Situated on the Baltic Sea, St Petersburg is an impressive Russian port city. Its ornate architecture, grand museums and UNESCO World Heritage status make St Petersburg Russia’s cultural capital.
While holidaymakers might not immediately feel drawn to the city, due to political controversies, St Petersburg has so much to offer the discerning traveller. Forming part of a Baltic cruise holiday, your stopover in this lavishly-built city should be treasured, as it provides a unique opportunity to experience an entirely new culture, and see some of the world’s finest buildings.
It’s said that the city of Saint Petersburg was very much the creation of Peter the Great (1682-1725), who ruled the Tsardom of Russia and later the Russian Empire. He had hoped for the city to display imperial Russia’s growing status in the world and, with the help of talented European architects, the ornate city we know today was created. Over time, a network of canals, streets and quays was built under the reign of Peter the Great. The development of the city’s urban landscape continued to develop under the Empresses Anna Ioannovna (1730-1740), Elisabeth Petrovna (1741-1762) and Catherine II the Great (1762-1796). St Petersburg’s transformation did not go unnoticed and the city came to be known as the Venice of the North.
Today, with more than 220 museums, 2,000 libraries, 80 theatres, 45 galleries and 62 cinemas, St Petersburg has no shortage of exciting attractions and activities for culture vultures. If you’re eager to learn more about the city ahead of your cruise to the Baltics, read on.
Be inspired by one of the world’s largest museums
As the city’s most popular attraction and one of the world’s largest museums, a visit to The Hermitage Museum is highly recommended. With over three million items in its collection, those with an interest in art, history and culture can be entertained for hours. In fact, it’s fairly easy to get drawn into the museum for an entire day, if you’re not careful. According to Saint Petersburg’s tourism website, it’s estimated that you would need 11 years to view each exhibit at The Hermitage Museum for just one minute.
The museum’s unmistakable green, white and gold façade is in itself a work of art. Nestled beside the Neva River, this world-famous museum holds the private collection of Empress Catherine the Great, who commanded Russian ambassadors to scour the globe to find the finest artworks. Art aficionados will find a Renaissance collection featuring works by Cezanne and Monet, as well as 20th-century painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Kandinksy.
Visit a beautiful building with a dark name
One of St Petersburg’s most iconic buildings was built in memory of Alexander II, who was the Emperor of Russia from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood stands in the very place where a bomb was thrown into the emperor’s carriage, by a man who opposed the Tsar’s policies. Alexander II is considered to be have been one of Russia’s greatest tsars, responsible for the emancipation of serfs, which was essentially the slavery of Russian peasants.
The grand church, with its ornate façade, is often compared to St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Its uniquely colourful exterior makes it stand out against most of St Petersburg’s uniformed architecture. The church took 24 years to build and remains one of the largest mosaic collections in Europe. It is open each day from 10.30am to 6 pm and offers evening openings between May and September.
Wander along the Nevsky Prospect
It’s difficult to miss the Nevsky Prospekt during your Baltic cruise stopover in St Petersburg. This is the city’s main avenue and one of the country’s best-known streets. Cutting through the cultural heart of St Petersburg, the Nevsky Prospekt passes historic buildings, squares and bridges, giving you a flavour of the city. Look out for the Kazan Cathedral, which was inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and was designed to be the country’s main Orthodox Church. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is also set on this avenue.
Grab a bargain at the city’s biggest flea market
If you’re seeking vintage Russian items such as old ornaments, furniture or clothes, stop by Udelnaya Flea Market. Sellers arrive in the cold, early hours to set up their stalls. A mix of young people looking to make some extra cash and older people clearing out their homes can be spotted placing their wares out on tables and blankets for sale. For those of you seeking unique souvenirs, Udelnaya Flea Market is Russia’s biggest flea market, so there’s plenty to browse. The market opens on weekends.
Discover the ornate works of Faberge
See the world’s largest collection of Faberge eggs during your stopover in St Petersburg. Set in the 18th century Shuvalolv Palace, the museum holds the very first egg that artist Peter Carl Faberge created in 1855. These jewelled imperial eggs were made for the Russian tsars Alexander II and Nichols II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. The House of Faberge, led by Peter Carl Faberge, are believed to have created 65 eggs in total. Of these, only 57 have survived to the present day. A total of 9 are housed in the Faberge Museum in St Petersburg.
Roam the gardens of Peterhof Palace
Some 30 miles from the city’s cruise terminal, Peterhof Palace is well worth an afternoon excursion if you have the time. The beautiful gardens and parkland surrounding the palace represent almost two centuries of European aristocratic fashion, leading visitors through the ages via ornate sculptures and landscaped grounds. Peterhof Palace’s gardens are so spectacular, they have often been dubbed the Russian Versailles.
Peter the Great, who is credited with the creation of St Petersburg itself, was also responsible for the construction of Peterhof Palace. He began construction of the palace, known as the Monsplaisir ‘my pleasure’ Palace, based on his own sketches. Over the years, the palace continued to evolve, with ornate fountains and fine details added to elaborate the already splendid building.
Today, visitors can roam the opulent gardens for themselves. Admission is free and the grounds are open each day from 9 am to 8 pm.
Explore Russia’s largest orthodox basilica
St Isaac’s is St Petersburg’s largest Russian Orthodox cathedral. Dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Peter the Great, the church is built in neoclassical style. Sculptures and impressive granite columns form the exterior, while the interior is adorned with mosaic icons, paintings, and a beautiful stained-glass window of the ‘Resurrected Christ’, which sites in the main altar. St Isaac’s Cathedral can accommodate 14,000 people and is open to visitors daily.
Eat and drink like a local
In between exploring St Petersburg’s turbulent history and opulent architecture, be sure to stop for some traditional Russian cuisine. Due to Russia’s often bitterly cold weather (known to drop below 22 degrees) many of the country’s most popular dishes are hearty and warming. Borsch is a beetroot and cabbage soup often served with meat, potato, herbs and Smetana, a type of Russian sour cream. You’re likely to see smoked salmon or salted herring on the menu in traditional restaurants, as well as shahlik (roasted meats and fish on skewers), pelmeni (Russian dumplings which are filled with lamb, pork or beef), and pirozhki, which is essentially a mini pie. If you’re brave enough, try vodka the Russian way – neat, in an ice-cold shot glass.
If you’re eager to visit St Petersburg and its neighbouring countries, take a look at our range of Baltic cruises. As well as this fascinating Russian port city, you can visit the likes of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn.
Image credits: Ninara