Stacked with grand old buildings, exquisite churches and venerated artworks, and with two breath-taking palaces within easy reach, Russia’s imperial capital never fails to impress. Its history is as captivating as its sights. No wonder almost all cruise ships spend at least two days here.
Cruise port location
Larger ships dock at Marine Facade (Vasilyevsky Island), three miles north-west of the city centre, which can take up to seven vessels. Small-to-midsize ships can berth on Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment on the opposite bank of the River Neva to the city centre – a longish walk. Lucky small ships often get to use English Embankment, an easy walk from the centre. St Petersburg is also a bookend port for river cruises on the Volga; ships dock further down the Neva.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Not from Marine Facade, it’s an industrial area. If you’re fit, you can reach the city across the bridge on foot from Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment. From English Embankment, you can stroll along the promenade to the Bronze Horseman statue, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Winter Palace, with many other attractions a little further on.
River cruise passengers will find themselves 10 minutes walk from a metro station, but will usually participate in an included programme of excursions.
However, it is important to point out that you cannot walk anywhere on your own unless you have obtained an individual visa before travelling. This is worthwhile if you are docked at English Embankment; otherwise you can explore St Petersburg under the umbrella of the ship’s visa as long as you are always on an accredited tour. These can be through a licensed local operator as well as your ship’s own excursions.
If you do have an individual visa, there’s a bus from Marine Facade to the nearest metro station. Taxis are also available. The metro can be quite useful to save legwork, though most places of interest are quite close to each other. The hop-on hop-off bus is good value. Normally, though, you’ll be on a tour bus or boat as part of an excursion.
It’s worth noting that, due to overcrowding at Marine Facade, new rules were put in place in 2018 which give priority to passengers on tours run on behalf of the cruise lines. Those on independent tours (which must be pre-booked) may face a wait. Disembarking is much less of a problem at the smaller docks.
What to see and do
It’s all about the magnificent art and architecture. Top of the priority list should be the Hermitage art museum and either the Peterhof or Catherine palaces out of town (preferably both). These are closely followed by St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.
With enough time, a riverboat cruise is fun, and the Peter and Paul Fortress is historically fascinating.
What can I do in four hours or less?
Many visitors like to make the most of their time with full-day tours (see below), especially coming from Marine Facade. But with two or even three days to spare, there are plenty of options.
A typical half-day bus tour will cover the Rostral Columns (old lighthouses) on the Neva, the golden-dome St Isaac’s Cathedral, the handsome Admiralty and Winter Palace, the multi-coloured Spilled Blood church, the Fortress and the main avenue of Nevsky Prospect, with quick stops for photos.
Other short trips include the river boat cruise and the Hermitage, where possibly the world’s greatest art collection is displayed in beautiful palace rooms.
For those who have visited before, there are a few unusual options. Fred Olsen has a visit to a mosaic-making workshop inspired by a tour of the Spilled Blood church. Oceania combines a canal cruise with Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was killed. Viking offers caviar-tasting and a trip to the Fabergé Museum. Holland America Line looks at local life through the metro, a market… and vodka.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
It’s a good idea to choose a tour that covers as much of St Petersburg as possible, preferably one that includes a fair bit of time in the Hermitage. Other excursions add in free time to explore (permitted under your ship’s visa) or perhaps a canal cruise.
For your second day in port, the Peterhof or Catherine palaces are absolute musts. You can do both in a long day (try Princess), but if you have to choose, go for Peter the Great’s fancy pile, Peterhof, because of its fountains studded by golden statues. Then again, behind the gilded façade of Empress Catherine’s summer residence is the famed Amber Room…
There are plenty of non-standard options. P&O Cruises has a visit to the Palladian Yelagin Palace for those who have seen the above. Silversea has a hydrofoil trip to Peterhof. Cunard adds an amber workshop to its Catherine Palace tour. Norwegian Cruise Line offers a church-intensive tour.
What can I do with a bit longer?
Many cruise lines now offer a two-day package that covers all the main attractions in and around St Petersburg. These are rarely good value but offer a hassle-free and comprehensive experience.
As you will almost certainly stay overnight in port, there are ship-organised evening treats.
Russian folklore shows and ballet performances in a grand old theatre are popular, though the latter may be by trainee or local dancers rather than a top-level company. Occasionally, an evening trip to Catherine Palace for a classical concert may be available. All these events may be preceded by a meal in a local restaurant.
The long summer nights are ideal for an evening waterways cruise.
Eat and drink
You will likely be fed as a group on an excursion but if you get the chance, try borscht (beetroot soup), pirozhki (stuffed buns) and pelmeni (dumplings) – washed down with vodka.
Don’t leave St Petersburg without…
Buying a matryoshka – a nest of Russian dolls, available at most souvenir shops. Amber jewellery, porcelain and replica Fabergé eggs also make nice gifts.
Need to know
The city is generally safe but look out for pickpockets and keep a close eye on your passport. Expect to be charged if you take photos of street performers.
Best time to go
Summers can be very humid. May and September can be chilly, but the further outside high summer you go, the fewer the crowds at the main attractions.
Most museums are closed on Mondays. Many shops stay open on Sundays.
For those with visas, the St Petersburg card (petersburgcard.com/en) covers entry to most museums and gives discounts on public transport.