A stop in St. Petersburg, Russia is a perennial favorite and often the highlight of any Baltic Cruise. Many cruise itineraries spend two days in St. Petersburg because there is so much to see. Curious about what to expect on a two-day tour in St Petersburg? Here’s my recent experience and details on why you should book a tour and what you may see.
Do I Have to Book a Tour?
No, but most visitors will be required to have a Russian visa and the visa must be obtained in advance. The best option for cruise passengers visiting St. Petersburg is to be book a tour where the operator will obtain the visa on your behalf.
Can I Book a Tour with the Cruise Line?
Absolutely! However, booking an excursion through a cruise line is usually more expensive than booking a tour independently. I have taken more than twenty cruises and almost always book tours on my own. And I’ve never had any issues booking independent tours and have never missed a ship!
Tour operators in St. Petersburg will provide a Visa Support Letter (which consists of the tour confirmation and tour voucher) once the tour is booked. This documentation is then used to apply for a 72-hour visa, available to visitors entering on a cruise ship or ferry.
Which Tour Operator Should I Use?
Several tour operators book two-day tours for cruise ship passengers. I researched several and found the prices, reviews, and tours to be comparable and booked with TJ Travel. TJ Travel offers group and private tours for one-day, two-days, and three-days for cruise ship passengers. Since most cruise ships port in St. Petersburg for two days that is the tour we will be detailed here. I’ve included links to other popular tour operators below.
What Does a Tour Include?
Again, most tours available for cruises visiting St. Petersburg offer similar itineraries. Tours will typically include visits to the top attractions in St. Petersburg. Some of the stops will be shorter and may only include a quick visit while other stops will include entrance fees and a longer visit. Lunch may or may not be included. Our tour included a bag lunch one day and a stop at a restaurant another day where we were responsible for buying our own lunch.
Tours are conducted in comfortable, air-conditioned vans with professional tour guides. Tour guides in Russia are often licensed and speak multiple languages and our tour was conducted in English; however, our guide also spoke Russian and French.
How Do I Pay for the Tour?
The tour I booked required a 20% deposit be paid at the time of the reservation and I was able to pay that by credit card. The balance was paid in cash (only in Rubles) or by credit card on the first day of the tour.
TJ Travel offers a fully refundable deposit if the tour is canceled 72 hours prior to the date of the tour. After 72 hours, payment is non-refundable.
Gratuities are not included but it is standard to tip both the tour guide and the driver at the conclusion of the tour. Recommend gratuities are five percent to the driver and ten percent to the guide. You will pay tips directly to the driver and guide and they must be paid in cash. Remember to bring cash for this purpose. But if you forget, there is an ATM in the St. Petersburg cruise terminal.
What Will I See in St. Petersburg?
Most two-day tours in St Petersburg will include visits to Peterhof, Catherine Palace, Church of our Saviour on the Spilt Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Hermitage Museum. Our tour included all of these and other attractions that I’ll describe below.
The Tour – Disembarking the Ship
You should leave the ship as early as you can because you have to go through Russian Immigration at the port. Make sure you have your passport and your tour ticket since it is serving as your visa.
You will enter a large shopping area once you leave immigration. I found we had very little time for shopping during our two-day tour and picked up a couple of souvenirs here. The selection is pretty good and the prices seemed comparable or less to those we saw off the ship. I suggest doing any shopping here after the tour.
Tour operators will be waiting just outside the cruise ship terminal and should be holding a sign with their company name. Find your tour guide and they will direct you to the van you will be riding in.
The Tour – Day 1
Our itinerary indicated we would be doing a city tour first, but a change was made to visit Peterhof Palace first. Peterhof Palace and Catherine Palace are in Pushkin, about 30 minutes outside of St. Petersburg.
The Peterhof Palace is a series of palaces and gardens. The Palace was built by Peter the Great and was designed to be the country residence for the royal family.
Our tour included a visit to the gardens and fountains and opulent is the best word I can use to describe them. We visited in May and there were spring flowers blooming throughout the gardens. I really enjoyed the views from the lower garden but the entire area is just lovely. It still felt tranquil even with the swarm of visitors.
The City Tour kind of happened over the course of the two-days, and consisted of our guide sharing information about various sites throughout St. Petersburg. The modern areas of the city are very gray and the architecture leaves something to be desired. Putin and other dignitaries were in town during our visit which presented some navigational challenges. But our driver did a great job of avoiding traffic. One of the nice things about a two-day tour is the flexibility to make changes as needed.
We enjoyed a bag lunch sitting in a park just outside of Catherine Palace. The setting was lovely, the lunch not so much. Our lunch was included in the tour and consisted of a cheese sandwich, an apple, a yogurt, and juice. I noticed throughout St. Petersburg people cleaning everywhere and the sites we visited were spotless.
Catherine Palace was a summer palace for Empress Elizabeth and is simply stunning. The facade and roof statues are gilded with over 100 kilograms of gold. While the gilded ballrooms receive most of the oohs and aahs, I loved the robin-egg blue exterior.
Our guide did a wonderful job sharing the historical highlights of this building including efforts to save items during WWII bombing and the subsequent restoration. We visited Versailles in France previously and enjoyed Catherine Palace much more.
Looking for more opulence? The Amber Room has amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors and was once known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Some St. Petersburg cruise excursions include a visit to the Amber Room for an additional charge.
Souvenir Shopping & a Shot of Vodka
We left Pushkin and drove to the center of St. Petersburg. A stop in a souvenir shop was our only opportunity for shopping and where we paid for the tour. Got to try vodka in Russia, right? We did a shot of vodka before leaving the shop. As our guide, Maria said, “It would be weird to come to Russia and not have vodka.”
Next stop was a metro station in the center of St. Petersburg. The metro stations are clean as a pin and treated as art museums. The station we visited was far, far underground and we were rewarded with a quick visit to one of the most beautiful metro stations I’ve ever visited.
Last stop on day one was to a local farmers’ market. Visiting markets is one of my favorite things to do when traveling so this was a treat. We sampled some honey and tried to chat with some of the vendors but struggled with the language.
Day One – Nighttime Tour Options
Known as the City of White Nights, St. Petersburg has several evening tours that cruise ship passengers can add to their tour. Evening options include attending a folk or ballet performance, a visit to the Faberge Museum, or a vodka tour. We knew we would be tired after a full day of sightseeing and opted to hang out on the ship but many of the evening tours look really interesting.
Two-Day Tour in St Petersburg – Day 2
I fell for St. Petersburg’s charms on Day 2. The day was spent in the city center where there is a tremendous amount of beauty from over the top gilded buildings to buildings that were faded but elegant nonetheless.
St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral
St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral was one of my favorites. This orthodox cathedral has always been associated with the Russian Navy and is a gorgeous sky blue on the exterior. The architecture we saw over the two-day tour in St Petersburg was really incredible. The interior of the church is ornate, yet simple. We were fortunate to be there when worshippers were singing and it was absolutely lovely. I love experiencing small moments like this when traveling and was touched by the experience.
From the Naval Cathedral, we boarded a boat that took us through the canals that run through St. Petersburg. From the water, it is easy to see glimpses of Paris, Venice, and Copenhagen on the cityscape of St. Petersburg. The weather was lovely and it was nice to see St. Petersburg from the water.
Next stop was the Hermitage, the crown jewel of St. Petersburg. The Japanese Prime Minister was visiting the museum while we were there which meant the entrance lines were very long. But our guide Maria came up with an alternate plan and we were able to get in the museum quickly.
With over three million items, you could easily spend an entire day at the Hermitage. The majority of the art is in the Winter Palace, which was once home to the Romanov Tsars. There are other buildings in the complex, but our tour included only the Winter Palace. The Winter Palace is as stunning as the Summer Palace that we visited the day before. Gold is everywhere and the art collection is vast, especially since it was exclusively for the royal family. The Palace reminded me of Versailles and the Vatican but with fewer crowds.
Church of our Savior on the Spilt Blood
The onion domes are synonymous with Russian architecture and the most famous domes in St. Petersburg are those sitting atop The Church on the Spilt (or Spilled) Blood. Everyone on our tour was excited about visiting this famous church and couldn’t take pictures fast enough. The multicolored domes manage to look old yet modern.
As lovely as the exterior is, the interior blew me away! The mosaics in The Church are amazing in their ability to convey a story and their detail. Light pours in from the ceiling onto the tiles creating an otherworldly experience.
The church’s history is incredible. It was scheduled to be torn down the day the Nazis invaded St. Petersburg and it was spared. After surviving bombing during WWII, an undetonated bomb sat in the building for twenty years. Just fascinating.
Our tour group ate lunch at a Brynza, a local restaurant. Maria helped everyone decipher the menu and we opted for cheburechnaya, a cheese-filled pastry that was a cross between an empanada and a quesadilla. We also enjoyed pumpkin soup and a delicious slice of Russian Honey Cake.
We had seen so much it was hard to believe it was still early afternoon! Nevsky Prospect is the main street in St. Petersburg and a stroll down it was next on our itinerary. Magazin Kupstov Yeliseyevykh is a historic grocery store selling chocolates, meats, and beautiful marzipan candies. One of the few complaints I have about this tour is that we needed more time to shop here and in other shops along Nevsky Prospect. Sadly, I did not get my shopping fix in St. Petersburg.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
A visit to St. Isaac’s Cathedral was our last stop. The church was the main church for the royal family which meant no expense was spared in its design or construction. The gilded dome offers a glimpse into the opulence of the interior. Construction lasted over 40 years and features beautiful bronze doors reminiscent of the baptistry doors in Florence. Honestly, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was lovely but I was tired and didn’t pay as much attention here as I did to the other churches we had seen.
Russia’s history is complex and fascinating. Having two days here on a cruise felt luxurious but still not nearly enough time. I can’t believe how much we saw and learned on our tour. We would have never been able to see or do as much on our own.
Trying to do a cruise excursion on your own is doable, but the advance visa requirements make it challenging. Therefore, I highly recommend booking an organized, independent tour and letting the operator obtain the legal documents. If group tours aren’t your thing, you can book a private tour.
I also wanted to discuss the value of having a local, knowledgable tour guide. The attractions you will visit in St. Petersburg have a tremendous history that a local guide can share. Maria and our driver were able to navigate us around traffic and entrance into museums and attractions in a way to maximize our time in St. Petersburg. Maria was dry and witty and very Russian. I enjoyed this tour immensely and highly recommend booking a two-day tour on your Baltic Cruise.
Below are links to the tour operator I used as well as other popular, well-reviewed companies offering cruise ship excursions in St. Petersburg.
These tour operators also offer tours in many other ports featured on Baltic Cruises and may give you a discount on tours booked in other cities.
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