Visiting St. Petersburg – a three-day visa-free trip by ferry from Helsinki

We recently popped across the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg, taking advantage of the 72 hour visa-free travel option available to those travelling to the city by cruise ship. We had a great trip and would really recommend it to those living in (or visiting) Helsinki – see the end of this blog post for some logistics details if you are planning a trip.

St. Petersburg in one photo? Canals, amazing churches, some beautiful architecture...

St. Petersburg in one photo? Canals, amazing churches, some beautiful architecture, and bustling big city in need of some patching up…

 

We departed from Helsinki’s Lansisatama harbour (now easily accessible by Tram 6T or Tram 9) on a Monday evening, enjoying some nice views of the islands around the city, before retreating inside to avoid a cold breeze. We were travelling with St. Peter Line on the Princess Maria, a massive cruise ship that travels daily between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. We took the cheapest cabin option available (an interior B class cabin) – and it was quite fine. After an evening snack that we’d brought along, it was easy to fall asleep to the gentle rocking of the ship.

Promenading at the Strelka (the Hermitage in the background)

Promenading at the Strelka (the Hermitage in the background)

 

We woke up as our ship was entering St. Petersburg harbour and were soon queuing at Russian passport control. We then, in accord with our visa-free entry,  took our compulsory tour… which simply comprised a 5 minute minibus ride to our hotel! We were very glad that the Sokos Vasilievsky hotel allowed us to check in early (and if our room wasn’t ready they would have let us store our bags in their luggage room in any case), and we were soon out exploring!

The view from our hotel, with Peter and Paul Cathedral in the distance - on Victory Day we could see giant balloons in Soviet and Russian colours above the city!

The view from our hotel, with Peter and Paul Cathedral in the distance – on Victory Day we could see giant balloons in Soviet and Russian colours above the city!

 

We first walked around our hotel’s neighbourhood, approximately following National Geographic’s self-guided walking tour of the Bolshoy Prospekt area of Vasilievsky Island (two other walking tours for the city are available on the NatGeo website). One of the interesting places we passed was the local Lutheran church (St. Catherine’s), which was used as a recording studio until being returned to the local parish in 1992. This is a common story for many of the very beautiful churches in St. Petersburg – during the communist era they served all sorts of purposes, but since the 1990s are being slowly restored again. We also passed by the (pink) Cathedral of St. Andrew, bells a-peeling, and walked through very un-touristy Andrew’s market (which reminded me a lot of the local food market we’d previously visited in Tartu, Estonia). Moving down to Bolshoy Prospekt (the riverfront street), the buildings became much grander – we walked past the Menshikov Palace, the Academy of Arts (with its two very own 3500 year-old Egyptian Sphinxes), and St. Petersburg University, ending at the island’s eastern tip; the Strelka. There we had a quick lunch at Imperator (not bad if you are in the area, but nothing special…).

Banners advertising Victory Day (9 May) celebrations - there were lots of posters up.

Banners advertising Victory Day (9 May) celebrations – there were lots of posters up.

 

We then cross one of the branches of the Neva River, and entered the Peter and Paul fortress. The fortress now comprises various museums and a cathedral – you have a variety of different ticket options, depending which you want to visit. The cathedral’s exterior was being renovated, so it did not look particularly appealing – however, it was really quite special on the inside. Indeed, when looking at our photos of the cathedral after our summer holiday (blog posts to follow…), we realized how distinct the decoration of this church really is. It is a pity that you leave the cathedral via a gift shop – since you’ve already bought a rather expensive ticket it seems a bit cheeky to me!

Interior of Peter and Paul Cathedral

Interior of Peter and Paul Cathedral

 

In the fortress we also had a quick look at Mikhail Shemyakin’s misproportioned (and very frequently photographed) statue of a seated Peter the Great – located nearby was an interesting art installation of 12 different cast iron chairs arranged in a circle. I’m not sure if the latter is somehow related to the former, but it was great fun to try out sitting on the oversized “thrones”. We then walked through a museum documenting the history of St. Petersburg from 1703 until 1918 – in each room there were short summaries in English, and we quite enjoyed spending an hour or two strolling through the rooms. The Trubetskoy Bastion Prison, on the other hand, was not really worth a visit – although that could have reflected that we were rather tired by that stage! Overall, we’d not recommend visiting the fortress if there’s somewhere else you’d rather be exploring…

Another shot of the interior of the Peter and Paul fortress

Another shot of the interior of the Peter and Paul fortress

 

Exiting Peter and Paul fortress we were surprised to find a very beautiful blue mosque – it was a very impressive building. We then headed back to our hotel (after grabbing a pastry from a street vendor) using one of the local trams – it was a bit confusing figuring out the cost of tickets (25 rbls each), but the tram conductor very patiently  helped us out. After freshening up we headed out to a local Georgian restaurant (Sakartvelo) for supper – the food was not bad (try the cornbread if you visit), but the highlight was the Georgian cider we shared was excellent. And just remember that smoking is still allowed in restaurants in Russia – it was a bit off-putting when the manager and waiter starting puffing away right next to us.

St. Petersburg Mosque, opposite the Peter and Paul fortress

St. Petersburg Mosque, opposite the Peter and Paul fortress

 

We set Wednesday aside for the Hermitage – we only visited the main museum, and none of the smaller associated buildings. Due to the maintenance on the Palace Bridge, our tram bus was diverted along an unexpected route – we got off a fair distance from the Hermitage, but were right next to the Kazan Cathedral (one of the Cathedrals in the city that doesn’t have an entry fee). It is an impressive church with lots of history (e.g. containing tombs )- with an equally impressive Art Nouveau building facing it from across Nevsky Prospekt (Dom Knigi, aka the Singer Company Building).

Columns in front of Kazan Cathedral

Columns in front of Kazan Cathedral

 

We then had a short walk up Nevsky Prospekt to the Hermitage, which was half hidden by banners and scaffolding assembled for the Victory Day celebrations that would be happening the next day (9 May). Inside the Hermitage courtyard we joined one of the two queues… and waited. I’m not sure how the ticketing was working, but we didn’t move for about 30 minutes – Brigitte and I were the only people sitting down in the queue, but maybe we were also the only people planning to be on our feet for the whole day in the museum?

The second Matisse room in the Hermitage (click to enlarge).

The second Matisse room in the Hermitage (click to enlarge).

Once inside we were pleased that it was easy to peaceful and uncrowded rooms in which to enjoy the art and artifacts. We enjoyed the Peacock room (named after the giant clock featuring a life-sized mechanical peacock; also less excitingly called the Pavilion Hall), the Rembrandt room (23 works by Rembrandt van Rijn), and the Raphael Loggias (a replica of a long corridor in the Vatican, painted with wonderfully detailed creatures).

The Hermitage’s more modern art was also great – Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky… Lots to look at! We had a very ordinary lunch in the museum’s cafe to give ourselves a rest – and then back to exploring the nooks and crannies of the museum.

One of the corridors in the Hermitage

The White Hall in the Hermitage

 

After many hours in the Hermitage we headed out towards St. Isaac’s Cathedral, having a close look at the 112 Finnish granite columns surrounding the church’s exterior. We then had a break in the adjacent park before walking across to the Bronze Horseman (a sculpture of Peter the Great). Interesting, the stone upon which the statue is displayed is reported to weigh 1500 tonnes (it is two thirds buried), making it possibly the heaviest stone ever transported. We strolled down to my favourite restaurant of the trip, only a few hundred meters away, Lya Rus. We shared some blini, and enjoyed pelmini and shchi (traditional cabbage soup) – the staff were very friendly, the food was great, the prices were reasonable… definitely go eat there if you visit St. Petersburg! The restaurant is not well marked (and the name is written in Cyrillic), but is located across the street from the Vodka Musuem and the Stroganov Steak House on Konnogvardeysky boulevard.

Pelmini and schi at Lya Rus - yummy!

Pelmini and schi at Lya Rus – yummy!

On our last day in St. Petersburg we joined a free walking tour of the city – run by Anglotourism, this free tour is meant to bring more business to their river cruises. We had read some very good reviews, and were lucky to be the only two people on the tour that day. We spent three and a half hours walking around with Dimitri, learning a lot about his city. Highlights for us was walking through the Apraksin Dvor market and popping into Gostiny Dvor – the former is a bustling bazaar, the latter a massive 250 year-old collection of department stores. The Eliseyev Emporium (56 Nevsky Prospekt, opposite a park with a sculpture of Catherine the Great) looked really interesting, but we didn’t have an opportunity to peak inside – apparently it is where the local bigwigs would do their shopping during the communist era (you required a special ticket to gain entrance!).

First floor balcony along Gostiny Dvor - you get an idea of how big the place is!

First floor balcony along Gostiny Dvor – you get an idea of how big the place is!

 

Our walking tour ended at the Church on Spilled Blood (also known as the Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ). It is an iconic building in the city, and we really enjoyed our visit. The church contains approximately 7’500 square meters of mosaics, giving it a truly astounding interior to match its amazing exterior. It felt like being inside a Sunday School book – beautiful mosaics illustrating Bible stories in rich and gentle pastel colours. There is an entry fee, but it is well worth paying if you have the time to enjoy the mosaics. It is so sad to think that this beautiful building was used as a vegetable store during the communist era.

Interior of the Church on Spilled Blood

Interior of the Church on Spilled Blood

Another view of the interior of the Church on Spilled Blood

Another view of the interior of the Church on Spilled Blood

We then took a tram bus back to Vasilievsky Island to visit another church that had a surprising communist era use – the Temple of the Assumption. The renovation of this church is just coming to an end now, repairing it from being St. Petersburg’s first year-round ice rink. We then quickly grabbed our bags from the luggage room at our hotel, caught our transfer bus (i.e. the second half of our “guided city tour”) and were soon sitting on one of the ship’s decks enjoying a drink in the lovely sunny weather!

Bye-bye St. Petersburg!

Bye-bye St. Petersburg!

 

Trip logistics:

We booked a hotel package deal with St. Peter Line and Sokos Hotels, using Nordic Ferry Centre to make our booking. It is an easy online system and they provide helpful documentation. It is worth remembering that you may need travel insurance to enter Russia (we followed Lonely Planet‘s recommendation an bought ours through World Nomads). The Princess Maria has a big variety of restaurants – so there is no need to sign-up for the expensive supper and breakfast buffets if you’ll be happy with a burger at Bake & Coffee. We packed in our own snack supper, although did see signs saying that food should not be brought on board… I’m not sure if this relates to not shipping produce across the border or to the shipping company trying to force customers to eat at their restaurants? Anyhow, we threw away our remaining piece of fresh fruit before entering Russia to avoid problems with the former.

Remember to dress warmly if you go in spring!

Remember to dress warmly if you go in spring!

 

We found it relatively easy to navigate around St. Petersburg. The public transport that we used (trams, trolley-busses and the Metro) was always fast, simple and clean. However, I think this was in part facilitated by the little tram / trolley-bus / bus route map we had in our guide book (). I’ve looked for online maps without success… Alternatively, you could try the online public transport route calculator (but I haven’t used it so can’t personally recommend it). We’d suggest that you learn to translate the Cyrilic alphabet since many signs are not duplicated in the Roman alphabet – and try to learn at least a few phrases (we used the Single-Serving guides). It is useful to have coins with you – e.g. for automated Metro ticket machines – so it is worth hanging on to them!

If you don’t have an EU passport and are in a rush when arriving in Helsinki, you’ll need to be queue at the ship’s exit door before the ship docks… we spent about an hour waiting to get through passport control with all the Russians! Finally – don’t hold your breath, but there’s a chance this option may also be extended to those arriving by air (see this report in the Telegraph from 2011).

Interior section of the Pavilion Hall, highlighting Catherine the Great's personal staircase

Interior section of the Pavilion Hall in the Hermitage, highlighting Catherine the Great’s personal staircase

 

 

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