Welcome to St Petersburg, Russia
Have you ever wanted to visit St Petersburg but thought it was too hard, too scary, or that the visa requirements are too onerous. Then think again.
If you are planning a trip to St Petersburg or are thinking about visiting this wonderful city, you probably have a few questions that I hope I can answer in this series of five blogs about our recent trip (August/September 2018).
Here’s what you can expect to learn by reading these blogs:
✅ What’s the deal with visas
✅ Where did we park our motorhome
✅ What’s the currency and how to exchange money
✅ Are there any health concerns we should know about
✅ How to get the internet
✅ What to see and do
✅ Hiring a Guide
✅ How much it cost us, plus much more…
From a young age, I remember seeing St Petersburg at night in pictures and thinking that this place has been taken directly from a fairy tale.
I now know that was an underestimation!
Not only were the lights beautiful at night, but during the day the colours of the buildings and the majesty of the architecture blew me away. Putting into words how to describe this stunning city is difficult so I will allow the pictures to show you later instead.
Welcome to the St. Petersburg Series. In this string of blogs I will share how to get to St Petersburg, Russia from Helsinki, the Top Tourist Attractions in St Petersburg and in particular a day by day account of what you can visit in three days (based on our experience).
I will also provide a glimpse into the history of St Petersburg from what we gleaned over our short stay.
For more detailed information there is a wealth of knowledge contained in a handy online guide called St Petersburg In Your Pocket. You can also pick up the physical guide from your hotel, just ask.
Tune into my Summary Blog where I give a wrap up of St Petersburg, why and how to book a guide, some interesting facts and history, links on where to book the ferry, hotel, ballet, and more, plus I share all of the costs for our three-day visit.
Arriving into St Petersburg Russia
We are traveling around Europe in a motorhome and taking this to St Petersburg from Helsinki just wasn’t possible without a considerable amount of planning and documentation. That’s not to say it can’t be done, and in fact, I hope that after reading this series you will, like us, give this some serious consideration.
On this occasion we took a ferry and booked our passage on the St Peter Line ferry, leaving Helsinki at 7pm on a Wednesday evening at the end of August 2018, which travelled overnight to arrive in St Petersburg the following morning at 9am. Then we returned on a lovely evening cruise at 7pm Saturday, arriving back into a still sleepy Helsinki on 8am on the Sunday.
For details about costs please see our summary blog. The added bonus about being on the ferry was that it was like having a night out, with some great entertainment and live music.
72-hour Visa-Free Visit into St Petersburg from Helsinki
The visa-free visit means we didn’t have the hassle of sending our passports away, paying for a visa, and waiting for the passports to be sent somewhere for collection (given we don’t have a home address).
The criteria for the 72-hour visa-free visit states:
1. You must enter by ferry (St Peter Line seems to be only one acceptable) or a cruise ship*~.
2. You must book a “city tour”, which in this case is just the shuttle taking you from the ship to your hotel (and return). You don’t actually need to go on this as just booking it fulfils the ‘visa-free’ requirements.
3. You must have a hotel booking, also known as a ‘registration’, and be able to present evidence of this. I understand that Air BnB bookings are not valid however this needs further confirmation.
* When you take a cruise ship you stay overnight on board. This would have been expensive and would have made it more difficult to see the wonderful lights of St Petersburg by night. Therefore we chose to take the ferry and book hotel accommodation in the city centre instead. This turned out to be the right decision for us.
~There has been talk of allowing visa-free visits for passengers on the Allegro train from Helsinki, but to date, train passengers still need to get a visa.
In past times all visitors were required to also book a guide and were chaperoned during their entire stay. Many people we spoke with still opted to hire a guide, as did we, for convenience and to glean the most out of the time.
If you are planning a longer trip to Russia, then there are a number of visa considerations. I could state them all here, or you can download this up-to-date Guide that steps you through the Visa requirements from the UK (plus the US, Australia and NZ) and shows you how to complete the documentation.
If you plan on going further afield after Russia, China perhaps, then here’s the information for UK residents (and US, Australia and NZ residents) to apply for a visa.
Motorhome Parking In Helsinki
If you have a motorhome, you might be wondering what we did with our Betsy.
In order to park her legally and safely we drove her to the only motorhome camping ground, Rastila Camping Helsinki which is a council run camping ground about 30 minutes drive out of Helsinki. At €17 per night for parking only it was a bit steep although worth every penny to have our home safe and sound upon returning.
Details on this camping ground including how to book can be found in the post about costs.
Public transport directly to the ferry terminal was easy and cheap (€2.80 each) via the Metro Station outside Rastila Camping.
Russia’s currency is the Ruble (RUB) (dollars) and kopeks (cents). It is illegal to pay with Euros or Dollars so please don’t expect or ask this of any retailer.
It was easy enough for us to exchange our Euros for Rubles on the ferry, however, this will not give you the best exchange rates or lowest commissions. You can also find ATMs at most metro stations and exchange your money at the banks and in large hotels (although in my past experience hotels often sting you on exchange rates).
In August 2018 we exchanged €50 for $3,954 RUB and paid a commission of $204 RUB. The exchange rate was €1 = 79,080 RUB.
Over the course of three days, we found this amount was adequate for our needs. We used our Mastercard credit card for most attractions and meals, and for every other purchase, other than the street vendors or market stallholders. However, you may need more because we are not big shoppers or spenders!
Thankfully my internet provider is FREE Mobile, from France and their services extend to Russia. Alan’s Italian Vodafone, however, wasn’t so accommodating.
There is always the option of purchasing a local SIM or waiting until you are back on the hotel‘s premises as they provide free internet.
Don’t expect the local eating establishments to offer WiFi, as that’s a rarity. In order to purchase a local SIM you need to show your registration (hotel booking information) and your passport including the document that would have been inserted into it by the Russian passport control (don’t lose this as it is removed at departure).
We were advised against drinking the local tap water and later found out that it is highly chlorinated due to parasites and contains heavy metals. Our hotel provided free bottled drinking water every day and also provided filtered water for our drink bottle refilling before we left each morning. Brushing teeth using the water is fine, just avoid swallowing too much.
With just three days to see the large city of St Petersburg one has to be cognisant of realistic expectations. I doubt we would have successfully absorbed all of this city’s gems in three weeks! I definitely overestimated what we could see and underestimated the time that it takes to see it all!
I made a list of the top tourist attractions and then plotted them on a Google Map (below). Given our limited time, we opted for quality over quantity. One example of this is the five hours we spent in The Hermitage Museum compared with the two-hour guided tour option. Even then, five hours wasn’t enough, except for my feet, which thanked me later!
Click on the interactive map below to see the tourist attractions I had planned for us to see. Then you can compare these to what we actually saw during our three-day stay.
To find the list of destinations, click on the window looking button with an arrow on the far left in the top grey bar. You can zoom in on the map to see the proximity of every attraction. That’s how we chose our accommodation, as we didn’t want to spend time walking for miles and miles.
Other Blogs in this Series on St Petersburg, Russia
Follow my series of blogs below to find out how we filled in our three days in St Petersburg and more…
Day 1 St Petersburg includes the Ancient Sphinx, Rostral Columns, St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, Isaakievskaya Square, Kazan Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Blood
Day 2 St Petersburg includes The Hermitage Museum, Swan Lake Ballet, and photos of St Petersburg by Night
Day 3 St Petersburg includes Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Peterhof Gardens, Kronstadt Naval Cathedral
Summary: Hiring a Guide, History and Interesting Facts, and Costs
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