For many nationalities, obtaining a Russian visa is both time-consuming and expensive. I really wanted to visit but just couldn’t justify spending hundreds of dollars on a visa. This guide explains step-by-step, how to visit St. Petersburg visa free for 72 hours by ferry. I will also list the best things to do in the city. You can make this trip from Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn.
A Bit of Information About St. Petersburg, Russia
Founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, St. Petersburg is the 2nd largest city in Russia with a population of about 5 million. The city is a major port of Russia. Strategically built where the Neva River meets the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg is one of the most modern cities in the country and is considered Russia’s cultural capital. Several UNESCO World Heritage Sites along with the Hermitage, one of the worlds largest museums, can be found in the city. St. Petersburg is one of Europe’s greatest cities.
St. Petersburg Visa Free Requirements
In order to qualify for visa free entry to St. Petersburg, you must meet the following requirements
- Have a confirmed accommodation booking- When you book your hotel or hostel, just print out the confirmation. If you book directly with the property, ask them to email you a confirmation to print out. I just booked a dorm bed on Hostelword and printed out the confirmation email. This was acceptable. Some hotels do not accept visa free travelers. You will want to check before you make a booking. If you are staying in St. Petersburg for less than one day, the hotel booking is not required.
- Arrive and depart St. Petersburg on a St. Peters Line ferry- You must take the ferry both ways. You cannot take the train or fly back. The visa free offer only works if you ride the ferry both ways. You can, however, depart from one city and return to another as long as you ride the St. Peters Line ferry. For example, you can start in Helsinki, visit St. Petersburg, then continue on to Tallinn. This is also acceptable.
- Present a passport upon check-in- This is obvious. You need a passport. If you hold a passport from outside of the Schengen area, make sure that your visa allows you to re-enter when you return from St. Petersburg.
- Book a sightseeing trip- There are several options. The cheapest option is basically a shuttle service that takes you from the ferry terminal to central St. Petersburg.
- You can stay no longer than 72 hours- If you overstay, you will be deported and not allowed to obtain a Russian visa for 5 years. Russia may also issue you a fine.
- You are not traveling with a vehicle- If you bring your car on the ferry, you must have a Russian visa.
The full set of legal rules can be found on the St. Peter Line website here.
How to Make a St. Petersburg Visa Free Ferry Reservation Step-by-Step
The booking can be done online on the St Peter Line website or by phone at +7 812 333 52 71. You can pay by credit card in Euros.
- Choose your dates- The easiest way to make the booking is on the website under the 72 hour visa free section. You can enter your departure date then the returns which fit the 72 hour rule will be highlighted for you.
- Choose your cabin- You are required to book a cabin. Unfortunately, sleeping on the deck is not allowed. I will detail cabin options in the following section.
- Choose your meal plan- If you wish to purchase meals, you can. I just bought some snacks in a Helsinki supermarket before I boarded the ferry. The meals seemed overpriced to me.
- Reserve any ad-ons- For example, you can book a table for dinner. You can also purchase wine or beer coupons at this time. Many other options are available.
- Reserve any excursions- To qualify for visa free entry, you must choose one excursion in St. Petersburg. The cheapest option is the shuttle service from the ferry terminal to downtown St. Petersburg. Other options include city tours and tours of the Hermitage.
- Book a hotel- If you wish, you can book your hotel through St Peter Line. This is not required. You can book your hotel on your own. I like to use Booking.com for all of my hotel reservations. You will be asked to provide proof of accommodation booking upon check-in at the ferry terminal. It is not required for booking. You can make your reservation after purchasing ferry tickets if you prefer.
- Enter your passenger information- This includes your name, date of birth, citizenship, residency, passport information, email, etc.
After you complete the booking, you will receive a confirmation email from St. Peters Line.
St. Petersburg Ferry Cabin Options
When you make a reservation, you must book a cabin as well. You are not allowed to just sleep on the deck, unfortunately. All cabins have a bathroom with a shower in the room. Linens are included. Listed from cheapest to most expensive, the cabins are:
- B Class- This is the lowest class. These cabins accommodate 1-4 people. It’s basically a dorm room. B Class rooms have no window.
- A Class- Basically the same as B Class but slightly larger and with a window. These cabins can accommodate 1-4 people.
- Commodore- These are like private hotel rooms. They are equipped with everything you would find in a midrange hotel including a mini-bar, television, small table with chairs, hairdryer, and air conditioning.
- Deluxe- This is first class. These private rooms are larger than Commodore class and include all the comforts of home.
Which Class Cabin Should I Book?
If you are a budget traveler like me, I recommend 4 person B Class cabin. This is the cheapest option. The trip is fairly short (about 14 hours) so you probably won’t be spending much time in the cabin other than to sleep. There is plenty of seating on the ship where you can relax and look out and enjoy the view.
When boarding the ferry, I didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised that the basic rooms are actually pretty spacious for what they are. I was expecting something like a cabin in a train but they are a bit larger and have a bathroom with a shower built in. The rooms are clean as well.
Luckily, when I made the trip, the boat wasn’t that full. This was surprising because it was high season in late May. On the way from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, I shared the 4 person room with just one Russian guy. On the return, I had the whole cabin all to myself.
Should I Book Meals on the Ferry?
The ferry leaves Helsinki at 6 pm and arrives in St Petersburg at around 9 am. The return trip leaves at the same time. I decided to go without meals on the ferry because I felt that they were overpriced for what they were. You can get a meal in the city for much less than what they charge on the ferry. Quality will be better as well.
I just had dinner in the city before boarding the ferry and stopped for breakfast after I arrived in St. Petersburg. On my way to the port in each city, I stopped at a supermarket and stocked up on some snacks. I just brought some cookies, chips, a can of tuna, and a bit of bread. You should also bring a bottle of water. This will be plenty to tide you over if you get hungry on the way.
If you prefer, you can also purchase snacks and drinks on the ferry. They have a small market with candy, cookies, sodas, water, pastries, and fruits available. The ferry also comes equipped with a full bar if you feel like having a drink.
St. Petersburg Visa Free Trip Costs for 72 Hours
Here, I will outline all of the minimum costs of this trip.
Transportation to the ferry terminal- You can travel to the ferry terminal by public transport in Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn for just a few euro. It is also possible to walk if you travel light. I walked from my hostel in central Helsinki to the ferry terminal.
Round trip ferry ticket- This varies greatly depending on the season you travel and how far in advance you book your trip. An average price for a round trip ticket with a bed in a B class cabin will cost 160 euro. During the off season in winter, you may be able to save a few euro. Tickets during peak season in the summer will likely cost a bit more.
St. Petersburg shuttle bus- Transportation between St. Petersburg city center and the ferry terminal costs 25 euro. Unfortunately, this is a requirement as you need to book a ‘tour’ in order to be eligible to visit St. Petersburg visa free.
Accommodation in St. Petersburg- You can find a bed in a dorm in central St. Petersburg for 4-5 euro per night. Hotel and hostel prices increase during the summer and are discounted during the off season.
Sightseeing Costs in St. Petersburg
Tickets for international travelers cost about 2x the price that Russians pay.
- The Hermitage- 700 rubles. This includes all day access to all buildings
- Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood- 250 rubles
- St. Isaac’s Cathedral- 250 rubles
- Peterhof Palace and gardens- 700 rubles for entry. 75 rubles for bus transport
- Canal tour- Prices start at around 300 rubles for a basic tour and go up from there
- St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral- 450 rubles. Entry to the main Peter and Paul fortress complex is free.
You can have a decent meal in a cafeteria for around 5 euro. You can get a meal in a decent sit down restaurant for 10-20 euro. If you are on a tight budget, most hostels have a common kitchen where you can cook your own food. It would be easy to get by on 5 euro per day for food if you’re thrifty.
Total cost for a 72 hour visa free trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg
From Helsinki, you could make this trip for about 250 euro at the low end. This includes transportation, accommodation, and food. The sky is the limit from there. Russia is the kind of place where it is easy to travel for incredibly cheap. You can also live in luxury if you wish.
The Process of Checking in and Boarding the St. Peter Line Ferry
You can make a visa free trip to St Petersburg from three cities, Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn. Make sure you arrive at least an hour before the ship leaves to check in.
I made the trip from Helsinki. I will describe the process of checking in and boarding the ferry below. The requirements and process will be more or less the same for all three cities.
Getting to the ferry terminal from central Helsinki is easy. Tram number 6 or 7 will take you to the West Terminal where the ferry leaves from. It is also an easy 25 minute walk from central Helsinki to the terminal.
Once you arrive at the terminal, head to the St. Peter Line check-in counter. Here, they will ask for:
- Your ferry booking confirmation
- A hotel reservation confirmation
- Your Passport
After you are checked in, continue on to the walkway which leads to passport control. A Finnish immigration official will check your passport and stamp you out of the Schengen area. Next, you continue through the walkway and board the ship.
Once on the ship, visit the check-in counter to get your room key. The agent will direct you to your cabin.
The Ferry Ride From Helsinki to St. Petersburg
When I made this trip, the ship wasn’t all that crowded. Most people congregated at the stern, where the bar was. This is a nice place to hang out as the ship leaves the harbor. You get a nice view of Helsinki and the Finish shoreline as you head out to sea. It is also an opportunity to meet some fellow passengers.
There is plenty of seating all over the ship where you can relax and look out and enjoy the view. As for entertainment, not much is available. I just took a walk around and explored the ship before heading back to my room.
When I got back to my room, I met my bunkmate. He was an interesting Russian guy in his late 20s. We spoke for a few minutes then I took a shower and went to bed.
I woke up early the following morning and headed to the bow to check out the view entering the city.
One of the best parts about this trip was the ride into the St Petersburg harbor. The city looked exactly as I imagined it would and I loved it. Everything was grey. Soviet style block buildings lined the shores. Heavy machinery and industrial equipment were everywhere. For some reason, I really enjoy the Russian aesthetic even though it’s kind of depressing.
The Process of Disembarking in St Petersburg
As we approached St Petersburg terminal, everyone began collecting their luggage and congregating in the center of the ship near the exit. I just stayed back and let the crowd clear.
Once you exit the ship, follow the path to passport control. Russian immigration was well organized. They had plenty of lines open and there was almost no wait, even with several hundred people coming from the ferry all at once.
Passport Control in St. Petersburg: Entering Russia Without a Visa
The whole entry process was smooth. Once I reached the counter, I handed over my passport. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t have a visa even though I knew all of my documents were in order. A grumpy woman looked at me and gestured for me to smile (I have a big, goofy smile in my passport photo. I guess she thought it didn’t look like me). After glancing between me and my passport several times, she stamped me in and sent me on my way. She didn’t ask me any questions or ask to see any documents other than my passport. I don’t think she spoke any English so maybe that’s why. Most people from the ship appeared to be Europeans making the same visa free visit that I was making.
After passing through Immigration, I followed the path to customs. Here, everyone places their bag on a belt to pass through an x-ray machine. I guess they are just looking for weapons or contraband. I passed through smoothly.
Important: While passing through passport control, you will be given an entry/departure card to fill out. This card requires basic information such as your name, passport number, dates of travel, and hotel information. Make sure you don’t lose this card as you will have to present it when you exit Russia.
How to Travel From the Ferry Terminal to St. Petersburg City Center
After customs, exit the building. You will find the shuttle to the city center in the parking lot. The ferry terminal is fairly small so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding your way around. The shuttle will take you to the city center. From there, you can walk or take the metro to your hotel. Taxis are also available if you wish.
It is also possible to walk from the St. Petersburg ferry terminal to the city center. I made the walk on the way back. It is about 7 miles if I remember correctly. The benefit to making the walk is that you get to explore some interesting neighborhoods outside of the city center. Allow yourself a few hours to make the walk. There are some interesting parks to stop in to relax along the way.
The Best Things to Do in St. Petersburg in 72 Hours
You only have 72 hours so you can’t see everything but there is plenty of time to hit the major sites. My recommendation is to pick the things that you definitely don’t want to miss and do them first. You don’t want to run out of time and miss out on the Hermitage, for example. The Best things to do in St. Petersburg include:
The Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage is one of the world’s best and most famous museums. It consists of 6 buildings and over three million items including the world’s largest collection of paintings. One of the buildings of the Hermitage is the Winter Palace.
Because the museum is so large, it takes multiple days to see it all. You only have 72 hours in the city so you have to pick and choose what you do. You could easily spend the whole three days at the Hermitage. Allow at least a full day to view the museum or more if you are particularly interested in art and Russian history. If you only do one thing on this list in St. Petersburg, go to the Hermitage.
The Winter Palace
Between 1732 to 1917, the Winter Palace was Russian monarchs official residence. Some of the most significant events in Russian history occurred here including the Bloody Sunday Massacre. Today, the Winter Palace is one of the six buildings of the Hermitage Museum. Your entrance to the Hermitage includes entrance to the Winter Palace. This is a must-visit place in St. Petersburg.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built along the side of a canal where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The imperial family funded the church which was constructed between 1883 and 1907.
During the Russian Revolution, the church was badly damaged. It was later restored and opened as a museum where you can enjoy the architecture, history, and beautiful mosaics inside. If you prefer not to pay for entry, you can enjoy the beautiful architecture of the church for free from the outside.
Peterhof Grand Palace
The Peterhof Palace was funded by Peter the Great to compete with the Palace of Versailles in France. He built the palace to be his summer residence. Over the years, it was expanded and beautiful gardens were added. Today the Peterhof Palace is a UNESCO world heritage site.
How to Get to Peterhof Palace
Peterhof is located about 30 km from St. Petersburg. The best way to get there is either by minibus or hydrofoil. The minibusses leave from Avtovo, Linensky Prospect, and Prospect Veteranov subway stations. Buses leave frequently. You can catch the hydrofoil from Admiralteiskaya, Dvortsovaya and Angliyskay embankments. They are located behind the Hermitage on the Neva River. Several companies offer hydrofoil service to Peterhof. Boats leave about every half hour.
For a complete guide to getting to Peterhof, check out this excellent article from Guide to St. Petersburg.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
Also known as Isaakievskiy Sobor, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is the worlds largest Orthodox basilica. Today, the cathedral is used as a museum. For an excellent view of St. Petersburg, make the 200 stair climb to the observation deck overlooking the city. For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip. It is the best view of St. Petersburg.
If you don’t care to visit the museum inside, you can pay for a less expensive ticket to the observation deck. I highly recommend making the climb for the view.
Take a stroll down Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St. Petersburg. This famous street carries great significance in Russian history and literature. Highlights of Nevsky Prospect include the Kazan Cathedral, the Stroganov Palace, and the Elisseeff Emporium. Here, you will also find a multitude of churches, monuments, and shopping centers. Nevsky Prospect is also where you go to find some of the city’s best restaurants, nightlife, and shopping. It is the center of St. Petersburg.
Peter and Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress was the original center of St. Petersburg when it was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. Buildings inside the fortress include the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Grand Ducal Mausoleum, and the St. Petersburg Mint. Today the fort is used as part of the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History.
Canal and River Tour
View the city from a different angle on a tour of the canals and rivers of St. Petersburg. Even though these tours are very touristy, they are a great way to see a lot of the city quickly. You can choose from small private tours to large river cruisers. Explore central St. Petersburg or take a longer cruise to explore the suburbs. Canal tours are one of the more popular tourist activities.
Watch an Opera or Ballet
Russia is famous for its opera and ballet performances. Even if you’re not particularly a fan, it can be an experience to go see a show. The two most famous theaters in St. Petersburg are Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky. Tickets can be purchased online.
For step-by-step instructions to buying opera or ballet tickets online, check out this excellent guide from Russiable.
Try some Russian Foods and Drinks
One of the best parts of traveling is trying different cuisines around the world. Some excellent dishes to try in Russia include:
- Borscht- Beet soup. Can be served hot or cold depending on the season. Usually served with sour cream.
- Beef Stroganoff- Small pieces of beef with mushrooms and other vegetables served in a sour cream sauce. This dish has become popular all over the world.
- Caviar- A delicacy in Russia. Caviar is roe from the Sturgeon.
- Koryushka-Smelt fish from the Neva River, battered and fried.
- Pirozhki-Fried rolls stuffed with a variety of fillings including meats, vegetables, mushrooms, etc.
- Blini- Thin pancakes which are similar to crepes. Often served with caviar, jam, sour cream, etc.
- Pelmeni- Dumplings filled with ground meat and onions. Sometimes served in a broth.
For more Russian food suggestions to try in St. Petersburg, check out this article from Musement.com.
Russian drinks to try include:
- Russian Vodka– The drink most often associated with Russia. For some brand recommendations, check out this article from The Culture Trip. To learn a bit of history about the drink, you can also check out the Russian Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg.
- Kvass- A popular drink made from rye bread. It is considered non-alcoholic even though it does contain a small amount of alcohol (less than 1% usually). It is popular throughout all Slavic and Baltic countries. Kvass is also easy to make at home. Here is a good recipe from Natasha’s Kitchen.
- Russian Beer– After vodka, beer is Russia’s second most popular alcoholic drink. Popular Russian beers include Baltika 3, Klinskoye Svetloe, and Bochkarev Krepkoe. For a list of all of the most popular beers in Russia, check out this extensive list from Ranker.com.
How to Return to the St. Petersburg Ferry Terminal
The ferry back to Helsinki leaves St. Petersburg at around 6 pm. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get on the boat just in case any problems arise. Sometimes the shuttle buses fill up and you’ll have to catch the next one. The last bus leaves at 5 pm and 4:30 pm on Sundays. If you miss it, you’ll have to take a taxi.
To get back to the ferry terminal, catch the same St Peter Line shuttle bus that dropped you off in the city center. Buses leave every 30 minutes from St. Issac’s Square. To board the bus, you will need your passport and arrival/departure card which were given to you upon entry. Depending on traffic, the ride back to the ferry terminal will take around 30 minutes.
A Note on Overstaying in St. Petersburg Without a Visa
You don’t want to overstay in Russia without a visa. If you stay longer than 72 hours, you will be deported and not allowed to re-enter Russia for 5 years or longer. You could also be fined.
This process is more or less the same as it was on the way in. You need to show your:
- Ferry reservation
- Russian departure card- This is the card that you filled out with your personal information when you entered Russia.
After checking in, you will continue on to passport control. An immigration official collects your departure card and stamps you out of Russia. You can then proceed to the ferry.
From here, the process is the same. Continue to the check-in counter on the ferry to get your room key.
Re-Entering the European Union
When you arrive in Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn, you will pass through immigration to enter the EU. They are a little more strict on entry requirements. Just to be prepared, you should have:
- Proof of onward travel- This is usually in the form of an air, bus, or train reservation proving that you plan to leave the Schengen area and not overstay your visa. If you don’t have any, check out my article Proof of Onward Travel: 7 Options Including the Fake Ticket Method.
- A hotel reservation- This is to prove that you have somewhere to stay that night. You can just give the name of a hotel.
When I returned to Helsinki, I was questioned for quite a while. Mostly, the immigration official just seemed interested in the visa free trip to St. Petersburg. He had somehow never heard of it. He also asked me for proof of onward travel. Luckily I was flying to India a couple of weeks later so I just showed him my confirmed eTicket and he was satisfied.
My Experience Arriving in St. Petersburg
My bunkmate on the way to St. Petersburg turned out to be a pretty interesting guy. He was a young Russian guy working in IT in St. Petersburg. When I met him on the ferry, he was on his way home from a three week trip to Scandinavia. He had been visiting several cities looking for a new place to call home. The man drove around Norway, Sweden, and Finland contemplating whether or not he wanted to emigrate from Russia. He explained how, on one hand, he found Scandinavia boring but, on the other, he knew that his quality of life and potential income could be much greater if he left Russia.
The Ride to the Hostel
After talking for about an hour, he offered to give me a ride to my hostel when we arrived the flowing morning. Even though I had already paid for the shuttle, I gladly accepted.
After passing through immigration, he was already waiting for me in the parking lot. He had driven his car off the ferry by the time I made my way through customs. I hopped in his brand new Mercedes. It was an expensive car, particularly in Russia. We turned out of the parking lot and began speeding down the road.
He drove exactly as I expected. Dangerously fast. He even had the stereotypical dash cam that all cars in Russia seem to have. I hoped we wouldn’t end up on a YouTube video compilation of Russian auto accidents. As we sped along, he informed me that he had to make a quick stop by his office to pick something up before he dropped me off. I wasn’t in any hurry and was kind of curious to see where he worked.
Pretty soon, we took a turn off the main road and into an industrial part of town. We continued a ways down the street and turned off onto a gravel road. At this point, we began passing through a series of security checkpoints.
First, we came to an electric gate. The man flashed a card and the security guard motioned us through. We continued down the bumpy gravel road and pulled into a parking lot. We were sitting in front of a run down looking warehouse.
He told me to follow him inside. I began to feel a little on edge. We approached the door and the man spoke through an intercom to someone inside in Russian. The door buzzed open. Next, we came to a second door where the man input a code. The second door buzzed open.
This security is getting ridiculous, I thought to myself. What is this place? Russian Mafia headquarters? The guy was driving a new Mercedes, after all. That’s something the average Russian certainly couldn’t afford. Finally, we came to one last door. The man knocked. The third door buzzed open.
Behind the door lied the most average looking office imaginable. There were probably about 50 cubicles with computers and office chairs. Everything was beige or grey. The man offered me a seat at one of the cubicles while he did what he needed to do. His secretary, a beautiful, young woman named Olga, brought me a cup of coffee.
After about 15 minutes, we left. I cannot imagine what they were doing in there that required such extensive security. My best guess is that it’s the Russian version of The Office. The whole thing was just bizarre.
Final Thoughts on the St. Petersburg Visa Free 72 Hour trip
This is a great little weekend trip to make. Particularly if you are already visiting Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn. For about 250 euro, you can visit what many consider to be Russia’s most beautiful city. That is just slightly more than the visa alone would cost. 72 hours gives you plenty of time to get a good taste of the city and see the top sites including the world famous Hermitage museum.
I really fell in love with Russia during this trip. In the near future, I hope to return to visit Moscow and make the Trans Siberian train journey across the country to Vladivostok.
Have you visited Russia recently? Share your experience in the comments.
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