Undeniably one of the most splendid cities in the world, St. Petersburg is an endless buffet of visual magnificence. From sprawling palaces and romantic gardens to mesmerizing cathedrals and authoritative monuments, Russia’s second largest city is defined by an unparalleled grandeur. Even though my encounter with this Baltic beauty was a dazzling whirlwind of sightseeing, I consider myself fortunate to have gazed upon some of the wonders of St. Petersburg.
THE BIRTH OF A MODERN CITY
St. Petersburg is a rather new kid on the Eurasian continental block. After studying and traveling around Western Europe, Peter the Great set out to build a new Russian capital to serve as the seat of government and a prominent maritime base. He took control of a modest Finnish settlement along the Neva River and founded St. Petersburg in 1703. The Russian Tsar hired Italian and French architects to design a city as elegant as Paris, as noble as Florence, and as romantic as Venice. The St. Petersburg we see today is a testament to Peter’s captivating vision… plus another three hundred years of history.
VISITING ST. PETERSBURG
From its founding, St. Petersburg was dedicated to honor the arts, education and the power of Imperial Russia. As a result, there are well over 200 museums, monuments and places of interest scattered across the city and into the neighboring countryside. To take in all of the wonders of St. Petersburg may require a lifetime.
Since I’ll never have that luxury, I had to be content with just two days…
Actually, having two full days in St. Petersburg was one of the main reasons Justin and I decided to go on a Baltic Sea cruise for our Babymoon adventure. As visitors via cruise ship, we didn’t need to go through the headache of securing Russian tourist visas, which would require a pile of paperwork and a hefty chunk of cash. Instead, we could book a guided tour of the city with a certified tour operator to serve as our visa. After getting off the ship, we simply showed our tour invoice along with our passport at Border Control and stepped onto Russian soil. Now, that’s a reason to jump for joy!
Since I have a strong aversion to cruiseline shore excursions, I researched the various tour operators in St. Petersburg. While an exclusively private tour for just the two of us was most attractive, the costs were exorbitant and out of the question. Thus, I compared the “Small Group Tours” of several different companies before choosing to see St. Petersburg with Marina Wilson Private Tours.
We chose Marina Wilson’s company because her small group maximum is 10 people, while most of the others cap their “small groups” at 16 people. Since you never know how many people are going to choose the same tour company as you, we wanted to minimize the risk of getting stuck with a larger group.
[If you’ve never traveled with a tour group, a good thing to remember is that the larger the group, the slower you move. And with so much to see in St. Petersburg, you need to move fast to set yours sights on the various attractions across the city!]
Our tour guide, Irina, met our group of six at the port each morning, and she whisked our little party around the city. Not only did Irina share her vast knowledge with us as we moved from location to location, but she also managed our time extremely well – ushering us around long lines and drawing our attention to the most significant portions of every place we visited.
Although I usually prefer independent travel, I have to admit that it was such a luxury to not have to think about acquiring tickets, figuring out transportation, or where to go next. I have no regrets about joining a tour group to see St. Petersburg, and I whole-heartedly recommend Marina Wilson Private Tours to others who may find themselves in the same boat.
THE TOP SIGHTS OF ST. PETERSBURG
In their most extensive 2-day tours of St. Petersburg, many tour operators include visits to the same locations on their itineraries. And for good reason: these POIs are not to be missed!
One of the largest art museums in the world, The Hermitage collection stretches across a strand of palatial buildings along the Neva River. The teal exterior hails visitors from near and far – and with over three million visitors a year, you very well may feel like a royal sardine in a sparkling tin can as you jostle for position through the halls.
With millions of pieces of art, artifacts, and historical objects from around the world in its collection, The Hermitage can display only a small portion of its international prizes. Even so, it would take days to study the entire visible collection.
Although I am an amateur art aficionado, I most enjoyed the royal setting of The Hermitage most of all. From the gilded throne rooms to marvelously inlaid wooden floors, I marveled at the lavish details that decorated each room. Little did I know that The Hermitage was just the first in a series of impressive palaces that made up my visit of St. Petersburg.
Yusupov Palace (Moika Palace)
Situated along the Moika River, the Yusupov Palace gives visitors a vivid look into the luxurious lifestyle of the Russian aristocracy of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. This historic mansion is filled with gorgeous architectural details that are sure to leave you in awe.
In spite of its brilliant opulence, the Yusupov Palace does not shy away from its signature dark story: the murder of Grigory Rasputin. A controversial plot to end the life of this controversial figure is subject to personal discretion, which you can determine after visiting the rooms where the treacherous event was planned and executed.
As if there weren’t enough theatrics in the Yusupov Palace with a crime scene on display, this royal residence actually has a “home theater,” a miniature replica of a grand opera house, complete with the Queen’s Box, plush velvet draperies, gold embellishments, and orchestra pit.
The Russian stage is a central figure in the epic storyline of the country, as the upper echelon of society has long supported the performing arts; and today is no exception. From ballets and concertos to operas and symphonies, I encourage you to catch a live performance while in St. Petersburg.
We made additional arrangements with our tour to see the Russian ballet perform “La Sylphide” at the Mariinksy Theatre. Needless to say, it was magical!
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
With its golden dome and neoclassical frame, St. Isaac’s Cathedral boasts a commanding presence along the St. Petersburg skyline. Opened in 1858 after forty years of construction, this Russian Orthodox basilica is the 4th largest cathedral in the world (by volume). The sheer magnitude of floor to ceiling adornments leaves a lasting impression on visitors, who can climb 300 steps to the cathedral’s colonnade for a bird’s eye view of the city.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (Church on Spilled Blood)
Built in honor of slain Emperor Alexander II and completed in 1907, the cathedral is a dazzling monument from every angle. With its colorful onion domes and over 7500 square meters of mosaics, the Church on Spilled Blood is a feast for the eyes.
While the Russian royals spent their winters within the city limits of St. Petersburg, they had summer palaces scattered across the surrounding countryside. Located in the village of Pushkin, Catherine Palace is a cheery sight with its bright blue exterior and frivolous Rococo style.
Initially commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1717, it was her daughter Empress Elisabeth who had the palace remodeled in the 1750s to encapsulate her penchant for opulent whimsy. Almost completely destroyed during WWII, Catherine Palace continues to be restored room by room, garden by garden.
Peterhof Palace and Gardens
With fountains to rival those of Versailles, the Peterhof gardens are an attraction all unto themselves. Poised between the Gulf of Finland and the bright yellow palatial building, golden statues stand alongside rushing waterfalls and gurgling fountains trickle amidst the wooded grounds.
IN AWE AND WONDER
Two days in St. Petersburg is hardly enough time to fully enjoy the splendor of the city. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to stand in awe before these beautiful places and wonder at their glorious treasures.
Zdravstvujtye! Have you ever been to St. Petersburg? Is it on your Bucket List? What other sights should I see on my next visit to this Russian city?
Disclaimer: Special Thanks to Marina Wilson for her partnership in introducing me to the wonders of St. Petersburg. As you can always expect from me, all praises, criticisms, and opinions are genuine. I’m a Candor, after all.