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trosebery

Reflections on our 2nd St. Petersburg tour

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The first time we visited St. Petersburg, we booked a small-group tour with SPB Tours and it was fine, but for our second visit, we wanted a customized experience. We booked with Red Sun Tours because they were the most prompt and the most responsive in their communication with us, offering us several different itinerary options that incorporated our preferences -- and the tour was fantastic. We had an excellent guide and an even better time than we'd had the first time, so I thought we'd share our observations:

 

- The smaller your group, the easier it is to bypass lines. Last time we were in one of those "maximum of 16 people" and although we never had to stand in any really long lines (the regular lines at the Hermitage and Catherine Palace were ridiculous), occasionally we'd find ourselves in a short line of other tour groups. Our private tour group of 3 people was able to slip around even those. Perks like "Early Entry in the Hermitage" weren't really necessary. (I honestly didn't notice a dramatic difference in the crowd level between our Early Entry tour a few years back and our later afternoon tour this time around.) 

- The smaller your group, the more personal your tour experience. For example, most people on the "maximum of 16 people" groups on our ship reported that they toured the Faberge Museum by audioguide whereas our guide gave us a guided tour around the museum herself. We also got a private canal tour, narrated by our guide. (We really felt as if we got to know our guide and she got to know us. We felt as if we not only had a guide but had made a friend.)

 

For these reasons, I would *strongly* recommend booking a private tour -- or if your budget doesn't allow you to, then maybe share with others from your Roll Call. Or check out Red Sun's small group tours: theirs have a max of 8 people instead of the usual 16.

 

A customized private tour has one other key advantage, though:

 

- On a private tour, everybody else's must-sees don't have to be your must-sees. We were able to visit favourites from our last visit like the Peterhof fountains but also trade out the always-crowded Catherine Palace for the Grand Maket Russia (which was so cute), the Peter and Paul Fortress for the Soviet Arcade Games Museum (which gave you 15 kopek coins and let you actually play the games), etc. We were also able to choose our lunch stops -- I wanted to try Georgian food, and Red Sun took us to a Georgian restaurant.

 

So don't feel as if you need to stick to the beaten path to see the Best of St. Petersburg. Some of our best and most memorable experiences were off it. And don't feel as if you need to tour with one of the big companies (SPB, Alla, TJ). Do check out the smaller companies like Red Sun. (True, a company that focuses entirely on St. Petersburg doesn't offer tour packages that include tours in other ports, but there are plenty of other local companies in those ports and also companies like Nordic Experience, that offers tours in just about every port except St. Petersburg and that I've reviewed in another thread.)

 

One final observation:

 

- Russian immigration was much faster this time? I don't know if it's because they staggered letting everyone off with the ship's tours going first or it's just because we were on a smaller ship (Norwegian Spirit instead of Regal Princess), but we had zero lines at immigration. The ship arrived at 7 and they'd told us they were not going to let non-ship tours off until 8:30, but they announced shortly after 8 that we were cleared to get off and we were through immigration a few minutes later . . . even though the port authorities still weren't letting the independent vehicles into the port until 8:30. No problem: we just browsed the port shops while we waited for our driver. Actually, the most amusing entertainment was watching the panicked company reps run into the cruise terminal waving their signs when they realized their clients were there already!

 

Any other questions, I'd be happy to try to answer if I can.

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Yes, the city definitely has A LOT more to offer beyond the five typical cruise must-sees. 

 

I took my children to Grand Maket this time around - and they had a blast. I feel I could've (and perhaps should've) easily spent 5 hours there, with a short lunch break. Their food options are ok too, btw. 

 

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I agree that a private tour with a smaller number, preferably less than 8 persons, is the best way to tour around St. Petersburg! We also did a small group tour with 8 persons using Anastasia Travel and we had the best time. They also customized our tour to include the places we wanted to visit, really catered to our group's needs and preferences. It was personalized, well-organized and definitely more fun when you tour with a smaller group.  It gave us the flexibility to do the tour without the pressure of strictly following the time. We did the tour on our own pace and spontaneously chose where to eat lunch on the day of the tour. We'd love to go back again! 

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19 hours ago, napoxoguk said:

 

Yes, the city definitely has A LOT more to offer beyond the five typical cruise must-sees. 

 

I took my children to Grand Maket this time around - and they had a blast. I feel I could've (and perhaps should've) easily spent 5 hours there, with a short lunch break. Their food options are ok too, btw. 

 

 

I think I enjoyed the Grand Maket Russia as much as any of the kids! And yes, it's definitely possible to spend hours there.

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I completely agree, when you are cruising you never really have a lot of time to truly explore the places. So to make the most out of the time spend ashore, I always look for better options for the excursions. I have found that going on a customized tour will show us the most of what we would like to see.  And sometimes the prizes are not even that much higher. Our first time in St Petersburg,  we also had Anastasia tours help u. 2 days packed with sightseeing and ballet. Just wonderful!

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Customized tour for St.Petersburg is probably the best option, as well as if your budget allows a small group of no more than 8 people. We arranged our 2 days tour with Anastasia Travel as well and got lot more than we expected. The reason why booking with a private tour is way better than getting the ship tour, is sometimes the price, but most of the time the VIP treatment you get when you book such a tour, for example the one we did with Anastasia Travel in St.Petersburg.

If your budget allows, it is definitely worth it!

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