In order to enter Russia, you must have a visa. In order to get a visa, you must have an invitation to come to Russia. The invitation can come from a variety of sources, but for most tourists it comes from a hotel or tour operator.
When you arrive on a cruise ship, you can choose to take one of the cruise ship's tours in which case the cruise company will arrange your visa for you. Or you can arrange your own tour operator, get an invitation from them and manage your own visa.
It all seemed rather confusing, so we went with the cruise ship's tour.
In addition, with that kind of a visa you cannot just get off the ship and wander about at will. You must leave with the tour, remain with the tour and return with the tour. If you return to the ship separate from the tour, you may be taken into one of the immigration offices for an "interview."
We decided it was best to avoid this!
As soon as we had booked on this cruise our first priority was a tour to the Hermitage, the massive, sprawling art museum housed in the former Winter Palace. And on the rainy, dreary morning of our first day, we joined our tour group and headed for the museum.
Often compared to the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage is the biggest draw in St. Petersburg. The museum officially opens at 10:00 am. However, tour groups are allowed to enter an hour earlier.
This makes it slightly less crowded than during the public hours. But as evidenced by these waiting tour buses, not much less crowded!
As you enter the museum you can see the remnants of life from the long ago days of the Russian Czars, such as this grand staircase...
But of course what you are there for is the art...
What surprised us about the Hermitage was the heat and humidity. It was cold and rainy outside. But inside the museum it was so hot that most people had sweat rolling off of them. Of course, this is not good for the precious and rare paintings. When you look at the painintgs, you see in many cases the canvases have become cracked and are not in the best condition. While the museum's curators know this, there is no money to fund climate control and so they do the best they can with what they have.
And the heat is also not the best for the people as well. Indeed, we saw one woman collapse from the heat and exhaustion. Because the museum is huge. When we left (after a 4 hour tour through the huge series of buildings), our tour guide explained that we had walked approximately 3 miles through the museum. She further explained that people do not simply "go to the Hermitage." Rather, they "survive the Hermitage."
After the tour had finished we went back to the ship. Many others had arranged a second tour for the afternoon, but we had taken the afternoon off in order to get ready for our trip to the ballet that evening. After a long shower (remember, we all had "sweat rolling off us!") and some rest, we boarded another tour bus for our trip to the Orchestra of St. Petersburg Conservatoire and a performances of Swan Lake. It was wonderful!
Since we could only go on official tours and could not walk about on our own, we didn't see nearly as much of St. Petersburg as we would have liked. But here are a few shots we managed to get from the tour bus window...