We were very excited to find that we could visit St Petersburg, Russia from Helsinki on the Russian Visa-Free Travel Program. With this program, you must arrive and leave the country by boat, spend less that 72 hours in Russia and have a tour booked.
In our case, we travelled on the St Peter Line ferry/cruise. This involved overnight travel between Helsinki and St Petersburg. The ship was newly renovated during the off-season and had only begun it’s new season 3 days before we boarded. It was fairly nicely appointed and everything went well, although there was quite a bit of confusion in the restaurants – there appeared to be no plan on serving the patrons and new staff definitely required better training. But they were super friendly and trying very hard. As well the food quality was quite good!
We had booked two economical cabins for the four of us – the two twin beds in each and small private bathrooms were more than sufficient for this journey. The boarding and disembarkation seemed somewhat chaotic – but all of the documents that we needed were in order and once our wait to get to the customs agents passed, all went well.
We left Helsinki at 1900 h, sailed through the night and disembarkation began at 0900. By 1000 h, we were meeting our tour guide and driver for the day. Although technically all one needs to do is pay for the St Peter Line shuttle bus (and this is mandatory whether you will use it or not) to qualify as booking a tour, we had decided that we wanted to make the most of our short time in the city.
We booked a 2 day tour with a St P company in their mini-group category. That meant there could be up to 10 people on our tour which we thought was a manageable number. However, being somewhat off-season, we were very lucky and the four of us had our own private guide, driver and Mercedes touring van for the entire two days. This was an amazing experience!
I would highly recommend KURS-SPb Tours. From the first contact with the company until they returned us to the ship, they were excellent.
Saint Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city after Moscow, with approximately five million inhabitants. Situated on the Neva River, at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, it was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. In 1914, the name was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad and in 1991, the citizens voted to change the name back to Saint Petersburg. Between 1713 and 1728 and in 1732–1918, Saint Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia.
Our first destination was the town of Pushkin and Catherine’s Summer Palace. Pushkin is approximately 25 kilometres from St P and it was interesting to see the outskirts of the city and the surrounding countryside. As we travelled, Helena, our guide, continuously described what we were passing, with an unbelievable amount of information and historical context.
In contrast to the beauty of the city that I will describe, the outskirts showed a more gritty side – and the crumbling apartment buildings we have seen before in former Soviet cities were very noticeable. Helena told us that there is a movement to destroy and replace these monstrosities and it most certainly will improve the look of things – not to mention the living conditions for those who still live in these buildings.
The Catherine Palace is named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband’s death. Originally a modest two-storey building commissioned by Peter for Catherine in 1717, the Catherine Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose Tsarskoe Selo as her chief summer residence. Starting in 1743, Elizabeth commissioned a redesign of the Palace to rival Versailles. The resultant palace, completed in 1756, is nearly 1 km in circumference, with elaborately decorated blue-and-white facades featuring gilded atlantes, caryatids and pilasters using over 100 kg of gold.
The interiors of the Catherine Palace are no less spectacular. We entered via the State Staircase which dates from the 1860s and features ornate banisters and reclining marble cupids.
The Great Hall, also known as the Hall of Light, measures nearly 1,000 square meters, and occupies the full width of the palace so that there are superb views on either side. The large arched windows provide enough light to relieve the vast quantity of gilded stucco decorating the walls, and the entire ceiling is covered by a monumental fresco entitled The Triumph of Russia.
Using similar techniques but on a smaller scale, the White Dining Room is equally luxurious but, like many of the rooms in the palace, its grandeur is softened by the presence of a beautiful traditional blue-and-white tiled heater in the corner.
The Palace continued on with this amazing beauty – here are just a few more photos….
After our time in the Palace, we hopped back into the van, where Valerei our driver provided us with an excellent box lunch to eat as we made our way back to the city.
Our next stop was at the Yusupov Palace. One of two surviving St. Petersburg residences of the monumentally wealthy Yusupov family, the Yusupov Palace on the Moika River is perhaps most famous as the scene of the assassination of Grigory Rasputin. The legends surrounding Rasputin’s murder, which took place in the basement of the Yusupov Palace on 16 December 1916, are mostly based on the sensationalist account in the autobiography of Prince Felix Yusupov, who claimed to have led the plotters in first poisoning, then shooting, then beating Rasputin with clubs and throwing him into the icy Malaya Nevka River, where the Mad Monk eventually died of hypothermia. There is now a display in the palace museum that uses photography, documents, and wax figures to recreate the assassination and the following investigation.
The Palace is one of the few aristocratic homes in the city to have retained many of its original interiors. In 1830, the palace was purchased by Prince Nikolay Borisovich Yusupov, and it remained in the ownership of the family until seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Leaving the Palace, we took a coffee break and then travelled to St Isaac’s Cathedral.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral or Isaakievskiy Sobor is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city. Depending on which source you choose to believe, it may be the largest orthodox basilica and the fourth largest (by the volume under the cupola) cathedral in the world. It is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Peter the Great, who had been born on the feast day of that saint. The dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg and its gilded cupola can be seen glistening from all over the city.
The church itself is an architectural marvel. The cathedral was under construction for 40 years (1818-1858), and was decorated in the most elaborate way possible. When you enter the cathedral you pass through one of the porticos – the columns are made of single pieces of red granite and weight 80 tons each. Inside the church many of the icons were created using mosaic techniques and the iconostasis (the icon wall that separates the altar from the rest of the church) is decorated with 8 malachite and 2 lapis lazuli columns. The cathedral, which can accommodate 14,000 worshipers, now serves as a museum and services are held only on significant ecclesiastical holidays.
Helena left us at the cathedral at ~5 pm after providing us with description of the history and amazing interior. We then spent some time wandering the streets of the area, taking in the sights and observing the citizens as they went about their day.
The tour company had made a dinner reservation for us at a traditional Russian restaurant, Teplo. It was superb – quirky and homey, with friendly staff and excellent food and drinks.
Leaving the restaurant, we walked back to St Isaac’s for some evening pictures and then on to the Winter Palace for the same. Fog was setting in and it was a magical evening. We then caught the St Peter Line shuttle bus back to the ship and spent the night in our cabins.
It was a great day! Next post will continue with Day 2 in St Petersburg!