Best Travel Options from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg
Helsinki and Saint Petersburg are only separated by approximately 300 km (185 mi) of the Baltic Sea. Helsinki is a nice place to visit for those people in Saint Petersburg because it offers a lot of shopping and is a gateway to the rest of Europe. For visitors and residents of Finland, Saint Petersburg is a wonderful place to visit, even just for a few days. Saint Petersburg is Russia’s second-most populous city, and it is a gentle introduction to Russia for foreigners because it is the most "European" of Russian cities.
From Helsinki to Saint Petersburg and reverse, you have a number of options: by (1) ferry, (2) bus, (3) train and (4) plane. You can also drive yourself, or use a ride-sharing service like BlaBlaCar, though these aren’t covered here.
Your options for visiting Russia from Helsinki depend on if you have a visa or not. Russia has a fairly restrictive visa policy, so a visa is likely required unless you’re from most South / Central America, or some former Soviet states. You can get an overview of the visa requirements for Russia from the Wikipedia on it.
Going Visa-Free via Ferry
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Without a Russia visa, foreigners can visit Russia for 72 hours if entering by boat or cruise and if they are part of an "organized excursion group". In 72 hours you can just barely hit all of the tourist spots in Saint Petersburg.
From Helsinki book a return ticket on St Peter Line's ferry between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg. Is is the only scheduled passenger ferry between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg which can get you the 72 hours visa-free. The Princess Anastasia ferry departs Helsinki in the evening, and arrives in Saint Petersburg the next morning. You have 72 hours from the time of clearing passport control. This isn’t enough time to make a trip to Moscow (around 650km) practical, however there are plenty of things to see in Saint Petersburg.
The Princess Anastasia runs a two-week schedule across the Baltic Sea departing (with some exceptions) Helsinki for Saint Petersburg Thursday and Friday the first week and Wednesday, Friday and Sunday the second week. The ferry actually loops around the Baltic Sea in this rotation visiting Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, Stockholm and Helsinki. An overview of the exact schedule for M/S Princess Anastasia can be found here, and additionally by searching for ferries on FerryScan.
Getting the Russian Visa
If you wish to explore more of Russia than only Saint Petersburg, then you will need a visa to enter the Russian Federation. As a tourist, you can explore Saint Petersburg and Moscow easily for over a week each, and also there are plenty of other places to see besides the two largest cities. Depending on your nationality, the visa process will be easier or harder, but still rewarding.
By Train from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg
If you have a Russian visa, the easiest way by far to reach Saint Petersburg from Helsinki is by the Allegro train. The journey takes 3.5 hours, the trains are nice, and customs and immigration is handled on-board while the train is moving. Officials from Finland board the train and clear you to leave the country. They then get off, the train crosses the border between Russia and Finland, and new Russian officials board the train and take care of immigration for Russia before reaching Saint Petersburg.
Schedules and information for the train between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg can be found here.
By Bus from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg
The cheapest way to travel between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg (unless you are driving yourself) is to take a bus. There are at least two operators, Ecolines and LUX Express, but there may be more semi-official operators available to book, especially if you know the Russian language. The journey takes 7-8 hours, with the border crossing being more of a hassle because everybody has to go through the border-crossing formalities for each country before the bus can go. However with tickets from 10 euros, this is an extremely cheap way to reach Saint Petersburg.
By Plane from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg
Flying is always an option between Helsinki and Saint Petersburg. It is not recommended because the train is cheaper, much more comfortable, and almost the same duration when you factor-in the time to reach the airport, check your bags, wait for the flight etc.
If you would like to visit Saint Petersburg from Helsinki and you don’t have a visa or don’t want to get one, then the only possibility is to take a "visa-free" cruise with St. Peter Lines which will give you 72 hours to explore Saint Petersburg. For those with a visa who are looking for the cheapest option, then the bus is the best route. Otherwise, those with a visa and a more flexible budget can enjoy the Allegro train from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg.