When you're not interested in Tsars...
Reputation: Russia’s old imperial capital is all about the Tsars: founder Peter the Great, Nicholas II and everyone in between
Why you should go: great art, beautiful gardens, impressive 18th and 19th century architecture, loads of WWII and Soviet history. And vodka!
Our take on St Petersburg: increasing numbers of visitors arrive by cruise ship. This is great as you can stay up to 72 hours without a visa as long as you do a tour. The problem? Most tours focus on St Petersburg’s history as it relates to the Tsars, from the city’s founding by Peter the Great to all the palaces and museums the Tsars built. Here’s how to enjoy the tours if you’re not interested in St Petersburg’s imperial history.
Accessibility in St Petersburg: this can be a bit of a problem due to the cobbled streets and odd little steps everywhere. So if you use a mobility device or have a pushchair, take it slowly. Once you get to each site, there are lifts and ramps so you can get around. Some tour companies, like the one we recommend below, run tours specifically for people with mobility issues, which we think is great.
The Hermitage: enjoy the art
The Hermitage was the winter home of Russia’s imperial families from 1762 until the Russian Revolution. It’s now the State Hermitage Museum and contains artwork, sculpture, furniture and various items from the Tsars and other aristocratic families from across Russia.
The Hermitage has one of the largest art collections in the world, including two paintings by Da Vinci, an entire room of Rembrandt and another of Van Dyck. There’s Botticelli, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, Picasso, Raphael, Rubens, Velazquez... There’s also sculpture by Canova. Chances are, your guide will point these out. You can enjoy the art while others take in the imperial history.
Or, try asking your guide if you can meet your group at the end of the Hermitage tour and then explore on your own. Don’t get lost, the Hermitage is huge!
Palace Square: be amazed by its size
Palace Square is impressive, as you'd expect from something designed to impress and amaze the Tsar's guests. On one side are the Hermitage buildings. On another is the General Staff Building, which curves around the Square and has a fabulous archway topped by Chariots of Glory, a sculpture commemorating Russia’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars. In the middle is the Alexander Column. As you gaze at this very tall column, ponder this: it's not anchored to the ground. It relies on gravity to keep it in place.
Church on the Spilled Blood: be dazzled by the mosaics
The Church on the Spilled Blood is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It has the most glorious interior of any church we’ve ever seen. Mosaics cover every surface including the ceiling, and they are dazzling. Even if you’re not into arts, crafts or churches, you’ll appreciate this.
The exterior is ‘typically’ Russian with its onion domes (think St Basil’s in Moscow), which is unusual in St Petersburg, so soak it up, take a few selfies and watch Instagram and Facebook light up.
St Isaac’s Cathedral: be dazzled some more
The Cathedral is over 150 years old and is dedicated to St Isaac, a patron saint of Peter the Great. This is another site with a gorgeous interior. For the architecture buff, it’s one of the largest domed buildings in the world. Switch off the little headset your guide gave you and enjoy.
St Peter and Paul’s Fortress: learn about its past as a prison
The fortress marks the spot where St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in the 1700s and is also where most of Russia’s Tsars are buried. You may be more interested in its history as a political prison, ‘hosting’ big names like Maxim Gorky, Leon Trotsky and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Or, there’s a small beach just outside the fortress walls where you can enjoy a little sun and sand.
Yusupov Palace: discover the world’s dumbest murderers
Yusupov Palace is famous as the site of Rasputin’s murder in 1916. Felix Yusupov was the richest man in Russia and was concerned by the influence Rasputin had over the Tsar’s wife. He hatched a plot to kill Rasputin and the deed was done here.
Rasputin’s death by poisoning, then shooting, then drowning continues to fascinate. So, on this part of your tour, learn about the most incompetent murderers ever.
Catherine Palace: explore the gardens
Catherine Palace was the summer palace of the imperial family and is over 200 years old. You may be more interested in the baroque interior, including the gold-covered ballroom and the Amber Room, famous for its walls of, you guessed it, amber.
It can be a tough place to visit if you’re not interested in Tsars as all the interiors are reproductions, including the Amber Room, and it’s very crowded. This site split our contributors, with some loving it and others not enjoying it so much. If you prefer gardens to buildings, maybe spend your time outside.
Peterhof: enjoy the gardens (like everyone else)
Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace, is famous for its gardens and fountains. There are over 140 fountains, all powered by gravity, and various waterways and canals that lead from the palace to the Gulf of Finland. The gardens are the focus of most tours so you’re in luck. It’s a really nice spot to visit and it’s easy to block out any reference to Tsars.
Note that much of the garden was recreated after WWII. Stalin himself bombed Peterhof because Hitler was planning a victory celebration here. The same techniques are used to power the fountains as were used in the 1700s when the gardens were originally built.
Tip: in summer, take insect repellent.
The Faberge Museum: covert the jewelled eggs
In 1885, Tsar Alexander III gave his wife a fabulous, jewelled Easter egg made by Peter Carl Faberge, and Faberge eggs were born. The tradition continued until the last Tsar.
The Faberge Museum contains nine Faberge eggs and they’re amazing. Each egg is covered (and we mean, completely covered) in precious stones and does something clever. One egg opens to reveal a working model of a carriage. Another has photos that pop out the top.
You’ll also find displays of gorgeous enamel-and-jewelled gifts given by the Tsars as gifts, and examples of silverwork and gold-covered religious icons by Russian artists dating from the 1700s. And there’s a side room of modernist paintings. Unlike other museums in St Petersburg, the Faberge Museum is small and easy to get around before museum-fatigue sets in.
The Faberge Museum is usually an added extra to most tours. We loved it, even our non-jewellery contributor. It’s well worth a visit.
Everywhere: learn about St Petersburg’s WWII history...
St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was called at the time) took a pounding during WWII especially during the 900-day siege, the longest siege in modern warfare. The Church on the Spilled Blood was used as a morgue. Vegetables were grown in the gardens of St Isaac’s so residents had something to eat. Peterhof and Catherine Palace were mostly destroyed and many other buildings, like the Hermitage, suffered significant damage. Most sites have photos showing the damage and your guide will give you more information. People in St Petersburg are rightly proud of what the city has survived.
On the drive to Catherine Palace, keep an eye out for the memorial to the 900-day siege. At the Church on the Spilled Blood there's a small section of the exterior around the back that wasn’t restored after the war so visitors can see the damage.
If you’re a WWII buff and have read The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Harrison Salisbury, you’ll get a lot out of your tour because you’ll see many of the places mentioned in the book.
…or learn about Soviet Leningrad
Many of the buildings you’ll visit during your tour were put to very modest uses during the Soviet years, when the city was known as Leningrad. For example, the Church on the Spilled Blood was used as a warehouse. St Isaac's was turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Your guide can give you more information during your tour.
If you do just one thing related to the Tsars…
You’ll be at the Hermitage anyway so you may as well hear about how they lived.
Or, at St Peter and Paul's Fortress, you can see where the last imperial family is laid to rest, after being shot and then hastily buried in Yekaterinburg during the Russian Revolution. The whole family is here: Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and all his children. Sorry conspiracy theorists, this includes his daughter Anastasia who sadly didn't escape the firing squad. Peter the Great is also buried here.
How we did St Petersburg
We had two days in St Petersburg as part of a cruise and booked our tour through Alla Tours. Alla was very professional, the guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and its itineraries covered all the popular spots. The prices were pretty good too (far cheaper than what’s offered by the cruise ships) and included pick-up from the cruise ship, entrance fees and yummy lunches. An added bonus was the wifi on the minivan. We absolutely recommend Alla (and no, we didn’t get a freebie and aren’t getting a cut of anything you book, unfortunately).
Our tips when booking a tour:
- Tour groups get priority entry to all sites. Hiring a car and driver may count as a ‘tour’ for visa purposes but you’ll spend A LOT of time in queues.
- Opt for a tour that’s done in small groups (no more than 16 people).
- The headsets provided by guides don’t stay on very well so bring your own earplugs.
- Beware of pickpockets. We hate having to say this but they're quite obvious and hang around all the popular places.
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Contributors: Ann-Marie Nansett, Michael Nansett
Updated: 13 January 2017