Russia has never a place on my bucket list. With the current political climate and all the talk about Russia in the media, I decided I’d go and see what it was all about. I noticed that Saint Petersburg was a mere 6 hour train ride from an event in Tallinn, Estonia that was already on my summer agenda.
So I started researching how to go to Russia as an United States citizen. It was harder than I thought. Here’s my tale about my first journey to “The Venice of the North”, “Russia’s Northern Capital”, the beautiful city of Санкт-Петербу́рг, Росси́я.
Step 1: Research
I had to figure out how to get a Russian visa. Turns out that it’s pretty complicated. The USA and Russian bureaucracies seem to have a tit-for-tat regarding visas. The Russian visa process is so hard for me because the US Government made it equally as hard for Russian Federation citizens to come here to be a tourist.
Here’s how to get a visa in a nutshell:
- Find a place you want to stay and pick dates.
- Book accommodations there.
- If they have their act together, they should be able to help you get an official “invitation” to visit Russia (for an additional fee).
- Purchase travel insurance and supplemental health insurance that covers you in Russia.
- Set an appointment to go to the Russian visa office. There are 4 of these in the USA and you have to be there in person or pay a travel agency to do all this for you.
- Hopefully you get a visa.
Step 2: Obtaining a visa
Luckily I was in the vicinity of New York City so I could go to the visa office in person and not pay a travel agency to do it for me. So I made an appointment and took the train into the city. I got there shortly after the office opened, had all my paperwork in order, printed out copies of everything in duplicate along with a passport sized photo.
I was relieved that when I talked to the agent that all my paperwork was in order! The only problem was that visa applications can take up to 20 days to process and I was leaving the country in 9 days.
So we expedite it… for another $150. Highway robbery! But I paid it because I wanted to go to Russia. They took my passport on a Thursday (yes, they hold onto your actual passport during the approval process) and I was able to retrieve it from them with my visa pasted into one of the blank pages the next Tuesday.
When it was all said and done, the visa and associated costs (train tickets to/from the city, etc.) cost more than my hostel room in Saint Petersburg!
Step 3: Getting there
I was already in Tallinn Estonia for a BASE jumping event, so I went to the train station and simply purchased a train ticket to Saint Petersburg. It was easy and only cost €29. What a deal!
I arrived early for the train to make sure I knew what track I needed to be at. Since the ticket was all in Russian, I was a bit apprehensive about making it on the right train at the right time. But there were attendants checking tickets and I had an assigned seat for the duration of the 6.5 hour trip.
The border was an interesting experience. We reached Narva (Estonia’s easternmost city) where EU border guards got on the train and checked everyone’s passports and got our EU exit stamps. Then the train started back up and we went a few kilometers to the Russian border check. You could definitely tell when we reached the actual border—there was a river and then layers of barbed and razor wire fences. Behind the fences were stations set up with permanent high powered binoculars as well as very mean looking dogs on chains barking at the train. It was all very intimidating, but I made it through and enjoyed watching the sunset across the Western Russian countryside.
Landmarks and experiences
I had a really great time touring around the city. Some of the highlights of my trip were The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the C-189 Submarine Museum, Peterhof Palace, and The Hermitage Museum (note: if you aren’t a fan of crowds, avoid this museum like the plague).
Please enjoy this gallery of some of my favorite photos from my short trip.
If you ever get the chance and motivation to visit Russia, you should definitely go! I had an amazing time. The people were friendly, the archetecture was amazing, and the food was incredible.