The port of St. Petersburg was one of the main reasons we chose the Viking Homelands cruise, so we wanted to be certain we made the most of our two days there.
You can’t enter the port unless you are either part of an organized tour group or have obtained a Russian visa. Although the ship offered several options, we chose SPB Tours. Through Cruise Critic’s Roll Call we were able to identify others that were interested in joining us on their deluxe option. SPB’s two day tour was significantly cheaper ($570 for two of us versus $938 through the cruise line) and included everything we wanted to see, plus a couple of nice surprises. The best part was our group of 15 was very congenial; we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company!
Cruise Critic’s Port Reviews gave several helpful hints for maximizing our time in St. Petersburg, and warned about the possibility of long lines going through immigration. We all disembarked as early as allowed, because there were several large ships in port that first day. We were delighted by the speed with which we made it through, and yes, they checked to make sure we had confirmation from the tour company.
SPB’s Mercedes van was very clean and comfortable, with more seats than needed to accommodate our group. Both our driver Igor and our tour guide Olga were excellent, and the tour was well planned to maximize our time in the city. And what a city it was!
I never would have thought that this Jersey girl would be enchanted by a subway system, but I was. Clean, beautiful, efficient–no homeless people, no smell of urine–quite a contrast to NYC’s subways.
The St. Petersburg subway is DEEP!
Olga pointing out the 6’7″ Peter the Great, who was immortalized in one of the many mosaics in the subway.
What a whirlwind, dashing through the humble homes of Peter and Catherine (middle names “the”, last names “great”). We covered a whole lot of real estate during our two days, and let me tell you, if any place on earth deserved the adjective “awesome”, it was these palaces and gardens.
We took a quick hydrofoil ride to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer cottage.
Olga told us that all of the fountains are powered without electricity!
That long “thing” in the back is a cascading fountain, with dragons atop it.
See those dark skies? We were lucky to get to the garden before the rain came. Olga provided us with rain ponchos, which came in handy just as we were getting ready to leave.
The dragons were a gift from China
If you have the time and the inclination, you can rent costumes and dress up as Russian royalty
After lunch, we traveled to Catherine’s Palace, which was originally constructed for Peter the Great’s wife Catherine I (who was NOT Catherine the Great). Their daughter Elizabeth expanded it a bit, then Elizabeth’s son’s wife–who WAS Catherine the Great –took over. She was its last resident; the palace was destroyed by the Germans during World War II. Fortunately, it has since been restored.
The palace goes on FOREVER. The gold domes on the left are atop the chapel.
Somehow Olga managed to get us into the less crowded “lane” during the tours.
This hall was modeled on Versailles. Our tour group was able to wander to the left of the ropes
The grounds were beautifully landscaped.
Catherine’s Palace is on the outskirts so we were glad that we visited it on the afternoon of the second day. We didn’t have to worry about being caught in traffic and being late for a departing ship!
We had a little extra time, so our tour included an impromptu stop at a synagogue.
A lovely, but much less ostentatious place of worship.
We started our second day with a boat tour through St. Petersburg’s canals. Olga informed us that Peter the Great wanted his city to be known as the Venice of the north, so most of the important sites were built on the waterfront.
While waiting to board for our canal tour, we had a great view of the Admiralty
The canal tour provided the best view of Peter and Paul’s fortress, which was the city’s first structure. Peter the Great lived in a log cabin on site during its construction. Today, members of the Russian imperial family are buried in one of the buildings.
Check out the beautiful railing on the bridge.
We got our first view of the Church of Spilled Blood during our canal tour, and our first view of the Hermitage, which is actually FIVE buildings.In case you are wondering how the Hermitage got its name, here’s the story. “Hermitage” is derived from French word for hermit–someone who dwells alone.
Catherine The Great was actually a very selfish hoarder, but instead of collecting newspapers and soup cans, she collected art treasures from all over the world.
Now we get to the “hermit” part. She then decided that SHE would be the only one allowed to view those treasures. (What kind of person DOES that? ) After a few years she relented, and let 300 people per year take a look. Big deal, right?
The Hermitage wasn’t opened to the public until 1852, almost 50 years after her death. Here are just a few highlights of this incredible place.
Olga got us an early entrance. This is the Hermitage’s “back yard”.
This is a typical stairway.
The throne room. The throne is under the red canopy in the back.
A typical hallway
This is what it looks like if you just wait a minute or two for the crowd to move on. Isn’t the floor beautiful?
Okay, so the art was incredible, the architecture breathtaking, but my VERY favorite thing was this peacock clock. On the hour, the peacock fans its tail and moves its head. Fortunately, we didn’t have to hang around, waiting for the show. To the right of the clock was a screen playing a video that showed how the clock operated. I LOVED it!
Next up– a visit to the Church of Spilled Blood. I had thought that the blood that was spilled referred to Christ. But no. This church was built to honor Czar Alexander II (Remember him from Helsinki?) He’s the one that freed the slaves (serfs), which annoyed many of the slave owners, who assassinated him on this very spot.
It was very difficult to get everything in to one photo. I had to tilt a bit, and even then cut off the top.
During the revolution, churches were repurposed as warehouses. One actually became a skating rink. They were recently restored to their former grandeur.
Right about the time that we were completely saturated with art, we took a break for an excellent lunch at a nearby restaurant.
A beautiful setting, great food and wonderful company!
Our final stop on our itinerary was the Yusupov Palace. We were not allowed to take photos, which was too bad, because it was spectacular, indeed. Oh to be rich during the 18th century! This home included a beautiful theater with a private box for the czar and a full orchestra pit.
The palace’s greatest claim to fame, however, was that it was where Russian nobles attempted to assassinate Rasputin. The basement room in which it took place was set up to illustrate how the deed was done.
downloaded from Google Images
Overall, it was a fantastic two days, spent with “my dear friends” (as Olga called us), viewing a majestic, historic city. It made me want to come back again for a slower paced visit that would allow us to savor all the city has to offer.