St. Petersburg was a much brighter and more welcoming city than we were expecting! We felt a 2 Day highlights tour was just right for traveling with our 18 month old, who was a favorite of the local babushkas.
Troy visited 10 years ago and noticed immense improvements in the infrastructure and tourism. Much of this is owed to their preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Fun Fact St. Petersburg imposes a heavy tax on black paint to discourage anyone from painting buildings in dark colors. The weather is gloomy enough as it is that they wanted the buildings to cheer residents and visitors up.
Preparing to Visit Russia
A visa to see St. Petersburg on your own costs several hundred dollars per person and the application process is lengthy and involved. (You need to provide extensive list of every country visited in the past 10 years as well as background information about your relatives.)
To avoid this cost, you can book a tour. After much research, we booked with SPB Tours. We had considered Alla tours as well however they do not allow young children.
The listed price per ticket of the 2 day highlights tour is $210 per person. However, if you mention them on Cruise Critic you get 10% off!
The Highlight of our Tour – Hermitage (Winter Palace) Museum
This palace was built by Peter the Great’s daughter and would be filled with Catherine the Great’s art collection.
They have the most impressive collection of European Art I have ever seen. To our good fortune, our toddler slept through the entire 2 hour tour so we really got to soak it in. The guide shared that if we had stopped to see every piece in the collection for just 2 minutes, it would take 8 years to see everything! Plus, only 15% of the collection is on display at any given time. She focused on the highlights of each room. The rooms themselves were opulent on their own, so filling it with fine art was icing on the experience. Da Vinci, Raphael, Matisse, Picasso, Goya, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Van Gogh filled the museum.
Our tour was on a Monday. The museum is closed to the public on Mondays, but available for tour groups. This made the experience even better as we weren’t being pushed through for a steady stream of visitors. On Mondays, student artists also are able to come in and attempt to ‘copy’ the art by the masters. It was incredible to watch them work.
St. Petersburg has some of the deepest and most decorated subways in the world. Nearly a mile deep, the escalator felt like it took ages to reach the platform. We rode the subway just 1 stop to see the platforms of two different stations. The metro is a must see.
Waterfront Views on the Neva and Moyka Rivers
The Neva connects St. Petersburg to all Russian waterways and to the rest of Europe.
Church on Spilled Blood
It was built on the spot where suicide bomber assassinated Alexander II (1881). The church was built in 24 years (then after the WWII, restored in 30 years). The interior is covered “head to toe” with mosaics. Due to being built for a solemn purpose, it didn’t hold worship services or baptisms, only funerals and today serves primarily as a museum. You’ll notice empty frames where silver pieces had been sold to raise money for the Soviet regime.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
Considered the foremost Russian Orthodox church in the world, it’s marble columns and bronze sculptures are magnificent.
Peter and Paul Fortress
It’s located on the mouth of the Neva river and established in 1703 by Peter the Great. The thick wall was filled with prison barracks, hence it’s depth. Inside the gate leading to the Neva river, plaques mark flood lines that St. Petersburg has experienced. At the center, is the Cathedral with the thin gold tower. All Czars since the early 1600s are buried here including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the Romanov family (Anastasia too).
Lunch at Market Place which is a chain in St. Petersburg offered several stations with a variety of foods. Many traditional Russian lunches as well as more familiar dishes. We tried the Cabbage Soup (surprisingly good!), Russian Potato Salad, and Compote Juice.
Peterhof (the Summer Palace)
Peterhof is situated right on the Gulf of Finland and is considered Russia’s Versailles. The most famous attribute is its impressive fountain cascade of the Lower Gardens. All the fountains are fed by a lake and flow into gulf (the water is not recycled.)
In the 1800s it would’ve taken the Czars 5 hours to reach their Summer Palace, for our tour van it took an hour.
The inside of the Palace felt much like the Hermitage which its Baroque style of white stucco covered in gold leaf, mirrored halls, and ornate studies. It was interesting to see the styles of the bedrooms though which we did not see at the Hermitage.
It was incredible to see the state of the palace after WWII due to Nazi occupation but how meticulously it was restored. Visitors wear slippers to avoid damaging the in-laid wooden floors which featured a different design in each room.
Catherine the Great looks a bit different in each painting, it seems artists hadn’t yet mastered realism.
A fun feature of the Palace Gardens are Trick Fountains. There are ordinary benches observed by a hidden operator and when the unsuspecting visitor takes a seat, the fake trees and flowers begin to spout water!
Tickets were unfortunately sold out otherwise our tour was supposed to have had a stop here. Much of the palace would feel like the other Baroque palaces, but we would have loved to see it’s Amber Room and the largest palace room in Russia (9000 square feet!).