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St. Petersburg Overview
There's something eerily fascinating about coming to St. Petersburg. It's probably a combination of Cold War remembrances (this was, after all, once an Evil Empire) and all sorts of warnings from ship personnel about pickpockets and black marketers. It doesn't help that you have to walk past stern-faced, uniformed customs officials at the pier before you can experience the city itself.
Once in the city, though, you'll likely find St. Petersburg a wonderful place, particularly if you're lucky enough to come during White Nights, when the sun barely sets and the entire city seems to be up all night. It's not entirely without hassles: The key museums and attractions are not air-conditioned and rarely have special facilities for the disabled. Very few signs are in English, and understanding what you are seeing -- whether it's a street sign, a shop name or a painting description -- can be impossible. And the Hermitage is typically packed to the gills; you may have to do a lot of jostling to see the art highlights if you aren't on a tour that specifically avoids the crowds.
Even so, the beautiful city Peter the Great founded in 1703, in what was then swampland, has unbelievably sumptuous Czarist-era palaces (efforts have been underway for years to fix the crumbling ones), onion-domed churches and the lovely Neva River (where twilight cruises are offered). Peter was inspired by London, Paris and Vienna and carefully developed the city by plan, creating canals and passageways that will remind you of Venice. Most of the design remains intact today, testimony to St. Petersburg's pride -- and the inability of Hitler to conquer the city during World War II. It's a fascinating place, with a lurid past that's fit for a romance novel. You could find yourself falling in love.
The fact that cruise ships typically spend at least one overnight there allows you to explore the countryside, as well, where past the bland Soviet-style apartment buildings of the suburbs are opulent country palaces -- impressive memorials to the best Czarist money could buy.
St. Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 to 1914 and remains Russia's cultural capital. All the big names have been affiliated with St. Petersburg, including Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. The city itself is like a living museum. You are likely to find yourself oohing and aahing at the architecture from your cab or bus, and art is a key attraction. You've been to the Louvre in Paris; now see the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, home to significant collections of Matisses, Picassos and Rembrandts. And don't miss a chance to see Russian ballet performed live.
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Nesting dolls (they come in all themes, from traditional to U.S. football team designs) and lacquer boxes. You can also find good buys on amber jewelry, porcelain and icons.
Russian is spoken, and don't expect everyone to know English (except, of course, for your well-versed tour guides, who will be by your side the majority of the time).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency is the ruble. For better prices, get some rubles at an ATM in the cruise terminal or in the city, although many street vendors and shops do take dollars or euros. Otherwise, use a credit card. Just make sure to call your bank and let them know you're traveling in advance; Russia is well-known for scams, and transactions there will be noted.
Where You're Docked
St. Peterburg's Sea Facade has been built on reclaimed land at the mouth of the Neva River. It's on Vasilyevsky Island, about a 15-minute taxi ride from the city's historic center. Although the port can handle up to seven mega-liners simultaneously, debarkation doesn't seem to be much of a hassle.
Completed in spring 2011, the three Sea Facade terminals are new and very user-friendly, offering a taxi stand with set prices (600 rubles one-way to the Hermitage), a tourist info booth, ATM's, vending machines, souvenir shops, a cafe, Wi-Fi service and between 28 and 36 passport booths each to help speed debarkation. While plans are underway to make the Sea Facade area a true tourism and business center, there's nothing there right now that will entice you to linger.
If you go it alone and travel by cab, it's a good idea to have the ship's berth location written down in Russian characters, since your return driver may not speak English. Ship personnel at the pier should be able to help you with that. The major in-town attractions, such as the Hermitage, the Russian Museum and St. Isaac's Cathedral (all highlights), are within a brisk walk of one another. Taxis typically line up outside the big attractions; negotiate the price before getting into the car. Otherwise, head for one of the five-star hotels (Grand Hotel Europe, Nevsky Palace Hotel, SAS Radisson) on Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main boulevard, and hail one there.
If you would prefer to rent a car and driver, you can try and negotiate with the on-pier taxi drivers. One offered us a private tour of wherever we wanted to go for about $30 an hour. You can also visit the City Tourist Information Center, #41 Nevsky Prospekt, which can set you up with a driver (although the on-pier option is undeniably more convenient). Cruise lines' shore excursion offices may also offer car-and-driver rentals.
Watch Out For
St. Petersburg can be a challenging place to visit. First and foremost, if you're not on a shore excursion through a licensed operator and want to go it on your own, you need a Russian visa, and you have to apply for it in advance of your trip. The cost varies wildly, and it can creep up to $400, depending on whether you use regular or express service. Your source for such is the Russian embassy or consulate. Or ask your travel agent or cruise line if they work with a reputable visa service; they charge a fee but save you time. You will, either way, need to submit two passport photos.
Or go with a local tour operator -- such as SPB tours, Alla or TJ Travel -- that has special certification to carry passengers without a visa. You'll need to book your tour in advance and show your ship a copy of your confirmed tour receipt before you can debark.
Also, don't drink the tap water. Stick to bottled varieties, and go easy on ice in your drinks, as well. The water is not up to Western standards and may cause "traveler's tummy" (stomach upset).
This is one of the few Baltic ports of call where we recommend that passengers take organized shore excursions, either through the ship or a licensed tour operator. Some lines now offer an "at your leisure" tour that gives you the visa, yet allows you time to go off on your own -- really, the best of both worlds. The only way that you can be truly independent is if you obtain a visa prior to your trip.
The Hermitage is the world's second-largest art museum (behind the Louvre) and easily St. Petersburg's most famous attraction. The four buildings that make up the museum include the opulent Winter Palace, which was built by Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth and has undergone major renovations that have left it sparkling. Walk up an imposing baroque marble staircase, marvel at all the gold leaf, and check out the several heavily decorated rooms, including a throne room.
Your guide will tell you how the art-collecting began with Catherine the Great (although what she collected could only be viewed by royal eyes and invited guests). Today's art collection is in chronological order. On a recent visit, we started with names familiar to fans of the old Ninja Turtles cartoon -- Leonardo (DaVinci), Raphael, Michelangelo. Next, we moved on to the Spanish collection (Velazquez, Goya and El Greco, to name a few).
While the Hermitage's Rembrandt collection is the second-biggest (after Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum), many of the more famous pieces have returned to Holland as part of the Hermitage Amsterdam. Still at the Hermitage on a recent visit: The Danae, which may or may not actually be by Rembrandt but has a place in history for being slashed and burned with acid in 1985 by a madman. It took 12 years to restore the work.
Get there early to view the museum's famous Impressionist collection, put together by collectors in Moscow. Declared bourgeois by Stalin, the collection sat in warehouses until the end of World War II, when it was divided up between the Hermitage and the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow. Renoirs, Van Goghs, Cezannes and Gauguins cover the walls in room after room, followed by a lot of Matisse and some Picasso, too. Don't miss the fabulous gift shop, which is a great place to buy quality souvenirs. The museum offers a radio system where you can put on headphones and actually hear your guide despite the crowds. (Closed Monday; open from 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, 10:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday.)
St. Isaac's Cathedral, the biggest in St. Petersburg, is an immense, awesome spectacle. It's not all that old -- it was completed in the mid-19th century -- but it's replete inside and out with gorgeous mosaic murals, granite pillars and marble floors. Its huge gold dome can be seen for miles around. (Closed Wednesday and the last Monday in the month; open 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Thursday - Monday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday)
The Church of the Resurrection of the Christ (Savior on the Spilled Blood) gets its gruesome name from Emperor Alexander II, who was assassinated on this very spot in 1881. Modeled after St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, the onion-domed exterior immediately fulfills all your dreams of Russia; a photo op there is a must. Inside, there are 7,500 square meters of mosaics, all restored, as well as a shrine to the departed tsar. (Closed Wednesday; open 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Thursday - Monday in summer, 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. September - May)
The Russian Museum is housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace and is one of two top places in all of Russia to experience the culture of the country, from 12th-century icons to the avant-garde. Don't miss the adjacent Mikhailovsky Gardens, a lovely spot to rest during a long day of sightseeing. (Closed Tuesday; open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Thursday - Sunday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday)
The Peter and Paul Fortress is where St. Petersburg began. Built in 1703, it was initially planned as a defense against Sweden, but the Russians won that war before the fortress was completed. It was used, until 1917, as a political prison instead. Many of the czars and other Russian royalty are buried there. Other highlights include the Baroque-style Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (open every day) and the Trubetskoy Bastion. (Fortress closed Wednesdays and the last Tuesday of every month; open from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Thursday - Monday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Tuesday.)
If you really want to see how the Romanovs lived, take a trip to some of their magnificent palaces, located outside the city proper. The primary palaces are Catherine Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great's Peterhof -- and you can do them in a day (but just barely). Peterhof lies on the Baltic Sea, a magnificent landmark of Russian artistic culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, founded in the very beginning of the 18th century by Emperor Peter the Great. It's known as the Russian Versailles for its gorgeous fountain-laden grounds and elaborate interiors. Try to schedule your tour on a weekend, when all of the portions of the complex are open. In Pushkin, Catherine Palace neighbors the palace of Pavlovsk, which was built for Russian Czar Paul I, the only son of Catherine the Great. Both were built in the mid- to late-18th century, have been beautifully restored and are situated among gorgeous parks and gardens. At Catherine Palace, don't miss the re-created Amber Room, which took 20 years and cost more than $12 million. (The original amber panels were stolen by Nazis during World War II and sent back to Germany, where they were never recovered.)
You'll kick yourself if you leave St. Petersburg without attending one of its famed cultural performances. The city has long been a magnet for Russian musicians, composers and dancers, and its residents flock to its theaters (where they pay a much lower ticket price than visiting tourists). While the famed Mariinsky Theatre is the best known (the former Kirov Ballet is housed there), the city has enough venues and talented performers that your night out is bound to be special.
Been There, Done That
Those with visas should spend at least part of their time on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's most famous street and the city's major commercial thoroughfare. Nevsky Prospekt is life in Russia on display, with street vendors and exclusive Western boutiques (ranging from Hugo Boss to Versace), cathedrals and parks, cafes and canals. One fun diversion is a boat ride along the canals; plan to pay about 200 rubles for an hourlong trip. Boats leave from Anichkov Bridge (the Fontanka River) just off Nevsky Prospekt at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Buy your ticket on the spot.
Nevsky Prospekt is also a good place to pick up edible and drinkable souvenirs (from caviar to vodka); among the handful of mini-markets, the stores at #21 and #41 have excellent selections. One warning to visitors: Despite the presence of pedestrian crossings, there is no such thing as "yield to pedestrians" in this city of frantic drivers; pay close attention to traffic, or cross the street through the underground pedestrian tunnels.
If you're young, hip, trendy or daring, follow the crew to St. Petersburg's nightlife scene! Because of the city's exotic quality and the overnight in port, the stop in St. Petersburg is a big evening out for cruise travelers. Typically, cruise lines will organize ballet or folkloric excursions, but the city's got some fabulous nightclubs, too. Of note are Hollywood (#46 Nevsky Prospekt) and Metro (#174 Ligovsky Pr.). A word of caution: Don't carry any valuables or too much extra cash.
If you want to do some shopping, pick up quality souvenirs at the Hermitage or cheap trinkets -- including nesting dolls, other craft items and Communist-era pins -- from the street vendors outside or at any market. (Be aware some products may be fakes.) Outside the Hermitage, one T-shirt vendor had a shirt with the Communist Party symbol of a hammer and sickle that announced, "The Party's Over," in case anyone didn't know that.
St. Petersburg's dining scene has experienced a facelift in recent years. While Russian food tends toward simply prepared meat, potatoes and fresh fish , you'll find the quality and cafe atmosphere have improved, especially in the city's historic center. Grab bliny -- pancakes with filling -- for a quick snack, or stop in one of the tempting pastry shops on Nevsky Prospekt for a sweet treat. In a Russian restaurant, you'll see a bewildering array of "salads" on the menu, many containing fish or meat; try the Salad Olivier, a dish similar to American potato salad that holds a special place in Russian hearts. For something different, try Georgian cuisine, what the Russians consider their "southern" food for its regional flavor and hospitality.
Stolle is the place to get pies -- either the meat or fruit variety. Disregard the cranky counter people, and have a seat. Once you're done, buy another to bring back to your room or cabin for a late-night snack. They're that good. (Vasilievsky Ostrov, 1st Line 50, not too far from the Church of the Spilled Blood. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Rossi's is a pleasant sidewalk cafe just off Nevsky Prospektt; the food is adequate, the people-watching sublime. (Nevsky Prospekt at Mikhailovskaya, part of the Grand Hotel Europe. Open daily from noon until midnight.)
The Idiot Cafe, named for the Dostoyevsky novel, is a favorite with St. Petersburg's expat and artsy crowd. It's known for its borscht and other vegetarian dishes, served in a quasi-Bohemian atmosphere in a cozy basement space. Wash it all down with a free shot of vodka. The staff speaks English. (82 Moika Canal, not too far from St. Isaac Square. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.)
Teplo is one of St. Petersburg's more popular restaurants. With outdoor seating and kitschy homestyle decor, it reminds you of an independent cafe you might see in a major American city. The potato pancakes -- which come with Buko cheese, red caviar and smoked salmon -- are delicious, as is the beef Stroganoff made with mushrooms and veal. Reservations are recommended. (45 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, next to the Vladimir Nabokov Museum. Open 9 a.m. to midnight Monday - Thursday, 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday - Saturday.)
Kafe Tbilisi is considered one of the best places to experience Georgian food, which is considered fashionable right now in St. Petersburg. (The Russians see it as "southern food.") Make sure to try the khachapuri (cheese bread) and some Georgian red wine; menus are available in English. (10 Sytninskaya, not far from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Open noon to 1 a.m.)
Sever is a legendary Soviet-era cake shop, where people used to line up for the brightly colored sweets. Do some drooling before you pick, although prices are reasonable enough that you might choose more than one. (44 Nevsky Prospekt. Open 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday - Saturday, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. Sunday.)
The Other Side (TOS) Gastro & Refuge is an American version of the many British-style pubs that you can find in St. Petersburg's historic center. Meals are similar to the gastro-pub fare that you find at upscale bars in the States. The St. Petersburg Times, the city's English newspaper, sometimes has pub quizzes there; there's often live music. (1 Bolshaya Konyushnnaya. Open daily, noon to last customer.)
Staying in Touch
Cafe Max (#90-92 Nevsky Prospekt), the Moscow chain of Internet cafes, has come to St. Petersburg. You'll pay about 120 rubles ($4) for an hour of computer access, or 100 rubles ($3.25) for an hour of Wi-Fi. There's also a branch in the Hermitage.
Best for First-Timers: Look for two-day overview excursions that include both landmarks in the historic center -- such as St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Church on Spilled Blood and the Hermitage -- and a visit out to the countryside to see Peterhof or Catherine Palace. Some lines add in a canal cruise, a romantic way to experience the city's architecture, while others tack on stops at the Metro. What's so special about a subway? Built during Stalin's rule, the stations were considered "palaces of the people" -- and they feature chandeliers and gorgeous Soviet-era artwork.
Best for Culture Vultures: Almost every line has an option to take in a ballet or cultural performance (although you usually won't find out which specific theater you're going to until you're onboard), with Champagne and mineral water available at intermission. Not all of St. Petersburg's theaters have elevators, so you'll want to make sure you can climb some stairs. Packing note: The lines suggest jackets for men going on this excursion.
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've toured St. Petersburg already, use one of your days in port for Moscow. The trip is via regular scheduled airline (the flight takes about an hour) or by a four-hour high-speed train. It's a long day (your trip will start early and last until 1 a.m.), and it's pricey (day trips are about $679 - $795, overnights substantially more), but you get to see the major sights of Russia's bustling capital city -- including the Kremlin, a masterpiece of Russian architecture, and Red Square, with views of Lenin's Tomb. Overnight trips typically also include a ballet performance at the Russian State Theatre.
For More Information
On the Web: www.saint-petersburg.com and Russian National Tourist Office
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--by Chris Gray Faust, Cruise Critic Contributor.