One of the best cruises in my 46 cruise arsenal would have to be the Baltic Capitals cruise that I took on Norwegian Cruise Lines with my friend Jo. With an itinerary including such fabulous cities as St. Petersburg (even an overnight!), Helsinki, Tallinn, Copenhagen, and Berlin, this was the trip of a lifetime.
Our entire cruise was delightful and memorable, but Russia was the one place I had dreamed of coming to since I was in elementary school. Its rich history and opulence had always intrigued me, and now I was finally here.
Jo and I spent our first day exploring St. Petersburg’s surrounding areas, and big attractions such as Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof with Peter, our private tour guide.
Day two brought us into the city of St. Petersburg with the same guide for a day we would never forget.
History of St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg became a city under the Romanov Rule and was the capital of Russia from 1712-1918 until it moved to Moscow. St. Petersburg is a melting pot of old Russian traditions and chic European styles, inspired by the European city of Amsterdam.
St. Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia and is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, housing some of the top art museums. It offers an overdose of history, expensive castles, exquisite art, stunning cathedrals, and modern shopping & clubs. Around six million people call St.Petersburg home.
Much to our surprise, the first stop on our private tour was to the St. Petersburg’s underground metro, one of the coolest and elegant subway stations in the world. The metro is designed to be “palaces to the people”. The expensive building materials were not only lovely to look at (gold mosaics and walls lined with artwork) but are in perfectly mint condition; a far cry from all public transportation in the US. Statues are hidden amidst the stately marble columns.
We took a short subway ride from the Pushkinskaya station, located 186 feet deep into the earth, to the Zvenigorodskaya station. The cost was 25 rubles to ride the metro. A whopping three million passengers use the metro daily.
The Peter and Paul Fortress
Next, we stopped at the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg’s birthplace and oldest building. After entering Peter’s Gate, we saw the main attraction; the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. This Cathedral housed the sarcophagi of many famous Romanov Rulers, starting with Peter the Great and including Nicholas II and his entire family.
It had a pulpit, which is said to have only been used once, to excommunicate Leo Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church for denouncing the institution.
There were other buildings within the fortress, including a museum and the state mint. Many visitors were sunbathing, picnicking, and enjoying the water, too. I found this attraction to be interesting and loaded with great photo-ops.
Downtown St. Petersburg
Driving into downtown, Jo and I got our first sight of the Anichkov Bridge. It is pink granite with three arched spans. The bridge was famous for the bronze Horse Tamer statues that adorned its four corners.
Anichkov crosses the Fontanka River and is next to Nevsky Prospekt, the busiest part of town.
The nearby Neva River, running through the middle of town, offers spectacular views of the palaces lining its banks and the Arts Square. Arts Square had a big selection of performing arts theaters, museums, and concert halls. Saint Michael’s Castle’s empire stylings, on the Moika River, was one of our favorites.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, also known as Cathedral of Resurrection of Christ, is the site where Czar Nicholas II was assassinated in 1881 by the “People’s Will” terrorist group. Nicholas III saw its completion in 1907, and the church was dedicated to his father on the site of his “spilled blood”. Visiting this world-treasure had been on my bucket list for ages. It was a dream come true for me to witness! The photo even made the family Christmas card.
The grand cathedral, with gorgeous multi-colored onion domes, is in the middle of a congested downtown area. It immediately reminded me of the location of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Outside, the Church on Spilled Blood was embellished with 20 granite plaques displaying historical events.
Jo and I walked inside and found that not one surface was left unadorned. The decor ranged from marble to Russian minerals, biblical scenes, to the 7,500 meters of eye-popping mosaics. The colorful church was damaged by the Russian Revolution and officially closed its doors in the 1930s. After 27 years of restoration, 1997 brought forth the official reopening of the Church on Spilled Blood. Thank goodness.
Relaxing and Unwinding, Plus Refueling
After hours of touring and listening to Russian trivia and historical facts, Jo andI opted for a break rather than another museum tour. Our guide’s suggested a boat ride. The times for the English-speaking tour didn’t coincide with our schedule, so we took the Russian one. The ride gave us the opportunity to unwind and enjoy the scenery and 15 stately bridges on the Moika River.
Later, we dined across the street from the Church on Spilled Blood at the Cafe Saint Petersburg. We feasted on delicious Chicken Kiev, basmati rice, and a tart cranberry sauce. The cafe’s windows faced the canal and afforded us beautiful views of the cathedral.
The world-renowned State Hermitage Museum was our final stop of the day. The Hermitage was opened in 1852 and afforded by Catherine the Great. It hosts over 3,000,000 exhibits and hundreds of rooms, all located on the banks of the Neva River. Currently, it houses the State Museum, which has more Russian historical artifacts than anywhere else in the world.
The Hermitage consists of six museums, five of which are open to the public: Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, Hermitage Theatre, Small Hermitage, and Winter Palace. The stunning green and white Winter Palace was home to Russian Czars from 1732- 1917, and Catherine the Great was the first ruler to reside there.
A World-Famous Museum
The Hermitage’s offerings range from rare paintings and jewels to coins and sculptures. The museum captures a richness that, at its time, could never have been imagined. The Hermitage earned notoriety for its masterpieces by the Greats, such as Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, El Greco, Rembrandt, and da Vinci.
My favorite part of the museum was the first floor, Old Hermitage Italian Renaissance galleries, especially Three Graces by Canova. I saw several items at The Hermitage that I saw in the Vatican Museum years ago. The Hermitage is the most amazing and over-the-top museum I’ve ever visited, and I will forever compare the places I go up to it.
Concluding our Epic Day
Concluding our tour, we drove by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Russia. Its dome is made of pure gold. By this point, Jo and I were exhausted, so we skipped touring the inside. Our guide gave us a spectacular introduction to Russian culture, and we were so thankful for everything he shared with us.
I would recommend St. Petersburg to anyone that loves art, architecture, history, or historical centers. Until we meet again, Pah-Kah, Russian for goodbye.
Random St. Petersburg Trivia
History: A short nine months after Nicholas II succumbed to death after complications of his attempted assassination, his wife and five daughters were all executed by the Bolsheviks. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the entire family, calling them “passion bearers,” a category describing believers who endured suffering and death from political enemies. They are interred at the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Tip: Dress appropriately when touring The Hermitage. The museum was warm and the air, stagnant. Winter and springtimes are supposedly less crowded.
FYI: St. Petersburg became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1989.
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