During our time cruising the Baltic Sea, my family and I made a 48-hour stop in Saint Petersburg to get a taste of Russia, all the while visa-free. It was a whirlwind of a time busing all over the sprawling city from palace to palace, along with the occasional Orthodox church sprinkled in between. Saint Petersburg was our introduction to Russia, and it was an insightful look into one of the biggest superpower countries in the world.
Following lunch on our first full day of visiting, our tour continued with sight-seeing in the afternoon. It was merely a final stop at Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, which was built back in the mid-19th century in Greek-Byzantine style. What is interesting to note is that it’s not considered a religious site, but rather a museum: it had functioned as a church until the 1930’s when it was changed by the Soviet government. While there had been an attempt to return it to its religious status in 2017, it proved unsuccessful, and so remains a museum today.
At first, I didn’t think that Saint Isaac’s Cathedral looked like a former church, but rather some sort of Parliament-style government building. In other words, its structure reminded me somewhat of a golden White House, but its interior proved otherwise. The inside itself is a masterpiece from floor to ceiling, with just about every square inch covered with religious paintings. It was arches and more arches, all the while adorn with gold. There had been attempts to reconstruct the paintings with mosaics when the artwork started fading, but it was never completed. In any case, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is stunning and a pleasure to visit.
That concluded our first day in Saint Petersburg, as we returned to our cruise ship to rest and prepare for our second full day of sight-seeing. We started our second morning with a small, one-hour boat ride along the Neva River that offered panoramic views of various palaces, churches, and other historic buildings we would check out later that day. Our boat ride also included free champagne, which I opted not to take (as I didn’t drink much then). It was a tranquil start to the day, as we would be on our feet for the rest of the day.
Upon alighting the boat, we headed straight to the State Hermitage Museum, the second-largest museum in the world. In actuality, the museum isn’t a single building, but rather six separate ones located along the Neva River, and five of them are open to the public. We only visited one of them, the Winter Palace, and it in itself was massive. The museums are reputed to have over three million items, many of them paintings collected by Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia in the 18th century. It would take a lifetime to see each item, but alas, we only had two hours to see as much as we could.
Our tour guide led us through each gallery, stocked wall-to-wall with portraits, landscape paintings, and just about any classical piece of art you can imagine. Many of the paintings were from some of Europe’s finest painters, including Rembrandt and Gauguin. Our visit inside the Winter Palace was a bit hectic, as it was a busy day with dozens of other tour groups. We were instructed to stick close to our guide, since it’s easy to get lost inside. That was exactly what we did, but the cost was having less time to stop and take in any artwork that caught our fancy. It was definitely rushed, but considering that I’m not a fan of museums, I was glad to be out in two hours and away from the crowd.
Next up was a visit to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The most iconic landmark in Saint Petersburg, this church was erected in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It gets its interesting (and rather unappetizing) name from the assassination of tsar Alexander II in 1881, on that very site. The structure is emblematic of Russian churches’ architectural styles, especially with the colorful, onion-shaped domes representing the Russian Orthodox faith. Certainly a stunner, both inside and out, although I’d have to say that Saint Isaac’s Cathedral had a more-lavish interior. In terms of its outer appearance, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood takes the cake!
We had lunch afterwards, which consisted of more free vodka and champagne (again, I opted not to drink). During the meal, we were treated to a Cossack dance performance, inspired after the group of people with Central Asian origins that had settled in Ukraine and Russia centuries ago as nomads. Although I’d heard of the term “Cossack” before, I was unsure as to its definition, let alone knowing that kind of people constitute its identity. Either case, it was an energetic show that got us reinvigorated for the rest of our visit that day.
Afterwards, we spent part of the afternoon at the Peter and Paul Fortress, the citadel of Saint Petersburg. It was built back in the 18th century under tsar Peter the Great, with the biblical apostle Paul added to the name later on. The citadel has a notorious history, having been a political prison up until the early 20th century. It’s been portrayed as a hellish place never to be imprisoned in, let alone killed. The Peter and Paul Fortress serves as the city’s history museum today, to remind visitors of its tumultuous past.
We ended our day at one of the bazaars in Saint Petersburg. In terms of souvenirs, Russia is particularly known not only for its colorful Easter eggs, but also matryoshka, or “nesting dolls.” I bought a smaller set of the dolls: originally, I’d thought there were nine of them, but in fact, there were 10! A lovely surprise and purchase for myself as a way to end a long day of sight-seeing.
Even though we’d barely scratched the surface of Saint Petersburg in merely 48 hours, I’m glad we at least got a taste of this large, Russian city. The visit offered insight to this particular country so far-removed from what I was accustomed to in the U.S., and it’s since piqued my interest to return and see more, including Moscow. Perhaps one day I’ll return and, until then, I have these memories to look back on.
Thanks for reading; more of my adventures in the Baltic Sea to come soon!