Highlights of two days spent in St. Petersburg, Russia while on a family cruise of Northern Europe.
One of the highlights of our family cruise in the Baltics was the two days that we spent in St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg, which is built on the delta of the Neva River, was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 and transformed from swampland into the capital that has become one of the most intriguing and historically significant cities in Europe today. In the new millennium, St. Petersburg is becoming a modern, rapidly growing city whose citizens are very optimistic about their future.
We were all looking forward to visiting St. Petersburg, however, my 6 year-old was thrilled to finally set foot on Russian soil. Emma had started telling us when she was 3 years old that she wanted to go to Russia and China (thanks, in part, to Dora the Explorer’s World Adventures) and here she was at 6 years of age fulfilling part of that goal.
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Planning for St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg was slightly more complicated to visit than the other ports on our cruise because, with some limited exceptions, any non-Russian national wishing to enter the Russian Federation must bear a valid Russian Visa. Practically, this means that if you book a tour either with your cruise ship or with a certified independent tour operator then they will do the paperwork for your Visa but if you want to explore the city on your own then you will need to apply for a Visa yourself several months prior to your trip.
We chose to book a two-day private tour through a Russian tour operator which, at the time, was called Anastasia’s Tours. We had a wonderful two days with our guide, Anna and our driver, Anton. Anna was an absolutely charming, highly educated guide who was fluent in both English and French. She had an in-depth knowledge of Russian history and was able to share it in such a way that she kept the girls interested as well. Emma, in particular, was so enamoured of the glamorous Anna that both of them shed a few tears when it was time to say goodbye at the end of the second day.
Arrival in St. Petersburg
Anna and Anton picked us up at the port on the morning of our first day to begin our sightseeing in St. Petersburg. We stopped first for a walk along the embankment of the Neva River while Anna enlightened us on some of St. Petersburg’s fascinating history.
The views of the Winter Palace from this side of the river were amazing and we had to stop to rub the heads of the gryphons which are said to bring good luck. From this spot along the river we also had great views of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul.
We then left the city to drive to the Tsarskoe Selo estate, which is part of the town of Pushkin, where a magnificent palace and gardens were established as a summer retreat for the tsars. The town was originally called Tsarskoe Selo as well but was renamed in 1937 in honour of Russia’s national poet.
Catherine’s Palace was named for Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, but it was their daughter, Elizabeth, who decided to lavishly redesign the palace in order to rival Versailles. It is said that it took more than 100 kg of gold to decorate the palace’s exteriors and the interiors are every bit as spectacular.
This palace is a very popular tourist attraction as people line up for the mandatory guided tour, particularly to see the Amber Room. This was one of the instances when having our private guide proved invaluable as the crowds inside the palace were unbelievable. Anna, however, managed to maneuver us through each room quickly, all the time making excuses to the palace staff that we had a “baby” with us and without fail they let us move ahead of the slow-moving lines and see the Palace in record time. Emma was quite impressed by some of the Palace rooms, however, she was much happier outside the palace away from the crushing crowds.
From Puskhin we drove to the estate of Peterhof to see The Great Palace and the extravagant fountains and landscaped gardens originally commissioned by Peter the Great.
The Grand Cascade is the most impressive of the fountains, descending from the terraces of the Great Palace, through the estate and finally out to the Gulf of Finland.
I found it most impressive that all of the fountains at Peterhof operate without pumps. They were designed so that natural spring water would collect in reservoirs in the upper gardens and the elevation difference would create the pressure needed to run the fountains. The kids didn’t care about the engineering feat but we had a lovely afternoon walking in the gardens and admiring the many fountains.
Shopping in St. Petersburg
Day 2 of our St. Petersburg tour started with a shopping trip. We had told Anna that Katie and Emma both wanted to buy matryoshka nesting dolls while we were there so she and Anton took us directly to a shop before starting our day of touring. Both of the girls purchased a set of the nesting dolls for themselves as well as for their girl cousins and I bought a beautiful modern themed set depicting scenes of St. Petersburg.
St. Nicholas’ Cathedral
Anna then suggested that we stray from our itinerary and visit St. Nicholas’ Cathedral since we still had time to spare before we were scheduled to arrive at The Hermitage. This Cathedral is known as the Sailor’s Cathedral and is decorated with scenes depicting the history of the Russian Navy. There are also memorial plaques honouring Russian sailors who have been lost at sea. There was a mass being held while we were there and we stood at the back admiring this beautiful church while the service was being conducted.
Our next stop was Palace Square to visit the state Hermitage Museum and see the Winter Palace. The Hermitage, which is located on the banks of the Neva River, consists of several buildings and houses one of the world’s greatest collections of art. The collection was amassed by successive tsars and includes many priceless masterpieces. The Hermitage also contains the Winter Palace which was the pre-revolutionary residence of the tsars.
The Hermitage is the highlight of a visit to St. Petersburg for most tourists so we felt that we needed to include it in our tour even though we knew that it would be quite busy during the summer season. As it turned out, however, the crowds were overwhelming. People were queued to have a 10 second glance at some of the most famous works of art and my husband had to pick Emma up to prevent her from being trampled.
Anna was valiantly trying to describe the artwork and its history while we were just trying to come up with an escape plan. After what seemed like an eternity of being jostled by the crowd Anna suggested that we try another less-crowded part of the museum. We headed for the Impressionists, which the girls and I both love, and the mood instantly changed.
Once we got away from the masses and were able to walk around and actually admire the paintings what had been shaping up as an experience to endure suddenly became enjoyable. With the vast collection that the Hermitage houses, I can understand why visitors spend an entire day there (I read that it would take a visitor 11 years to look at every one of the Hermitage’s exhibits) but our family found that a couple of hours was all we could manage during the summer season when the intensity of the crowd detracts from much of the enjoyment of the experience.
Back outside in Palace Square we all breathed a sigh of relief that we had escaped the crowd and paused to enjoy the beauty of the square. The Winter Palace is a breathtakingly beautiful building that demands to be photographed. We even had our photo taken with Peter the Great and his wife Catherine (one of several that walk the square making themselves available to tourists for a fee).
Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood
The colourful Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, which is located just off the Nevsky Prospekt, must be one of the most unique buildings in St. Petersburg. It’s design is Russian Revival style and was built as a memorial to Alexander II on the site of his assassination. Both the interior and the exterior of the church are decorated by incredibly detailed mosaics. The exterior of the church also has mosaic panels depicting scenes from the New Testament.
Another impressive church is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city, whose gilded dome dominates the skyline. The facade of the cathedral is decorated with sculptures and massive red granite columns while the interior has large columns made of malachite and lapis lazuli, detailed mosaics and elaborate paintings. The painting inside the domed ceiling is particularly spectacular.
An interesting fact is that the gilded dome of St. Isaac’s was painted grey during the Second World War in order to make it less visible to enemy aircraft but it, nevertheless, sustained damage during the siege of Leningrad. During the Soviet era St. Isaac’s was converted to a museum of atheism. Since the fall of communism a small section of the cathedral is once again used for religious services but, officially, it remains a museum.
The Bronze Horseman
We walked from St. Isaac’s across a park to Senate Square to admire the statue of The Bronze Horseman. This is an equestrian statue of Peter the Great which became known as The Bronze Horseman because of the influence of Aleksandr Pushkin’s narrative poem of the same name.
The statue’s pedestal is the Thunder Stone, claimed to be the largest stone ever moved by man. According to legend, St. Petersburg could never be taken by enemy forces while the Bronze Horseman stood. During the siege of Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then known) the statue was protected by sandbags and a wooden shelter. The Bronze Horseman survived the siege with virtually no damage and Leningrad never fell.
Our two days in St. Petersburg were incredible thanks to our wonderful tour guide, Anna. The decision to book a private tour was absolutely the best one to have made. As we had only our family in the car we had the flexibility to decide if the kids were enjoying a stop and if they weren’t then we adjusted the itinerary on the go. Anna was completely focused on making sure that we enjoyed our time in St. Petersburg and we most certainly did.
It also helped that we had back-to-back gorgeous sunny days with temperatures in the mid 20s Celsius. This is apparently virtually unheard of as St. Petersburg has a damp, rainy climate and August is the rainiest month.
Two days is not enough time to see everything that St. Petersburg has to offer but we were able to enjoy the time that we had there, see many of the historic landmarks and leave with the impression that it is truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world.