St. Petersburg, Russia – Part 1 | Baltic Cruise

A stop in St. Petersburg is the highlight of any Baltic itinerary. It was the reason that we decided to even go on a Baltic cruise. Now, getting into Russia for US citizens can be both difficult and expensive. For starters, you would need to obtain a Russian visa (around $200-$300 after it is all said and done). Rick Steves has a great little how to on his website about obtaining one.  You can check that out here. Cruise ship passengers get a pass though. If you will be in St. Petersburg for less than 72 hours you can bypass the visa process by booking a guided tour either through your ship or through a locally licensed tour operator. The tour price on our ship for a 2 day highlights tour was $420 a person and the tour had 60 people in each group! I really hate big tours, so I researched locally licensed tour operators.
We decided to go with TJ Tours. We did their standard 2 day tour and it was a great value. The usual cost is only $210 a person, but because I booked early, and because I am also a member of Cruise Critic, we only paid $160 a person. We had a “large group” according to our tour guide of a whopping 10 people. Within 2 days of booking the tour online I was emailed my blanket visa (aka tour ticket to get you through immigration) and detailed instructions on how to navigate the immigration process as well as where to meet our guide. I chose TJ Tours for a few reasons, but one of the main reasons was because they guarantee you will make it back to your ship on time. If for some reason you miss your ship they will pay for you to get to the next port of call, pay for hotel, and pay for food. The second reason that I chose them is because you don’t have to pay for the tour until you arrive in St. Petersburg. I ended up paying a week before arrival for convenience, but on the second day of our tour they took us to their offices where you can pay in a variety of ways. Really easy!

So on the day of our tour we got off the ship and got in line for immigration. (NOTE: You have to go through Russian immigration each time you exit and enter your ship. So over 2 days we had to go through the process 4 times. The First time was the worst and the other 3 times were a breeze). The first day it took a very long time to get through, as they are scrutinizing everyone’s stuff. Once we got past and got those coveted Russian passport stamps, we walked outside to find a representative from TJ Tours who walked us over to our tour van. The van came equipped with wifi which was actually really good for it being in a van. This was an added perk because our phones weren’t going to work there, so this allowed us to check emails, Facebook and check in with people at home while driving through traffic.

At first you will drive through St. Petersburg and see some of the famous landmarks. Above is the outside of the Hermitage Museum. We would go there the next day, but seeing it in real life, I couldn’t believe how big it was.

You’ll see lots of golden domes and spires. So much gold everywhere. As you can see, a lot of the architecture looks very European. That was surprising to me.

We saw a few Egyptian artifacts that Russia has. They are very proud of the fact that they have any. Apparently you whisper into this guys ear and he will grant your wish. We’ll see.

Next we went to St. Isaac’s Square where we got to see lots of famous landmarks. We were able to see the outside of Mariinsky Palace, which houses the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly.

We also saw the Astoria Hotel. I’ve heard of this hotel actually. Apparently it is very famous and it was originally built to house the guests of the Romanov family. A lot of famous people have stayed here from Madonna to Prince Charles to George W. Bush.

And my favorite part of this square, St. Isaac’s Cathedral. It’s the 4th largest cathedral in the world. I wish we could have went inside of here. The pictures of the inside look great.

And in the middle of the square is this monument to Nicholas I.

And another golden view off of the square. We were told that there are so many yellow buildings in St. Petersburg because it brings sunshine to the city since they get so few bright, sunny days.

Next we took a ride on a hydrofoil boat. The ride is 45 minutes and was extremely bumpy the day we went. If you go here and your tour includes a ride on a hydrofoil, I highly recommend taking or wearing something for motion sickness. We wore these and they worked well both on the cruise ship and on the hydrofoil ride.

Our hydrofoil ride dropped us off at Peterhof Palace. Peterhof Palace is most famous for its beautiful gardens and fountains and is often called the Russian Versailles. This palace was used as a summer retreat away from the hustle and bustle of St. Petersburg.

There are some smaller “palaces” on the property as well. This one was built for Empress Elizabeth. She often had dinner or tea here.

On a clear day you can see the skyline of St. Petersburg. Here was our view. A little foggy.

This is one of the trick fountains on the property. Peter the Great apparently really liked to play pranks on people that involved them getting wet. Here, if you walk in front of the bench there are some stones, that if stepped on, activate a hose to spray anyone sitting on the bench.

This was another trick fountain. He would have people sit on the bench in the shade and then he would activate the water, so they would have to get wet in order to get out. Lots of locals come here on hot days and bring their kids to play.

So as you can see, the Peterhof Palace gardens are very beautiful. It was a little cold and windy for us to fully enjoy it, but we learned a lot during our tour.

After our tour we went to eat a traditional Russian lunch. Our first course was a beet salad. This was the only part of the lunch I didn’t enjoy. It contained beets, potatoes, peas, and cucumbers. I don’t like peas or beets and everything was covered in beet juice, so it wasn’t my favorite.

The next course was a chicken broth soup with homemade noodles. This was great to warm us up and was served with some bread.

The main course was beef stroganoff with potatoes. The stroganoff was delicious! The potatoes were smothered in butter and fresh dill, which was really great. If you are on a special diet, TJ Tours will arrange for you to eat something else at this restaurant. This meal was included in the price of our tour.

Our next stop was Catherine’s Palace. This palace was HUGE! It was only used as a summer residence. Originally all of the white painted areas were gold leafed. Apparently it was hard to even look at this place on a sunny day. I told you Russians liked their golden buildings.

The inside of the palace had, of course, more gold everywhere.

A typical dining set up for desserts. Everything on the table is edible.

The hall of mirrors. At night they light all the candles in here and the light reflects off off all the mirrors (positioned between each window on both sides) and the room apparently looks much bigger than it actually is.

Inside of Catherine’s Palace is the famous Amber Room. No pictures are allowed here and it is enforced by some scary people, so I didn’t even chance it like I normally would. We learned about how the original Amber room was lost after WWII, so what we saw was a recreation. It was still cool to see.

After Catherine’s Palace we were dropped back off at the ship. We immediately went to go eat dinner and then went to see the early show on the ship. I highly recommend it. It was a Russian folkloric show and was very good. After the show we went straight to bed to prepare for our next long day.

I had originally wanted to pay for an evening excursion either to the ballet or to a Russian folkloric show. From what we were told by people who went to them, it wasn’t what they thought. The Russian folkloric show that you had to go back out into St. Petersburg to see (cost is around $80 a person) was apparently just about the same exact thing that we saw on the ship for free! The ballet you see (you won’t know what production until you get there) is performed by students and you don’t get back to the ship until after midnight. The people on our tour who went to an evening program were very tired the next day and they said it was just ok. Because of that I would save your money, see the show on the ship and get to bed early so that you are rested for the next day!

2 Responses to “St. Petersburg, Russia – Part 1 | Baltic Cruise

  • A cruise seems like such a great and sensible option, seems like you had a terrific time 🙂 Catherine’s Palace looks amazing, all that gold! And I loved the captions about the trick fountains, what a cool little tidbit to learn!

    • A cruise in that area of the world is a bargain compared to the price of food/travel/lodging in those countries. And it was a great way to see where we might want to go back to in the future. I also enjoyed the trick fountains!

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