Saint Petersburg Russia - Ultimate Saint Petersburg Shore Excursion Guide for the Ultimate 2 day Discovery Channel exclusive tour with Princess Cruises! Before booking your Saint Petersburg Shore excursion, be sure to read my thorough review!
This post is sponsored by Princess Cruises, and contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own.
Heading to Russia was a once in a lifetime experience - I have been wanting to visit for ages.
Saint Petersburg, the city full of canals, insanely gorgeous architecture, and palaces all over - was at the very top of my wish list.
I never thought I would get to go to my all-time dream destination on a cruise - and I have to say, for my first time in Russia, a cruise was the perfect way to get a taste of all things Saint Petersburg - and now I can't wait to head back asap!
If you want to head to Saint Petersburg hassle-free like I did, be sure to click the link below for the absolute best deals from Princess!
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To make the experience even more special, we visited Saint Petersburg just before Victory Day celebrations across Russia - and were treated to viewing the practice parade through Saint Petersburg - which involved tons of trucks, tanks, missiles, and troops making their way through the city to celebrate the Russian triumph over the invading Nazi army.
Russia is already a fairly patriotic place - but visiting right before Victory Day was amazing!
Cruising is already a great way to travel, but Princess Cruises really shines in Russia - where you must have a visa to disembark - but getting a visa is a ton of time and money - unless you book a shore excursion!
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Ultimate 2 Day Saint Petersburg Tour With the Discovery Channel
Princess has tons of shore excursions for those traveling to Russia - but if you're looking for the absolute most bang for your buck, and to use the most time possible on shore without having to get a visa on your own, there is one choice that stands heads and shoulders above the rest - the Ultimate 2 Day Saint Petersburg Tour.
I keep telling my husband if we head to Russia together, we need to go through Princess for a couple of days in the trip - solely to be able to enter the museums early before they enter, and be a part of the Discovery Program at Catherine's Palace again!
It was a magical and landmark-packed tour that was incredibly detail-oriented and intense (I was completely and utterly exhausted after our two day tour, and literally slept 15 hours after we got back on the ship as we pulled out of Saint Petersburg), and I left feeling like we got to get a huge taste of Saint Petersburg for such a small amount of time in port (under 35 hours total.)
If you're considering heading to Saint Petersburg with Princess and wondering what shore excursions (if any!) to check out, I only did the Ultimate excursion, and can't speak fully to the others - but I do know every stop we visited was a part of a number of excursions offered by Princess, so if you don't think you can manage all the stops on the Ultimate, you could pick and chose other excursions and get to the locations that interest you the most.
Make no mistake - this excursion was AMAZING and completely priceless with some of the exclusive touches Princess and the Discovery Channel provide - but it is not a tour for everyone. We were up very, very early, walked a ton, stood nonstop, and while there was no actual physical activity outside of walking/touring, I was completely worn out by the end - and I travel often! I was so glad to have packed so much into the tour - it is 100% worth the price!
If you like a more laid-back excursion, the Ultimate isn't for you.
There is also a TON of museum time (swoon - I am most definitely a museum fan, and getting in early before they opened was a massive benefit for me) which some tourists might not be as into as other excursions like shopping, seeing the ballet, doing something active, or exploring local culture, so take that into account.
If you want to get a little bit of the very best landmarks in Saint Petersburg, the Ultimate 2 Day Tour is for you!
The destinations on the Ultimate Saint Petersburg Tour are the top rated in the city - you'll hit all of the major stops, and get a good understanding of each with lots of time to explore and shop!
-Saint Isaacs Cathedral
Saint Isaacs Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Basilica in the world, and is the fourth largest cathedral in the world!
Saint Isaacs Cathedral was an amazing experience - especially given it's important history in Russia.
During WWII, the dome on Saint Isaacs was painted over, so it was harder to see from bombing planes. It also was outfitted with a skylight to help position invading Nazi troops.
It is said they will continue to operate as a museum, but services are being brought back to the famous Cathedral that survived the Soviet era as a museum (as all religion was banned, but some churches like Saint Isaacs were allowed to operate safely as museums for the people - as well as many palaces that are still toured today) and services are held in the side of the church (the entire church is only used for services on feast days.)
I actually veered off from our tour a bit in Saint Isaac's (as well as in the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood) since I am Orthodox, and a lot of the tour focused on explaining Orthodox traditions.
I took a bit of time to pop in some headphones and explore at my own pace!
I got to take a little time to myself to take in all of the amazing icons - Saint Isaacs is a church I am DYING to go to with my friend who is an Orthodox Monk, so he could point out every icon to me!
I could have spent hours just sitting on the floor, were it not so busy, just looking up!
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The Hermitage and Winter Museum are arguably the most famous tourist highlights in Saint Petersburg.
Not only are the buildings and grounds themselves incredibly gorgeous and steeped with history - but priceless works of art, including early Russian relics, ancient Christian symbols, and even a large room full of Rembrandt paintings (which, I have to say, was one of the highlights of the trip for me.)
The throne room was dramatic and stunning, dripping with red and gold.
I took seemingly hundreds of pictures of the chandeliers and ornate ceiling in this room!
Sadly, we didn't have nearly enough time to explore all of the hermitage (something I am confident would take months to properly do......), but we got to enjoy the gold room, see many main hallways and palace rooms - as well as the Rembrandt Room, which was such a cool experience!
Just the outfittings along the walls were attractions enough - the detailed frescoes and borders along the archways, ceilings, and doors were amazing to take in - let alone all of the works of art and relics stored in the Hermitage.
The Hermitage has so many exhibits and areas, you can't possibly expect to see much in one day - but we got a great sample.
Again, I'll be sharing much more from my visit, so please stay tuned.
-Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is a Russian Orthodox church-turned-museum built on the spot Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in March 1881, hence the name.
The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is one of the most famous landmarks in St. Petersburg, thanks to it's colorful onion domes and Baroque/Neoclassical style which is a stark contrast from traditional palaces lining the Neva.
The interior of the church is incredibly gorgeous, covered in amazing tiled icons.
While I've visited brightly colored Orthodox churches covered in icons (see the Luri Monastery in Tbilisi Georgia, or Mtskheta here), I haven't seen an entire church covered in tiled icons - I was completely blown away.
The Christ Pantocrator is absolutely jaw-dropping - most Orthodox churches with an elevated dome have bright light pouring in under the Christ Pantocrator icon, creating striking rays of light - but tiled icons really shone and created depth as the light hits the tile and sparkles.
Like other destinations, I will be detailing this stunning church in more detail soon, so stay tuned!
Catherine's Palace is quite simply the most stunning destination in the Saint Petersburg area (it actually resides in the small town of Pushkin, just in the outskirts of Saint Petersburg).
We first toured the carriage museum - which was gorgeous, and gave me a ton of flashbacks from my childhood princess fantasies.
While the palace and the grounds themselves are immensely gorgeous, being able to experience the palace at night, when there were less than 300 other guests in the museum, along with classical musicians, champagne, a historical re-enactment and live ballet performance was priceless.
The gorgeous blue ceramic fitting you see pictured above is one of the many gorgeous heaters you'll find in Russian palaces.
First, we toured the palace rooms that have been renovated (Catherine's Palace, like many Russian palaces, was largely evacuated and stripped of it's possessions and outfittings as the Nazi Army advanced and held quite a bit of Russian territory.)
From the rooms we were able to tour, we headed to the grand ballroom where there was champagne and a lovely ensemble playing music, which led to an appearance by Catherine herself and a lovely bit of ballet.
As the performance ended, we were walked through the palace again, to wait outside where a band was waiting for us to call in Catherine in a carriage.
As the band played, we got to watch her horses and carriage do some choreography before another dance.
It was a truly magical night, unlike any other! I will be writing the experience up much more in the future, so be sure to stay tuned here!
-Neva River Cruise
One of the best parts of our shore excursion was getting to do a little bit of everything while in Saint Petersburg - and there is nothing more quintessentially Saint Petersburg than a cruise through the canals, along one of the major rivers!
We went under bridges, on the widest part of the river, and back and forth in front of some of Russia's most important landmarks.
The inside of the boat was covered - but we opted to brave the early May windy sky and sit outside!
The boat provided us with blankets and bottles of water so everyone was comfortable and happy while we cruised (and got to see the city all ready for Victory Day celebrations, which were a mere two days after we were there!)
We got to watch the fountains turn on to a gorgeous ceremony, with loud, dramatic music and a spectacular flow as the gates open up and the water gushes down the small canal.
The palace is gorgeous, and we were able to tour before it was open to other visitors thanks to Princess!
One note - if traveling when the weather isn't very cold, leave your jacket on the bus! There are ample coat check options (tourists must check heavy coats, backpacks, and bags for safety) that are safe. The checks are constantly manned by attendants - but you will save lots of time if you don't have to even hassle with it.
When we were there in May it was still very cold however, so we kept ours, and because we weren't standing with the rest of the crowds when the palace interior opened to the public, it was quick getting our coats to head outside. In the height of summer when it is really busy I wouldn't want to check anything!
The inside of the palace is actually a bit less dramatic than other Russian palaces - mostly because it was held by the Nazi army, and as the Nazis advanced, the Russians evacuated many treasures to Siberia to keep far from Hitler's army- some things were lost, some things that were left behind were destroyed - and some treasures have been restored as the palace is slowly being renovated.
In the gardens, underneath the fountains, there are a bunch of small stands selling souvenirs, coffee (don't expect anything gourmet - it is from a can), and chocolate dipped waffles on a stick - which is very convenient since to get a good spot at the fountains, you need to be there about 15 minutes before they turn on.
We simply had a couple friends stand and hold our spot while we switched in and out to grab coffee, take pictures, etc.
The vendors don't have the most thrilling options (there is both better food and souvenirs towards the entrance of the palace by the busses who take dollars and many take credit cards), and only a couple of them take US dollars (we didn't have time to change our dollars/euros before disembarkation). If you want to buy something but don't have rubles, head to one of the souvenir stands - they mostly took US Dollars.
We wanted coffee and bought something small so that we could get rubles back to buy coffee and waffles - though my kids absolutely loved the neon slap bracelets with Russian printing on them :).
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-Peter & Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress is instantly recognizeable from the river - the large yellow spire can be seen as you drive (or cruise) up and down the Neva.
Peter and Paul was absolutely gorgeous - with a primarily mint green and gold palate.
The cathedral on site holds tombs from the Tsar's family - and was used as a family mausoleum and private worship space, so it is a bit of a different feel than the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood or Saint Isaacs.
Peter and Paul was our final destination before heading back to the ship - and I won't lie, I was exhausted for our last tour - but it was stunning!
The Yusupov Palace is one of the most recognizable unknown destinations in Saint Petersburg - as it was where Rasputin was executed.
The palace itself was gorgeous, with a lot of details that I could have spent hours staring at.
The Rassputin part of the tour, in the Bachelor's suite, was the least interesting to me - it is a small area and you must walk quickly with your tour as you're not allowed to stop in the tiny room - but so many other parts of the private palace were incredible and absolutely not to be missed!
Inside the palace was a full theater where the family held performances - from ballet and music to plays - for notable guests, including Tsars.
I LOVED seeing the theater - complete with the Tsar's box for when the Yusupov family was hosting nobility!
Top Reasons to Book the Excursion
-No Visa Requirement
For Americans, Canadians, and many European residents, visiting Russia can be a MAJOR pain that will see you spending a lot of time working to get a tourist visa to enter the country.
When you cruise, however, you completely bypass this requirement, as long as you book through your ship or a licensed tour operator! No time waiting, no hassles, no worries - sign up for a shore excursion, and you simply need to go through customs with your excursion info to gain entry to the country! (Please note, you're legally supposed to be with your tour to do this, so don't stray or figure you can book something and go your own way.)
If you want to make your own plans with a driver and tour guide, Princess offers private excursions where you can map out what you want to do, and they handle the rest!
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Princess' guides literally do all the work for you - checking traffic, conditions at different attractions, and line times - so you can breeze through tour stops and see the most possible!
One of the absolute best reasons to book a shore excursion through Princess when visiting Russia, as I said above, is singlehandedly the exclusive access. We got to visit the Hermitage before all other groups, got to go to a closed down Catherine's Palace for a private evening performance, and got into Peterhof Palace before all crowds!
-No money needed after you step off the boat
While we did do a little souvenir shopping, and bought a cheap canned coffee, when booking the Ultimate Saint Petersburg Excursion, we literally didn't have to pay for a thing!
The excursion pre-books lunch, boat tour, etc. - leaving us free to just have fun. And the souvenir shops we visited took every major credit card, so it was very simple.
We did leave our fantastic tour guide a large tip, but she appreciated getting it in dollars I think - since we didn't have any time to change from Euros or dollars before disembarking!
-Get into top tourist destinations before they open
I mentioned it before, but if you book a shore excursion for no other reason, let it be because it gets you into museums and palaces hours before they open to the public.
We literally saw many hermitage highlights before it was open to the public - meaning a lot of rooms we got to experience with just our small group of 20 people!
As we walked out, the line into the Hermitage stretched two city blocks - and would have possibly taken hours. We side-stepped all of that with the cruise excursion!!
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If you want to attend a private performance at one of Saint Petersburg's top destinations, while you sip champagne and take in a gorgeous sunset - there is only one way to book!
Princess offers so many exclusives with the Discovery Channel - unique opportunities available only to cruisers who books shore excursions on ship.
The performance we got to attend was only available through Princess - and only to people who booked the Night at Catherine's Palace or Ultimate Saint Petersburg Excursions - so it was a small, intimate group.
I don't know I could ever go again, after having the entire palace to ourselves!
Know Before You Go
Unlike many other ports we visited, Saint Petersburg is a little trickier when it comes to money. Thankfully, when you are on a shore excursion, you don't really need much - but when at Pederhof Palace we did have a bit of a tricky situation (we didn't have any rubles, so we had to buy something cheap from a souvenir stand that tok dollars - where I argued with the seller over the exchange rate - to get rubles back so I could buy a coffee.) In the end it was my own fault - if it is not a larger store, you really should have rubles at the ready - but many people would take dollars.
If you do pay with dollars, make sure to check the exchange rate (I use an app on my phone) and know what cash you expect to have back from your transaction.
Otherwise - just use credit! Almost everyone took cards, minus some small stands.
Hot tip: Be sure to call your bank in advance to let them know you will be in Russia.
-disembarking, visas, and customs
To disembark in Saint Petersburg, you MUST have a tourist visa issued by Russia, be a citizen of a country that does not require visas for visiting Russia (mostly just former Soviet states, South American countries, China, and a handful of countries across Asia.) Luckily, if you book a shore excursion,
The first time off the ship, we had to stand in a bit of a long line to get to our tours - but the line didn't take long. We simply had to present our passports and shore excursion proof, and then received a passport stamp and a temporary visa paper (do not lose this- they will collect it from you as you return through customs at night the first night, and stamp you out, even if you have a second day of your tour.)
The process was pretty easy, but a little longer the first time we headed out, so give yourself a bit more time when disembarking for the first time in Russia (subsequent customs visits were much faster and easier once you have been processed, it is just the first time off the boat so the authorities can issue you a cruise-passenger visa there on the spot.)
Russia, like visiting many Eastern European countries as an American tourist, can seem very intimidating. The Russian Government is notoriously strict with tourists, visas, and security - but it was really easy to go through customs with the tips I gave above - and once greeted by your tour guide, you immediately feel at home.
I always joke with my sister-in-law, who is from Belarus, because she never smiles.... and she jokes with me I'm always smiling. To be perfectly honest, I think this funny exchange is critical to understanding just how different Americans view Russians and Russian culture - we see a scowl and assume someone is mean or not welcoming - which is completely opposite to everyone we encountered on our short trip through Saint Petersburg (ok, ok, minus quite a few coat-check and museum staff who weren't going to invite us over for diner anytime soon - but our guides, waiters, drivers, and everyone else were very warm and welcoming.)
I do think that the trip for me was a tiny bit easier than it was for some of my friends on the ship - since I have a large number of friends and family who are Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, or come from former Soviet states and I had been to other former Soviet states previously; so I think I didn't experience quite as big a culture shock.
We were in port just two days before Russia's national celebration of Victory Day - a very spectacular display of military prowess that is known for trucks carrying missiles, tanks, scores of military and police marching, bands, and a hugely patriotic show - which was a really cool and moving experience!
Please note this military display is by no means normal in Saint Petersburg - but rather a massive annual celebration in memory of the defeat of the Nazi troops in their expansion through Russia that only happens on May 9 (and you'll see the lead up to the celebrations before and likely well after the 9th of May.)
Since I have some friends (and my sister-in-law) from Russia/Belarus, I knew all about the Victory Day festivities, and I was thrilled to be there and get to see the practice processional for the military parade, right up close and personal (and without the crowds, since it was just the practice run!) and all of the flags, buntings, and displays all over town.
I even sent some videos and photos of tanks rolling by to my friend in Colorado, who had posted about her father's role in the Russian Army in remembrance just before we watched a part of the parade roll by!
If you find yourself in Russia at the beginning of May, it is a gorgeous time to see their patriotic displays - especially from America where I can't say we have anything remotely close to this kind of pageantry!
Russian museums and palaces often have a coat-check rule - which in late spring was a major hassle. Since it wasn't the brutal winter, coat checks in the museums were not as heavily staffed (we were visiting during an unseasonably cold time, even for spring in Russia) during the cruise-passengers only hours for museums.
If you can, leave your coat on your tour bus, and skip the coat check! ESPECIALLY if you visit just before Victory Day, when the other exits from the coat check are closed for parade preparations... you will save a ton of time and frustration if you just skip your coat and leave it on the bus or ship, when possible!
-Length of Excursion, Restrictions
Saint Petersburg is a port where we got to stay for two days - which seems like a lot - but goes by incredibly fast.
There are a TON of shore excursions, of all paces, that help get you seeing as much or as little of the city as you want - without having to secure a visa.
Of our group, most of us chose the Ultimate Saint Petersburg Shore Excursion, a Discovery Channel exclusive that is only available on Princess Cruises.
I really, really enjoyed our excursion because I felt like I got to see SO much in such a short time - but I will mention that it is not a good excursion if you're looking for free time, to go off script, or if you're not into museums.
The tour was intense - we walked a TON, saw so much, and got to see so many incredible works of art, palaces, and had such neat experiences - but if you like to sleep in or go to bed early, this excursion might not be the right fit.
Luckily, Princess has a ton of options if you want something a little more relaxing - though I would do the Ultimate Saint Petersburg Excursion again in a heartbeat!
If you do the Ultimate tour, do bring a snack and a small bottle of water! The tour was focused on featuring as many awesome attractions as possible - which meant we didn't have much time to grab a snack, if needed.
Thankfully we had some granola bars in our camera bags, and made change for some canned coffee (I feel this is a must in Eastern Europe anyways... it is so comically bad, it's almost good...) as well as some other snacks.
The souvenir shops have snacks, and the bus had water - but a small snack (especially in case you're really picky when it comes to food)- was essential!