ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA: One of the top ten high-class destinations in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, St. Petersburg, was a magical city for us to visit. It’s situated at one tip of Baltic Sea and by Neva River and has a long list of major attractions. I haven’t seen another European city like St. Petersburg before. I imagined the city having more old-style building/apartments from communist era, stubborn people, and blunt food. But my perception changed as soon as we drove to the heart of city and saw its historical sites, modern restaurants, and friendly people in the stores. Of course you will still see those communist style buildings in some of the town where people are still living with high rent.
St. Petersburg, former capital of Russia, was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. He indeed built this great city on a swamp while his people laughed at his idea. Peter the Great was a long-visioned man and stuck to his idea and now St. Petersburg is one of the major destinations in Europe. But the city wasn’t named after him. St. Peter is the patron of the city after whom the city was named. It is the former home of the Russian Emperors who were known as Tsars/Czars and a center spot of imperial Russian culture. The city was known as Leningrad in 1924 honoring founder of Soviet Union, Lenin.
If you love palaces, this city has plenty of them and stunning ones too. A chain of these palaces and many other royal-type buildings are standing by Neva River one after another.
We had to visit the city through a tour company because you need an invitation from the country to get visa with American Passports. We booked this tour with SPB Tours. On the 1st day we were picked up from our cruise-port around 8am and ended at 6pm and the next day it was from 9am to 5pm. Our guide was a very enthusiastic lady and was very honest about her country, giving us some pros and cons on overall living conditions in past and present day Russia. She was very nice to even buy some typical Russian toys for my girls. Other than getting the visa, I think it’s better to have a guide when you are visiting any cities in Russia since almost everything is written in Russian.
TIME of TRAVEL: Our whole family took a cruise on the Baltic Sea in August of 2013 from Dover, England. It was a 12 day cruise that stopped at many cities but St. Petersburg was the highlight of this cruise for everyone. Our ship docked in St. Petersburg on an early morning. We had 2 full days to explore before we started sailing again on the next evening. It was cold in the mornings and a bit chilly both afternoons. Second day we had to deal with some clouds and rain for most part.
EATING and SHOPPING: It seemed to me Russia has countless traditional and local souvenirs to bring back home and some of them can be very expensive too. Russian Dolls (matryoshka) and hand-crafted lacquered boxes are very typical Russian gift items. I saw some good quality winter accessories and wooden decors or kitchen wares in almost all gift shops too. Painting on these wooden accessories is known as “Khokhloma” painting. It’s the name of a Russian handicraft style wood painting and national ornament, known for its vivid flower patterns, red and gold colors over a black background. The effect it has when applied to cheap and light wooden tableware is extraordinary, making it look heavier and giving it metal-like glamorous look.
For food, first day we had lunch in a restaurant by the highway where our guide took us to. We had the chance of tasting some traditional Russian dishes here, like beat and cabbage soup for appetizer and beef stroganoff for the main course. After the lunch our guide told the history of stroganoff and where it came from. The story goes that Count Stroganoff in St. Petersburg loved eating beef. But when he became old and lost his teeth, the count told his chef to cut the meat in small sizes, so he could chew them easily and it became so famous that it spread out to the whole world. So, anyways, the second day we had Russian fast food which was a mushroom and ground beef pastry.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had 2 full days to spend in St. Petersburg. It’s a huge city and everything is very spread out. I don’t think we could have seen all these spots if we didn’t have a coach and an expert guide. You can spend weeks here and still will be left with many unseen spots…St. Petersburg has countless things to see and do.
1) ST. NICHOLAS CHURCH: We started our 1st day in St. Petersburg with this church. Also known as Blue Church, St. Nicholas looked more like a monastery to me, something very similar to what we have seen in Kiev, Ukraine. This 18th century church has nice gold and green theme and a decorative interior. Like most of the Russian churches, it also doesn’t have any sitting arrangements; worshippers only stand or sometimes kneel down if they get tired from long services. Also check out the bell tower of the church few steps away. Since this is still an active church, no photos are allowed inside but it’s free to enter.
2) PETERHOF PALACE and GARDEN: Next we took a 30-minutes hydrofoil ride (it’s like a big boat that can go very fast on water) on Neva River from the city to its outskirt where Peterhof Palace and Garden is located. Situated by Gulf of Finland, Peterhof is best known for its vast and beautiful gardens and big parks with many statues. Garden of Catherine I and Palace of Catherine II are all here in this lovely place. Total of 135 (if I can remember correctly) big and small fountains are all over the garden and in front of the palace.
We entered Peterhof through Lower Park and walked up to the Upper Garden near the palace. After all those walking, we came to know that visitors are only allowed in 1/3 of this park. Countless small fountains, many busts, flowers beds, and a huge fountain decorate the Royal Garden in front of the palace. It is a stunning sight when you are standing on the balcony and looking over the garden. By the way, all the golden statues are actually gilded with real gold.
After climbing some steps we reached terrace of the palace. Only 6 rooms are accessible in Peterhof Palace. Although most of the fountains survived WWII, the palace was burnt to ground in the war and was later rebuilt.
3) TSARS’ VILLAGE or PUSHKIN PALACE or CATHERINE’S PALACE: From Peterhof we stopped for lunch and then headed towards Tsar’s Village. We drove about 25 km, about an hour, from Peterhof to get here. This is considered as one of the prettiest palaces in Russia. When we entered the courtyard, we saw the large series of buildings which was once summer residence of the Tsars.
The most notable palace here Catherine’s Palace was a wedding gift from Peter the Great to his wife Tsarina Catherine I. The original palace was built in 1713 and then several wings were added later on. Peter and Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth’s favorite color was blue and pink, that’s how this palace got its blue and white color (originally was actually blue and pink). Previously it was gilded with real gold but Germans pealed all gold from the palace during WWII, now it’s just painted with paints. When Russians knew Germans were coming during WWII, they took pictures inside and outside of this palace 2 weeks before their arrival. That’s how they could restore the whole thing according to those copies.
Inside of Catherine’s Palace is stunningly beautiful, reminded me of Versailles Palace in France. The whole palace has elegant golden theme. We saw many big rooms and marvelous halls. Bombs from WWII destroyed it heavily but was rebuilt like the original. Even they tried to decorate the interiors with similar items. Most expensive Chinese porcelain and large paintings are in its collection too.
The highlights of this palace is the Amber Room. Every inch of this room has mosaic with real amber, making it one of the fanciest rooms in the world. No photos are allowed in this room, there were many guards standing looking over everyone making sure no one pointed their cameras at the walls.
Do plan to stay in the garden here as it is not only huge but also very beautiful with unique architecture, lakes, statues, and meadows. Many other small palaces and parks are in the same complex where you can wander around for a whole day.
Inside the palace everything was written in Russian here, thanks to our guide for explaining all the details, otherwise audio guide is highly recommended.
4) PETER and PAUL FORTRESS: Our last stop for the 1st day was Peter and Paul Fortress. It is beautifully situated by Neva River. The fortress has a big compound with some museums, church, parks, and etc.
Cathedral inside the fortress compound is the burial place of all Romanov Tsars of Russia starting from Peter the Great to the last Tsar, except for three royal members. Nicholas II, his wife, their 3 daughters, and servants are all in one tomb located at one side of this cathedral in the Chapel of St. Catherine the Martyr. Since they were brutally murdered their faces were not recognizable, so they were all put in one tomb. One of the interesting facts about this cathedral that many people don’t know about is that it houses a piece of tunic that Jesus wore during his crucifixion. You can see it in a glass box in front of the altar.
Inside the cathedral is extremely gorgeous and richly decorated. Look at the ceiling with frescoes and pretty chandeliers hanging from it. Its massive altar is gilded with 12 kg of gold with tombs of Peter the Great, his wife Catherine I, their daughter Elizabeth, and Catherine II in the front. Other tombs of Tsars and their families are spread around the whole cathedral. On the wall in you can see flags of soldiers from Russian-Turk War. The beautiful pulpit was never used.
Opposite of the cathedral, red brick building, is the artillery museum. Mint museum is also located here. Walk around the park here and you will see Monument to Peter the Great with small head and big body, which was true in his real life too.
5) BOAT RIDE on NEVA RIVER: The next day our tour started with a boat ride on Neva River that runs thru the heart of St. Petersburg. It was a 30 minutes ride and we got to see some of the highlights of this city in a glimpse, like Peter and Paul Fortress, domes of Church on Spilled Blood, and Hermitage Museum. Some important buildings, palaces, historic ships on the water, and bold bridges were all part of this trip. Make sure to grab a blanket as it can be a bit chilly in the morning depending on when you are visiting St. Petersburg.
6) SUBWAY RIDE: Our guide took us to one of the stations of St. Petersburg just to show how grand the subways are here. Most of the stations here are very historic and like museums. Russians love their subways and are very proud of it. And of course there are reasons to be proud too: most of these stations go about 115 feet deep underground and they have the fastest metro in Europe. You won’t see any graffiti on the walls because people will be apprehended for that. Each station is decorated with mosaics and other wall arts according to its name and theme. Also, the stations have free Wi-Fi too!
7) HERMITAGE MUSEUM in WINTER RESIDENCE of TSARS: Situated by Neva River, Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace of Romanov Dynasty is definitely one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe and the best museum in St. Petersburg. It is well known for having one of the world’s greatest and oldest collections of art, treasure, antiques, and royal artifacts.
The palace was burnt to ground in 1835 after a big fire that lasted for 3 days. Later it was rebuilt in the present way. You can actually see the big chandelier in one the halls that caused the fire.
Winter Residence is a grand and one of a kind Baroque palace in the world. Elegant golden motifs and leaves decorate its walls, ceilings, and doors. We walked along large halls and Tsar’s throne in a beautiful throne room. The prettiest hall here is the Peacock Room where a gold peacock clock stands at one side, Italian marble mosaics lay on the floor, and Czech crystal chandelier hang from the ceiling. But all of the rooms and halls in Hermitage Museum has famous paintings (some of Leonardo Da Vinci works are here too), large vases, golden marble columns, Flemish tapestries, and some fine exquisite decors.
Square in front of the museum has a statue of Tsar Alexander II and opposite is Russia’s first military headquarter.
There is a long…I mean long line at the ticket office before entering the palace. Thanks to our guide, we didn’t have to wait long enough. You have to cross a security point here. Plan to spend at least few hours to cover the whole museum and believe me it’s absolutely worth every minute. Museum is open from 10:30am to 6pm every day except Monday.
8) CHURCH on SPILLED BLOOD: This is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve seen in whole of Europe and the best looking Russian Orthodox Church in my diary yet. Constructed in 1881, this is the icon of St. Petersburg. The church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was killed by terrorists. The blood wasn’t cleaned and they started building this church on top of his blood. Tourists can see the exact spot where he was assassinated.
Every inch of its walls and ceiling of is elaborately covered with Moscow style frescoes and mosaics…which is more than 5000 sq. meter of mosaic. 8 different marbles were used all around this church. Many biblical stories and depictures of different stages of Jesus’ life (like young boy Jesus, which you normally don’t see in churches) are on the walls and ceilings. They were all magnificently done by Russian architects and artists. The dazzling altar was created in Italy depicting Tsar Gate with many stones and bright colorful mosaics. Also notice the black marble pillars; we were told that these shine with moonlight.
Church on Spilled Blood is a must see in St. Petersburg and should not be missed in anyway, you won’t see anything like this in anywhere in the world.
9) ST. ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL: St. Isaac’s Cathedral is another gem and a major landmark of this city. The church built in 1818 replacing a smaller one from 1712. It has a bold exterior, a glaring interior, and the 3rd highest cupola cathedral in the world.
The dome of St. Isaac is made with some shocking 300kg of real gold. Made by Finnish granite, this cathedral can hold about 40,000 people inside. It’s extremely attractive interior is very lavishly designed with some extravagant vibrant colors decors. The main focus, its eye-catching grand altar has some rich mosaics and blue columns from Afghanistan. There are no chairs or organ in this cathedral, like other Russian churches. Many of Hermitage treasures were hidden underneath this cathedral during WWII.
Luckily, the cathedral was not damaged in the war but some columns outside still have bomb marks. Although we didn’t climb to the top, it offers fabulous view of the city. The cathedral is located near the historic Hotel Astoria, where Hitler planned to have a victory party for capturing St. Petersburg within 3 days of entering the city but eventually the event never took place, since he could never capture St. Petersburg.
10) YUSOPOV’S PALACE: Yusopov’s Palace…our last spot in St. Petersburg. The palace itself may not be as charming as some of the other places we’ve been to in this city (after all it’s a bright yellow building), but hundreds of visitors come to this historic site to get a glance where that mysterious man, Rasputin was murdered.
Yusopov’s family was then the richest family in St. Petersburg (and I think in all Russia too). Mr. Yusopov, who was a Sheikh in Iran, was baptized later in his life and moved to Russia. He bought this house in 1856. The family was in gold, diamond, and oil business. With rich ornaments, mahogany walls and furniture, this is a great example of how rich Russians lived back then.
After visiting the upper part of this palace, were taken in the basement where Rasputin was killed by Mr. Yusopov’s youngest son and couple of his friends. He was then thrown into the canal in front of this building.
We have visited some cities of former USSR recently, but St. Petersburg has its own bold history and royal attitude. Knowing some of its past life and power, it actually gave me goosebumps while driving around and hearing stories from our guide. This is one of a kind place in the world…you won’t feel it unless you see it in front of your eyes.