it as reason not to allow me in. Russia was the only country to ever be hostile over its state.

The agent called a supervisor and I was questioned several times about the state of my passport, about why I visited the UK so many times (Um, multiple boyfriends? I just said “tourism”), what I did for a living (“I run a travel website”). I don’t think the supervisor understood English well enough to know what “I run a travel website” meant. When he asked how long I was staying and I said, “Two days,” he was shocked. “The boat is here two days!” I told him and showed him my hotel confirmation.

After several agonizing minutes, he stamped me in and let me go.

How do you get into St. Petersburg from the ferry terminal?

As a condition of the visa, passengers on the St. Peter Line are required to purchase a tour. This tour, which is simply a shuttle from the ferry terminal to St. Isaac’s Square, is automatically included in your ferry ticket purchase as a separate 25 EUR ($30) charge. You don’t have to book anything else on your own.

After you finish going through immigration, walk outside. You’ll see several white vans with a sign in front of them that reads “MOBY — ST PETER LINE” or just “MOBY.” The drivers do not speak English, but just say, “St. Isaac’s Square?” and they’ll nod and point you inside the van. Some shuttles stop at the official hotels en route; others go direct to the square.

You have the freedom to spend your time in St. Petersburg however you’d like — you don’t even have to take the shuttle if you don’t want to. This isn’t like other cruise ships in Russia where you have to stick with your group. From the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, you can do whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it.

If you’d rather book a guided excursion, you can book group tours or private tours (minimum of two people required) through the cruise. I did not take any excursions.

Do you stay on the ship or in a hotel in St. Petersburg?

You can come back to the boat and stay overnight or you can stay in a hotel in St. Petersburg. If you choose to stay in St. Petersburg, you can leave things in your cabin on the ship.

I highly recommend staying in a hotel in St. Petersburg. It will give you so much more time in the city if you don’t have to deal with the lengthy embarkation/debarkation/immigration process both days.

What’s a good hotel to stay in St. Petersburg?

The St. Peter Line Ferry recommends two hotels, Sokos Hotel Palace Bridge and Sokos Hotel Vasilyevskiy, which are stops on the shuttle’s route to St. Isaac’s Square.

My recommendation: choose a hotel walking distance from St. Isaac’s Square that is in your price range.

I stayed at the Art Avenue Hotel, pictured above, and highly recommend it. It was about an eight-minute walk from St. Isaac’s Square, which I found to be very easy while carrying a suitcase. You will see a sign for the hotel on the street; it points you into a courtyard where you find the hotel itself.

Art Avenue is a cozy, welcoming mid-range hotel. I had a private double room with ensuite bathroom. Wifi is free and excellent. There’s also access to a large kitchen where you can prepare meals if you’d like. I paid 3600 rubles, or $62.50, for one night’s stay.

It’s also centrally located and a 20-minute walk to either the Hermitage, the Mariinsky Ballet, or the Cathedral of Our Savior Upon Spilled Blood.

See more hotels in St. Petersburg here.

What are things to do in St. Petersburg?

I loved St. Petersburg. It is so grand and elegant and feels much more like Paris than any other European city.

I’ve visited every country in Europe except Cyprus, and I’ve enjoyed dozens of beautiful European cities. Many of these cities like to compare themselves to Paris — but St. Petersburg is the only city that measures up. It’s just that majestic. Plus, the locals dress really well, especially the local women.

I was in St. Petersburg for about 30 hours total, and it was nowhere near enough. My top five things to do in St. Petersburg are 1) visit the Hermitage 2) see a ballet or opera 3) check out the Cathedral of Our Savior of Spilled Blood 4) See St. Isaac’s Cathedral 5) just walk around and explore the city independently.

  1. The Hermitage astonished me. Imagine if you took all the art from the Louvre and decided to put it in Versailles instead — that’s the Hermitage. Every room I visited impressed me, and I soaked it all in until I could barely catch my breath.

BUY YOUR TICKET ONLINE IN ADVANCE! The line at the Hermitage was the longest I’ve ever seen, even longer than at the Uffizi in Florence. But if you buy an online ticket in advance, you get to skip that line and go into a different entrance.

The Hermitage offers only 15 minutes of free wifi, just barely enough to download the apps and audioguides if you haven’t yet. There are audioguides for both one- and three-hour tours, among other themed tours. I really enjoyed the one-hour tour and supplemented with parts of the three-hour tour. Audioguides cost $1.99-2.99 and you pay via the iTunes Store.

2. If you enjoy the arts, be sure to take in an opera, ballet, or philharmonic performance. I went to see Cinderella at the Mariinsky Ballet and paid about $50 for my eighth row center ticket. Which is a bargain when I paid the same price for the cheapest seat at a discounted performance of Waitress on Broadway last month! I had a lovely time at this ballet.

Note: I almost went to the wrong theater! My ticket was actually for the modern theater, which is a huge, unmissable building just behind the traditional Mariinsky Theater.

3. The Cathedral of Our Savior of Spilled Blood is so Russian. The outside is perfect for photos and selfies; the inside is a technicolor madness that you would never expect.

4. St. Isaac’s Cathedral is worth a visit. It’s not just your shuttle drop-off point, it’s also an incredibly ornate church. You can also pay a bit more to visit the roof and have a panoramic view of the city; I wish I had time for this.

5. Just walk around and enjoy the city. There is so much grandeur and pride to St. Petersburg. Stroll along the canals, take photos, browse the shops, linger in a cute coffeeshop (pro tip: I LOVED a cafe near my hotel and the Hermitage called Bonch), and stop at anywhere that looks interesting.

How is the Russian language barrier? Do people speak English?

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be! St. Petersburg is a cosmopolitan city and most people who work in tourism speak at least a little bit of English. In restaurants, there would often be one server who spoke English well, and they would send her to serve me.

I do recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet, which is pretty easy to do. It will make your life infinitely easier when you can sound out what’s in front of you, as there are so many English language cognates in Russian. Cyrillic is also useful for trips to Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, among other countries.

How do you get back to the ferry from St. Petersburg?

The shuttle picks you up in the same spot where it dropped you off in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. It runs from 9:00 AM until 5:45 PM.

I arrived at 3:15 PM and got a seat on the 3:30 PM shuttle. That was earlier than necessary, but I wanted to give myself an extra cushion of time just in case anything went wrong. Everything went fine and I was back on the ship by 4:00 PM.

If I did it again, I would take the 4:30 or 5:00 PM shuttle.

How is Russian immigration on the way back to the ferry?

Much, much easier than arriving. The shuttle drops you off at the ferry terminal, you can buy last-minute souvenirs or coffee, and then you proceed to Russian immigration where you’re stamped out. Make sure you have your departure card and the piece of paper they gave you when you were stamped in.

Because of the staggered arrivals of people to the boat, there was only one person ahead of me in time.

I had a very hard time at immigration getting into Russia, but getting out only took a few minutes. They simply took a quick look at my passport and departure card and let me in.

Were there any problems being an American in Russia in the age of Trump?

I did not face any issues. I took this ferry in September 2017 — this was after the US passed sanctions against Russia as punishment for their involvement in the US election, after Putin ordered US staffers to leave Russia, after Trump did the same to Russian staffers in the US, and as Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was taking place. None of this affected my ability to take this trip and see Russia.

Keep in mind that anything can change at anytime, and my personal experience may not necessarily reflect yours. However, based on what I experienced, I would not rule out visiting as an American.

If you’re an American who wants to take this trip, I do recommend keeping a low profile while in Russia. Don’t lie about who you are — Americans are easily identifiable based on their mannerisms and dress — but don’t scream it from rooftops either. Russians tend to keep to themselves; it won’t feel strange to be private.

The only time a Russian brought up Trump with me was a store employee as we laughed at Trump family nesting dolls. “I think he looks like Richie Rich,” he said, holding up a tiny Barron Trump doll.

Would you take the St. Peter Line ferry again?

I’m glad I experienced this trip, but I would not do it a second time. Between the short duration in St. Petersburg and the discomfort sleeping on the boat, I see no reason to do this trip again.

Do what I did: use this trip as a teaser to see whether you’d like to take a longer trip to Russia. Now I know that I want to come back with a visa, stay for longer, and see more of St. Petersburg but also Moscow, perhaps take a river cruise or even travel the Trans-Siberian Railway to Mongolia and China! Next time I’ll either fly into St. Petersburg or Russia or perhaps take the train to St. Petersburg from Helsinki.

I would not choose St. Peter Line for a longer cruise. They also offer a longer trip to Tallinn and Stockholm, but I would never do it. I could not handle living on that boat for several days. If you want to travel around the Baltic Sea, I encourage you to book ferries independently; if you want a cruise, I recommend going with a different cruise ship company.

Should you take the St. Peter Line ferry to Russia?

Only you can answer that — but I think you should! It was definitely a special journey and one I was glad to take. Exactly once.

Essential Info

The complete rules for visiting Russia on this cruise without a visa are here. Please don’t violate them; you don’t want to get deported. Note that these rules are for people who have permission to visit the Schengen Area, so if you’re visiting the Schengen Area on a visa, you’ll need a double-entry visa in order to do this trip.

I also recommend that your passport is in pristine condition and that you have a printed confirmation of your hotel stay.

Book your trip on the St. Peter Line Ferry here. You can see schedules here. The cheapest B2V rooms now cost 189 EUR (224 USD) for one person and 204 EUR ($242) for two people; the most expensive rooms, the LX2, cost 531 EUR ($629 USD). You must also pay a 25 EUR ($30) City Bus Tour fee and a 15 EUR ($18) fee.

I stayed at the Art Avenue Hotel in St. Petersburg and highly recommend it. It’s a very comfortable, quiet mid-range hotel with excellent wifi, just an eight-minute walk from the shuttle drop-off at St. Isaac’s Square. Rates from 3600 rubles ($62.50). It is not necessary to stay at the cruise-recommended hotels (Sokos Hotel Palace Square and Sokos Hotel Vasilyevskiy); in fact, they’re located a bit far from the major sites of the city. I strongly encourage you to book a hotel near St. Isaac’s Square. Find more hotels in St. Petersburg here.

If you visit the Hermitage (and you should), book your tickets online ahead of time — if not, you’ll be waiting in a grotesque line for hours. Tickets are good for any one day within 180 days of purchase. Ignore the line and go to the internet tickets entrance when you arrive; it’s on the right of the building.

A schedule of performances at the Mariinsky Theater can be found here. Remember — if it’s not in the traditional theater, it may be in the modern theater behind it.

Visits to the Cathedral of Our Savior of Spilled Blood and St. Isaac’s Cathedral each cost 250 rubles ($4). Visiting the roof at St. Isaac’s costs an additional 150 rubles ($3).

Finally, be sure to have travel insurance when you visit Russia. If you fall and injure yourself at the Hermitage, if you get pickpocketed on the metro, or if you need to cancel all or part of your trip, travel insurance can save you from financial ruin should the worst happen. I used World Nomads for my trip to Russia and highly recommend them for your trip.

Have you taken the St. Peter Line ferry? Would you like to?

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75 thoughts on “Visiting Russia Without a Visa on the St. Peter Line Ferry”

  1. Thank you, Kate for all this information! I had never heard of the St. Peter Line Ferry, but I would love to visit Russia someday. If I decide to use this route, I will certainly use this article as a reference!

    1. Seconded — very curious! I trust your judgment on these things but would love to hear why so I know what to look for and what to avoid re: online reviews. Thanks in advance for explaining, Kate!

      1. As a follow-up — where do you go instead of TripAdvisor? I know bloggers recommend Lonely Planet a lot, but I haven’t found them particularly helpful for logistics etc. Any other thoughts?

        1. I actually do use Lonely Planet guides and like them. I also turn to my friends’ blogs. And I google. But I’m also very lucky in that I have a wide circle of very well traveled friends, and if I don’t know someone who has been there, I know someone who knows someone.

          Lonely Planet’s thorn tree is helpful in that the people there are hardcore travelers, but they are also the snobbiest snobs who ever snobbed. Ask a question that seems dumb in the least and they will turn their noses straight up and berate you. Sheesh.

          1. Just read your article. Very informative and good as I’m planning to use this ferry from Stockholm to St Petersburg in May. Although I’m worried about arriving in Russia and the long waits. I have a full tourist visa that has been granted and been to Russia twice before. I’ll bookmark your article for reference.

      2. It’s hard to explain but since most people go to TA to either rant (usually) or rave, I try to look at the reviews in between. I also like to see what they focus on — the responsiveness of the staff vs. the meanness of the check-in girl, for example. And I like to follow travelers that travel similarly to me, similar level of adventure, price range, not an elderly couple, etc.

  2. This is incredibly informative, thank you! I’ve always wanted to do a Finland-Russia trip and was deterred by the high visa cost.

  3. This is a really impressive, comprehensive piece. One minor thought – when I visited with a friend some years ago, we found that purchasing tickets for the Mariinsky Theatre was much cheaper done from inside Russia. You don’t state that explicitly, and folks might think that your excellent advice about tickets for the Hermitage is also true for the Mariinsky.

  4. I had no idea there was this sneaky little backdoor option to skipping that expensive visa fee! The only reason I had taken Russia off my travel list was because that fee was so hefty! I’d probably try out a trip like this just to get a taste. Also- what did you do to learn the Cyrillic alphabet? Was it a class or just online self-teaching?

  5. Devil’s advocate question here…how do you feel about the humanitarian issues — treatment of LGBT — in Russia? And why was that not a deterrent for visiting, but boycotting visiting North Carolina until HB2 was repealed, was?

    Just curious. I’d LOVE to visit St. Petersburg also, but am boycotting for other reasons… namely, Russia’s treatment of Ukraine.

  6. OH. MY. GOD. WHERE. DO I. START???

    First of all, you’re a HERO! The process of getting to Russia sounds like an EPIC effort. My BFF actually cancelled her plans to visit me last year because of the visa process. I was in StP last weekend, and I prebooked tickets to visit one of the imperial summer palaces, and when I got there, I still couldnt figure out where and when to go to make use of my reservation. As a Russian, who speaks Russian, and who’s traveled quite a bit of the world on her own!

    Second… oh man, this is hard. I actually felt rather aggrieved by your raving social media posts (basically, a preview of this) about StP. Please hear me out.

    I am a lifelong Moscovite who has spent 20-ish years living and traveling abroad hearing this from nearly every foreigner (mostly Americans obvs) I encountered, once I told them where I was from: “Oh my gosh, I would LOVE to visit Russia, I hear Saint Petersburg is beauuuuutiful!” >.<

    I love Moscow, I think it's among the best cities anywhere, and yes, I prefer it to StP many times over, for many different reasons.. That said, OF COURSE StP is beautiful, and has SO much to offer to a resident or a visitor alike. The problem is, well….it's not particularly "Russian." You remarked that it's like Paris, though it's more commonly compared to Venice (the canals, the influence of Italian architects who built all the palaces). Regardless, the entire city was designed by Peter the Great to be a "window to Europe." Peter also very forcefully remodeled the army, the royal court, the customs of even daily life after those of Western Europe.

    Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with all of that being reflected in Saint Petersburg, however, the entire city became a symbol of a sort of distancing from all that was traditionally Russian in favor of all that was … not. Even the churches, one of the most iconic visual symbols of Russia! So many of them in StP are neoclassical or baroque, with colonnades and spires and half-sphere domes dominating the skyline instead of Russia's traditional onion domes. Did St Isaac's feel particularly Russian? Or were you getting a bit of a deja vu of St Paul's or St Peter's, despite this church being of essentially a different religion? (Savior on Spilled Blood only opened in the 20th century and is emblematic of the Slavic Revival movement).

    So, to me, St Pete's misrepresents "Real Russia" TM, and because it is truly so resplendent, it also shortchanges it. Even most foreign tourists who come on longer visits to Russia, begin their journeys from St Petersburg, before coming to Moscow, with their expectations of the capital unfairly affected by Stop #1.

    I KNOW that I sound defensive of Moscow, but I have indeed grown weary of Moscow being judged through the prism of StP. Moscow needs to be experienced and judged and appreciated in a totally different way.

    NOW. As it happens, I spent the last weekend in StP, with an American friend at that. I stayed steps away from St Isaac's (right in front of ther Admiralty, in fact, pictured right after your #5 activity). We had the most amazing walks and food, and interactions with locals. I was quite literally giddy every time I turned the corner (two days of blinding sunshine and blue skies helped too). I loved absolutely everything about the visit (I should also say – my dad and his whole fame are from StP, both of my grandmas survived the Leningrade Blocade, I spent a lot of time in the city ages baby-10 y.o.) It was one of the best getaways of my recent years, period.

    But I still want you to like Moscow more 🙂

    1. Anna, this is a very fair comment! I’m glad to hear your point of view!

      Yes, I loved it and I thought it was beautiful. The buildings made me think of things like faberge eggs and Tchaikovsky and ballerinas, things that I always associated with Russia. But I knew going in that St. Petersburg was considered more European than the rest of the country. And you are absolutely right — now that I think about it, St. Isaac’s definitely gave me St. Peter’s vibes.

      My appetite has most definitely been whet and I would LOVE to visit Moscow even more now! I love big, huge cities, so I have the feeling I would love it. And I want to visit even more after reading Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow earlier this year. I really need to plan a visit soon! Maybe next summer?

      1. Do it, do it, do it! it’s the best time to visit, and also, Moscow is FAR less crowded than St Pete’s. I was HORRIFIED by some of your IG videos from the Hermitage, where in some rooms all you could see is heads! I visited in mid-February, there were literally three people ahead of me in the ticket line (I did not pre-book!), and I had many of the halls ALL to myself!
        (example – this hall was in your video with a million people) – https://gohomeandaway.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/hall-of-mirrors-and-italian-frescoes.jpg?w=1250&h=
        For anyone keen on the museum-theater travel agenda, visiting St Pete’s in the low season is a gift in itself.

  7. I remember reading a post on Reddit a while back that you could do a visa free trip to St. Peterburg via the ferry. I went to the website just to check it out, but even I found it really confusing. So thanks for this post and detailing how everything works. St. Peterburg looks beautiful and this seems like a great option for a visit.

  8. ‘Love the post Kate!

    I’ve been wanting to take that ferry ever since I heard about it, when I went to Helsinki two years ago, and I’ve been trying to get back to it ever since. Even this summer! But I re-scheduled, to go to Sweden instead!

    I had the opportunity to get a visa for Moscow organised by Aeroflot (which is next door to the Russian Embassy in Berlin) back in 2007 on my way to Vietnam, but at the time I hadn’t realized how difficult it usually is to get a Russian visa, and I said No!

    I still regret it!

  9. Hi Kate,

    I visited Saint Pete back in February (oh my gosh, -20 celcius temps… brrr), but flew in direct from the UK, rather than taking the ferry. Even with all the hassle of getting a Russian visa, I’d do that again rather than taking the ferry – which I actually was considering for a future trip, so thank you for the warning 🙂

    For anyone interested in a UK > Russia tourist visa. It costs around £150, and if you’re a British citizen you must go to the Russian embassy in London to get your fingerprints taken (you can submit your visa application at the same time), and they’ll then post it back to you, along with your passport.

    the forms are long, and confusing, so you can opt to use a visa processing company, which I did – saved a lot of time/puzzling things out, or do it yourself (not recommended unless you can read Russian).

    Once I arrived at the airport, it was a pretty painless, fast process. The border guard looked at me intently for around five minutes, filled in some forms, glared at me again, then stamped my passport (in pink 🙂 yay) and let me through. Leaving was completely undramatic.

    With a direct flight from London to Saint Petersburg costing around £150 with BA, and the visa £150, I’d say it’s around the same price, and I’d recommend it, as long as you use a visa helping company. Sadly, the visas are only valid once, so I’d suggest trying to fit Moscow and Saint P into one trip if possible.

    In terms of tourism levels, I’d also recommend visiting off-season. If you like winter, and can deal with some snow, winter is beautiful, and Feb/March is very quiet. There were next to no lines, and very few tourists. Everyone assumed I was Russian – until I opened my mouth at least!

    It’s a gorgeous city, and I highly recommend visiting once in your lifetime. Also, get underground, the metro system is divine.

  10. There is so much great information in this post! It was especially interesting that you didn’t have to stay with a tour group the whole time you’re on land–I’d always assumed that was the case for visa-free ferry visits. I’ve been to Russia twice (both trips for two weeks each, in Moscow and St. Petersburg) and the process to get a visa can be a hassle. I’ve done the visa on my own (without an agency), both times as an American living in the UK, and didn’t have any problems–it was just stressful. Especially as all applicants in the UK have to visit an embassy/consulate/visa application center and do fingerprints. It’s a daunting process but SO worth it to spend more time in the country!

    St. Petersburg is a fabulously beautiful city, and one of my favorite places in Europe. I hope you can get to Moscow someday soon! The two cities really are yin and yang to each other, and Moscow’s Metro stations are out of this world. One of my greatest travel dreams is to take the Trans-Siberian, maybe even to Beijing via Mongolia. I hope to make it happen in the next 5-10 years!

    Hopefully more people will realize they can make a quick trip to Russia visa-free–it is such a fascinating country, and St. Petersburg is a beauty!

  11. I literally just got back from a press trip in Finland where out guide told me about this little loop hole. Pretty awesome considering what a pain visas are. We were actually staying just 3 km from the border in Kuusamo and kept joking about trying to border hop, but thought better of it!

  12. Where do you do most of your research for trips? We have bought guidebooks in the past, but have found them totally useless on our current trip now that we have international data plans. Our biggest struggle has been finding good restaurants.

    1. I get a lot of inspiration from travel blogs, and I also buy digital versions of Lonely Planet guides. I also google around and do a bit of research that way. On the ground, I love using FourSquare to find places to eat and drink coffee, but it doesn’t work great everywhere.

  13. Great post! I would highly recommend going through the visa hassle so you can visit Moscow, which is incredible. It may be off the table in the coming years given the political climate. :/

    « My Eckero Line ferry from Tallinn to Estonia felt luxurious by comparison »

    Pretty sure Tallin is in Estonia — did you mean Finland to Estonia?

  14. Very interesting article, my daughter and I visited on this visa free scheme but flew to Tallin, took the overnight ferry from there and left St Petersburg to Helsinki. We had no problem boarding at Tallin. Like you we found the boat was okay, cabin very basic but did manage to sleep. I got through immigration quite easily but my daughter who was 25 was quizzed because they thought she didn’t look her 18 year old self in the passport, and they kept saying “who is this”. Once she was stamped in we took the shuttle and then it was all fine, We totally loved the city, and would add St Peter Paul Fortress to the list but absolutely the ballet, Hermitage and Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood were standout. We used buses but no-one spoke English and it appears different bus lines operate with same bus numbers, one afternoon we ended up goodness knows where and had to ride all the way back again. Even showing the driver a map didn’t help. I would 100% go to Russia again and to be honest as the visa situation is so complex would consider this route but more time would be preferable.

  15. Kate, this article has a lot of great information. I’m sure it will help many people.

    I just spent 30 days in Russia, taking trains from Helsinki to Mongolia, and I’d highly recommend it. The entry process from the train was much easier than what you went through. I didn’t even have to get out of my seat! A Finnish official came by and stamped me out, and a few minutes later a Russian official stamped me in. This all happened while the train was moving. Easy peasy.

    I can also second that I experienced no trouble whatsoever from being an American in Russia. I think people understand that the government and the people are not the same. In the end, we’re all just human beings.

  16. Does this ferry run year round? My Feb trip has hit a potentially fatal snag so I was thinking maybe Finnish Lapland and a visit to St Petersburg would make me feel excited.

  17. I did this same trip in 2016 as a US citizen and here are some of my tips:

    Strategically pick ferry dates that give you 70 hours (3 days) in Russia, since up to 72 hours are allowed.

    I booked 6 months in advance for like a 50% discount on their site. My costs were much less than what you quoted.

    If you get 3 days, for first and last day see St Petersburg, but on second day, I took the fast train to Moscow, giving me a full 8 hours in Moscow if you take the 7am train and 8pm train back. Well worth it and quite easy.

    Uber works everywhere, as do Google maps for looking up buses/subways.

  18. Do you know if it’s required to book as a round trip, or is it possible to go Helsinki -> St. Petersburg -> Tallinn?

  19. Kate, Thanks for sharing this great and informative blog. We recently visited St Petersburg for two days by cruise ship. We too loved this beautiful city and want to go back. I started reading this thinking the ferry may be a option for a next quick trip. But I finished with the same conclusion you did. We will deal with the visa issue and stay for a longer trip. We are Canadian so it may be less of an issue. Linda

  20. Interesting option for short term visitors. We are planning to skip cost of the Russian visa in another way. In 2018 they will be hosting FIFA World Cup and allow to enter the country visa-free for ticket holders. Although tickets are a bit expensive too, it’s always better to spend money to see the match rather than for visa 🙂 Best Regards 🙂

  21. Hey Kate, quick question – do you know if for this journey Russia enforces the “passport expiration date must be six months later than end of trip” rule? There is no mention of it on the St. Peter Line’s website, I am planning to do it next year (thanks tons for the inspiration!) and was wondering if I should renew my passport before I leave.

    1. You should never travel anywhere internationally with less than six months’ validity on your passport. So many countries won’t let you in; it’s best to be cautious and just get it done!

  22. I studied abroad in Moscow summer of 2016. Russia was (and still is) the most amazing place I have been.

    I totally agree about StP looking and feeling Parisian. May I recommend going to Moscow next time? Moscow is just more ~Russian~ for lack of a better term. StP is sort of like the Bel Air of Russia and Moscow is the NYC. Please, if you ever go back, take at least a week in Moscow to visit places like Tsaritsyno Park, a day trip to Tolstoy’s home in Tula, along with the big sites in the Kremlin and around Red Square.

    My study abroad group went on a short cruise (one week) from StP up through the rivers and lakes to destinations like Кижи (Kizhi) and Петрозаводск. It was a small German river boat with awful food and a plump singer named Dima. To put it simply, we American students made the ship restock its vodka supply.

    Russia is a wonderful place for tourists and travelers, especially Americans who discount its grandeur because of its government. Russians are among the most generous, kind, and beautiful people I have met. I can guarantee that a longer stay in Russia will not disappoint.

  23. Hello,
    I received a booking confirmation but there’s no information where to pay? Only during check-in?
    Thanks,
    Elmar

  24. Did you have any trouble with language? Do you speak other languages? I am planning to do this in Sept, this was so helpful, I have looked everywhere for how long you get in StP. and couldn’t find this info. I finally found your blog!

  25. Hi, thanks for this great post. I was researching visiting StP from Talllinn so this is perfect. The links to the ferry booking site though are not working so I will google and see if I find them. A question: I have a young daughter, adopted, person of color. Did you notice any racism from anyone? She’s still young so I need to be careful where we go. Thank you! Greetings from Cape Town!

    1. I’m not the person to ask, as I’m white, but my friend Oneika of oneika-the-traveller.com is black and had a great time in Russia recently. She would be a better person to ask than me.

  26. Hi Kate,

    How long did it take to disembark once you were back in Helsinki? Considering whether to fly to Vilnius or take the ferry to Tallinn on the same day but not sure how long it’ll take to get off the ship. Is the airport far from the ferry jetty? And does the ferry to Tallinn depart from the same terminal or another one?

    thanks!

    1. Hi Jason, I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly how long it took, but it wasn’t as long as it took in Russia and I remember it being fairly fast and easy. There are multiple ferries to Tallinn; you can Google to find out where yours leaves. Most leave from different spots than the Russia ferry.

  27. Hi Kate,

    Thank you so much for your blog! I returned from a 2-night stay in St Petersburg, and your blog info was invaluable. Right from buying the ferry ticket, booking the hotel, to buying tickets online for Hermitage, and many other small things, it wouldn’t have been possible without your guidance.

    Thank you again. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Alapan

  28. Hi Kate, it’s better than a guide book! Just wonder if you need to show hotel booking info for two nights or any booking info, e.g., one night okay. Someone mentioned they went to Moscow, wonder how did they handle their hotel deal.

    1. I just recommend bringing documentation of literally everything, just in case. The hotel stay is for one night, not two, and St. Petersburg is so lovely (and Moscow is so far) and I wouldn’t recommend leaving the city.

  29. Thanks for the great amount of information- so you did a 3 night tour which is two nights on the ship (going there & coming back) and one night in a hotel there in St Petersbugh correct? so that is the 72 hr window? or can you do two nights in hotel in STP? IF it is one night only in STP do i need to book 3 nights on the ship? to leave things in room on ship, or do i check out of ship and take all things and recheck into ship for the second night? I also see there are many hotels to choose from on ship website beyond what you listed (maybe its changed sine you went) i prefer to do as you did and book outside of Ship line but they have multiple warnings such as – “MOBY SPL LIMITED reserves the right to refuse in check-in in port of departure if the hotel is booked through other booking systems not affiliated with MOBY SPL LIMITED” and “Documents for registration in Hotels of Saint-Petersburg required by immigration authorities of Russia are provided ONLY if Hotel booked via MOBY SPL LIMITED company. Please note that without registration documents VISA-FREE passenger shall not be accommodated in the hotel due to effective legislation of Russian Federation.”

    I also see “add on” as the shuttle transport but you mention you dont have to add that as its included or did i misunderstand ? This seem like a good way to get a “taste as you say and very much appreciate the efforts you have taken to help with the process – thanks!

  30. Hi Kate
    Thank you for your wonderful write up. Been reading about the free-visa. Now I am very clear with what to expect. All the puzzles are fitting in nicely.
    I hope to travel to ST Petersburg from Helsinki in December.
    Once again, thank you.

  31. Hello kate. Agreed with everyone this post is so helpful! I have the same question as Max above. Did you have warnings saying you must book through the cruise company for hotels? But booked outside anyway and it worked?? Thanks

  32. I did the trip in September and my hotel reservation made through St. Peter Line was thoroughly checked upon checking in in Helsinki. The hotel registered me and gave me a copy of the registration. I wouldnt risk booking independently. Other than that you can move pretty freely once in St.Petersburg. HAve a wonderful trip

  33. Kate,the info you shared is invaluable. My question is I have a booking from Helsinki to St P by ferry dates May13-16th. Is this time frame within the 72 hours allotted for free visa? When exactly does the actual visa time kick in. Thanks , Julie

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