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If you want to do anything other than the ship's tours then use one of the tour companies specialising in St Petersburg tours. To do anything other would be to court expense and disaster. If you look up "St. Petersburg" in the "Find a Question" facility at the top of the page you will get a lot more information. .... Neil.
We cruised with Carnival to St Petes in August/Sept. We booked with a company called Denrus which can be found on the internet. They did everything for us and the 2 day tour was brilliant. Our guide Ludmilla who was a professor of art was so knowledgeable. If you use one of the local companies you do not need a visa, this is built into the cost. I wouldnt advise going it alone as no signs are in english and the underground would be a nightmare. Hope this helps and I know whichever you decide on you will really enjoy yourselves.
It its your first time in St. Petersburg then all you will get is an overview of this fascinating city. Usually ships are there overnight so there are a variety of excursions for both day and evening. My choice would be to go with the ships excursions which can provide a wide variety of experiences. If however you have been there previously and seen the highlights then the likes of Alla Tours and Red October can organise an itinerary based on your needs and schedule. I would not recommend getting a visa and going ashore alone. There are just too many things that can go wrong - the main one being the scale of the city, queues at major sites like the Hermitage and the taxi drivers will most likely rip you off. Russia is a country with a very high degree of corruption with less than successful attempts by the authorities to deal with it.
We used Alla tours in August & they were brilliant. I am sure they are much better than the ones organized by the cruise ships.
It is made as difficult as possible to operate under your own steam so to speak. Most transport around the port is controlled by the Russian mafia. We went on three trips and English speaking guides were supplied in each case. We had entry to the Hermetage art gallery prior to public entry saving the crush and guided around the most interesting paintings in the time available. The ballet was interesting and the guide explained all about the opera and its place in their community. The Summer Palace with its golden fountains was excellent and a 'guard' was provided. I'm not sure if it was to keep an eye on us but we were told it was to protect us from pick pockets. You can 'do it yourself' but I think that unless you know exactly where you want to go and how to get there (unlike European destinations) it is probably much easier to use the laid on trips and you don't need to get your own visa.
We attempted to use local supplier Alla tours but they were unable to offer an economic tour as no body else had booked ( ideal party size would be 6-8). despite thier web site offering fixed price tour this is dependant on enough people booking. Ship tours ok for your first visit but usual restrictions on moving at pace of slowest person etc. and if not high summer the delays booking in all coats and any luggage at main attractions.
Have been to this place and it is wonderful, am going again next year. we went on a tour and glad we did we were told it was advisable. so all in all enjoy yourself, this way you are guaranteed getting back in time to sail.