A very frequently asked question is what is the best way to travel from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, or how to travel without a visa between those cities. Well, to travel from Helsinki to St. Petersburg you have up to five different options: plane, train, boat, bus and car. I’ll tell you what is the best (and the cheapest) way to travel between the two capitals and what type of visa you need in each case. I’ll also explain how you can travel without a visa.
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0. A getaway to St. Petersburg from Helsinki
Many tourists traveling to Helsinki (Finland) choose to take a trip for one or several days to visit St. Petersburg. The proximity of the two cities (a distance of about 390 kilometers) makes it ideal to visit St. Petersburg, the Russian capital of the north.
In this regard, the Russian government has been implementing simplified visa regimes to facilitate visits by tourists arriving in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region:
- First, the 72-hour visa exemption was implemented for all tourists worldwide, though only for those arriving on a cruise or by ferry.
- More recently, on October 1, 2019, the electronic St. Petersburg visa was launched. It allows entry by plane, bus, boat or car to citizens of 53 (mainly European) countries for a period of 8 days. At the moment it’s not possible to travel by train to St. Petersburg with the electronic visa.
In this article I’ll explain what is the best (and the cheapest) way to travel between Helsinki and St. Petersburg and what type of visa you need in each case (or how to travel without a visa).
Some preliminary issues to take into account:
- The personal information you provide when booking any means of transportation is sent to the border authorities and must match exactly the information in your passport. Be careful not to make an error because customs officials are very strict about this.
- Petersburg is 1 hour ahead of Helsinki. If it’s now 19:40 in Helsinki, in St. Petersburg it will be 20:40.
- There are some nationalities that do not need a visa to enter Russia (South American countries, many former USSR countries, etc.)
- Finland’s currency is the euro while the currency you will need in St. Petersburg is the ruble, so you will have to do a currency exchange in order to make purchases, either in cash or by card.
- In this article you have an example of an itinerary to use in St. Petersburg (and surroundings) in 1, 2, 3 or 4 days.
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each form of transportation.
1. FERRY OR CRUISE: visiting St. Petersburg without a visa (or with an electronic visa)
The only way to visit St. Petersburg from Helsinki without a visa is by boat. In addition to the cruises that make a stop in St. Petersburg, it is also possible to take a direct ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and vice versa without a visa.
The trip is made by the St. Peter Line – Moby company on a night cruise that leaves Helsinki at 18:00 p.m. or 19:00 hrs. and arrives in St. Petersburg around 9:00 a.m. You can buy a round trip ticket for a price that ranges between 120 and 300 euros (including sleeping berth), depending on the time of year.
St. Peter Line ferries from Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn dock at the St. Petersburg terminal located at Ploshchad ’Morskoy Slavy. You have to take a bus to get downtown in about 25 minutes.
You may enter St. Petersburg without a visa for a 72-hour period, although you must satisfy a number of conditions such as booking a guided tour or presenting hotel reservations in case you are staying in the city. You can find the detailed conditions at this link: https://stpeterline.com/visa-free-rule.
However, for citizens of 53 (especially European) countries, it is much easier to apply for an electronic visa that allows a stay of up to 8 days and does not require you to book any guided tour.
Finally, I must also mention the possibility of traveling by ferry from Lappeenranta (Finland) to St. Petersburg or Vyborg (Russia) with Saimaa Travel on the M/S Carelia. It also allows you to travel with the 72-hour visa exemption by booking a package tour or using an electronic visa.
2. TRAIN: The fastest and most comfortable way
The next option for traveling from Helsinki to St. Petersburg is on the high-speed Allegro train. For me this is the best option for traveling between the two capitals for several reasons:
- It is a very comfortable train (it has WIFI, outlets and a restaurant car).
- Departs from Helsinki Central Station (Kluuvi, in the heart of the city) and arrives at Petersburg’s Finljandsky Station (also quite central).
- Make the journey in about in about 3 and a half hours
- It has 4 departures daily from Helsinki and 4 return trips from St. Petersburg. You can go and return in 1 day leaving early and returning on the last train (although this can be a bit too much).
- It makes several stops in Finnish cities and towns before reaching its destination, so you can see the landscape as you go.
- Not at all expensive: round trip around 90 euros in second class (more expensive if you choose first class). Keep in mind that prices may vary depending on the season and how long in advance the booking is made.
To travel with this train you need a traditional visa. At the moment it is not possible to travel by train to St. Petersburg with an electronic visa, since border controls on trains are carried out on the move and the Russian authorities do not yet have the necessary technological equipment. However, the plan is to implement electronic visa control on all trains in 2021.
Train tickets may be purchased on both the Russian Railways official website RZD and on the official Finnish website VR. The price on both websites is the same (I’ve checked it on more than one occasion), although on the Russian website you pay in rubles and on the Finnish website you pay in euros (but if you do the conversion the price is the same).
Another train that I haven’t mentioned that also makes the trip between Helsinki and St. Petersburg is the Tolstoy train that leaves Helsinki and arrives at the Leningradsky station in Moscow with a stop at the St. Petersburg Ladozhsky Station (and vice versa). There is a once daily departure from Helsinki (at 17:44 hrs.) and another from Moscow (at 6:01).
The problem is that the Tolstoy train trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg lasts 6 and half hours and the return trip takes 7 and a half. The only advantage this has is that it also offers cars with bunk beds (although these compartments are more designed for those who are traveling all the way to Moscow).
3. BUS: The cheapest way
This is the cheapest way to travel between Helsinki and St. Petersburg (about 30 euros round trip), although the trip is longer than by train (between 7 and 8 hours). You can enter St. Petersburg using an electronic o traditional visa.
You can buy tickets on the Infobus website. There are many daily departures on both day and night buses.
You can choose between:
- The more comfortable Eurolines or Ecolines buses that leave the central Kamppi bus station in Helsinki and arrive at the St. Petersburg bus station (Obvodniy channel embankment, 38), on the outskirts of the city.
- The minibuses of the Skandinavia TK company (faster, but less comfortable) that leave the Helsinki Metro station “Kampe” and the Maritime Bus stations and arrive at number 10 Ligovsky Avenue, in front of the Moskovsky Train Station in St. Petersburg.
4. CAR: own or rental vehicle
Another option for going from Helsinki to St. Petersburg is by car, either your own car or a rental vehicle. Note that not all car rental companies allow you to cross the border from Finland to Russia.
If you go in your own car or in an RV you have to take into account that you will need car insurance with coverage in Russian territory and to have the technical documentation for the vehicle, as well as a valid international driver’s license. You will also need a traditional or electronic visa.
Of course, gas is very cheap in Russia, which is why many Finns cross the border to fill up their tanks in Russia.
The fastest route between Helsinki and St. Petersburg is about 390 kilometers, lasting about 4 and half hours (there are some tolls). I recommend that you stay in a hotel with parking and forget about the car for visiting the city.
The car, however, will be useful for sight-seeing around the city, such as a visit to the Peterhof Gardens or Catherine Palace.
5. PLANE: is fast, but airports are far from downtown
Finally, the flight between Helsinki’s Vantaa Airport and St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport takes just 1 hour and the round trip ticket may range between 150 and 200 euros on Finnair, depending on the time of year.
However, the following must be taken into account:
- To travel by air, you must be at the airport at least 1 hour in advance to do baggage check-in and paperwork.
- The Helsinki and St. Petersburg airports are located on the outskirts of the city so you have to use another means of transport (bus or train) to go downtown.
This means that it may take at least 4 hours from the time you go out the door of your accommodation in Helsinki until you enter the door of your accommodation in St. Petersburg.
If you opt for traveling by plane, I recommend that you use the Momondo flight comparator to find the best flight.
To travel by plane you will also need to carry a passport with a visa, whether traditional or electronic.
In my opinion, the most comfortable and fastest way to travel from Helsinki to St. Petersburg is the Allegro train, while the cheapest is by bus.
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