St. Petersburg (Ex Leningrad)
St. Petersburg (Ex Leningrad) Overview
There's something eerie about coming to St. Petersburg. Probably Cold War remembrances (this was after all once an Evil Empire), and all sorts of warnings from ship personnel about pickpockets and blackmarketeers -- and the fact that you have to go past stern-faced, uniformed customs officials at the pier doesn't help. Although it did crack us up on a recent visit when a shore-side band broke into "New York, New York" by way of greeting...
Once in the city, you may find St. Petersburg a wonderful place ... or you may find your experience here one big hassle. The key museums and attractions are not air conditioned and rarely have special facilities for the disabled. There are few signs in English and understanding what you are seeing -- whether it's a street sign, a shop name or a painting description -- can be impossible. And the Hermitage is typically packed to the gills -- you may have to do a lot of jostling to see the art highlights.
And yet the beautiful city Peter the Great founded in 1703 in what was then swampland, has today unbelievably sumptuous Tsarist-era palaces (efforts have been underway for years to fix the crumbling ones), onion-domed churches and the lovely Neva River (where twilight cruises are offered). Peter was inspired by London, Paris and Vienna and carefully developed the city by plan, creating canals and passageways. Most of the design remains today.
The fact that cruise ships typically spend at least one overnight here allows you also to explore the countryside as well, where past the bland Soviet-style apartment buildings of the suburbs are opulent country palaces -- impressive memorials to the best Tsarist money could buy.
St. Petersburg was capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 to 1914 and remains Russia's cultural capital -- all the big names have been affiliated with St. Petersburg including Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. The city itself is like a living museum -- you are likely to find yourself ooing and ahhing at the architecture from your cab or bus -- and art is a key attraction. You've been to the Louve in Paris. Now you have to see the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. And don't miss a chance to see Russian ballet performed live.
St. Petersburg (Ex Leningrad) Quick Facts
Editor's note: This is one of the few Baltic ports of call where we actually really recommend that passengers take ship-organized shore excursions. Keep in mind you can only go off on your own if you have obtained a visa before your trip. Ships offer a variety of tours, each covering a handful of the major highlights. These include:
The Hermitage (closed Monday, open from 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, 10:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday) is the world's second largest art museum (behind the Louvre) and easily St. Petersburg's most famous attraction. The four buildings that make up the museum include the opulent Winter palace, which was built by Peter the Great's daughter (Elizabeth) and has undergone major renovations that have left it sparkling. Walk up an imposing baroque marble staircase and marvel at all the gold leaf, and check out the several heavily decorated rooms including a throne room.
Your guide will tell you how the art collecting began with Catherine the Great (although what she collected could only be viewed by royal eyhes and invited guests). Today's art collection is in chronological order. On a recent visit we started with names familiar to fans of the old Ninja Turtles cartoon -- Botticelli, Leonardo (DaVinci), Raffael, Michelangleo. Next you move on to the Spanish collection (Valazquez, Goya, El Greco to name a few).
The Hermitage's Rembrandt collection is the second biggest after Amsterdam, and among the paintings is The Danae, which may or may not actually be by Rembrandt, but has a place in history for being slashed and burned with acid in 1985 by a madman. It took 12 years to restore the work.
Frustratingly crowded during out visit (with passengers from seven cruise ships among the viewers) was the museum's famous Impressionist collection, put together by collectors in Moscow but then declared bourgeois by Stalin -- the collection sat in warehouses until the end of World War II, when it was divided up between the Hermitage and Museum of Modern Art in Moscow.
There are Renoirs, Van Goghs, Cezannes and Gauguins in room after room, followed by a lot of Matisse and some Picasso too. Don't miss the fabulous gift shop, which is a great place to buy quality souvenirs. A novel idea being tested is a radio system so you can put on headphones and actually hear your guide (on a recent trip some of the headphones broke but technicians were on hand to fix them promptly).
St. Isaac's Cathedral (closed Wednesday and the last Monday in the month, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Thursday - Monday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday), the biggest in St. Petersburg, is an immense, awesome spectacle. It's not all that old -- it was completed in the mid 19th century -- but it's replete inside and out with gorgeous mosaic murals, granite pillars and marble floors. Its huge gold dome can be seen for miles around.
Russian Museum (closed only on Tuesdays, from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.) is housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace and is one of two top places in all of Russia to showcase the culture of the country, from 12th-century icons to the avant-garde. Don't miss the adjacent Mikhailovsky Gardens -- a lovely spot to rest.
Peter & Paul Fortress (closed Wednesdays and the last Tuesday of every month, from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Thursday - Monday and 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Tuesday) is the original part of St. Petersburg. Built in 1703, it was initially planned as a defense against Sweden, but the Russians won that war before the fortress was completed, so it was used, until 1917, as a political prison instead. Many of the czars and other Russian royalty are buried here; other highlights include the Baroque-style Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Trubetskoy Bastion.
Magnificent palaces. The primary palaces are Catherine's Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great's Peterhof -- and you can do them in a day (but just barely). Peterhof lies on the Baltic Sea, a magnificent landmark of Russian artistic culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, founded in the very beginning of the 18th century by Emperor Peter the Great.
Pushkin (closed Tuesdays and the last Monday of every month) neighbors the palace of Pavlovsk (closed Fridays and the first Monday of every month, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.), which was built for Russian Tsar Paul I, the only son of Catherine the Great; both were built in the mid- to late-18th century, have been beautifully restored, and are situated among gorgeous parks and gardens.
Russian, and don't expect everyone to know English (except of course for your well-versed tour guides).
Assuming you have your visa, a cab from the main pier to the city center is about $20 each way, but negotiate upfront and be aware it's easy to get ripped off here. And use caution as there are such things here as black market cabs: We recommend you stick with official, registered vehicles.
Since your return driver may not speak English it's a good idea to have the ship's berth location in Russian writing (ship personnel at the pier should be able to help you with that). The major in-town attractions, such as the Hermitage, the Russian Museum and St. Isaac's Cathedral (all highlights), are within a brisk walk of one another. Taxis typically line up outside the big attractions; again, negotiate the price before getting into the car. Otherwise, head for one of the five-star hotels (Grand Hotel Europe, Nevsky Palace Hotel, SAS Radisson) on Nevsky Prospect, the city's main boulevard, and hail one there.
Renting a car and driver: You can try and negotiate with the on-pier taxi drivers; one offered us a private tour of wherever we wanted to go for about $30 an hour. You can also arrange a tour through the City Tourist Information Center, #41 Nevsky Prospekt, email:firstname.lastname@example.org, which quoted us an hourly rate of $10 - $12, but the on-pier option is undeniably more convenient. Cruise lines' shore excursion offices may also offer car-and-driver rentals. The City Tourist Information Center will also arrange a private two-hour city walking tour ($25 per person).
Where You're Docked
The main cruise ship dock is at the huge commercial port about 25 minutes outside of the city center. There is also a decent gift shop at the pier selling good quality crafts at reasonable prices (we bought a pretty Faberge-style egg for $17). Some small ships dock closer to town on the Neva.
Staying in Touch
The Internet Club, #22-24 Nevsky Prospekt, is huge with a sophisticated computer setup. Rates are 30 rubles (about a dollar) for 20 minutes. Payment by rubles or credit card (Visa or Mastercard).
Another great place to check e-mail or surf the Internet is in the basement of the Hermitage (adjacent to a cafe, bar and the main gift shop); Cafe Max has 20 stations and charges 20 rubles (about 70 cents) for 20 minutes.
Dining is not necessarily a culinary experience in St. Petersburg. Russian food tends towards meat and potatoes and fresh fish, simply prepared. Don't expect to see a lot of new culinary trends. But a handful of restaurants -- including those in the best hotels -- are good options for lunching out.
Aquarel (Birzhevoi Bridge, on the river, open daily from noon until late), the city's first fusion-cuisine (French and Asian) eatery, has the best view -- across the river from Hermitage.
Rossi's (Nevsky Prospekt at Mikhailovskaya, part of the Grand Hotel Europe, open daily from noon until midnight) is a pleasant sidewalk cafe just off that busy boulevard; the food is adequate, the people-watching sublime.
Mollie's (#36 Rubinsteina, just off Nevsky Prospekt, open daily from noon until 1 a.m.) offers Irish pub-style fare.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
You are best off dealing here in dollars, which all the street vendors and most of the shops (including the gift shop at the pier) will take. Have a lot of $1's, 5's and $10's on hand. Otherwise, use a credit card. You are not allowed to take Russian rubles outside of the country. But for those who want some on hand anyway, there are ATM's in the city center.
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