Why go to St. Petersburg?
St. Petersburg is home to the Hermitage art museum, grand palaces and ornate cathedrals
Independent explorers must obtain visa before arrival; otherwise, organized tours are a must
Full of beauty, culture and history, the city is worth the hassle of planning ahead
St. Petersburg Cruise Port Facilities?
St. Petersburg's Marine Facade was 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 (though that doesn't mean you won't have to wait a bit in lines).
Completed in 2011, the four Marine Facade terminals are user-friendly, offering a taxi stand, a tourist info booth, ATMs, vending machines, souvenir shops and a cafe (amenities vary among the terminals). Between 20 and 36 passport booths help speed debarkation (though be prepared for stern and businesslike customs officials and lines, especially on the first day). There's nothing in the area that will entice you to linger.
Select smaller vessels get the best spots, sailing up the Neva River and docking in the heart of the city at English Embankment or Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment. There are no tourist services at these piers, but you can easily set out into the city for anything you need.
Good to Know?
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 can be hundreds of dollars, 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. Ship-sponsored tours will also cover your visa needs.
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 stomach upset.
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 (Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, Corinthia Hotel, Radisson Royal Hotel) 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. Cruise lines' shore excursion offices may also offer car-and-driver rentals.
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.