There are two types of beer in the Soviet Union: beer and no beer.
I had crossed Russia off of my list of countries that I would visit primarily because the visa was not only very expensive ($160 for a 90-day tourist visa) but it was also difficult to obtain as I would need a letter from a hotel or organization inviting me to Russia. It was on a map of Tallinn that I read about a visa-free ferry trip to Saint Petersburg and after some research I found it is actually possible! So with a lot of careful planning and booking of ferries, hotels and a random city tour, I met the requirements to go to Russia.
The day I arrived (May 25) happened to be the birthday of St Petersburg so there were lots of celebrations, parades and ice cream. It was sweltering hot but the down pouring rain showers helped cut the heat and humidity a bit. I met with a group of couchsurfers since I was staying in a hostel and we explored the town after watching thousands of school children dance in a parade. Before climbing onto the rooftops for a better view, we stopped into a Soviet-style cafe packed with people who needed their donuts and coffee.
As the sun started to set around 10pm, we watched and listened to live opera in front of the famous Hermitage museum. It rained briefly but we stayed in the crowd and were rewarded by a double rainbow, the latest-at-night rainbow that I’ve ever seen. As the night came to a close, I watched a quartet playing music in a side street to a large crowd, you can enjoy watching them too: (spoiler: at the end a guy does a backflip)
The weather was a little cooler on my second day and more pleasant for walking around, so I got lost and found a few times. I visited a Time Cafe which is similar to a coworking or hackerspace that are becoming more popular in the US and abroad. At this one you pay for the time that you are there and you have free coffee, tea and cookies. The atmosphere was funky and the tea was tasty, and the cookies just disappeared.
The final day was cold and dreary so I brightened it by walking to a cafe popular with students, and wrote out a whole stack of postcards before heading to the ferry. It was there that I was ruined for hot chocolate forever. I was waiting in line and trying to decide what I wanted when I saw the barista take out a tub of chocolate bars, put one into a mug with a bunch of milk, and then heat the milk and melt the chocolate together. No powders, no added syrup, no pre-mix post-processed nothing. Just milk and chocolate. Obviously I ordered it and I was surprised to find it was more like pudding to eat with a spoon but wow, it was incredible. Although it was cold and rainy and I had to rush to finish everything before the ferry, I had memories of that cup of chocolate heaven to keep me warm inside.
Though I was only visited for 72 hours, I did form some impressions of St Petersburg. It was surprisingly European in many ways, except you couldn’t drink the tap water. It was clean, it wasn’t hard to get by with just English, the architecture was beautiful and unique, and the food was reasonably priced. Since there was a big city celebration, there was a large police presence which made me feel a bit like the sheep in the wolf’s house. It was a silly fear and completely unfounded but as an American I have been taught to fear Russia, the cold-war mentalities have not been set to rest quite yet. I was perfectly safe and had no trouble at any time, and by the second day I had shaken the slight uneasiness. They couldn’t care less who I was or where I was from as long as I wasn’t causing trouble. I don’t want to be afraid, part of the reason I travel is to show myself that the world is not a scary place despite what you may hear on the news. There is always more to the story, to the people and to their culture. I know that St Petersburg is different from the rest of Russia but Russia is the biggest country in the world, so I bet every city in Russia is different from Russia. There is too much Russia to put into one category so I won’t try. But I know from my experience that next time I am in Russia I will stay longer and eat more hot chocolates.
While it is a legal loophole that I used to visit Russia, it is not well publicized by either the ferry company or St Petersburg. Here are my recommendations on having a great 72 hour trip to Russia:
- Get to Helsinki (legally).
- Book an overnight ferry on stpeterline.com to Saint Petersburg and back. Note that you can opt to share an all-male or all-female cabin for a much cheaper ticket (great for solo travelers or backpackers).
- Book the “City Bus Tour” through StPeterLine when you are booking the ferry. For this free visa you are required to go on a tour, but the City Bus Tour is simply a shuttle from the ferry to the center of town on the day you arrive, and a shuttle back to the ferry on the day you depart. See the timetables and locations of the pickup and dropoff here. St PeterLine has information about the visa-free process as well but it is not well advertised.
- Book a hotel or hostel for 2 nights in St Petersburg, and make sure they are the correct nights. For example, if you leave Helsinki on the 1st, book a hostel for the night of the 2nd and 3rd, then leave on the ferry the 4th (and you’ll arrive in Helsinki the 5th).
- Print your hotel or hostel confirmation for the Russian border security.
- Get some rubles (or change money there).
- Bring snacks for the trip, even though they say you can’t bring food on board. The ship food is expensive and I had no problem eating discreetly in my cabin or on the deck away from the crew. They x-ray your luggage when you enter the ferry but didn’t take food or anything else from me.
- When you checkin for the ferry in Helsinki, know your reservation number and it will be a fast process.
- Arriving in St Petersburg, be prepared to wait in line for customs no matter what country you’re from. You’ll have to send your luggage through an x-ray again but I was able to keep my food again (even perishables).
- As you exit the building, walk outside and look for the logo of the ferry on a large van that says City Bus Tour. Tell the driver which stop you want to go (for example, St Isaacs Cathedral) to as it may mean you take a different van.
- On the day you return to the ferry, give yourself extra time to find the shuttle, the dropoff and pick up spots are slightly different. I caught the last van with plenty of time to board the ferry and settle in before leaving.
Note: If you are counting your days in the Schengen zone as I am, you will be happy to know that when you take the overnight ferry your passport is stamped when you board the ferry and when you disembark. This means if you leave Helsinki the 1st of the month and arrive in Russia the 2nd, then leave Russia the 4th and arrive in Helsinki the 5th, that you leave the Schengen zone on the 1st and return on the 5th.