If you travel via cruise ship, a pre-arranged visa is not necessary. However, the maximum time you have is generally only 48 hours, so it is important to be well organised before you leave home.
I recommend a private driver and guide, and this can be arranged at a very reasonable cost. Not only do you avoid the coaches crammed with tourists, but the private guides tend to find their way into attractions via queue jumping and being able to enter via side doors, maximising your precious time in this great city.
Your first impressions upon entering from the port are somewhat underwhelming, but within minutes you cross a bridge and there you have it - Saint Petersburg in all its stunning glory. A legendary city where every corner seems to boast an architectural wonder, many with a (sometimes gruesome) story to tell. The architecture is a paradoxical mix of splendid 18th & 19th century classic and unremarkable Stalinist concrete residential blocks. Needless to say, the photos and memories you take home are more likely to be of the former. No expense was spared by the Emperors and Empresses who engaged the best European architects and artisans to help create this Russian masterpiece.
I was somewhat unprepared for all the canals and bridges - earning St Petersburg the reputation of “Venice of the North.” This, together with the lovely wide avenues and imposing landmarks, makes St Petersburg one of the loveliest and most interesting cities in Europe.
The first thing you are likely to do the morning you arrive is to take a half day city orientation tour. The fabulous St Isaacs Cathedral with its gilded dome and fabulous red granite is definitely a must see. Even more impressive is the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, where tens of thousands meticulously laid mosaic tiles line the floors and ceilings in memory of the murdered Alexander II.
Due to seasonal crowds, the fabled Hermitage Museum, or Winter Palace, is best visited either late evening or very early morning, where you can view its treasures with a modicum of comfort. About an hour’s drive away, the amazing Peterhof Palace is every bit as breathtaking as the Palace of Versailles from which Peter the Great reportedly drew his inspiration. Its beautiful state rooms and vast gardens with golden water fountains are simply stunning.
The wonderful Yusopov Palace in the city centre is well worth the visit, if only to marvel at just how wealthy some pre-revolutionary Russians were. It is here the Tsarina’s monk companion Rasputin met his fate, and you can actually visit the room where his attackers lay in wait.
A short canal cruise is a welcome break from the busy roads, as is an evening ballet performance. Generally, Swan Lake is performed on a nightly basis during the peak months of June to August.
If you have time, a quick walk down Nevsky Prospekt (main thoroughfare) will uncover all kinds of surprises - the Eliseyev Emporium being one. This gorgeous shop boasts some of the finest foods, chocolates & pastries Europe has to offer. It even has a string quartet to help calm your nerves while you peer at the price tags.
A nice finish to a hectic day’s sightseeing is to enjoy afternoon tea at the Grand Hotel Europe, about a 15 minute walk away from the Eliseyev Emporium. The hotel has a rich history and has been a cultural and culinary landmark for over 130 years.
There is so much more to see, but if you are anything like me, you will already be planning your return trip to St Petersburg after your first day, while at the same time vowing to read up on more Russian history! Saint Petersburg is a city which draws you in and immerses you in a bygone era of wealth and splendour.
So instead of heading back to London, Paris or Rome, take a deep breath, forget the politics, and immerse yourself in a fresh and awe-inspiring European masterpiece.