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Enjoy historic St Petersburg - without the visa

Enjoy historic St Petersburg - without the visa

Published: 03 Oct 2011 09:49 GMT+02:00
Updated: 03 Oct 2011 09:49 GMT+02:00

Imagine visiting St. Petersburg, one of the most majestic cities in the world, without having to fly there and avoiding the headache of the visa-application process. Well, it’s now possible – via the St. Peter Line - which recently started a direct visa-free cruise from Stockholm to St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 as Russia’s “window to the west” and the city today still bears a distinctive ‘East meets West’ vibe. One of the world’s most intriguing cities and steeped in history, its stunning buildings and monuments bear witness to the bygone Tsarist and Stalin eras, earning its historic centre a place on the UNESCO World Heritage site list. It’s also home to the Hermitage - one of the largest art museums in the world.

A metropolis of around five million people, St. Petersburg is one of the largest cities in the Baltic Sea region and a mecca for culture, history, food and nightlife.

Yet, until recently, the sheer hassle of trying to arrange a visa to Russia put many visitors off. But there is a loophole: Under Russian law, foreigners are allowed to arrive in the country by ferries and stay for up to 72 hours without a visa as long as they have booked the trip with a tour operator, have a pre-arranged program, a valid return ticket and prepaid hotel voucher.

That’s why St. Peter Line started a direct cruise between Stockholm and St. Petersburg. “We wanted to give Swedes the chance to take a short hassle-free trip to St. Petersburg and also to bring wealthy Russians to Stockholm for shopping and so on. We can arrange the entire program for our passengers,” says Tapani Kauhanen, St. Peter Line’s Marketing Director for Scandinavia.

It takes just 24 hours from Stockholm to St. Petersburg on board the comfortable Princess Anastasia which can carry 2,500 passengers and 580 cars.

If, like American Susan Volsky who recently made the trip, your heart is set on the Hermitage and you’re stuck for time, opt for the three-day cruise which includes a full day in St. Petersburg and a few hours in Helsinki. Others combine the cruise and three nights at a hotel in St. Petersburg.

“Americans expect certain things from cruises but we had no expectations. Once we realised what it was all about, we absolutely loved it,” she enthuses, quick to lavish praise on the super-helpful, multi-lingual staff.

“As we arrived in St. Petersburg, I thought ‘wow, I can’t believe I am finally here’ as I’ve always wanted to go to the Hermitage,” she says. “We were just sorry that we didn’t stay overnight. There’s so much to see and do in St.Petersburg, even if the weather is not perfect.”

The cruise is proving a hit with Swedes, tourists and Russians alike. “Up to St. Petersburg we were around 300 passengers but in St. Petersburg we picked up another 800 or 900,” Volsky noticed.

With such a mix of people on board, is it tough to keep them entertained?

“We cover everything from the upper to the lower budgets so it’s up to you if you want to hang out in the Champagne Bar in the evenings for €350 a pop, lounge by the pool with your kids, have sushi with friends or enjoy the nightclub,” replies Kauhanen.

The cruise effortlessly mixes what you’d expect from a Scandinavian Baltic Sea cruise with a touch of Russian charm thrown in. For example, there’s an XXXX Club, a popular Russian nightclub chain, which has some modest topless dancing after the vodka starts flowing. Passengers are also treated to live theatre and ballet performances by a St.Petersburg-based fine arts academy. “The show was a highlight,” says Volsky. “I loved the Russian dancers.”

If you want to relax and unwind, there’s a generous sized swimming pool, jacuzzi and sauna.

All in all, the cruise is good value for money. “For around SEK 2,000 per person you can have a B-class cabin and three nights in the Sokos Olympic Garden Hotel in St. Petersburg,” says Kauhanen. St. Peter Line has a special agreement with Finland’s Sokos Hotel chain which owns three central hotels in St. Petersburg.

City tours, hotel packages and meal packages during the voyage should be booked online when you book your cruise to get the best deals.

“St. Petersburg is a beautiful city and this cruise was the perfect way to see the Hermitage in a short space of time,” concludes Volsky. “We visit our children in Sweden every year and always try to fit in a side-trip. Last year it was Copenhagen, this year St. Petersburg and who knows - we might be back again next year.”

St. Peter Line cruises can also be used by companies for onboard conferences or, if you want to combine business and pleasure in St.Petersburg.

Must-sees in St. Petersburg

You’ll never run out of things to see or do in St. Petersburg but here are a few of the highlights that shouldn’t be missed!

The Hermitage Museum: one of the world’s largest and most spectacular art museums.

Peter and Paul Fortress: one of Russia’s most historical prisons.

Catherine Palace (also known as the Summer Palace): A glimpse into how Russia’s royalty once lived.

Peterhof: the playground of the tsars with ornate fountains.

Kizhi Island: an open-air museum of wooden architecture – made without nails - from the Karelia region of Russia.

The Russian Museum: home to one of the largest collections of Russian art in the world.

The Bronze Horseman statue: a symbol of St. Petersburg showing Peter the Great on his horse.

Lazarus and Tikhvin Cemeteries: the burial site of some of Russia’s most famous artists, composers and writers.

Boat tour: by day or night, a picturesque tour on the Neva river and through smaller canals. Best done in summer!

Hop on the metro to see the Soviet-style suburbs: to see how “normal” residents of St. Petersburg live.

About the St. Peter Line cruise

Departs Stockholm Wednesday mornings and Saturday evenings.

Prices range from SEK 2,000 per person.

Related links:

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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