CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE
Part one of this article told you about visiting St. Petersburg on a Baltic cruise. Check that out and then read this article!
Regardless of how you tour, there is a long list of common tour stops. You’ll see many of the same sites no matter which tour you take. The order of destinations and the length of time at each site will vary. Here is a run-down with brief explanation of the most common stops.
Sites included in our two-day “Best of St. Petersburg” tour:
Hermitage Museum, Winter Palace
Enormous is not a big enough word to describe this museum. 3 million pieces of art displayed in more than 1,000 rooms fill this famous museum. The collection began with Catherine the Great and the heart of the museum is her Winter Palace. The museum is housed in connected palaces and other buildings that once belonged to Russian royalty and aristocracy. No visit can do the entire museum justice, but it’s a site not to be missed. On a highlight tour visitors will see the major works of art by the masters such as da Vinci and Michelangelo.
This museum strangely has no air conditioning, which makes you wonder about the preservation of the artwork. During the tourist season – which is also the cruising season – there are always going to be lines and crowds here.
Peter and Paul Fortress
This star shaped fortress is built on an island in the Neva River. In the center of the fortress is the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral with a tall, narrow, golden spire. The cathedral is the resting place for many of the czars and their families, including the last Russian Czar Nicholas II and his family, including the American favorite Anastasia. Amusingly, there are also a pair of cats who roam the cathedral freely.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
This church was built on the site of the assassination of Alexander II (hence the “spilled blood” name). The church is intricately beautiful on both the inside and outside. The outside has many colorful onion domes and looks typically Russian, reminiscent of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Inside, every wall, niche and domed ceiling is covered in beautiful mosaic icons. Lapis blue and gold tiles tell stories from the Russian Orthodox faith.
For me, this was the most impressive site in St. Petersburg. My advice: make sure your tour includes this site, but I can’t imagine any tour of the city that wouldn’t. You’ll hear this church called several different names.
If the Church on the Spilled Blood was the most impressive site inside the city, the Peterhof Palace was the most impressive site outside the city. It’s located 30 kilometers outside of the city on the Golf of Finland. Some tour groups arrive by hydrofoil, the fastest way. The inside of the palace is accessible with a tour only (and it was the only site we visited where photos were not allowed), but the palace grounds are the best part.
Each day at 1100 a chute is opened and water is channeled from a reservoir above the grounds, through a labyrinth of fountains and drained out into the Golf. This is called the Great Cascade. Being there when the water first flows and the fountains spring to life was incredible. Music is played as the water hits the biggest display nearest the palace and everyone gathers to watch.
Legend says that Alexander Nevsky stood at the banks of the Neva looked towards the distant Russian cities of Novgorod and Moscow and took in the prospective – the scene. His line of site later became the path of the street named for him: The Nevsky Prospekt. Today this uncommonly long and straight street is the upscale shopping district of St. Petersburg.
I hope they don’t make me turn in my woman card for saying this, but upscale shopping doesn’t do anything for me. First of all, even if I could afford it, what makes that purse, scarf, watch, shoe, fill-in-the-blank, better than the version with a price tag shorterned by several digits? Secondly, once you’ve hit this district you could be anywhere. Singapore, New York, Paris, Tokyo, St. Petersburg, Milan, each has the same brand of stores selling the same stuff. Kinda boring. Rant done. Back to the other sites.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Rounding out the best-known churches in St. Petersburg is St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Its golden dome can be seen throughout the city and its style is different from both the Spilled Blood and St. Peter’s and Paul churches. It is now a museum although one small area is still used for religious services. Take a careful look at the outside. Bullet holes and other war wounds from WWII are still visible. Inside, the scale is massive.
The Canals, boat tour
St. Petersburg was built on a boggy marshland, which was valuable because of its location as a port. Many canals were built to funnel water into the Neva River. A boat tour of the canals helped us to get oriented. There are some great picture opportunities from the boat and the bridges are uniquely designed pieces of art themselves.
The Russian royals weren’t the only ones with palaces. In it’s heyday St. Petersburg’s aristocracy showed its wealth by constructing elaborate dwellings. They are now in various states: remodeled into apartments and other dwellings, restaurants, hotels, museums; others are ruined and are either slated to be torn down or already gone; and in a few cases you can see them restored to their former glory.
The Yusopov Palace gained its place in the history books as the site of Rasputin’s murder. Downstairs you can see the former “man cave” where Rasputin was invited for a drink by Yusopov. That drink was poisoned, but didn’t quite do the job. In the end Rasputin was poisoned, shot and finally drowned in the icy canal in front of the Palace. Meanwhile upstairs, the fine house has been the site of many soirées. It has ceilings made of porcelain and its own private theater with box seats for the czar.
Here are some other common sites that we didn’t see on our trip and tour:
The Bronze Horseman
This equestrian statue of Peter the Great is a landmark of St. Petersburg. You see in on postcards, shot glasses, and all other kinds of touristy trinkets. That’s how you know it’s legit. Ha! Like all things Russian, it’s huge!
A Ballet or opera performance
The Mariinsky Theater is famous for its ballet and performances of Swan Lake by St. Petersburg’s Tchaikovsky. St. Petersburg also has a thriving opera scene. If you love ballet or only want to go to the ballet once in your life, it could be argued that this is the place to do it. Only we didn’t. Why? It came down to two concerns. First, we had two very long days of touring and the ballet would have come after the first day of touring and the night before the second day. Each day our tour lasted for eight to ten hours. Was adding on going to be too much? Would we even enjoy rushing back, dressing up and coming back late? Our second concern was one of quality. The Mariinsky ballet coup travels during the summer and we would not be seeing their top string, but only the students of the ballet. Yes, talent is needed at even this level, but we wouldn’t have the full experience.
Was it the best decision? I think that varies from person to person, but I thought I’d lay our reasoning out there for you. Back on board the cruise ship, we enjoyed a live folkloric music and dance performance by Russian performers and an early night so that we could go out and see more the next day.
Other museums, cathedrals & palaces
Like any large city in the world, there are many churches and museums. If you are especially interested in music, any era of Russian history, ships or many other things, there are museums devoted to that topic in St. Petersburg. There are specialty tours that explore the city’s metro, or using Russian poetry as your guide to the city. There are more churches, cathedrals, shrines, synagogues and other religious sites. I mentioned the Yusopov Palace, but it is one of many palaces open for visit. Various sites may be added to different itineraries based on what’s open or closed, crowed or sparse.
If you have a special interest that isn’t met by a general tour, then a private company is the way for you to go. You can arrange a tour that specifically meets your interests. Remember smaller groups may mean higher prices.
Catherine Palace, Amber Room
Like the Peterhof, this palace is outside of the main city. The main attraction here is the Amber Room or Amber Chamber. It was made using amber backed with gold leaf and mirrors. It was originally was installed in the Charlottenburg Palace in Germany. Later, it was gifted to Peter the Great and it found a new home in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called at that time). During WWII it was looted and once again returned to Germany, but was never recovered after the war. In 2003 they finished reconstructing the Amber Room, and it now visited at the Catherine Palace.
Final thoughts about St. Petersburg
If you thought everything is big in Texas, you should try Russia. It’s the largest country in the world and size means something here. If a million Rubles could buy a huge mansion – so big that you can’t heat it in the winter without clearing the forest – or you could buy an exquisite, but smaller palace, we came away with the feeling that a Russian would go big every time, at the sake of cutting some corners.
I once heard someone say, “If you expected it to be like where you are from, you shouldn’t have left home.” Pretty awesome advice! Traveling should make you feel like you’ve left home. There are some things in St. Petersburg that left us shaking our heads. We were shaking our head in confusion why there was no humidity or temperature control in the Hermitage – how long will those pieces of art survive in front of a window? We were shaking our heads in wonder at the mosaics in the Church on the Spilled Blood and at the incredible fountain show at Peterhof. Nope, we were not at home.