Seeing St. Petersburg

| September 13, 2004


For most Baltic Sea cruise passengers, St. Petersburg, Russia, is the highlight of the voyage. Whether their interest is art, history, palaces, cathedrals, or the 20th century Russian struggles with Communism and the Nazi siege, few places in the world offer more interesting tour possibilities.

Since Russian hotels and restaurants are extremely expensive, and even the best are often not up to Western standards, visiting St. Petersburg by ship is a smart choice -- you bring your food and lodgings with you. And of the ships offering Baltic cruises, Oceania's Regatta is a good bet because the itinerary provides three full days in this spectacular city – more than most ships, yet still barely enough to see the city's spectacular palaces, churches and museums.

St. Petersburg Sightseeing

The cruise lines have found "shore excursion gold" in Russia because there are many so world-class attractions. The Russian government helps to entice passengers onto these tours -- it requires all arriving travelers to secure a visa and to name a "receiving organization duly registered as a tourist company in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia" before one can proceed ashore, so it is impossible to walk off the ship, grab a taxi, and go sightseeing. But just because you arrive by cruise ship, you aren't necessarily limited to the shore excursions offered by the line. We found one outstanding alternative: the St. Petersburg tour company Red October. We tried them on a recent visit, and we were more than impressed with the results.

Red October offers personalized tours of the same attractions you see on the ship tours. They have local guides certified by the same tour boards as the cruise ship guides. The cost is the same as or lower than the cruise ship tours, but Red October's tours are conducted with much smaller groups (we saw some couples with their own guide), and you get your own vehicle with a driver at your beck and call.

So you can save money and see much more in the same amount of time, because you avoid waiting for an entire large group to get through each attraction before you can move on to the next. You also have the option of customizing the tours to your own personal tastes. The icing on the cake is that Red October is well connected with the local museums and official agencies, and in a state like Russia you can probably guess how much that can mean.

How to Arrange Your Tour

You must arrange your tours with Red October well before you leave for your cruise because they mail the tour tickets to you in advance. You don't need to apply for a Russian visa if you arrange to take Red October's tours; the dockside immigration officials consider a Red October tour ticket to be as good as a visa. Just don't leave them at home on your dresser.

You can book Red October tickets directly with the company in Russia by email (go to, or email, but Red October now also has a U.S. representative, Mike Finn, at who can make the same arrangements for you. Or, if you already have a regular travel agent they can make the Red October arrangements for you. Just tell your travel agent you want Red October tours, and Red October pays a commission to the agent. The price is the same no matter which of these methods you choose.

A new option for 2005 will be independent bus tours with Red October guides for cruise ship passengers -- available from This will be a new, less expensive option for passengers to get the Red October tours as an alternative to the cruise line bus tours.

We received four emails and three different documents directly from Red October in Russia before we left home. One of them encouraged us to be the first passengers off the ship the first day in St. Petersburg. One of the letters we received was a "just in case" letter of instruction to the dockside Russian immigration officials stating that we were with Red October and should be treated with due consideration.

Laura, the owner of Red October, told me some cruise lines are known to announce that Russian officials will not allow independent sightseers off the ship until all the ship-guided tour passengers have disembarked. She said that is simply not true, and I tested it personally. We were the first ones off the ship after it was cleared in St. Petersburg, and the shore-side official accepted our Red October tickets with a smile, stamped our passports and waved us on through. We didn't need that official letter at all.

Touring St Petersburg

I smiled when I saw our tour guide, Elena, standing next to a woman holding what would become the familiar Red October sign. As soon as she greeted us we went to our van and started our private tour. I didn't realize at the time that Red October is no secret: At least four other parties on our ship were taking their tours, each with their own guide and driver.

line for Hermitage
My smile got even bigger when I saw how Elena breezed ahead of hundreds of people exiting tour buses, and took us directly to the entrance for the Hermitage Museum, tickets already in hand. This was my third visit to the Hermitage, but my first with a private guide. I was amazed at how much more we saw, in a shorter time, than on my previous visits. I never realized how much time one spends waiting for everyone in a group to reach the next exhibit before the guide can begin talking. I was equally impressed the next morning when, at the head of a throng of tourists at the gates of Catherine's Palace, I saw a lone hand holding up a "Red October" sign, saving first place in line for us.

The only problem with St. Petersburg is that there is too much to see, but we saw all we planned to see and much more. The highlights include:

  • The Hermitage Museum - Originally the imperial family's Winter Palace, today one of the world's most spectacular art collections started by Tsarina Catherine the Great.
  • Peterhof – The summer palace of Peter the Great with some of the most beautiful fountain gardens in the world.Church of the Spilt Blood – A unique Russian Orthodox church with colorful onion domes on the outside and an interior composed of tiny mosaic tiles.
  • The Peter and Paul Fortress – The resting place of all the sainted Russian Tsars from Peter to Nicholas II.
  • The Museum of Political History – Originally the home of a lover of Nicholas II, prima ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, who escaped Russia when the Romanov family was hiding from revolutionary armies. The home was taken over by Lenin and the fledgling Soviet party, and is where he rallied the masses to storm the palace on October 17 (Red October). It became the official "Revolution Museum" of the Communist Party, and today is the Museum of Russian Political History, site of 20th century political artifacts from Czar Nicholas to Putin.
Catherine's Palace – The summer palace of Catherine the Great in the village of Pushkin, which contains the famous "Amber Room".

One tour recommended to us by Red October that many cruise ships do not offer was a very pleasant surprise: the Yusupov Palace, which I had never heard of before. It was the home of a wealthy industrialist family who were good friends of the Romanovs. This grand and beautiful palace is where the plot to murder Rasputin took place (after several failed attempts in the same evening). Chills ran through me as I heard the story of that night's events and saw where they happened.


Red October also gave us time for shopping -- not only in the Red October store, which is large and fairly priced, but also at a Lominosov Porcelain factory store and a local shopping area where I got a great deal on fresh beluga caviar.

I love visiting St. Petersburg and all of Russia, and I cannot think of a city where one can benefit more from spending the extra time and money on guided tours. If you are already planning a visit, I encourage you to learn as much as possible before you arrive. And when you do, to get the best for less, it is hard to beat Red October Tours.

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