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St Petersburg was established on May 27th, 1703 by Peter the Great, who, having defeated the Swedish in the area, decided to build the capital city of Russia. He promptly built the Peter and Paul Fortress and so began the Imperial era of the Tsars, which ran until the revolution of 1917. It’s during this time that the buildings, churches and museum collections, “the tourist attractions”, were built. It was a time of absurd opulence, as we were to find out.

Assumption Church, St Petersburg

When you are booked on an “official tour”, you don’t need a visa, but on leaving our Celebrity cruise ship, we still dreaded the Russian customs, imagining “one wrong step and it’s off to the gulag!” In fact, while the Russians aren’t big on smiling and saying “have a nice day,” the process was well organized and relatively painless. 

St Peter & Paul Cathedral Ceiling, St Petersburg

And so started our whirlwind tour of St Petersburg.

It quickly became a blur of vast domed-buildings, copious amounts of gold-gilded statues, (GGSs), tombs, candles, grand paintings – it’s impossible to do it justice. We faced a decision. Do we learn the entire minutia or simply enjoy the staggering scale of it all? We went for the latter!

St Peter & Paul Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia

Here was a royalty for which there was absolutely no limit. If they wanted an Italian fresco, or an interior designed in a French baroque style, a curator was commissioned to Italy or France. There, the appropriate knowledge or item was acquired and all was shipped back to the Motherland. 

The gorgeous filigree gates of the Summer Palace

After one morning in St Petersburg, we drove to a suburb called Pushkin and here we witnessed the reality of modern Russia. The Soviet era built thousands of apartment blocks, where accommodation for the masses, not aesthetics, was the agenda. It creates a hodge-podge landscape of wide roads and boulevards, many condos, parks and occasional old, grand, homes. Not aesthetic, but clean and tidy.

We arrived at a small church, Tsarskoe Selo, used by Catherine II when she stayed at her Summer Palace nearby. It was modest by Tsarist standards, probably a mere few million dollars worth of GGSs, artwork and murals. But then we went to the Summer Palace. This was staggering, with art, murals and (GGSs) galore.

St Catherine’s Summer Palace, St Petersburg, Russia
Interior, St Catherine’s Summer Palace, St Petersburg, Russia
St Catherine’s Summer Palace, St Petersburg, Russia
Dinner at the Summer Palace
St Catherine’s Summer Palace, St Petersburg, Russia
Parquet Flooring Summer Palace
Porcelain Stoves, St Catherine’s Summer Palace, St Petersburg, Russia
St Catherine’s Summer Palace, St Petersburg, Russia

After touring the palace, terminally exhausted with brains screaming for a rest, we strolled through the gardens, laid out in a natural style with follies, a number of lakes with mansion-sized boathouses and lovely tree-shaded paths. 

Folly, Summer Palace

Driving back, we stopped at the Leningrad monument, which is parked at the centre of a huge roundabout. St Petersburg was under siege by the Germans for 800+ days in WWII. More than a million inhabitants starved to death. It was a staggering Nazi atrocity.

Siege of Leningrad Memorial
Siege of Leningrad Memorial

The monument is huge and monolithic, devoid of any charm. But this atrocity is etched into the history of St Petersburg and Russia. No nation suffered more than Russia in WWII, with an estimated 28 million deaths.

On day two, we visited the Hermitage. It was vast and incredibly opulent. 

There was enough fine art to match any major renaissance museum, but the décor itself was staggering. Each room was different – everywhere there were acres of GGSs, filigree and chandeliers, hundreds of huge, gorgeous vases made from semi-precious stone, intricate parquet, stone or marble floors and 18th & 19th century hand-crafted furniture and more. 


The Amber room was “wallpapered” with thousands of amber pieces. An extraordinary sight and well worth the visit. (Photography was prohibited.)

A word about our guide: 27 year old Sergei was charming extremely knowledgeable about all things Russian. His English was very good and since we were on a private tour, we were able to have some very scintillating conversations about the Russia he knows and loves. 

Sergei, our illustrious guide to all things Russian

After a traditional Russian lunch, which was lovely, we headed to Peterhof, another summer palace, (you can’t have enough summer palaces right?)

Samples of delicious Russian Cuisine

On the way we visited the Russian subway. Stalin decided the subways should be “The Temples To The Workers” and temples they are! A neat thing to see, each station is different but they’re all done out in marble with carvings, sculptures and inlays. A very ornate underground!

Peterhof palace is another huge palace, but the feature here is the gardens. So now we saw huge fountains surrounded GGSs, plus very French style ornate gardens.

Peterhof, St Petersburg, Russia

From the front of the palace, one overlooks a fountain which leads to a canal, which ends at the sea about 1km away. It’s beautiful view.

Peterhof, St Petersburg, Russia

As we wandered we came across many fountains, some grand with GGSs, others small and whimsical.

Peterhof, St Petersburg, Russia

After a long walk, we caught a very scenic hydrofoil boat-ride back to town. 

Hydrofoil, St Petersburg, Russia

Next morning, exiting the ship like two punch drunk sailors, we started at the Russian museum to see the second largest collection of Russian art, (Moscow wins of course).

The Ninth Wave, Ivan Aivazovsky Russian Museum St Petersburg

There were some lovely pieces, (a large Aivazovsky  painting of a shipwreck is the best depiction of “The Perfect Storm” that you’ll ever see) and it was interesting to observe how Russian art evolved in parallel with, but definitely differently from European art. All the milestones of change, i.e. the renaissance period, cubism, etc. arrived later in Russia. 

Last Days of Pompeii, Russian Museum by Karl Bryullov  1833
Wave, Ivan Aivazovsky Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Finally, seriously flagging we toured the Spilled Blood Church, which was built to commemorate the attempted assassination of Alexander II – he later died of his wounds.

Spilled Blood Church

By now we were numb and we ended with a brief unmemorable visit to the Faberge museum. The “dumb, arrogant wealth” that, in the late 19th C, could spend a vast fortune on these ridiculous, decorated, egg shaped, ornaments – just for Easter – was actually irritating. No wonder there was a revolution!

All in all a wonderful, albeit exhausting, three days. A pre-trip wikipedia skim of St Petersburg, would have been worthwhile – you got it, I did not do this and wish I had! 

IF YOU GO: a few tips:

• Arrange the guided tour before you go – cheaper than the cruise-ship tours.

• Three solid days is arduous. I would suggest 2 days, split up by something different. A trip to Moscow is a long day, but less exhausting, because a nap can be had on the long, 4-hour train rides. A day of cruise-ship R & R, followed by a ballet or Russian show in St Petersburg, would be another option.

• For art lovers, the Russian museum has a fabulous collection of Russian art and the Hermitage has collections of the great masters.

Rembrandt – David’s parting from Jonathan, 1642 – Hermitage Collection

• The Hermitage is a must and a trip out of St Petersburg lets you see “the burbs.” Peterhof, with a hydrofoil trip back to St Petersburg, is fun. Basically, any of the palaces are awash in opulence.

• You don’t need rubles. Credit card plus some USD for tips will suffice.

• If you can, find 20 minutes for the Leningrad Monument. No, it’s not a breathtaking work of art, but we felt the siege should be remembered for the atrocity it was.

If you are interested in a private tour, which we highly recommend, we booked through: Tailored Tours. Ask for Timofey, Sergei’s dad.


~ Author Colin Rankin for TRDB

Colin Rankin working hard to TRDB
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