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.
We took photos, we visited museums, we drank beer, we took photos of each other visiting museums and drinking beer.
It was a pretty relaxed few days in St. Petersburg despite my preconceived notions about Russia.
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.
Well it looks very different from when I was there. I think you made the wiser choice, going in summer and not January! The visa process was a pain for us too, but worth it since we wanted to spend time in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. While I found St. Petersburg lovely, Moscow was far too big and overwhelming to really enjoy in the bitter cold and dark, and even fewer people spoke English (and unlike in St. Petersburg, there were no signs in English).
The things that surprised me the most were how easy it was to navigate the metro in both cities (after Moscow, St. Petersburg was a piece of cake) and how much I loved the food. My favorite meals were the cheaper traditional ones – pancakes (blini) with sour cream and mushrooms, pelmeni dumplings, and Georgian cheese bread topped with egg.
We were docked a 45-minute walk from the metro, so alas we never made it there! I agree that the food was really delicious–I loved everything we ate.
My twin sister lived in Moscow for a year (teaching English) and traveled around quite a bit, she says St. P is her favorite Russian city, she went there a few times for long weekends. Gorgeous photos! I love all the beautiful architecture!
You Utah girls sure do get around! With your love for architecture, you would definitely adore St. Pete.
Oh, you know. It’s actually quite fascinating how many people in Utah have lived in another country for an extended period of time, and/or speak a foreign language. (See: returned Mormon missionaries by the tens of thousands!)
I love Russian culture — I even took Russian for a year in university. Given their government’s current stance on gay and lesbian rights though I’m afraid I won’t be visiting anytime soon.
Ugh. Stupid government.
Good information, i love pics and russia..
Does sound like a lot of visa hassle, but Russia has been on my list for decades. Just have to wait until I’m not working so can go in the summer. Would like to ride the Siberian Express.
Let’s do it together! That’s one of my top bucket list items.
I’m up for that. Just have to wait a few more years to retire.
Eeeee! Bucket list! I can’t wait to see more pics!
Somehow, I didn’t take as many pictures of Russia as I thought. How is that even possible? I think since I was exploring on my own a lot, I didn’t want to walk around with my thousand pound camera flashing from my neck…
So, if not Travisa, who do you recommend for getting visas for China & Ghana? I’m going on Semester at Sea’s S14, and I’ve got India figured out but not these other two.
By the way, I got some independent time in St. Pete, without a visa, by going on a half-day tour and then not getting back on the ship afterwards (two days out of three).
I did China and Ghana on my own. For Ghana, you have to send it in to the D.C. embassy, and for China, if you’re going to be somewhere (like SF) where they have an embassy, you can walk it in and get it back within three days for no expediting fee.
We did our own visas instead of using TDS/Pinnacle (the service SAS recommended at the time of our F11 voyage), and it costs us half what the company would have charged!
Looks fabulous. Currently travelling the ‘stans of Central Asia (former USSR) and if there’s one legacy that Russia left its the bureaucracy! Still, well worth it in the end. Would love to visit Russia too one day.
OK, now I am super duper jealous, as the ‘stans are way up there on my list. Please tell me you aren’t going to Turkmenistan!
Errrrm… Yep, sorry that might have happened 🙂 every bit as mental as you might have imagined (aka slag off your tour guides sideburns and they’re shaved in the morning)!
Off to read all about it on your site!
$400 for a visa! No thanks. Russia isn’t super high on my bucket list anyway, so that fee would really put me off.
I know what you mean–Russia as a whole was never on my bucket list, though seeing the white nights and doing the Trans-Siberian Express both were.
I used to live in St. Petersburg as a student, back in the early post-communism days, when tickets to the Mariinsky ballet and opera could be picked up for 10 cents a pop, somebody with a Lada would take you anywhere you wanted, ice creams were sold on trestle tables along the street all through the winter, we could travel to Uzbeckistan, Sochi, Estonia, Latvia, Moscow, Novgorod, Pavlovsk, Petrodvorets for a song (although sometimes in hair-raising conditions). Did I love it!!! However, I could have done without the white nights – a couple of months of next to no sleep! Although one night out walking past the bridges until 3am was unforgettable.
For some reason Russia is #1 on my hubby’s dream destination list. So, I’m sure we’ll get there one day soon. It looks amazing to me, but the visa situation definitely seems stressful and expensive!
That’s funny. I guess given he’s Latino, it’s about the polar opposite as they come in terms of culture (and also weather!)?
My trip to Ukraine a few years ago was supposed to be a trip to Russia, until I got intimidated by the visa process. Someday though! I have a good friend that is from Russia, which does make the process a bit easier.
It’s almost as if they’re discouraging Americans from wanting to visit! (Likely the case, eh?)
Yay, I’ve been waiting for your Russia posts! I was actually surprised by how easy the visa process was from Chile. I did have to fill out a form including every country I’ve been to in the past 10 years (lesson learned, I now keep an updated document on my computer so I don’t ever again have to try to think back to where I was in 2003!), but getting the visa invitation from visahouse.ru was quick and painless. I also only paid $75, but I did do it on my UK passport, so I can’t tell you whether I would have paid more on the US passport. I loved Russia and can’t wait to go back and see more of the country.
More to come! Guess I need a UK passport the next time I return, eh? Off to illegally wed a Brit… 😉
It’s definitely on my bucket list of places to visit when I can get to that side of the world.
We went to St. Petersburg in September 2008, and I loved it. We did the visas on our own for the most part and had no trouble with it. For 30 Euro our hotel sent us the “invitation” we needed and helped us out with all other paperwork, and then we just took it all to the Russian embassy with our passports. I think we got it all back completed that same afternoon, though it may have been the next morning. Given that was 2008 and also we were living in Sweden at the time and used the Russian embassy there, which might have made it easier. I definitely found it worth it and would love to go back!
I ended up taking a cruise ship (St Peter Line) from Helsinki to St Petersburg, and did an overnight in a hotel in the city. I didn’t need a visa, since I was staying in St Pete for less than 72 hours. And while they told me that I needed to buy the ‘bus tour’, it was in fact only a shuttle from the dock to my hotel. It’s mandatory, and they give you the paperwork, but after I got to the hotel I was free to explore on my own, go where I wanted, and if anyone asked, I just had to show the correct papers (my ship documents, my hotel papers, etc).
I wasn’t restricted by anything (couldn’t leave the city), but aside from that, I could wander as I pleased, and was told beforehand that it would be that simple! So you don’t have to set up all of those tours if you don’t want to!
Btw, I hoofed it from way up from the farther part of Nevsky Prospekt, down to the Field of Mars and the Summer Garden, across that bridge there, and over to St Peter & Paul Fortress. It was so much walking, it was absurd!
Also – if you don’t want to pay for a guided tour, they do offer the red, double decker bus tours down the street from the Kazan Cathedral. It was really cheap, and they give you headphones in English (or whatever language). I did this the first day I was there, and made a note of which places I wanted to go back to visit. It also gave me a better lay of the land, so that I could navigate better, as I couldn’t read any of the street signs!
I’m sorry you had such a hard time with the paperwork. My husband got a Russian visa pretty painlessly for $100, but we went through the usual channels and on a normal timeline. Funny thing about the bureaucracy and red tape is that it goes both ways between Russia and the US. Russians wanting to visit the US have to mail in a multi-page application, wait a few weeks to be called in for an in-person interview, show up at the embassy to be grilled about where exactly they are going, staying, reason for travel, etc, as well as present proof that they will not seek asylum in the US – such as showing that you have significant income, dependents, or a business in Russia – after which – get this – you can still be denied. They deny about a 3rd of the applicants on a seemingly random basis, even people who have already gone and come back get denied upon re-applying. If you get denied, you have to go about cancelling all your travel arrangements. I’ve had more than one friend and family member in Russia go through this maddening process. I think our two great nations are still stuck with a bit of cold war mentality towards each other. I’m glad you went and enjoyed St. Pete. Russia is definitely a hard nut to crack for foreigners, but for those who manage to crack it, it’s a rich and worthwhile experience. If you ever need tips on Moscow, let me know!
It feels like I can just jump right into your pics and join the fun! Lovelyyyy!!!
thx for sharing this wonderfull post, i really appreciate it, and i ppromise to always check back this wonderful site for more information
Great photos. I am just back from Russia and I thought it was a great place. The visa is more complicated than usual but as I am Irish it was ready in 10days. Your sounds painful. There is definitely very little English but anytime we asked people they were very friendly. One couple missed their metro to help us, another spent 10min on a phone for us etc etc. All charades but very helpful
Wonderful photos indeed! Well I have noticed, that Russians sees Americans as a threat so the hastle with visa usually takes longer for you guys. Eventhough you tend to spend more:) With Visa’s we had help from Travel all Russia agency, they were very helpfull and it was efortless for us. Although, next time we’re planning to take trans-Syberian railway tour so we woun’t be needing the visa’s.