Visiting Russia had been high on our ‘one day’ bucket list so when we knew the Sea Princess world cruise would include 2 days in St Petersburg we were more than excited.
The Best of St Petersburg was the title of our ship’s tour, and what an incredible two days we had, crammed with wonder after wonder.
Booking the two day ship’s tour in St Petersburg meant we didn’t need to organise our own visas for Russia, which was a weight off our minds. This has been the only port so far where we needed to go through passport control and immigration, but it was relatively easy and only took around 15 minutes each time.
A bit of potted history
St Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great following Russia’s victory in a war with Sweden when the land on which St Petersburg is situated was won back by Russia.
Peter I had ambitious plans for St Petersburg to become the symbol of a new era of Russian history and he resolved to create a northern paradise on the marshy land along the Neva River.
The city has had a tumultuous history and was ruled by the Tsars for more than 200 years. Following the outbreak of the First World War St Petersburg changed its name to Petrograd moving from the Germanic name back to a Russian name.
However, following the abrupt and bloody end to Tsar rule in 1918 with the execution of the last Tsar Nicholas II, along with his wife and five children, the communists renamed the city Leningrad.
Following the demise of communism and the end of the Soviet era in the early 1990’s the people of the city voted to change the name back to its original name St Petersburg.
The itinerary of day one included a one hour drive out to Peterhof (Peter the Great’s Grand Palace is considered to be similar to Versailles in France) and on the drive there we were able to view aspects of tumultuous Russian history – including an old Russian tank we espied which we were told is a monument to the outer Russian defence of Leningrad during the Second World War when the Germans laid siege to the city for 872 days and millions of Russians died of starvation.
The drive also took us past acre upon acre, wave upon wave, of utilitarian blocks of Soviet Union flats which were rapidly constructed in the Soviet years to house the populace. Many of these 1970’s blocks of flats appeared in poor condition and in states of great disrepair.
On the other hand there were also areas of new luxury apartments heralding in the new era of the Russian Federation and open market capitalism.
Peterhof Palace and Gardens
At Peterhof we first visited the sumptuous palace and were knocked sideways by the extravagance and opulence within its walls.
Everywhere glittered with chandeliers, everything seemed gilded with gold leaf. There was silk, priceless art and exquisitely crafted antique furniture – the excesses were mind blowing.
How could something like this exist, we wondered, what point could it possibly have? For to think about the place as a person’s home built to impress was quite sickening when we know that at the same time the population all around was starving.
But to view it now as a piece of art is uplifting as it provides a work of great beauty, and a contrast to mundane day to day life. It’s stunningly beautiful in its construction, execution and detail, and of course the wonderful gardens and fountains add to the idea of the palace being a fantastic piece of man made art.
Perhaps for us the highlight of Peterhof were the gardens, in particular the lower gardens. From the terrace of the main palace the view of the lower gardens is spectacular as you gaze out along the canal that links the palace to the Baltic Sea.
This canal was used by Peter I to access his resplendent home, as it was quicker and more comfortable to travel from St Petersburg by sea than by carriage. Even today many of the day tours to Peterhof are by hydrofoil from St Petersburg.
The gardens are home to a multitude of impressive, quirky and humorous fountains and we spent a glorious hour in rare sunshine exploring them.
“St Petersburg experiences precipitation, rain or snow, on average 250 days of the year and has only around 30 sunny days a year,” our guide Irina explained to us.
“I don’t like the weather in St Petersburg where temperatures can drop to -15 degrees in one day. I don’t like the corruption which is universal across the country, and I don’t like the private car drivers because they don’t obey the rules of the road,” Irina said explaining her pet hates.
That our stay in St Petersburg co-incided with two sunny days was very special!
The Great Cascade
Irina ensured that we were back on the palace terrace with good vantage points for photography by 11am prompt, when Russian classical music blared out as the main fountain, The Great Cascade, was switched on.
It was like a scene from Disneyland with thousands of people all around.
Oh, I posted a video of this event on Instagram at Lifestyle Fifty
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The Spit of Vasilyevsky
We then headed back to the main city and had a short stop to view The Spit of Vasilyevsky Island.
For 100 years the island was the site of the city’s port. On the tip of the island stands a pair of Rostral columns symbols of Russia’s dominion over the sea.
The torches on the columns no longer light the way for sailors, hurriedly unloading their ships on dark autumn evenings but are ignited on public holidays as part of the cities festive illuminations.
The Church on Spilled Blood
Called Church of the Resurrection this church took 23 years to build.
“It’s situated on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on 1st March 1881,” Irina told us, ushering us in hushed horror to the very place, covered by a carriage canopy, where, “He had his legs blown off. He lay there bleeding to death on those uncovered cobbles, right there,” she said with a flourish of her pinwheel guiding flag.
Irina knew how to capture the group’s attention.
The five cupolas that top the church are covered with bright enamels and gold leaf and provide an amazing sight while the outside of the brick structure is decorated with bright mosaics and coloured tiles.
However, as spectacular as the church is from the outside when you walk inside your breath is sucked from your lungs because the entire interior of the church from floor to ceiling is covered in the most splendid and colourful mosaics.
There are 308 mosaics with a total area of 6560 square meters – a true artistic and cultural treasure.
It’s hard to comprehend that The Soviet’s considered that this church had no artistic value and in fact wanted to demolish it. However, some prominent people understanding the true value of the building were able to convince the authorities to spare it and instead it was used to store potatoes.
Subsequently the restoration of the mosaics, by students of fine art, was a true labour of love to bring them back to former glory.
Our next stop was some well deserved lunch! After an arduous morning we were pleasantly surprised to find that the first course was a generous shot of Russian vodka!
St Isaac’s Cathedral
That afternoon we headed to St Isaac’s Square and from there to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral which Irina told us took 44 years to build and can house 14,000 people either standing or kneeling.
St Isaac’s Cathedral (1818-1858) is a monument to Tsar Nicholas I, and is the fourth highest domed cathedral in the world after St Peter’s Basilica, St Paul’s in London and Santa Maria dei Fiori in Florence. It has a huge cupola (dome) made of gold.
“It stands at a height of 101.5 meters and is the highest architectural point in the city,” explained Irina, “though during the war it was used as a storage place.”
The interior of the cathedral is so huge it’s hard to take in all at once. As we looked up, and up to the highest level we saw sculptures on the uppermost levels, and our guide explained more…
“Those sculptures are more than 2 metres hight and yet from where we stand they look like dolls, don’t they? Such is the immensity of the structure. And the chandeliers weigh over 2.5 tonnes each. Over 800 lbs of gold were used in the cathedral, and everything that looks like gold is gold. The 3 sets of double entry doors weigh over 20 tons each and are only used on special occasions – even the Tsars would use side doors because they took so many men to push them open.”
“During the siege of Leningrad the heating of the cathedral had to be turned off and because of the harsh winters thick layers of ice developed froze to the walls – up to one metre in thickness. This ice remained for almost three years and only after the siege ended was the cathedral re-opened and miraculously it was find that the priceless paintings and mosaics had not been damaged,” Irina told us.
St Peter and Paul’s Fortress and Cathedral
Our final excitement for the day was a visit to St Peter and Paul’s Fortress and the Cathedral, which sits within it.
The Belfry together with the gilded spire is an iconic landmark of the city and stands at a height of 122.5 meters with a figure of an angel atop the spire.
The fortress never served as a direct military purpose but had a dark side as it was used as a prison and torture chamber for political prisoners during the Tsars rule.
The cathedral houses tombs and Royal graves – from Peter the Great to the common grave housing the remains of the Family of the last Tsar Nicholas II (and several of his loyal household members) who were shot in 1917.
At the end of our tour we were ushered into a small chapel where we sat self-consciously in front of four straight-faced men dressed in black robes, whom we soon learned were members of the church’s choir’ – a Russian Orthodox acappella men’s choir.
“Please do not clap at the end of the performance,” we were advised, “as it upsets the acoustics.” And as the performance unfolded we understood the meaning of this as the acoustics were incredible.
As they began to sing, the hairs on the back of my neck started prickling, my eyes started watering and a feeling of holy reverence swept over me. It’s hard to remember any time in my life when I’ve listened to something more beautiful or humbling.
And yes, those acoustics. Nobody clapped. But we did buy their CD!
Wow, what a day!
As we arrived back at the ship we thought back on all that we’d seen that day and how magnificent it had been.
We were impressed to find out that some of our group intended to go out that evening to watch a performance of Swan Lake at a Russian theatre.
Instead we chose to watch an excellent live Russian folkloric performance in the Princess Theatre on Sea Princess – a lively, colourful and humorous show.
As we walked back to our Stateroom after the show the sun was still up, and it was 10.30 at night.
We closed the curtains as the sun went down and reflected on the fantastic day we’d had.
We were up bright and early on Day 2 ready for a full day ahead.
As all the members of our bus tour were up bright and early too Irina was able to direct the bus driver to depart early at 6.40am so that we could add an extra sight to our itinerary, which was an early morning stop at Palace Square which dominates the historical centre of St Petersburg.
Because we were so early, and it was Sunday morning the square was deserted and it was such a pleasant time to be able to stroll around, take in the environment, and take some photographs without anyone else in them!
The Palace Square looks onto the back of the Winter Palace and is also home to Alexander Column. This huge granite column is topped by an angel holding a cross with the face of Alexander.
From here we took a one hour boat trip along the Neva River and down some of the smaller canals.
This was a real highlight of our stay in St Petersburg. An early morning on the water in glorious sunshine afforded us an excellent way to see the historic sights of the city from another perspective and we passed mansions and palaces of the nobility.
As we set off we had excellent views of the Winter Palace (above), the yellow Admiralty building with its white columns and golden spire, the Museum of Freaks (where people used to be given a shot of vodka to gird them for what they would see), The Spit of Vasilievsky, Peter and Paul’s Fortress and Cathedral, Senate Square and the Church on Spilled Blood and to make everything more sparkly, we were treated to a lovely glass of champagne to sip during the tour.
The Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 consists of 4 buildings, one of which is the stunning Winter Palace, “Which once had over 1000 rooms,” Irina told us, “Come we’ll go into Catherine the Great’s living quarters where she died.”
We walked up the impressive main staircase into the main throne room, little throne room, had views across the river through huge windows, saw Catherine the Great’s courtyard garden, and were wowed by the extravagances of gold of the amazing chandeliers, the ornate parquet floors, and the treasures.
The Winter Palace viewed from Palace Square,below.
Tip: On our tours we’ve found that guides are very aware of what’s going on around you, and are able to provide advice from warnings about pick pockets in the vicinity, to knowing when best to view a particular room in a museum or palace when there’s likely to be minimal congestion.
In very large museums like The Hermitage in St Petersburg, having a guide who is able to direct you to the highlights of the museum is most helpful. The Hermitage houses more than 2 million exhibits and if you looked at each one for 1 minute a day over an 8 hour day, you would need around 11 years to see the entire collection!
Due to Irina’s great planning (in the two hours we had available at The Hermitage) we were able to get to the most impressive rooms at the Winter Palace (above) and saw so many works by the Masters, including Reubens, Van Dyk and Rembrandt (including The Return of the Prodigal Son, and Portrait of Old Man in Red). We saw the Leonardo Da Vinci paintings (Maddona and bird, Maddona and flower), Michelangelo’s sculpture, the sculpture of Voltaire, and the Peacock Clock among so many other impressive, very famous, priceless works of art.
There are marble floors, moulded ceilings, gilded ceilings, a room full of malachite, beautiful vases, carved wooden doors, polished doors with bronze inlay and turtle shells, concert rooms, throne rooms and various exhibitions.
It was mind boggling.
With our minds full of art, and our heads befuddled from following the flag in a crowded place we were all looking forward to lunch, which again started with the obligatory shot of vodka. Today we were served what we would consider traditional fare including (beet) borshch soup and stroganoff.
Our next destination was the infamous Yusopov Palace, the place where Rasputin was poisoned shot, stabbed and finally murdered. He was born in Siberia and the son of a groom and gained notoriety as a casanova and a healer and gained favour with the Royal family.
Below is a spooky recreated wax scene of his final meeting with Felix in the basement of the palace before he died.
During the time of the Tsars the Yusupov’s were the second richest family in Russia after the royal Romanovs. They had Muslim origins but converted to the Orthodox faith. This palace was really interesting as you had an insight into what it was like to live during the times of Imperial Russia. Rooms were decorated and left as they once were before the family fled to France during the Communist revolt.
The palace was only opened to the public 35 years ago and you have to be on a pre-arranged tour to visit. The photos of the inhabitants which line a downstairs corridor were particularly interesting and I wondered where their ancestors might be now.
Pearls and Palaces
One can only imagine what it was like to live in St Petersburg during the Imperial reign when it housed one of the highest densities of palaces in Europe.
“There are over 200 palaces,” Irina told us, some of which we’d seen strung out like jewels around the suburbs.
The huge divide between the haves and have nots must have been incomprehensible at the time, and the hardships of Russian serfs must have been terrible.
My imagination took hold, and I daydreamed about walking along the Nevsky Prospect (St Perersburg’s main street) with brightly illuminated palaces and carriages arriving for parties with beautifully dressed men and women stepping out from them.
It couldn’t have been a more different world to the impoverished existence and hardships of the Russian peasants in the countryside.
It was no surprise (as was the case in France) why the people struck out and revolted against these excesses and the existence of the wealthy Tsars.
Yusopov Palace even housed its own private theatre built over three floors with an array of private boxes to indulge the lady of the house who had aspirations of being an actress but because of her high position it wasn’t considered appropriate to be involved in the acting profession. So to play out her dreams a theatre in the style of the Opera House was built inside the palace.
It’s a beautiful room with ornate private boxes, rich red velvet upholstery and curtains, and antique chairs set in neat rows. Quite incredible!
Shop ‘til we dropped
Our final stop on our whirlwind 2-day tour was to have the opportunity to shop for Russian souvenirs and we were taken to a spacious and well stocked emporium jam-packed with glittering artefacts from Faberge eggs to Amber to Russian Dolls.
Surprise Surprise! On entry everyone was greeted with a shot of vodka after which the men had the option to retire to the bar to enjoy free tea or coffee (or something stronger!) while the ladies got into gear, and enjoyed some retail therapy, Russian style!
We came away with an assortment of well priced nikky-nacky-noos – typical Russian gifts for family and friends.
What an incredible, mind boggling, illuminating, exciting, informative two days we’d had in St Petersburg.
There is much much more to see of course, but in the time we had we really felt we’d gained a great overview of the city, it’s history and it’s amazing sights.
How lucky we were to have these two days!
As we sailed away that evening the citizens of St Petersburg had flocked to the waterside and were enjoying the late evening sun on the small sandy beaches that bordered the terminal.
We, on the other hand, considered ourselves fortunate to be waving goodbye from the pool deck on Sea Princess as we set forth for Tallin, Estonia.
Fast Facts, Tips, and Curious Trivia
5 million inhabitants of St Petersburg. 8.5 million if you count surrounding suburbs.
St Peter the Great slept only 4 hours a night.
There are 68 rivers and canals in St Petersburg.
Beware of pick pockets in crowded places especially.
Get up early on a Saturday or Sunday and see the city without crowds of people.
A canal cruise is well worth your time.
Don’t get involved with street vendors – they can be helping pick pockets.
14 million people go through the Hermitage Museum per year.
Disclaimer: I’m a guest of Princess Cruises, but all opinions are my own.