St. Petersburg, Russian Federation
While NCL has improved the process of getting off the ship on Day 1, it still seems exasperatingly mishandled and slow, and designed to punish passengers who have not overpaid by 3x to take an NCL excursion. This is further amplified by the freedom they give you on Day 2, where the process takes 3-5 minutes. NCL sits you in the theater, and slowly let you flow out, while the whole time blaming Russian authorities. But once you escape from NCL's grasp, St. Petersburg has more to see than you can do in two days, or even four. We were letdown slightly in that the city as a whole seems to be never maintained or kept up. Russians keep fresh flowers planted in boxes lining every street, and let every other aspect of the buildings fall into massive disrepair and needing a coat of paint everywhere you look. It seems that nothing is maintained or cleaned (except for the exquisite Metro stations and The Hermitage). The trek to Pushkin to see Catherine's Palace did not seem worth the long drive. It is also in major disrepair, and we would have more enjoyed staying in town and seeing more of the Hermitage. Church on Spilled Blood is an amazing sight, and quickly seen in 30 minutes. However there is an overall feeling in the city of being oppressed, poor, and our guide had to remind us every 15 minutes to guard our pockets. Even so, we never felt unsafe or saw any signs of pickpockets or similar activity. If you don't have your own Russian visa, you have to take a paid excursion. We used Best Guides, and we were completely pleased with them. We paid $210 each for two days and hit all of the big highlights including lunch, and had 10 people in the group transported in a new, clean Mercedes van. Our driver pretty much parked at the front door everywhere we went, and we had early entry in Hermitage, Catherine's Palace, Peterhof, Spilled Blood Cathedral, etc. We never waited for more than 5 minutes to get in anywhere, and beat the crowds. At some sights where we walked right in, we saw literally 400 people or more in line to get in who we skipped right past. NCL excursions were 3-4x more costly, and you were on a big bus with 50-60 other people.