The star attraction on a Baltic cruise for most people will be St. Petersburg, Russia. It was for me. I'd seen plenty of pictures of the iconic sites, which truly intrigued me, but I was also very curious about the people and what was "beyond these sites". What was it like to be in Russia?
Two full days touring St. Petersburg didn't make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination. But along with the seeing the iconic sites, I did get a glimpse of the beyond, behind the scenes if you will. For this I am grateful. I did not know what to expect, and while I had a few preconceived notions, I went with open eyes.
What I experienced over the two days, while fast paced and tiring, was exceptional. I just wish I had a photographic memory with the ability to preserve all of the fascinating data the guide shared with us.
Being in port for two days, there were a number of tours options to choose from, including one day or two day with varied site visits as well as evening excursions, for example the Russian Ballet or a Vodka tour.
I opted for a two day deluxe tour called the Russians Treasures with Faberge Museum. Highly recommend. Following are the highlights and insights of this tour.
A little background on St. Petersburg
The Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum
From the 1760's on, the Winter Palace was the main residence of the Russian tsars. A majestic building, it sits right on the banks of the Neva River. The green and white three story building today is the main building of the Hermitage museum, one of St. Petersburg most well known attractions. Our tour did not go inside this building so I can only imagine the beauty it holds.
The Hermitage Museum was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, and today it is the world's second largest museum (the Louvre is the largest). Fun fact: If you were to view each piece of art in the museum for one minute, it would take you 7 years to view all 3 million!
The Hermitage consists of 7 buildings, and the museum assigns which areas your tour company will visit so to avoid overcrowding. Our tour included the Impressionist Collection in the General Staff building. While not quite knowing what to expect, it was the Hermitage after all, and thus I had the preconceived notion of seeing an incredible display. I was utterly disappointed. To be fair, I'm not a huge fan of Renoir, Picasso, Monet, etc., but we walked through empty rooms to get to the actual collection, and I found the display itself to be very bland. That said, in speaking to others on the cruise, some saw Greek treasures, others Roman. Its the luck of the draw. With so many different venues, one would need to tour just the Hermitage to see more than one collection. As a note, luxury cruises often have exclusive (private) tours which may include some of the most sought after displays.
Catherine Palace and the Amber Room
Catherine Palace is located approximately 20 miles outside the city in the town of Pushkin, named after the famous Russian poet, playwright and novelist. Catherine Palace was the summer residence of Russian tsars, and originally built for Catherine the Great.
The palace was destroyed during WWII, and has been beautifully restored to reflect it's history. Remarkable amounts of gold everywhere, and the Amber Rom is a site to see. No one is allowed to take pictures in there, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
The Faberge Museum is not on most tours because it isn't very big and can't handle crowds. I chose my tour because it was included and for that I was rewarded beyond my dreams. Here I can only say "WOW - WOW - WOW"! I don't remember how many rooms we went through - maybe 7 or 8, but each of the displays were just incredible. The blue room that housed the actual Faberge eggs - stunning.
Most people know of Faberge and the famous "eggs", as did I. How little did I know! The intricacy, the various designs, the stories behind each egg., and so much more. Not just about the eggs, the museum also included displays of enamel pieces and other gifts given over the years to the monarchy. Mesmerizing.
Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral
The fortress was one of the original buildings built by Peter the Great in 1703. It sits on a small island on the north bank of the Neva River. Initially a base for troops defending the city, it later became a prison for high ranking politicians and burial site for Russian tsars. A visit inside gives you the opportunity to see the actual tombs of numerous tsars and their families.
Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood
This church is named such as it was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was killed by political nihilists (people who believe life is meaningless). The site is one of St. Petersburg's most visited, and I can see why.
Th iconic medieval Russian architecture to draws you in, but it's the interior that leaves you speechless. Over 80,000 square feet of mosaics cover the interior - every wall and the entire ceiling. Absolutely incredible.
The grounds directly in front of the church were fenced off for the FIFA World Cup fan fest. The next one was scheduled for the next day. Luck was with us to have missed that. We may not have been able to see the church.
Peterhof Fountain Park and Gardens
Peterhof is located about an hour's drive outside of St. Petersburg. A visit here is only through the gardens and fountain area. The palaces, originally built on the orders of Peter the Great, were damaged during the war, and while lovely from the outside, the interior has not been restored to a level of safety for public viewing.
Our two day tour ended with a visit to here. The gardens are beautiful, as are the fountains, especially the Grand Cascade (all 64 fountains). Quite spectacular, especially knowing that they operate without the use of a single pump.
Obviously a popular site, it was a bit crowded with a lot of visitors, and we were a bit rushed ( we had a ship to catch!). I could have easily stayed another couple of hours.
However, what a phenomenal way to end our two days in St. Petersburg. A beautiful "send off". Everyone said the same.
Eating with the locals
Not quite eating "with" the locals as in at their tables and talking, but we did have lunch both days where the locals eat, away from the tourist traps which I appreciated. We were introduced to local fare, including dumplings and pancakes, and of course borscht. I love beets, and surprisingly had never had this soup before. As is tradition for me, whenever I can, I also try local beers. Loved all the food options, beer not so much. But I have tried Russian beer!
St. Petersburg is no different than most other cities wanting to show off their very best. We definitely did see that. History, decadence, tragedy, beauty, modern growth. Our guide shared with me her insights, although brief, and the drives outside of the city gave me an unspoken view into their lives.
The entire two days could be described as cultural eye and brain candy. Indeed.
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