There are a couple places for cruise lines to dock in St. Petersburg. Most ships will dock at a port with a typical cruise terminal with souvenir shops, however some smaller ships, such as the ones used by Azamara, can dock right in the center of St. Petersburg near the Hermitage. No matter where you are docked, it is important to know that you have to have a special traveler’s visa for Russia. This means you have to plan your excursions before you dock in St. Petersburg. If you are on a ship’s excursion, this is taken care of for you. However, this does not mean that more independent travelers cannot make plans. A group I met through the Cruise Critic Roll Call made plans with SPB Tours and we had a great time. There were eight people in our tour van for two days of seeing the sights, including eating in local restaurants and riding the subway. Our tour guide made the most of our stay, including a few things not on the planned itinerary. There were also options for evening trips.
Here are some of my highlights from St. Petersburg.
Cat Starr at Peterhof
Grand Staircase Hermitage
Russian Passport control
Because everyone needs a special Visa to visit Russia, it means going through Passport Control. I wrote about this experience in a previous post about Immigration.
Here are my posts about the St. Petersburg “marathon” as well as other past posts of this port.
Just like cities, there seems to be one palace that many are compared to — Versailles. It may be the sheer size of the palace, or the ornate gardens. Whatever it is, all palaces seem to be compared to Versailles for one reason or another. By why should palaces be compared to another – each one has some that makes it unique and and reflects the locale. Here are some of my favourite palaces.
For day 2, immigration was much easier. Our passports had already been stamped for the two days we were in St. Petersburg, so all the immigration officials had to do was check the passport stamps that were lined up right next to each other on the last page of your passport. Easy!
Our trip this morning was to head to Peterhof Palace & Gardens. Our guide wanted to get us there as early as possible so that her little “army” could be one of the first groups to enter the palace. When the van dropped us off, she told us not to stop for pictures – we would get the opportunity to do this later. Instead, she led us in getting our morning dose of “Russian exercise”, by getting us to walk very quickly to the entrance to Peterhof. And, it worked as we entered, got our special “booties” on, and became the second group to tour the palace. Again, like Catherine’s Palace, everything was “over the top.” We also learned a lot about how much damage was done to the palace during the Second World War – and how much had to be restored in order for us to see the beauty of this building.
We then got to see the gardens. The main fountain that lead to the Grand Canal was based on the gardens at Versailles, however there are some major differences, the biggest being that all the statues around the fountains are covered in gold-leaf and the grand canal opens up in to the Baltic Sea, making this one way to come to the palace from St. Petersburg. Also, the fountains are powered through a system of gravity – no electricity. We were still a little early, so the fountains were not on yet, so we got to see more of the gardens. These gardens were made for pleasure and for surprises.
There are several little buildings, each for a specific purpose. One was a “pleasure house” where you could have a romantic rendezvous. The servants would not know who was there, yet meals would be “raised’ to the “pleasure room” when called for by those using this building. There were also some trick fountains – a little gazebo or a bench that, if you did not know the secret, you would step on the stones and get splashed by the fountain – or you could walk safely and sit on the bench or in the gazebo and then be hidden from prying eyes. There was also a building that was used to house Catherine before she finally ceased the throne and locked up this “prison” that held her. And, because the grand canal opened to the sea, there was a pier on the Baltic.
The true magic came with the fountains were turned on and started to dance. Sparkling water cascading from golden statues and tumbling down the steps into a pool – it was an overwhelming and glorious sight! As we left Peterhof, we did get the take the final pictures that our guide promised us – our last look at this amazing building.
We then headed back to St. Petersburg and for our next adventure – taking a ride on the subway. Now, if you live in a big city and ride on a subway daily, like I do, this may not seem to be a “highlight”, however the subways in St. Petersburg, the subway is a magnificent example of the Soviet building and propaganda. The subways are vast museums with sculptures that celebrate the workers, the army and the heroes of WWII. They are very deep because they run below the rivers and canals that crisscross St. Petersburg, and I am very glad that we were able to add this experience to the day. Even the escalator was interesting, as it was one of the longest and fastest I’ve ever been on. I’m sure the locals on the trains were wondering why the silly people would want to partake in something they do every day – but truly it was a fascinating experience.
Getting back into the van, I had to move everything I’d left on the van so I could take the subway. As with all subways, pickpockets are prevalent. However, as I tried to arrange my seat, my pocket camera slipped off my wrist and I heard it hit the floor of the van. I tried looking for it, but it was not under my seat – at least where I could see. So, I had a bit of a panic as this meant I would have no pictures of the subway!
Our next stop was a noble family’s palace, the Yusupov Palace. There are a couple reasons this is an important palace to visit. One is that this was the home of one of the four conspirators that lured Rasputin to his death and the place where he came and was ultimately shot in the alley outside. Second, it had a theatre where they still do performances by music and dance troupes.
Next, we went to a traditional Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nickolas. This was an active church that remained active even during the Soviet Regime. Our guide’s father had been baptised in this church. She explained more about the iconography that is an important part of the church and some of the traditional ways to properly enter and worship. There was a service going on while we were there.
By now, it was past time for lunch. We opted for another traditional and local option. In addition to the “pies” that we had on the menu the day before, we also had “Russian ravioli” which I would describe more like perogies or dumplings stuffed with meat and served with sour cream.
Our last stop was the Peter & Paul Cathedral & Fortress. This was the oldest part of St. Petersburg – the original fort used to define and defend the city. With its walls is the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral which is the final resting place for the monarchs of Russia, including all the members of the last Romanov family. It also has a resident cat.
Once we got back to the ship, there is a final place to buy Russian souvenirs: dolls, lacquer boxes, Soviet military memorabilia, etc.
Then it was back on the ship to head to our next port of call.
My final thoughts on St. Petersburg:
It is a city of dichotomies – large ornate palaces and museums, and bland, stark housing blocks. Stunning churches, yet religion is not necessarily an important aspect in everyday life, especially for young people. The subway is good, but again a few of the stations are museums in their own right. I loved the food and the vodka! The people do not seem to smile much – at least not until you get the chance to get to know them.
I highly recommend using SPB Tours. They know the city, and can navigate and easily change an itinerary based on the group’s needs and what is going on in the city. Our tour guide was amazing! Thank you, Viktoria and Catherine!
The Celebrity Constellation finally docked in St. Petersburg. I wasn’t really surprised at how early we docked. According to the schedule, we should be able to disembark the ship at 7 AM; however given what we would have to go through at immigration, I figured the ship would have a lot of paperwork as well.
Also, because everyone would be trying to head off the ship at 7 (or close to 7) there was an “express breakfast” being service in the main dining room, in addition to the buffet. I figured the buffet was going to be a real nightmare, so I thought I would try the express. Not sure what I was expecting, but it was not the “express” I thought. Basically, it was one menu that included scrambled eggs, bacon sausage, toast, juice and coffee. Should be fast, right? Well, we still had a bit of a wait but at least there was none of the frantic mad dash that would be happening at the breakfast buffet. With breakfast done, it was time to try to get off the ship.
To get into Russia still takes Visas that can be very expensive and take at least 3 months to obtain. The easier option is to arrange a tour. If you opt to take one of the many offerings of the ship, that is taken care of for you. If you opt to arrange a more private tour, the tour company should also arrange for this as part of the package. Again, working with members of our Cruise Critic Roll Call, several vans were arranged with SPB Tours. This is an amazing organization and I highly recommend this tour company. Viktoria and her staff did everything to make this an experience to remember. They even told us what documentation we needed to have to get off the ship – and that we should be allowed off the ship at the same time as the ship’s tours.
Well, there was some sort of a delay and I’m not sure why but we finally got off the ship and headed to immigration. And here was our second delay. If seemed that, if we were on private tours, there were only 3 immigration lines opened – the rest were “dedicated” to the ship’s tour. Now, I could be wrong about this, however there seemed to be two streams of people going through the doors.
Russian immigration is an interesting thing. You can almost time it. It takes 60 seconds to process each person. You stand behind the yellow line until the green light indicates you can go forward to the booth where a lady that does not smile looks at your passport, immigration form, tour tickets and tour confirmation. She then takes half of the form and stamps your passport on the last page, preferably at the top corner – precisely at the top corner. Then the gate opens and you are in Russia.
SPB tour agents met us at the front doors of immigration and we were given our vans and tour guides, I was in Catherine’s group and our driver was Andrew. There were 16 people in our van – a perfect size for a tour group. Catherine has been leading tours for 13 years. She studied linguistics and knew more about the English language than most English speakers. She also had a connection to Toronto, as she was the translator that assisted a Toronto architect who designed the new opera house in St. Petersburg. And she was amazing!
Our first stop was to see the sphinxes that adorn one of the bridges in St. Petersburg – and to put our hands in the mouth of the griffon so that we would have good luck on our journeys in Russia. I love traditions like this, but trying to get a picture of the griffon without people I did not know was a challenge!
Next, we drove to Palace Square and St. Nickolas Cathedral which we going to be the site for a celebration for the 310th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. From there, it is a short drive to the Hermitage Museum. It was, of course, packed (however if you have faced the crowds in the Louvre, it is similar). The building itself is truly over the top. This was used a palace – actually there are 5 buildings or palaces that make up the Hermitage and somehow we made it through 4 of them!
This is also where we learned the depth of our tour guide Catherine’s knowledge. Not only did she know the history, but she was also well-versed in art and art history. She also asked us where we would like to spend more time – with the Italian Masters or Impressionists. I was very happy that the group opted for the Impressionists (always my favorite). This did not; however stop her from showing us some of the highlights of the Italians. On our way to the Impressionists gallery, I noticed a painting that seemed to be tucked away in a corner. Something about that light made me stop and examine the description – a Caravaggio! After my first trip to Malta and seeing Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John in the Co-Cathedral, I’ve been fascinated by his work (thanks again to another excellent tour guide who had a special love of Caravaggio’s work).
But back to the Impressionists! I was very happy and the Gaugin and Matisse pieces were especially nice to see.
Since this was my first museum in Russia, it was also my first experience with the “Russian grandmothers” – the elderly ladies who sit quietly in the rooms until you do something stupid, like use flash cameras or try to touch something. They reminded me a lot of the Greek grandmothers I upset so much in Athens (I guess putting a stuffed monkey on a statue to take a picture is not appropriate). Let’s just say I did not upset any grandmothers on this trip!
Next, we headed to the Church of the Resurrection, also known as the Church of the Spilt Blood. This is an over-the-top Russian Orthodox Church and was painstakingly reconstructed after WWII. Catherine’s grandfather actually worked on some of the mosaics, so we got to get a personal insight into this. It is an amazing building, both inside and out.
Lunch was at a local restaurant where we could get Russian “pies” (she called them perogies, but they were different from the Slavic ones I’m used to). They were more like pastry with some sort of stuffing – meat, chicken, mushroom, apple, etc. This was a place where locals would go for lunch, so it was fun to order from the counter. I tried a meat pie, which was delicious.
We next drove out of Petersburg to the town of Pushkin. This was the home of my palace (oops excuse me) Catherine’s Palace. In order to tour the building, we had to put the stylish booties over our shoes. Our tour guide said it was really to help polish the floors (I think I’ll get some of the booties for my cats and see if it helps clean my floors!). Once we were all “boot-ied”, it was time to see this beautifully restored palace. Room after room was more impressive than the next. Dining rooms were set with china, silks covered the walls, ornate furniture and carvings filled the rooms. Then we got to a room that strictly forbid ANY pictures. This was the infamous Amber Room. All I can say is WOW! To all my amber aficionado-friends, you would never want to leave. (I wonder if there is a garnet room somewhere for me?) We then walked through the gardens, after depositing our special booties, of course. I wish the weather was a little better as it was rainy and a bit cold, but I loved the lushness ad green of these gardens. As we left, there was a man playing a flute – it created a fitting atmosphere for the afternoon walk in the gardens.
Our last stop of the day was to a Russian gift shop before more driving through the city on our way back to the ship.
My evening was topped off with vodka and a performance by a Russian troupe.
That was a long day – and there is still more. The last thing I noticed is that even with 18 hours of daylight, once the sun was down, it was still “light” outside. It never got dark. I think I kind of understand what is meant by Russian White Nights.