Destination: St. Petersburg
Sorry it’s been a while. Our final deposit for the Galapagos cruise is coming up, and I’m afraid we’re going to have to cancel since I still don’t have a job. I’ve been really bummed about canceling a trip that I’ve been dreaming about for 10+ years and even more bummed with the thought that, once I cancel that, we’ll have no trips for me to plan and look forward to. Fortunately, my wonderful husband has agreed that a super cheap vacay might not cripple us after all, so we’re going to cross our fingers until the payment is due and then, if we have to cancel, we’ll figure out something else. Anyway, on to the point of the post. Back in December, I shared the details of the first three stops on our Baltic cruise in September – Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki. Since I’m going in order, I now have to address the crown jewel of the trip , St. Petersburg.
First of all, let me gush. St. Petersburg is now officially one of my fave cities I’ve ever been to. It has the beauty of Paris and Prague, palaces that kick Versailles’ butt, and a museum that makes the Louvre look like a snooze fest (okay, this is totally coming from an Impressionist lover, so keep in mind that my feelings on museums are *very* biased; also remember that the Hermitage has 3 mil+ works of art and the Louvre has less than 40k). Plus the food is better than Germany and the people are fascinating. Be warned though – this place is pricey to visit if you want to see a lot in a short amount of time and actually understand what you’re seeing. Translation: You’ll want a private guide.
Our two day itinerary
Spit of Vasilyevsky Island. This is the perfect first stop for a tour of St. Petersburg. From here, you can see the Old St. Petersburg Stock Exchange, two Rostral columns, the Hermitage, the dome of St. Isaac’s, and Peter and Paul Fortress. You can also check out the Egyptian griffins (rub his head for luck!) and 3000+ year old sphinxes. The embankment is also charming with its lion masks and huge granite balls.
Field of Mars. This park began as… a park! For a while it served as a military drilling ground, and then it was turned back into a park. In 1942, it served as a vegetable garden during the siege. In 1957, the first eternal flame in Russia was lit here in memory of those who died during the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s also great for taking pics with the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
Smolny Cathedral. Anna, our guide, took us here to see a real, working Russian Orthodox church. The exterior was being seriously renovated and you’re not allowed to take photos in working Russian Orthodox churches, so I don’t have any pics of my own. Here’s a pic from Wiki for ya:
Catherine’s Palace. Next up was the summer palace of the Russian tsars. It’s 25 km southeast of St. Petersburg in the town of Pushkin. Construction of the palace began in 1717 under the direction of Catherine I. Her daughter, Anna, significantly expanded the palace in 1733 in Rococo style instead of her mother’s preferred style, baroque. It was funny to walk through the palace and see the two different styles, both so unbelievably elaborate.
Peterhof Palace. Peter began planning for this palace in 1705, and construction on this summer palace began in 1714. After seeing Versailles, Peter decided Peterhof had to surpass it. From what I’ve seen of the two palaces, he definitely succeeded. We enjoyed lunch in one of the many cafes on site. Then our tour focused on the magnificent fountains since the interior is much the same as Catherine’s Palace. It was fun seeing the cute red squirrels and silly fountains. Don’t let your guide trick you into sitting on a bench when there’s another bench a few feet behind unless you want to get wet.
Hydrofoil ride. This is not a special treat – just a way to get from Peterhof back to St. Petersburg more quickly than driving.
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Finally, the sun came out! It was the perfect time to go to the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. Yes, I thought it was more fantastic than St. Mark’s in Venice, Westminster in London, or Sainte Chapelle or Notre Dame in Paris. Construction of this cathedral, built to honor Alexander II, began in 1883 and was completed in 1907. The church contains more than 7500 square meters of mosaics, more than any other church in the world per its restorers. It was badly damaged in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was closed in the 1930s and slated for destruction by the Bolsheviks. Luckily it was saved, restored, and reopened in 1997.
Nevsky Prospekt. This is the main street of St. Petersburg and the place to shop if you have the time and money. We just made a quick stop at Sever Bakery, an adorable little shop with beautiful pastries and cakes. It was fun, but, in retrospect, I’d have chosen to visit the subway instead. I can get tastier treats right here in North Carolina.
Dinner at Sadko. We’d planned to have dinner at the Literature Cafe, but our guide said it was just too touristy to be believed. She and our driver discussed the situation and decided we should visit Sadko. It was perfect. They had delicious borscht and beef stroganoff and other stuff too. If you have a chance to have a nice dinner, I’d recommend it. It wasn’t horribly expensive either. Bonus: it’s pretty and they bring your check in a matryoshka doll.
Peter and Paul Fortress. Our second day in St. Petersburg began with a visit to Peter and Paul. This was established by Peter in 1703 to protect the city from Sweden. We checked out the flood lines, saw a really silly sculpture of Peter, peaked in the Boat House to see the replica of Peter’s sailboat, and then went into the cathedral to visit the tombs of the Romanovs. If you visit the fortress, be sure to study the sign detailing the rules really carefully. You’ll notice that skiing, committing suicide, and walking rocking dogs are not allowed.
Hermitage Museum. This is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. It’s filled with some of the world’s greatest treasures, such as the peacock clock and two of only about a dozen da Vinci paintings still in existence, and also displays some really fun architecture, being the Winter Palace. We spent about 3.5 hours here, and basically ran around. It was incredible, so incredible that it’s now my fave art museum. If you get to visit St. Petersburg and like art, make sure to allot as much time as possible to your Hermitage visit.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral. St. Isaac’s is one of the few super important places in St. Petersburg that doesn’t have Peter in its name. Don’t count it out though – Peter the Great was born on St. Isaac’s feast day. The main dome should be pretty familiar to those of us from the US; our Capitol’s dome was modeled after this one. It also inspired the dome of the Helsinki Cathedral. Inside, the huuuuge bronze doors are covered in reliefs. And inside the dome, there’s a sculpted dove representing the Holy Spirit. Our guide pointed out a nail in the floor directly below the dove. She said that if you stand on the nail, look up at the dove, and make a wish, it’ll come true. The style was much different from that of the Church of Spilled Blood but spectacular in its own way.
Shopping. We actually went shopping three times, twice in stores specifically chosen by our guide as selling authentically Russian items and once at the market by Church of Spilled Blood. On the first day, we went to a shop that’s known for having a great selection of authentic nesting dolls, Dostoevsky Art Salon. It was pretty close to the Church of Spilled Blood. Rats, I can’t figure out the name of the second store, which is where we got a lacquer box. The shop also had an amazing selection of pretty prints of S. Petersburg paintings. The market was okay for finding some cheap things, but our guide recommended we leave everything of value (including our passports) in the van to be guarded by her and the driver because it’s so chock full of pickpockets. I’d recommend just checking out the little shops by the ship instead.
Subway. Okay, we didn’t actually go on the subway. It’s the top thing we didn’t do that I wish we had done. The stations are fantastically individual.
A Few Tips
Anastasia Tours. This is a great company. While planning the trip, they always responded promptly and with really useful information. They were also reasonably priced – right in line with the other trustworthy companies. Then we had Anna for two days, who was fantastic. It was expensive to have a guide and driver for just the four of us for two days, but it was one of the best choices we made. We really enjoyed Anna. Not only was she a veritable font of information about the sites we visited, but she also told us a bit about what it’s like to be Russian and living in St. Petersburg. I nearly cried when we left her (okay, part of that can be blamed on how awesome St. Petersburg is, but Anna was a big part of that).
About planning your itinerary and the weather. St. Petersburg only gets about 60 sunny days each year, so don’t be surprised if you see quite a bit of rain when you visit. Try not to let it get you down – you’re still in one of the most fantastic cities in the world and it’s beautiful even under gray skies. When we visited, it rained the first day and we wanted to bump our visit of Peterhof to the second day to see if we might be able to score a visit without rain. Unfortunately Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace aren’t very close to the port, and traffic can be really bad if you drive back in to the city from the palaces. So the guides almost always plan to take you to the palaces on the first day and stay in town the second day. If you don’t want to worry about making it back to the ship, stick with what the guides suggest. Seeing Peterhof in the rain made us VERY soggy, but it was still beautiful and fun.
One last thing. Be prepared to be incredibly exhausted. The time change on your way there is the first killer. Then you’ll get picked up at, like, 7am on the first day. Then you’ll be completely overwhelmed by information and all the sights. Don’t be surprised if you fall asleep in the van while riding around.