Studying in Finland, being so close to Russia, this was certainly one place I just had to go! Unfortunately, getting a visa to enter Russia is not always the easiest to do or to obtain. Fortunately, the ESN group in Turku, Finland organizes a three-day trip to St. Petersburg, Russia every year for students. There is an exception to the visa rules wherein if you enter Russia by a cruise line, you get a 3-day visa-free stay in Russia. So, from October 23-27th 2014 we were off!
The base trip package to St. Petersburg through ESN Turku is 290 euros and includes the following:
- Bus transportation from Turku to the Helsinki harbor on October 23rd
- 1 bed in a 4-person cabin on an overnight cruise via viking line ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, Russia on October 23rd-24th
- 1 bed (in a shared double room) x 2 nights accommodation at a 3 star hotel in St. Petersburg
- 1 bed in a 4-person cabin on an overnight cruise via viking line ferry from St. Petersburg to Helsinki on October 26th-27th
In addition to the base price there are several add-on activities you can also pay for and participate in as well. These included:
- Night Cruise on Rivers & Canals – 15 €
- Traditional Russian Evening – Show and Dinner 30 €
- St.Petersburg by Night Limo Party 25 €
- Bus Trip to Catherine´s Palace in Pushkin 25 € adult/ 20 € student
- Cathedrals of St.Petersburg Tour 25 €
- Guided Tour of The Hermitage Museum 20 € adult/ included for students
The only additional activity I signed up for was the night tour of the rivers and canals. The tour of the Hermitage museum was already included for students and visiting palaces and cathedrals can be done on one’s own since I am not a huge fan of the guided tours. I will say this much, if I have one regret it was not going to the Russian ballet. It is supposed to be world famous and would only add to the experience of being in Russia. But, maybe next time!
So, on the afternoon of October 23rd we all met at the bus station in Turku, boarded our assigned buses and were off for Helsinki! That evening, we boarded one of the Viking Line ferries bound for St. Petersburg! This was about a 12 hour cruise ride leaving the Turku harbor at about 7pm on the 23rd and arriving in St. Petersburg at around 7AM the next morning on the 24th.
The overnight journey on the cruise line wasn’t too bad. We were assigned beds in 4-person cabins so it was a great time meeting new people. Also, there was entertainment on board from a small Russian ballet show to dancing to even a club on the upper floor of the cruise ship! All-in-all, the 12 hour ride went by pretty fast and before we knew it we were in Russia!!!
After a lengthy wait in line at customs as an entire ferry full of people disembarked, we finally made it through and in to the country! That morning we re-grouped on to the same bus assignments as the day before and started off our Russia visit with a guided tour around the city stopping at various places such as:
- Peter and Paul’s Fortress (had a guided tour here)
- Photo opp at the Savior on the Spilled Blood Church
- Brief stop at the Strelka Vasilyevskogo ostrova – a park with a Greek monument centerpiece
After being awake most of the night on the cruise line, this was a VERY tiring morning and I remember falling asleep many times on this bus tour waking up when we were at various stops and the bus had already emptied.
After the tour we went for lunch along one of the main roads in the city – Nevsky Prospect. This is a very beautiful road to go just for a stroll and see much of the Russian architecture and history. Along this road you will find many shopping and dining places but in addition you can also see much of the typical Russian architecture dating back hundreds of years! There are also some historical sites along here such as:
- Stroganov Palace
- Kazan Cathedral
- Anichkov Dvorets – Imperial residence of the Tsars
- Anichkov Bridge – An elegant bridge dating back to the 1800’s lined with beautiful sculptures
That afternoon we went to our hotel to check in. We stayed at the Hotel Moscow which was conveniently located near the Nevsky Prospect street and the metro so getting to various places around the city from here was easy peasy.
Why is St. Petersburg called the Venice of the north? Quite simply, it’s from all of the rivers and canals throughout the city. St. Petersburg is a very beautiful city and rightly so since it was built from the beginning to be the capital of Russia so knowing it would be the capital, they built it was a lot of beauty and elegance. Even though Moscow is the present day capital, St. Petersburg was the old capital for 215 years from 1703 when it was founded until 1918 when the capital was moved to Moscow, Russia’s largest city.
After a day spent on guided tours around the city, the next day on the 25th I decided to get out and about on my own. I had no other ESN-related activities scheduled for that day so I just wandered around various parts of the city.
Starting the day, I returned to the Church of the Savior on Blood we had stopped at briefly the day before. I wanted to take some extra time and go inside this magnificent looking building. The outside of this church pays homage to historical Russia with its colorful spires and peaks that easily identify this building as Russian. Tickets to enter this church (don’t even get me started on the fact that cities like this charge a fee to enter the house of god, so be it) cost 250 Russian Ruble’s (about $3.6 USD). The inside of this church is absolutely beautiful and unlike any other church I had seen. The walls and ceiling are all covered in some very exquisite mosaic paintings and the floors are made of a very nice marble. Even though i don’t agree with any church charging a fee to enter its walls, you can quickly see the need for it here. Keeping up this masterpiece would not come cheap, especially in a place like Russia where the economy is struggling.
After this visit I took a stroll through the park next to the church heading to Saint Michael’s Castle (also called the Mikhailovsky castle) which was only a few minutes away. The Russian Museum organization offers a single ticket for entering various museums/palaces/castles around the city. The prices (from their website) are:
For visiting the Mikhailovsky Palace and Benois Wing
For adult visitors 350 rubles (~$5 USD)
For students 150 rubles (~2.15 USD)
Price for general ticket for visiting the Mikhailovsky Palace, Marble Palace, Stroganov Palace, AND St Michael’s Castle within 3 days
For adult visitors 600 rubles (~$8.7 USD)
For students 300 rubles (~$4.35 USD)
Price for a general ticket for visiting the Mikhailovsky Palace, Marble Palace, Stroganov Palace, OR St Michael’s Castle
For adult visitors 300 rubles (~$4.35 USD)
For students 150 rubles (~2.15 USD)
Price for general ticket for visiting the House of Peter the Great
For adult visitors 200 rubles (~$2.9 USD)
For students 70 rubles (~$1 USD)
After the castle I headed to the summer garden (located next to the castle) and to the summer palace of Peter the Great which was at the end of the summer garden. However since it was late October, the garden was not much. The leaves were falling off the trees, fountains were drained and it was a rather closed down place as they prepared for the impending winter.
I will say this now, visiting St. Petersburg even in late October, it was FREEZING outside. Make sure to bring lots of warm clothes. Snow had already begun to fall so you can imagine the temperatures. It was even worse since I had just been in Dubai the week before where temperatures were scorching in the 40’s. Luckily I would be back south again in the heat of Morocco in a week so a few days of this cold was bearable.
That afternoon I went to the zoological museum where the Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences has a VERY impressive and extensive display of animals and species dating back who knows how long. On display are 500,000 species and over 7 million animals including, yes, even the woolly mammoth! Admission to the museum costs a mere 200 RUB for adults or 70 RUB for students and children. It’s a great price and great place to spend a couple hours!
That evening was the additional activity you could sign up for with ESN – the cruise down various rivers and canals. This was an hour long cruise around the city. Being at night, it was pretty cold out but the free drinks served on board helped keep you a little warmer! After the river cruise we spent the night at the largest night club in Russia – Club Metro. This 3-floor club was an awesome time and the amazing thing was they make their own beer on site so a glass of beer costs less than a glass of water! So crazy!
The next (and last day in Russia) was a rather tiring one after being up all night, the night before. We checked out of Hotel Moscow in the morning and headed over to the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace for the guided tour that was included in the ESN trip. I loved the Winter Palace with it’s beautiful palace interior with rich decoration and design but to be completely honest, the Hermitage museum really wasn’t my thing. It has a lot of beautiful art by many famous artists but art really isn’t my thing. To each their own right? Plus after having been up the night before, even people who really like art said it’s too hard to appreciate art when you are that tired. One recommendation to ESN for future trips would be to change the schedule so the night out isn’t before the Hermitage tour.
The afternoon of the 26th we headed to St. Isaac’s cathedral where you can go up on top of the building for an awesome view over the city. After that it was back to the harbor and on to the Viking Line ferry back to Helsinki. We got back to Finland early on the 27th and then were back in Turku by about lunch that day for some much needed downtime. I had one day to relax in Turku before heading on my next trip – a two-week trip to London, Lisbon, Morocco, Paris, Athens, Santorini, Brussels and Amsterdam. What a life eh!? This trip to Russia was my first trip with ESN and I absolutely loved it. Having an entire trip planned out and organized for you was so nice and a much needed break! All you need to do is pay your money and show up! Everything else is handled for you. I could get used to some more of that!