An ever-expanding network of cruise terminals await you when arriving by sea in St. Petersburg. Each terminal boasts a uniquely Russian airport feel, complete with imposing police presence and terribly tacky gift shops. Despite this, and it’s seemingly challenging entry requirements, the Russian government’s plan to increase tourism to this cultural hot-spot does seem to be working. But how can you make the most of your time in this fascinating city? My advice is to book an escorted tour.
Pre-Book An Escorted Tour
When I was a travel agent, the one thing my regular cruise customers would tell me is how difficult the Russian Visa application process is. Often it will involve a physical visit a visa application centre (in London or Manchester) to provide finger prints, providing documentation and of course paying for the visa itself. This also requires weeks of planning as the entire application process must be completed before you travel. But all of this can be avoided if you simply pre-book a cruise excursion. Authorised providers can take passengers on an escorted group visa, and this doesn’t have to be booked with your cruise line either. In our experience, the cruise lines have limited resources and opt to take coach loads of 40-50 passengers with one guide. This does not only make for a frustrating day (there is always someone who needs the loo or keeps wandering off), it is also expensive! We chose to book through Cruising Excursions. It was half of the price of the identical tour offered by the cruise line, and when we got to the minibus, there were just 8 of us on the tour. The guide was a lovely local lady, and she tailored the day around what our group wanted to see. She even loaned us the change for the metro (we only took a travel money card and we hadn’t yet been able to draw out Russian Roubles)! And so our tour began…
Unlike Europe, the Metro system in St. Petersburg is not just utilitarian. This underground train network is something of a national treasure. Each station is beautifully crafted to honour the city and its history, commanding the respect of both its commuters and visitors alike. It’s spotlessly clean and very well maintained – something that cannot be said for any other metro I’ve seen. Obviously we couldn’t visit many stations in just one day, but the few that we did see were truly remarkable.
The Hermitage Museum
The main attraction of this magnificent city is of course The Hermitage Museum, and with 3 million items in the collection, it’s easy to see why! Both the museum and it’s contents are equally breath-taking. There are so many elaborate, ornate and down-right obscenely valuable items on display here, you will leave feeling completely overwhelmed. I don’t know that there is anywhere else on the planet that is home to so many original masterpieces, including works by Michaelangelo, Picasso, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Raphael and Monet. Not to mention the countless displays of wealth in the form of furniture, jewellery and precious gems. You will simply not believe your eyes! Although these seemingly countless artefacts span across 7 incredible buildings, the main collection is on display in the Winter Palace of Peter The Great, conveniently located in the heart of the city. Only a building as opulent as this could be home to such impressive antiquities. It is open to tourists Tuesday-Sunday year-round. Our tour included group entrance to the museum, but if you do decide to go it alone, I advise that you pre-book your visit in advance to skip the very lengthy queues. Also, give yourself the best opportunity to see all of the highlights by visiting early, if you can.
Cathedrals & Churches
When it comes to religious monuments and places of worship, St Petersburg is second-to-none. We are not particularly au fait with the ins-and-outs of the Orthodox church, but you don’t need to be in order to appreciate these architectural marvels. One of the most photographed places in the world is The Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (also known as Savior on the Spilled Blood Church). Typically, we visited on the Russian equivalent of Labour Day (1st May), so the roads surrounding it were closed off and we couldn’t see it as part of our tour. We have however been informed that this is the only day of the year that this happens, so it really was a case of right place, wrong time! Some of the many religious buildings we did see were St. Isaac’s Cathedral and The Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas, and they too were truly incredible. We have also been told that the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (at the centre of St. Peter & St. Paul’s Fortress) is worth seeing if you have time.
One of Russia’s unique and most highly regarded artworks are the famous Fabergé eggs, and as the name suggests, this museum offers visitors the chance to view many of the world-famous articles. As you might expect, these form part of the largest collection of works by the House of Fabergé on the globe, and where else would you expect to visit such a collection than within the grandeur of Shuvalov Palace? As if the Hermitage wasn’t glamorous enough! Although this might not be on the top of everyone’s to-do list, it is worth an honourable mention for those who might be interested.
When it comes to souvenirs, St Petersburg is next level! From fake Fabergé to Putin portraits, there is something for all tastes, but mainly bad ones! Loud, brash, garish… you name it, they’ve got it in spades. Russian dolls and fur hats are also popular, but we came away with a fridge magnet of Vladimir Putin holding a dog. Enough said.
Have you ever visited St. Petersburg? What are your must-dos? Let us know in the comments!