Baltic Cruise: St. Petersburg

June 29, 2014

In St. Petersburg, we were the farthest from home, geographically and culturally.  We were used to not being able to read signs by this point in our trip, but in Russia we didn't even know the alphabet.  Russians tend not to smile ("If you go around smiling, people think you're a fool," explained our tour guide), and friendliness is not the prized virtue that it is in the Midwest.  The church architecture was unlike any we'd seen before, the palaces were magnitudes more opulent, and the art museum, with da Vincis and Rembrandts, is world class.  But the word that first springs to mind when I think about our time in Russia is "frustrating."  We spent two days in St. Petersburg, yet it's the city I feel like I saw the least of: we spent all of that time on an organized tour that moved much more slowly than the standard Mike and Stacy pace and was almost exclusively focused on churches and palaces.

As you may have figured out by now, Mike and I are active, independent-minded travelers.  We like to walk all over cities we visit to get a feel for them, we ride mass transit, and we eat local street food.  A guided tour via van is pretty much the opposite of our preferred method of sightseeing.  However, in Russia, unlike the other ports we visited, you can't just stroll off your cruise ship.  Americans need a visa to enter Russia, unless you're on a guided tour.  We decided against applying for a Russian visa based mostly on the cost (the cost of a visa alone was more than the cost of our two day tour, which included a guide, transportation, admission fees, lunches, bottled water, and gratuities), and we were also concerned about the major language barrier.  We booked a tour with a third party company rather than doing a cruise ship excursion, which was double the price.  In my research, I came across two large, well-established companies,  SPB Tours and Alla Tours, which have basically identical tours at identical prices; we chose one of them.

My major gripe with our guided tour (and the reason I don’t feel it’s fair to identify our specific tour company) was that it was a guided tour: the pace and itinerary were dictated by the tour company.  Some of the sites we saw were ones I would have skipped, while there were other places we hurried through when I would have appreciated more time.  We learned a lot about St. Petersburg in the 1700s, but aside from a brief ride on the metro and glimpses of apartment buildings from the windows of our van, got no real sense of what St. Petersburg is like today.  Instead of eating Russian food, we had lunch at a restaurant that caters to cruise ship tour groups, serving bland American-style cuisine.  If I was to cruise to St. Petersburg again, I would try to either find a tour company that offered an itinerary that focused more on modern St. Petersburg and local food, or I would hire a private guide (Red October Tours looks like a good possibility for more individualized tours, although I obviously have no personal experience with them).

Nevertheless, we did enjoy many parts of our tour.  The highlights were the Hermitage, a world class art museum housed in a palace that is itself a work of art; the colorfully mosaicked Church on Spilled Blood; and the imposing, European-style St. Issac’s Cathedral.  Odd as it may sound, we thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the metro—the station we were at was 80 meters (about 260 feet) underground, which made for a very long escalator ride back up to street level.  I also savored some authentic local food: a cheese and mushroom blini from Teremok, a Russian fast food chain.  I’d take it over a veggie burger any day.

St. Petersburg
Clockwise from upper left: the Hermitage; blini from Teremok; St. Isaac's Cathedral; very long escalator from the metro tracks to street level; Church on Spilled Blood