Last October, whilst studying in Stockholm, I travelled to St Petersburg in Russia. I had always wanted to travel to Russia and heard that St Petersburg was a beautiful city, but I had always assumed that crossing the Russian border would be difficult and the application process for a visa would be complicated and lengthy. This trip was a great compromise as it allowed me to visit St Petersburg visa free! I booked on the ‘Visa Free St Petersburg Tour’ with Scanbalt Experience (the same tour company as my Norway road trip) which allowed me to visit St Petersburg for 72 hours without a visa. If you wanted to do the same, make sure you check out the strict guidelines, you have to arrive by ferry from Helsinki and book with a tour group. You are also limited to a strict list of hotels that you can stay at so make sure you have everything organised beforehand!
We started our trip at the ferry terminal in Stockholm and boarded the Viking Terminal Ferry to Helsinki where we stayed overnight in a 4-bed cabin. There was some entertainment on board such as restaurants, bars, and shows but the lack of options did get a little tiresome after several ferry trips.
We arrived in Helsinki at 10 am the following morning where we had a short three-hour layover before having to board a new ferry. Take note that if you do the same you will need to pack light or find somewhere to store your luggage in the meantime. Despite it being a short stop, we still managed to fit in a city walking tour where we visited the Uspenki Cathedral and Kamppi Chapel, before having some time to explore the Kruununhaka area. We then boarded a new ferry heading to St Petersburg, allow for some waiting time as the checking in process can be long. Make sure to keep any documents you are given when you check in safe as you’ll need these at border control!
We arrived in St Petersburg the next morning, again expect a long wait to go through border control when you depart the ferry. We started our day in St Petersburg with a guided coach tour with the opportunity for photo stops. We visited the St Nicholas Maritime Cathedral which has a stunning blue exterior and went for a walk along the Moyka River, the small bridges built across the river reminded me of Amsterdam. It was the perfect time of year to visit, the weather was warm, and the autumn leaves were falling. In the evening, we attended a traditional Russian dinner with a folk performance which was a great way to try a different cuisine and culture.
Our next day started early with a trip to the State Hermitage Museum, this is the second largest art museum in the world and it’s certainly impressive! It’s a common fact that if you spent one minute looking at each art piece in the museum, it would take you 11 years to see everything on offer! When you first arrive, you are greeted with a grand exterior and the interior is even more stunning. I would advise getting to the museum as early as possible to avoid large crowds. We had a personal guide who communicated to us through an earpiece which was very useful considering how busy the museum was. In order to see the majority of the museum, we completed a whistle-stop tour which I found fascinating, although you definitely needed more than two hours in order to fully appreciate the art pieces.
We had the rest of the afternoon to explore the city at our own pace, we walked around Alexander Garden and visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood which is a must visit. There was some restoration work going on at the time, so the exterior was slightly shielded. However, the interior design is beautiful, the walls and ceilings are decorated in hand-painted murals which have been kept to an outstanding standard. As the sun set during the early evening, we decided to make the most of ‘golden hour’ and climb to the top of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral where you could see views of the whole city. The views were worth the climb, despite not being keen on heights!
During the evening, we decided to explore the city nightlife and went on a limousine tour with complimentary champagne, the fanciest tour I’ve been on! The city was beautiful at night with all the sights lit up. We finished the night at a night club where we tried local vodka- not for the fainthearted!
We began our final day in St Petersburg with an early start, we travelled to Tsar’s Village and Catherine Palace which is approximately an hour’s drive from the city. Again, I would recommend visiting the palace early to beat the excessive crowds. The Catherine Palace is named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, but the palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose the palace as her chief summer residence. The Chief Architect of the Imperial Court was instructed to completely redesign the building on a scale to rival Versailles. The palace interior and grounds were stunning, I’ve never visited somewhere with the same level of grandeur.
After visiting Catherine Palace, we returned to the city and had time to grab something to eat before travelling back to the ferry port. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in St Petersburg and think I just got a taste of what there is to explore. I would love to visit again and explore more of Russia.
We spent a further two more nights travelling home on the ferry but rather than returning via Helsinki, we went via Tallinn the capital of Estonia. This meant we could spend a day exploring Tallinn’s old town just a short walk from the ferry terminal. We began with a guided tour which gave us our bearings and then we had time to explore ourselves. I learnt that under the Old Town there is a labyrinth of 17th-century tunnels which were used as bomb shelters during WWII.
The Old Town is a quaint village, with cobbled streets, colourful buildings, and traditional churches. It was quite surreal, I felt like I was walking around the TV set of a Robin Hood film! We spent the afternoon tasting Estonian beer, although I’d also recommend trying the local spirit Vana Tallinn, a sweet liqueur which you can have in cocktails or coffee. We continued the afternoon visiting the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and exploring the lovely gift shops before it was time to board the ferry for the final leg of the trip.
Our ferry docked in Stockholm early the following morning concluding our trip. I felt very lucky that I had the chance to visit St Petersburg if only briefly as well as explore both Helsinki and Tallinn. If you are visiting Stockholm or Helsinki, or are desperate to visit St Petersburg, I would recommend tagging this trip on to your travels as it was a great way to avoid having to organise a visa and explore a few other places en route.