My fascination with Russia began when I was first introduced to the animated film production of Anastasia. The grandeur of the Romanov family, as well as the complications that came along with it, encapsulated in the film proved interesting enough to me as a child – this ignited my desire to one day visit the world’s largest country: Russia. Note: this will be a very lengthy post, as I hope to cover most, if not all, of the details from our incredible two-day trip to St. Petersburg.
Visa Exemption for Cruise Visitors:
Let me start off with the fact that I got to visit Russia without having to apply for a visa; and how, you may ask? It was all thanks to us arriving in St. Petersburg via a cruise ship. Royal Caribbean’s Baltics & Russia cruises will allow you to visit the country without having to process any additional documents aside from your Schengen visa, provided you book tour excursions through the cruise line.
Given that all major cruise lines’ itineraries that have Russia included in their route depart from a Schengen country, particularly in Scandinavia, there’s no avoiding getting a Schengen visa; but at least going on this kind of cruise saves you the hassle of applying for a Russian visa, which I heard is far more difficult than applying for a Schengen one.
Need assistance in applying for a Schengen visa? Visit my post: Schengen Visa Application for Philippine Passport Holders: Embassy of Belgium Manila. In a few weeks time, however, I’ll be coming up with another post about how I got my Schengen Visa from the Embassy of France in 72 hours.
Visiting Russia via Tour Excursions:
Now that we’ve covered the fact that you can visit Russia without a visa as long as you arrive at the border via a cruise ship, let me continue on as aforementioned with the fact that you have to book tour excursions via your cruise line for you to be able to get through immigration. We had several options with Royal Caribbean, and it was the St. Petersburg 2-Day Tour Package (US$330 / person) that was highly-recommended.
Since Day 1 of the 2-Day Tour Package wouldn’t end early enough for us to catch the Ballet Performance, which oh my gosh – has been another lifelong dream of mine, I had to put together a few tour excursions that would us allow us to get the most out of our 2-day stay and of course, finally fulfill my dream to watch the Russian ballet.
So here’s how we did it:
Day 1 Tour Excursions:
Day 2 Tour Excursions:
Taking the St. Petersburg Ballet Performance out of the equation, booking the three separate tours as opposed to booking the two-day tour, will actually save you $20.75 / person, with the difference in places covered only being Yusupov Palace, which in my opinion, was worth skipping as opposed to having to miss-out on the Russian Ballet. So here’s a tip for those planning to go on a cruise, don’t book the two-day tour! Instead, book the three separate excursions, as well as the ballet, which is a must-see!
And now, let me continue on with how we spent two days in the majestic and glorious city of St. Petersburg…
Day 1 – Grand St. Petersburg with Hermitage | St. Petersburg Ballet
First Stop: Saint Isaac’s Square
Having been the imperial capital for two centuries, the grandeur of St. Petersburg is evident as soon as you pass through immigration and drive out of the terminal to wherever your first destination will be. In our case, our first stop was Saint Isaac’s Square, where we gawked at the historic buildings & structures surrounding it.However, what mainly caught my eye was the Cathedral, pictured below, but this visit was to only see the exteriors – the interiors were part of the afternoon itinerary.
Highlight of the Day: The State Hermitage MuseumFounded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the State Hermitage Museum is home to an arts & culture collection amounting to 3 million pieces, making it the second largest museum in the world – with the Louvre in Paris taking the top spot.Covering the floor area of six massive buildings (the Winter Palace being the most popular), to spend a day within these walls would barely scratch the surface; but if you’re not an art aficionado like me, a morning in the Hermitage would already give you an experience for the books.From the architecture, the collection, and the way the pieces are exhibited: I would have to say that the State Hermitage is my favorite museum yet. Included Lunch & Shopping in Nevsky Prospect
After an exhausting yet exhilarating morning in the Hermitage, you’ll be treated to a three-course Russian lunch, which is included in the day’s tour package. I didn’t get to take photos of what was served, but rest assured your appetite will be beyond satisfied at the end of the meal.
Thereafter, you’ll then proceed to a nearby souvenir shop along Nevsky Prospect, where you’ll have about half an hour or so to purchase some local finds. A tip: get a bottle or two of Russian vodka to take home – it’s insanely good and incredibly cheap! You’ll also have a wide array of options for Fabergé eggs, Matryoshka dolls, and many more Russia souvenirs, which will easily eat up your time… so shop wisely! Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
Finally, it was time to head back to Saint Isaac’s Square to visit the Cathedral. The exteriors are quite boastful in detail, which are representative of what you’ll be seeing inside.As you enter Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, you’ll be mesmerized by the intricacies in the architectural details. While not as massive and though exhibiting different architectural styles, it very well reminded me of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Our second to the last stop on the Grand St. Petersburg with Hermitage tour was at one of the icons of not only St. Petersburg, but Russia as well. One of the city’s main attractions is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, which we fortunately got to view the exteriors of – from the Italian Bridge on Griboedov Canal.Though we didn’t get to view the interiors as we were a tad bit pressed for time, I felt lucky enough to have seen it even just from the outside. Besides, the view fronting it was already fantastic in itself. The Rostral Columns on Vasilyevsky Island
Before heading back to the cruise ship terminal, there was one last photo stop. As we crossed the Neva River and onto the Spit of Vasilievsky Island, we made a stop right by the Rostral Columns. This areas gives you a great view of St. Petersburg with a glimpse of the Winter Palace.A Dream Come True: Swan Lake in St. Petersburg
Lucky for us, our schedule worked out as planned and we had enough time to grab a quick bite on the ship, get ready for the Ballet and race back to immigration, where we thereafter got on the tour bus that eventually brought to the venue. The St. Petersburg Ballet Performance tour package includes transportation and a glass of champagne during intermission – no snacks, so make sure you grab a bite prior, as you wouldn’t want your stomach grumbling during the performance, would you? And now onto the performance… I honestly have no words. To see the Russian ballet has been a long-time dream since I myself took ballet classes at the age of 5, which I obviously never continued on with… because classes were too early, and I knew the value of sleep early on, LOL – or maybe it was mainly because of my lack of talent? We’ll never know!
That aside, the prima ballerina was absolutely, breathtakingly fantastic – even better? They performed Swan Lake. Surely, that day has gone down as one of the best days of my life.
Day 2 – Catherine Palace and Park | Peterhof Gardens
Catherine PalaceWhen I was mapping out our trip to St. Petersburg, there was a time I considered skipping Catherine Palace, but my aunt who had previously been there had advised that if there is a Palace in Russia that mustn’t be missed, it would have to be this. Luckily, I listened, and to my surprise: she was absolutely right!
Located 30km south of St. Petersburg, this was one of the two longest drives for the Russian leg of this trip. No complaints though – as I got an extra forty to fifty minutes of eye shut.Catherine Palace was the summer residence of the tsars and exhibits grandeur and splendor throughout every nook and cranny of this massive complex. Watch out for the Amber Room, where no one is allowed to take photos – most likely because to see it through pictures is nothing compared to seeing it up close in person. I haven’t been to many palaces or castles, but I’d have to say this one tops the list, so I’ll let the photos do the talking. As astonishing as it is from the inside, the park of Catherine Palace is just as grand. Don’t miss out on the live quartet a cappella performance inside the Grotto, depicted below, where the quartet’s Russian voices echo throughout the structure – a magical experience, in my opinion.Another gorgeous structure you mustn’t miss while in the park of Catherine Palace, which is one of the last things we saw before heading out of the area, is the Hermitage Pavilion, pictured below. At the end of the tour, you’ll get on the bus once more to head back to the cruise ship where your afternoon itinerary awaits. Truly, the jam packed morning was a great way to jumpstart our second yet last day in the city, which left us with smiles.Peterhof GardensRight after the Catherine Palace excursion, we had some time to have lunch on the ship and freshen up. Once again, we went through immigration and began our last tour in Russia. The drive from the cruise ship terminal to Peterhof takes about another hour, so we had extra time to sleep. Upon arriving in Peterhof, we were directly led to the gardens, as it wasn’t part of the tour to visit the interiors of the Palace; but that surely didn’t stop us from being in awe at the beauty laid before us. By this time, however, I felt like we had maxed-out our time indoors, and just as I read when I was doing my research for the trip, a great way to end the hectic two days in St. Petersburg is a trip to the gardens of Peterhof – an invigorating experience I’ll always remember. By the end of the afternoon, we took a hydrofoil from the gardens of Peterhof back to the center of the city, which meant we didn’t have to do the hour-long drive back. Truly, it was a refreshing way to relax, as bid adieu to this majestic city from the water.The hydrofoil ride ended right in front of Winter Palace, where we departed from for our last drive back to the cruise terminal, and therein, we had our last few moments gazing at the beauty St. Petersburg had to offer.
Visiting Russia was a dream come true. My expectations might have been too high, but if it wasn’t already obvious, it exceeded my expectations. Even if we were only there for just two days, I felt like we’d gotten the most out of it… and even more.
There’s just something about St. Petersburg that is so unique – be it its historical essence or grand character that manifests throughout the city.
Herein, not one nor two, but three of my dreams were fulfilled: to finally visit Russia, to see the Hermitage, and to experience the Russian ballet. St. Petersburg, you’ll forever have a special place in my heart. I know that one day, no matter how far in the future, I’ll be back.