Even though I’m in North Carolina—and have been to a half dozen U.S. states since returning from Europe in June—I haven’t even gotten to the climax of my eight weeks with Enrichment Voyages: Russia. So here goes.
Russia seems to be one of those countries that’s such a difficult nut to crack that many Americans don’t even bother. And I get it. I went through the long and painful visa process—seriously, y’all; you’d think I was signing my life away for a career in the Secret Service with as many questions as they asked—only to have SVV’s passport kicked back to us because somewhere in the 30 pages of paperwork, he must have checked a wrong box. Due to the timeline of the visa application process—you can only apply 60 days out but we were leaving the country within 30 days of that deadline—we didn’t have time to send it back so he went visa-less. (Also, heed my warning and do not use Travisa to get your visa. They are the worst. SVV needed extra pages in his passport, and they said: “sure, we can do that for you…for $400.”)(The State Department charges $82.)
The good news is that if you are traveling with an established tour operator, such as Enrichment Voyages, you don’t even need a visa. Sure, you’re tethered to the ship and only can go on the program’s own field programs, but we booked SVV on back-to-back-to-back excursions so at least he got to see some of St. Petersburg via guided day trips to the Hermitage and a handful of palaces and the like.
My advice (if you only have a few days): Travel with a cruise line or private tour guide or operator and skip the visa entirely. A few days worth of shore excursions with a cruise line probably doesn’t add up to the nearly $400 it costs per person to secure a Russian visa.
Meanwhile, I kicked it with my friends Nicole and Emilie who did have visas. We wandered the city aimlessly—another thing to note: public transportation in St. Pete does not connect all parts of the city (i.e. we were a 45-minute walk from the metro) and taxes are virtually non-existent—until our feet bled.
And when Em and Nicole weren’t around to play with, I went out on my own to explore. I never once felt threatened or unsafe; in fact, I felt as comfortable kicking it solo in St. Pete as I did in any major Western European city.
Even if you don’t want to go to a cruise ship like we did, I’d highly recommend hiring a tour guide to show you around, as it can be a complicated city to navigate on your own, depending on how adventurous you are or not.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed nearly everything about St. Pete, the language barrier notwithstanding—I can count on one hand the number of people I met in the 72-hour period we were there who spoke English—and thought parts of it gave the city a very whimsical, fairytale quality. In the coming days, I’ll share a few more of the things I loved about this bucket list destination, from Erarta to the iconic Russian ballet.
Tell me: Have you been to Russia before? Or are you intimidated by all the red tape involved?
If your answer was the latter, know that next year’s Iron & Ice Enrichment Voyage in May also visits Russia once more and tackles all those tough minute details for you. Email me for more details and special pricing.