Russia: the land of domed churches, bright buildings, and a history that includes a queen buying drinks for an entire city (check my facts, it actually happened and believe me, no one seemed to mind). It’s near the top of anyone’s travel bucket list even if they won’t admit it. A country with palaces, gorgeous scenery, history, and a very different culture, this place has something for every kind of traveler.
Now, if you’ve done any research on how to travel to Russia, you may have been shocked at the visa requirements and cost. There’s an approximate 20 day wait time and the cost begins at £185, without even taking into account the hidden fees that always rear their ugly heads. Russia is so different to the Western World already; do you really want to attempt it traveling solo? Luckily, there’s a solution that solves both of those problems, making it much easier to visit this pretty restrictive country.
There are a few hidden visa exemptions that allow travelers to circumvent the wait time and cost. By booking with a registered travel agency and coming into any port via a cruise ship from nearly anywhere (or a ferry coming from Tallinn or Helsinki) visitors can stay for up to 72 hours. Personally, I always prefer to travel by myself and not rely on agencies when I can have more fun discovering a new place alone, but if there was one place that I would recommend the tour, it’s Russia. Not only do you get to bypass the pesky visa, but you get a tailored experience packed with places to visit.
Our tour guide in St. Petersburg was a stout and very Russian woman full of stories and wise cracks about Russian mentality and humor. The other people in our group filled the bus, and we became unbelievably close over the course of two days. Since locations in the city were so far apart, there was a huge advantage to having the bus. The first day started with the tour guide finding us in the duty-free shop filled with cheap and faux-expensive souvenirs, then taking us to St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral where we looked at the graves of many famous Russian rulers, including the last Tsar and his family. The Church of the Savior on Blood was next. For all those who don’t recognize the name, it’s the iconic domed church lined with color. That building is packed with history from all of Russia’s time periods and our tour guide brought the wall mosaics to life with her tales.
All the meals took place at Russian eateries off the main roads and driving down the streets to find them really gave the impression as if we had entered another world. There’s no way to explain it except to go and see it, but everything was so quiet and different. It was phenomenal.
We visited the Hermitage museum and the famous Winter Palace, where we learned that if you spent a minute on every piece of artwork in the collection, you’d be there for over 11 years. Then came visits to the major palaces outside of St. Petersburg. Alexander’s Palace was bright and cheerful with extravagant ballrooms. The Peterhof Palace was not only gorgeous but had miles of sprawling gardens and fountains surrounding the buildings. The grandiose fountains were done in intricate patterns, but the silliest to watch were the little ones in the gardens that would seem to stay dry then pop out of nowhere when a child walked by. My siblings all seemed to get lucky when passing what they knew was a potential water hazard, but I managed to get soaked several times while strolling the gardens. Our tour guide later told us that there are people hidden in the bushes turning the sprinklers on at the perfect moments to hit targets of their choosing. And I was their target, of course.
Before we could even blink, our time in Russia was over and we were hauling our exhausted bodies back to the ship while saying almost tearful goodbyes to our fantastic tour guide. I had gone into the experience almost with contempt, thinking it was some kind of traveler’s cheat to take a tour guide, but St. Petersburg would not have been the same without the people that added so much to it. Maybe it is a little bit of a cheat, but in the best way, as it means avoiding the hassle and cost of a traveler’s visa. Russia should never be written off any travel list just because it’s too massive, challenging, or expensive. Russia might seem like a giant, impossible to take on, but looking at it closely, isn’t that bad at all. In fact, it’s downright unforgettable.