1. Visa related issues (rules, papers, requirements, prices, process)?
You can visit Russia with or without visa.
Cruise passengers DO NOT need a visa, to visit St Petersburg, if they are accompanied with a representative of a registered tour operator. If the cruise line is trying to persuade you that you cannot disembark if you book a tour with a private tour company – THIS IS NOT TRUE.
The tour company you book with issues the travel vouchers that you need to print and have with you to disembark. You will need to provide you passport data for the tour operator.
Ferry passengers DO NOT need a visa. They pay 25 Euro for a tour shuttle onboard, and can stay up to 72 hours in St Petersburg. They can stay in a hotel and walk around independently.
If you are coming by plane/train/bus and/or planning to stay more than 72 hours, you DO need a visa. You can apply for it in the Russian embassy of your country. The required documents usually are:
- Filled application form
- Valid passport
- Picture of the applicant
- Check or receipt of the payment of the consulate fee
- Invitation letter from hosting person or organization
Visa fees can be checked on the official websites of embassies. For instance, a single or double entry visa for US citizens costs from 160 USD.
The time of issue can vary from 6 working days to 3 weeks.
2. What to do and see in the limited time?
If you have just a couple of days in Russia, the capitals are the cities you should focus on. Here are some suggestions on what to do and see in St Petersburg and Moscow.
- The Hermitage museum – about 3 hours, if you are not REALLY into art
- Peterhoff – half day trip
- Catherine’s Palace – half day trip
- St Isaac’s Cathedral – 30-40 minutes
- Savior on Spilled Blood – 30-40 minutes
- Peter and Paul’s Fortress – 1-1.5 hours
- Yusupov’s Palace – 1.5 – 2 hours
- Pavlovsk Palace – half day trip
- Rivers and canals tour – about 1 hour
- The Kremlin with Armoury and cathedrals – half day tour
- Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral – about 1 hour
- Lenin’s Mausoleum – at least an hour in the morning (the lines are huge)
- Tretyakov Gallery – about 3 hours (if you are not too much into art)
- Vorobyovy Gory viewpoint – 30-40 minutes
- Cathedral of Christ the Savior – 30-40 minutes
- Metro tour – 1-1.5 hours
3. How much time to allow for St Petersburg/Moscow?
If you are on a cruise, your time is limited to the cruise stop. If you have 2 days in Russia, it is NOT worth trying to see both St Petersburg and Moscow – it’s too little time. If you are in Russia for 3 days, you can take a day trip from St Petersburg to Moscow, using Sapsan speed train.
If you are traveling overland, usually you need 3-4 days in Moscow to see the main sights. For St Petersburg you can allow 5-6 days to visit the top attractions.
4. Money issues (daily expenses in Moscow and St Petersburg, use of ATMs, exchange rates)?
The prices in Moscow and St Petersburg are similar. If you are on a tour, you do not need to worry about entrance tickets to the venues. For meals and little purchases it is usually enough about 50 USD per person a day. If you are travelling on your own, add about the same for entrance tickets and transport. It can be less, but better be prepared. Also, traveling with a tour, allow about 10% of the tour cost to tip the guide and the driver.
Using ATMs and paying by cards in Russia is perfectly safe. However, since 2014, Russian banks do not accept foreign MasterCards, so use other types.
There are numbers of banks and exchange points in St Petersburg and Moscow, so it is easy to change USD, Euros and other foreign currencies. The exchange rates are not very stable at the moment though, so keep an eye on them.
5. Is it safe for Americans to visit Russia now?
There are no restrictions for ordinary citizens of ANY country to visit Russia. The political issues usually involve the top politicians, not common people, so it is completely safe for Americans to visit Russia. Russians are generally very friendly and helpful, and normally are not too politically oriented.
6. Independent visit vs a visa-free private tour?
If you want to avoid the hassle and expenses of getting a visa – choose a visa-free tour. you will not need to worry about the documents, planning of your trip, communication, logistics and timing – the tour company and your guide will do it for you. This is the perfect option if you have just a couple of days in Russia with a cruise.
If you are adventurous and have some more time than just 2 days, go for an independent tour. However, it’s better to do a bit of homework before you visit. Think of what you want to see and do, plan the schedule, check the sites’ opening days/hours, book your accommodation and transport beforehand and try to learn basic Russian phrases.
7. Private tour vs a small group tour?
Private tour can cost you more than a group tour. However, it will be designed specially for you and according to YOUR own wishes and interests. It will be definitely more flexible than a group tour, and you will see more things in the same time, as you will not need to wait for other group members. You will be able to do your activities at your own pace. You will also have full attention of your guide, who can customize their explications to your own interests. What is more, you will go in front of all the lines instead of waiting.
8. Tours for seniors/disabled?
Now more and more venues are made accessible. The best choice in this case is a private tour, which can be planned according to your needs, with necessary stops and equipment. It also usually provides special vehicles, wheelchairs (if needed) and wheelchair pushers.
9. Transportation and getting around?
On a tour the transport is usually included in the tour cost. If you are traveling independently, in St Petersburg and Moscow they have excellent metro systems. Get a metro map to navigate, and buy a few rides when you come there first, to save time. The system of buses, trams and trolleys is a bit more complicated, and there are no English signs or announcements. So, if you need to use this type of transport, better to check in your hotel or in a tourist information centre, how to get to your destination. Taxis are quite easy to get in both cities, however, it is NOT recommended taking a taxi at or near train stations or airports – they rip you off.
10. Russian cuisine – what to try in restaurants?
Some of the most typical Russian dishes are:
- Borshch (beetroot soup)
- Solyanka (meat and potato soup)
- Pelmeni (meat dumplings)
- Blini (pancakes)
- Beef stroganoff
- Pirozhki (filled pies)
- Salmon cooked in different ways
- Chicken Kiev
11. What souvenirs to buy?
The most popular Russian souvenirs are:
- Matryoshkas (nestling dolls)
- Replicas of Faberge eggs
- Amber jewelry
- Lacquer boxes
- Wooden Christmas decorations
- Fur hats with red stars
- Wooden kitchen sets “Khokhloma”
- Books, CDs and DVDs about sites visited
12. How to attend concerts, sport games, celebrations?
If you would like to see the ballet or opera in Bolshoy, Mariinsky or some other Russian theatres, you can book them online on their official websites. It is a bit more complicated with sport games, however, you can also book online on the sites of the main stadiums and sport centres. As for the celebrations and public events, they can vary in different places and at different times of the year, so better check with your tour operator, to have the up-to-date information.
13. What if the tour company cancels the group tour the day before?
If the tour company has sent the confirmation letter, they MUST provide the tour, even if they didn’t manage to get enough clients. If they do not, they have to refund at least some of the tour cost. Usually tour operators value their reputation and do not cancel tours without prior notification. If you are worried, you can double-check, or take a private tour, to stay on the safe side.
14. Advantages and disadvantages of taking a river cruise Moscow – St Petersburg?
River cruises take you to more places in Russia, than just St Petersburg and Moscow. You can travel the country in the most comfortable way. You can also spend in Russia longer than your cruise is scheduled to see more. However, the vessels are smaller and there’s probably not too much to do in the ship. Also for these cruises you DO need a Russian visa.