I can’t lie and say I’ve had this longtime dream to visit Russia. Between the tense political climate bringing Russia into the news on what seems like a daily basis and a large Russian cultural presence back home, I’ve just never felt like I needed to leave home to experience Russia – there was plenty of borscht to be had in my proverbial backyard.
But Russia was on this itinerary, the highlight for many but a bonus for us, and I’m always down to cross another country off my Been app.
We woke up super early, grabbed a quick breakfast at the Garden Café and left the ship as soon as all clear was declared. The part of our visit that made me the most nervous was passing through border control, which I had heard not only takes awhile, but has enough intricacies to make me nervous.
Those who booked their excursions through the ship were already in line when we got outside, so they must have been led off the ship before the all clear call. It took just around 45 minutes to clear border control (after the first time, it only takes a few minutes for subsequent exits from the ship). There were many lanes open, but as expected, just about everyone on the ship was off early to get to their tours. Part of the reason it took so long is because, even when you’re traveling with a family our a spouse, you need to clear one by one, and many people did not know what to expect or what to have on hand. To make this go the quickest, you need to have your passport in one hand and your tour ticket or visa in the other. Not the email confirming your tour (if you book tours independently) – that will get you held up – but the PDF that most of the tour companies will send you prior to your trip or the actual tour ticket. That will act as your visa if you do not secure one otherwise (and there’s no reason to secure a separate visa if you are on a tour, both through the ship and through a private operator).
We followed the signs to SPB Tours and met up with Tatiana, our tour guide, and Dmitri, our driver. Our tour group had 15 people, but the last family ran 45 minutes late and Tatiana insisted on waiting for them. Others in the group were angry, but if I were in a new country with a different border check than I was used to, I’d want the group to wait for me, too, you know? We had two days in St. Petersburg. There was plenty of time to explore. And also, our tour van was equipped with wifi that was lightning fast (especially compared to the crawling service on the ship), so waiting with wifi was a-okay in my book!
The tour began with a drive through the city. St. Petersburg is extremely metropolitan and in some regards, reminded me of Chicago. There are tons of restaurants and bars and museums, a thorough transit system and even the roadways were similar to the expressways we have in the Chicagoland area.
Our first stop was a ride on the subway, so Dmitry dropped us off at a nearby station, Tatiana gave us each a subway token and we followed her into the station. Unlike back home in Chicago, there was a security check as we entered the subway, undoubtedly a precaution stemming from a recent subway attack, but there wasn’t any point where I felt unsafe. Russian subways are famous for their unbelievably long escalators, which move so quickly they can almost make you dizzy! This might have been Stephanie’s favorite part of the tour – she’d been looking forward to seeing these escalators since we booked the trip!
The subway stations are immaculately clean and supremely ornate. Many of the subway stations in St. Petersburg, Tatiana told us, were these beautiful, opulent displays that looked more like museum exhibits than public transit hubs, and the one we visited was no different.
We hopped on the next train that came and rode it to the next stop over. Nothing special about the ride – it was no different than riding the subway in any major metropolitan city. Well, maybe a little less crowded!
At the next stop, we walked a few steps from the subway station to the Kuznechny Market, a local farmer’s market where we sampled Russian coleslaw and pickles and perused aisles of fresh, colorful produce, meats, cheeses and at least a dozen varieties of pickled vegetables. It reminded me of the vegetable markets we grew up shopping at. I mentioned earlier that there’s a large Russian population in the town we grew up in (and really, throughout the northern Chicago suburbs). We aren’t of Russian descent, ourselves, but our grandma was born in Poland, so we did a lot of the grocery shopping with her and our Mom when we were younger in the European and Russian vegetable markets. The nostalgia factor was running high — the farmers market even smelled the same as some of these vegetable markets we grew up shopping at!
From the farmer’s market, we hopped back on the bus and Dmitry navigated us to a nearby souvenir store so we could shop, sample some local vodka (which Tatiana informed us, according to the Russians, was the cure for everything that ails you and the answer to any questions you’re seeking an answer to) and use the facilities because it would be a few hours before we’d be near decent restrooms again. I totally missed that everyone was downstairs sampling vodka, so I was making my way through aisles of Matryoshka dolls when Stephanie grabbed me and brought me downstairs. It wasn’t even 11:00 am, but told me that time of day doesn’t matter in Russia when it comes to vodka, and I liked that answer.
Our next stop on this tour was a hydrofoil ride over to the Peterhof for a tour of the gardens. We’ve been on a hydrofoil before, so we knew what to expect. Some people on our tour didn’t even know we were going on a boat ride and weren’t happy about it, so always make sure you read your tour descriptions carefully to avoid surprises you may not find exciting.
We got to the hydrofoil a little early and, naturally, the boat was running late. To Tatiana’s credit, she would march over to the ticket agent every few minutes and demand an update, and it was always “a few minutes away.” I think it showed up some 10 or 15 minutes late, and there was an actual stampede to get onboard. Seriously. We’re talking Black Friday and there’s $100 big screens at Best Buy kind of stampede. The source of it? A Dutch tour group that formed a barrier and started pushing people to get onto the hydrofoil quickest so they could get the better seats. I’m used to keeping my cool in crowds and I love me some Black Friday shopping, but there were points where I was legitimately scared we’d get pushed off the dock and into the water.
The ride to Peterhof was just over a half hour and I slept for most of it. Anytime we had downtime or quiet time on this tour, I slept. We had early wakeups and super intense itineraries for our two-day visit and the only way to cope was to find pockets of time to close my eyes and recharge.
When we got off the hydrofoil, we followed Tatiana through the turnstiles and into the Peterhof. If you’re not versed on Russian palaces, the Peterhof is a palace that was commissioned by Peter the Great in the early 1700s. It’s sometimes referred to as the Russian Versailles, with it’s manicured gardens, cascading water fountains and ornate palace. It’s a UNESCO Heritage Site, too. Most tours will stop here, some for a visit inside and others for a walk around the upper and lower gardens (as ours was).
As we entered the parks, Tatiana kept us moving instead of taking pictures further back, telling us we’d get better pictures closer up. As we approached the cascades, it was clear we wouldn’t get any clear photo opportunities here – there was a ceremony for the official seasonal opening of the fountains and there were thousands of people visiting. I really wish the tour company had looked ahead and rescheduled our visit for earlier/later in our visit. This was a site I was really looking forward to and not only were we were rushed through it, but we really lost a great opportunity to take in one of St. Petersburg’s most beautiful treasures.
Tatiana showed us to a nearby café on the lower garden grounds, but she really wanted everyone to keep on an optional fountain tour. When most of the group opted to eat instead, she seemed a little disappointed. For us, though, we had another tour planned for the evening, so as much as we wanted to see more, it was too crowded to enjoy and we wouldn’t be eating dinner until late at night anyways. The food was okay – typical Russian fare (which has never been my favorite cuisine) – and a bit pricey: my pot of pelmeni, cup of buckwheat with mushrooms and a slice of cake translated to somewhere around $15.
We finished our tour of the Peterhof with a walk through the upper gardens, where we had a little more time and experienced a few less crowds. Because of the event, Dmitri couldn’t pull the bus up right in front to pick us up, so he had to pick us up at a meeting point a couple of blocks away. And he was running late. I think everyone was getting a little testy at this point. Crowds never bring out the best in people.
But we did find Dmitri and we began the drive to our next stop at Catherine’s Palace. Catherine’s Palace (also known as the Summer Palace) was the summer home of Russian tsars, named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great. Known best for the Amber Room (a room adorned in amber stones covering all of the walls), while there are some original artifacts in the palace, most of the displays (including the Amber Room), are reconstructions. Still, it was amazing to be able to walk in the steps and imagine the lives of some of these greats.
Catherine’s Palace was our last stop for the afternoon, and Dmitri greeted us with Russian ice cream, Tatiana’s way of trying to end the day on a sweet note given the issues we faced in the morning. As we began the drive back, Tatiana gave our family the option of staying in town, where we had booked tickets through SBP to the Russian ballet, or to go back to the ship. While SPB had originally advised against going back to the ship for lack of time, if we stayed in St. Petersburg, we’d have three hours to kill before the performance and going back to the ship meant we could drop off our bags and freshen up a bit, so we opted to go back to the ship with the group.
We arrived back at the cruise terminal just after 5:30 pm, and our tour wasn’t picking up until 6:45 pm, so we had a little more time than we thought we would. Going back through border patrol onto the cruise ship is a similar process – you should have your passport and the printed visa they stuck into your passport when you passed through in the morning in hand – but it goes much more quickly. They’ll keep the printed visa and stamp your passport once again, but if you exit or reenter beyond that, you do not get another printed visa or anymore passport stamps, and it goes much quicker.
Since we weren’t sure how quickly exiting would be again, we left ourselves around a half hour between when we exited the ship again and when we needed to meet the tour bus. Exiting the ship and going through border control took mere minutes and we found ourselves in the terminal, browsing the shops and looking for an SPB sign like the one we found in the morning.
There was none.
We paced the perimeter outside. We couldn’t find anyone. Or a bus. We knew we had to meet at 6:45 pm, but that was all the direction we got from Tatiana. Around 6:40 pm, Mom found a random driver inside an SPB van, knocked on his window and asked him where we would find the transfer to the ballet and, in some stroke of luck, he was the transfer. The three of us were in a Mercedes van with one other guest. All others attending the same performance through SPB would meet us as the theater.
The bus ride to the theater was short, maybe 20 minutes, but I got to thinking about how Russia does not use the phoenetic alphabet, but unlike other cultures with different alphabets, they do not print the same words in English. Like, when we visited Athens last year, they also do not use the phoenetic alphabet, but all signage had the English translations printed beneath the Greek words (which were printed in both the Greek alphabet and the phoenetic alphabet). It’s rare to find this in St. Petersburg and it makes the city seem a bit unfriendly to tourists (which is completely unsurprising given that tourism is not their main standard of industry). I felt a little uneasy in St. Petersburg and a large part of that was because I couldn’t read the language, I couldn’t speak the language and I was completely at the mercy of the kindness of strangers to point me in the right direction.
Before I could sink deeper into my thought hole, we pulled up to the theater. There were three possible performances we were going to see (Swan Lake, the Nutcracker or Giselle) and we were thrilled to be seeing a performance of Swan Lake. Tatiana had given us our tickets earlier in the day, which were for some great box seats, as well as a glass of champagne, which we redeemed prior to the performance. The tickets were printed in Russian and we couldn’t read a single word on them, but we found a program seller who spoke English and pointed us in the direction of our box.
Swan Lake was resplendent and every bit as good as I could have ever hoped. The experience of being at the ballet, in Russia, taking in a performance of such an iconic ballet was something so incredibly special. I’ve never seen a live performance so precise and flawless.
The SPB bus driver met us in front of the theater after the performance and dropped us at the cruise terminal just after 11:00 pm. Mom, Stephanie and I went into separate lines for border patrol and they made it through quickly while I was held up in my line. A young, transgender man was stopped by border patrol because they thought he held a fake passport. He tried to explain to them he was transitioning but that it really was him in the passport photo and they gave him a hard time, laughing and making jokes quietly to each other as they walked in and out of the booth. It was an upsetting exchange to witness, and a reminder that no matter how long I had to wait in line, I was lucky to be able to pass through with such ease.
When we reboarded the ship, we were torn between falling face first into bed and grabbing a late dinner. We opted for the later, but at Garden Café instead of a formal meal at O’Sheehans. The options were limited, but we were too tired to care.
Even in our exhaustion, though, we got our outfits set out for the next day, put all of our electronics in the chargers and packed our bags. We had an extra hour to sleep since our tour met a little later, and a little extra attention in our bedtime rituals meant a little extra sleep in the morning. And then we fell face first into bed. Everything about our day was exhausting.