17 Jan Nyet Visa? Nyet Problem! Guide to visiting Russia without a Visa
Russia, the superpower that dared.
I have always been really fascinated by Russia. The mighty nation that dared to stand up against American hegemony but failed famously. I first remember learning about the largest country in the world in my grade 9 Social Studies class. The opulence of the tsars, communism, socialism, and its nascent attempt at capitalism. My fascination with Russia only grew exponentially stronger over the years as I followed reports of how, once a great nation, it was having an identity crisis in a new world order after the Iron Curtain’s fall. So, living in the Netherlands, when a chance came to see Russia, I jumped at it. And best of all, I did not need a visa! I had heard what a hassle it is to get a visa for Canadians (and Americans). To visit Russia without the hassle of applying for a visa… for me, this was a perfect opportunity to get a snapshot of this mighty nation.
How you can visit Russia visa-free.
Residents of some countries can visit Russia without a visa. Not surprisingly, Western Europe, North America, and their allies not on the list. There is however one way for even people from these countries to visit Russia without a visa. You must travel to St. Petersburg on an overnight ferry and stay in Russia for 72 hours only. The easiest way to do this is to take the St. Peter Line, a large ferry, from either Helsinki, Finland or Stockholm, Sweden. I went from Helsinki.
Should you do a tour or go at it solo?
If this is your first time, I definitely recommend that you do a tour, even if you are a seasoned traveller. The language (Russians write Cyrillic) and the culture are very different from many parts of the world. Understanding the Russian sensibility requires help from a local. And many Russians have little understanding of English. I did an organized tour and I liked the company that I used. Send me an email and I can provide you with the name.
Day 1: Journey from Helsinki (Finland) to St.Petersburg
Taking the ferry to Russia with no visa. The departure for the St. Peter Line to St. Petersburg was scheduled for 6 pm. At 2 pm, I took a cab from my hotel to the Helsinki Port because I wanted to get there early. I don’t like being rushed when travelling. It being the first time, and having no idea what the immigration process would be like, how big the terminal would be, etc, I made sure to arrive well before departure. I arrived at the Port at around 2:30 pm, did a walkthrough in the ferry terminal to get the lay of the land, had a nice lunch and came back in time just before boarding.
Travel Tip: There are 6 different ports in Helsinki. Make sure you get to the right one. West Terminal 1 (locally called Länsiterminaali 1) is where you want to go to take the ferry to St. Petersburg. The address for Länsiterminaali 1 is Tyynenmerenkatu 8, 00220 Helsinki, Finland. It is well signed and easy to navigate. And across the road from the main entrance are some decent restaurants in case you get there early like me. There are places to eat in Terminal 1 itself but the restaurants across the road are much better in quality and ambience.
Travel Tip: The ferry is pretty modern and comfortable and the sailing itself is smooth. You get really nice views of Helsinki harbour as you leave. There are different levels of accommodations that you can choose, from basic to luxury. I chose the basic level and while feeling a bit cramped, it did the job just fine. On board, there a couple of a la carte restaurants and a buffet restaurant. I had prepaid for the buffet so I was stuck eating at the buffet restaurant. The food is what you would expect in such a place. Not bad, just very buffet-like. If I was to do this trip again, I would choose one of the a la carte restaurants.
Day 2: Saint Petersburg
Welcome to St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s hometown.
I was picked up at 9:45 am at the harbour by a local guide for a full day tour of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, in addition to being Vladimir Putin’s birthplace, is one of the iconic cities in the world. 72 hours, while a bit rushed, is enough for a first-timer to get a taste of St. Petersburg. You can however easily spend a few days here as there are many things to see. My full day city tour included stops at all the main tourists places: Nevsky Prospect, the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the first Stock Exchange, Decembrist’s Square, Vasilievsky Island, Smolny Cathedral, Palace Square, the Admiralty building, Peter and Paul Fortress, Cathedral of the Holy Virgin of Kazan. I then took a break, had lunch, checked into my hotel and then carried on to see the Hermitage.
Hermitage Museum, one of world’s best.
The Hermitage is enormous and spectacular. The entire complex consists of five buildings: Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Great Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre. There are over 3 million pieces of art and artifacts. For you to see it all, it will easily take you days. Because of its massive size, it is worthwhile to get a guided tour, even if for part of it. You can hire guides at the Hermitage Excursion Office. The best way to do it is by booking for tours and tickets online through a tour company or the official website (https://www.hermitageshop.org/tickets/).
Where to eat in St. Petersburg?
Russians are known for many things but good food is not one of them. Sadly, the stereotype holds true. For a country so large and having access to so much produce, it is perplexing why the Russians never made great food. I mean have you seen how they murder their salads?! Kidding aside, there are 2 places in St. Petersburg that you should try.
Palkin (Nevsky Prospekt 47). Palkin, a St. Petersburg institution, is a restaurant fit for a tsar. Literally. A fine dining restaurant that serves multiple course meals and that has been around since 1785. Eating here felt like I was eating at an aristocrat’s home. You must try the different flavours of vodka pairing they do with each course. I had dumpling with venison and pork, shchi soup (Russian-style cabbage soup), blini with caviar and house-made sour cream. Very good food and service. In a country not known for its food, Palkin was a treat!
Teremok (60 Nevsky Prospect): Russian fast food that you must try! Very local experience. Ask for the English menu which they have but it is not readily available on the tables. I had a blini with pork, pickles, mash potatoes and fried onions and fish soup. Yummy!
Day 3: Moscow
The tour that I did had the option of spending all 72 hours in St. Petersburg or spending one day in Moscow and the rest of time in St. Petersburg. I, of course, chose the St. Petersburg and Moscow option. Yes, crazy, I know. But how could I pass up the chance to see Moscow?
What a whirlwind!
Yes, it is crazy to think that in 72 hours I can squeeze in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. But there is no way I am going to Russia and not see Moscow, even if it is just for a day. The best way to do this is to take Sapsan, a high-speed train which runs from St. Petersburg and Moscow, several times daily. The journey takes 4 hours and costs around $75 USD. The train is very comfortable.
My Moscow tour started very early.
I woke up at 5 am and was ready by 6:15 when I was picked from the hotel up by my tour company and transferred to the main train station. At 6:52 am, I took Sapsan and by 10:30 am, I was in Moscow. My whirlwind Moscow tour started as soon as I got off the train and last non-stop for 8 hours! Phew! Intense but oh so worthwhile. I usually don’t do these whirlwind tours but a chance to see Moscow, how I could pass that up?!
Moscow is a country onto itself. A city of 12 million, it is the economic and political heart of Russia. One-tenth of all Russian citizens live in the Moscow metropolitan area, which is the most populous city in continental Europe.
My 8-hour Moscow city tour, with a short lunch break at a local restaurant, hit all the major highlights of Moscow: Kremlin, Red Square, Sparrow Hills, Moscow University, Christ the Savior Cathedral, GUM Department Store, Armory Museum, New Moscow, etc.
Travel Tip: There are a couple of places you should not miss. First is the Moscow International Business Center, a commercial district which has a skyline that reminded me of New York City. The second is the stunning Moscow metro train stations. These train stations, which serve about 9 million people are more like art installations than metro platforms. You have to see their beauty in person to fully appreciate the artistry. Some of the best metro stations are Park Pebody (world’s third deepest train station), Arbatskaya, Aviamotornaya… the list goes on.
Religion, it’s complicated. There are some beautiful churches in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. When Communists took over, religion effectively outlawed. Churches had to forfeit their assets and monks living in monasteries were evicted. Today, religion has made a massive comeback. Russia is one of the few places in the world where people are coming back in droves. Critics, however, say that everything in Russia is politics and religion is no exception. Churches have formed an unholy alliance with the current regime to grab and hold on to power.
Travel Tip: Make sure to take your passport with you when taking the train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, even if the tour guide says that you should leave your passport in the hotel! I had left mine back at the hotel safe and the train conductor specifically asked for my passport before boarding. Thankfully, the tour guides spoke on my behalf and got me through.
Travel Tip: Most tours make a stop at Arbat, a large Russian shopping street, on their itinerary. My recommendation is to skip Arbat street and instead, make sure to go to Moscow University. The University, with its classic Stalin architecture, is a fantastic building. And the lookout point across the street offers great city views. This was one of the highlights of my tour.
After a full day in Moscow, I took the high-speed train back from Moscow at 7:50 pm, arriving in St. Petersburg at midnight.
Day 4: St.Petersburg to Helsinki
The next day, which was my last day in Russia, I was not feeling so energetic so I mostly walked around the city, taking photos. After a couple of long days of touring, it was nice just to walk around, visit some cathedrals, and take in the vibe of the city at a slower pace.
At 4:30 pm, I was picked up from my hotel, transferred to the harbour and took the overnight boat back to Helsinki.
Does the 72-hours-in-Russia-tour sound exhausting? Honestly, it didn’t feel exhausting. I think it was because I was so excited about being in Russia for the first time that I didn’t mind the pace.