St Petersburg was the stop that most excited me on my recent Princess Cruise through the Baltic Sea. The best thing about visiting Russia on a cruise is that you don’t require a visa (which can be costly and time-consuming) if you have booked yourself on an authorised excursion before arrival.
While that may sound like you are going to be herded around under a watchful eye, in reality, it merely means that you’ll be guided through some of the top sights in the city (our guide was terrific and very open to all conversation topics) as well as being given some free time to explore on your own.
I opted for an excursion from Princess directly as they guarantee the ship will wait for you if you return late but only when booked direct and their ‘Best of St Petersburg’ small group tour with a few personalised tweaks was an ideal introduction to this captivating city. Scroll down to read everything I got up to in St Petersburg or jump to 3:30 on the video for a glimpse into the cit
Time in port:
2-days, 6am – 6 pm
(time in port can vary depending on departure date, you can check exact timings on the Princess website)
Transport/distance: Around 40 minutes transfer
Excursions available: If you want to take advantage of no visa entry to Russia, you must book an excursion off the ship either with Princess directly or an authorised local agent. I’d highly recommend the ‘Best of’ tour specifically for small groups and adding an early entry to the Hermitage museum.
Hermitage Museum Early Entrance
Within just a few minutes of entering the Hermitage Museum, a grand building and formerly the private museum of Catherine the Great, I declared it the best architecture I had ever seen.
Being the largest museum in Russia and home to about three million pieces of art you’d think that what was adorning the walls would be the unique part, but actually, the grandeur of each room and hall is what had me truly mesmerised.
A special bonus of visiting the Hermitage with Princess Cruises is they can arrange an early-morning entrance a whole hour before public admission starts and as we saw all the crowds lining up to enter I realised what a worth investment it was to get in before everyone else. I don’t think I would have been able to appreciate the magic of the museum so well amongst all the people who visit here daily.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Next up we headed to the Peter and Paul fortress which sits on one of the many canals and waterways which make up the island collective of St Petersburg.
Originally built to protect the city from attacks from the Swedish, if you are around at mid-day, you can still hear the daily cannon firing during your visit.
Used for the imprisonment of Political Prisoners for many years the massive fortress offers a look into the history of the country as well as the intricate art and grandeur of the city’s second tallest structure, the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Inside is a jaw-dropping collection of paintings from the 18th-century and highly detailed golden and tiled details across the floor, walls and ceilings. The tomb of Catherine the Great also lives here which makes it one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city.
Eating and exploring
One of my favourite things about the two-days we spent in St Petersburg was getting to see the day-to-day life of the city. Often in the west when we read about Russia, it’s some dramatic headline so to be able to wander the busy shopping streets, dine at little restaurants next to disused tanks and spend time chatting with our fantastic guide, Zhayna, was fantastic.
On both days we dined in restaurants which I’m sure are more targetted to tourists, although the first one on the main shopping street Nevsky Prospekt was also abuzz with locals snacking at the contemporary interiors of Biblioteka.
The set-course lunches included an abundance of Vodka (when in Russia and all…) , Borscht, a local soup with a beetroot base and mixed potato salads and fish roe, all popular dishes in the country.
Yusupov Palace and Rasputin Cellar
If you aren’t familiar with the story of Rasputin, then it is well worth reading up on the self-proclaimed mystic before visiting the palace.
Built in the early 18th century, the Palace shows what lavish lifestyle nobles of the country would have had while many others struggle. Even now, touring these grand buildings which are dotted between rather ugly Soviet buildings its quite the contrast. With many people in St Petersburg living in communal homes still to save on rent you can’t miss the fact there were, and are, two-sides to life in St Petersburg.
It was in this Palace (and the cellar, as seen above) that Grigory Rasputin endured a dramatic assassination that took more than one attempt. Felix Yusupov and friends were the murderers of this controversial personality, and through the tour and models throughout the cellar, you can gain a glimpse into the story and life of a man who was somewhat influential over the years before his unexpected end.
As with many of the elegant buildings and palaces throughout Russia, the Yusupov Palace is full of expensive and intricate details including a small, gold-gilded private theatre where shows would have been performed to the noble household.
Russian Ballet at the Alexandrinsky theatre
A significant bucket list tick for me as both a traveller and someone who studied performing arts was to see with my own eyes the Russian Ballet perform.
Princess Cruises bulk buy some of the best seats in the house, so we were just a few rows from the stag of the Alexandrinksy theatre for the evening performance of Swan Lake.
It goes without saying that the Russian ballet, partly because of how popular it was with the noble families of the city, is one of the most famous in the world and to witness the performance in the oldest professional theatre in Russia was something I will never forget. Over the interval and enjoying a glass of fizz in the bar I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.