A cruise vacation to the Baltic region, especially when you will be spending two full days in Saint Petersburg, is an exciting proposition. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises sail in the North Europe region during the summer months from mid May to early September, which are the best months to be here. It is recommended that you book your shore excursion with you cruise line as soon as possible, as they tend to get filled up fast. You could explore the city on your own, but be aware that in just the two days you have in the port, you may not be able to pack in all you want.

St. Petersburg is an impressive city, from whatever angle you look at it. The city has many nomenclatures: ‘Venice of the North’, ‘Window on the West’, ‘Russia’s Crown Jewel’ and ‘the Cradle of the Revolution’ – call it what you will, each name is equally appropriate for this magnificent city.

The history books say that Peter the Great went on a tour of the European capitals and returned home determined to build a city that would rival Europe’s best. And so St. Petersburg is a perfect example of east meets west: its tree-lined avenues along the Neva River, the bridges and canals, the baroque architecture seen in the buildings, and the strong European influence in the city squares and churches, juxtaposed with the magnificent grandeur and the palpable energy exuded are decidedly eastern.

So when your ship makes the two day halt in St. Petersburg, get ready to explore this absolutely stunning city!

Winter Palace & Hermitage Museum

Located on the banks of the River Neva that courses through the city, the Winter Palace was the residence of the tsars from the 1760s onwards, and today it is a treasure store-house of the most incredible art, sculptures and other artifacts. The green and white façade and the Baroque style of architecture of the Winter Palace is an impressive sight and the Hermitage Museum within is regarded as the best in Russia and second to none in the world.

Catherine the Great started the museum with the acquisition of 225 pieces of German art, and today it houses an enviable collection of 2.7 million exhibits from all over the world and include works from the European masters Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, a unique collection of Rembrandts and Rubens. A section is also devoted to the French Impressionists and on display are the stunning paintings of Renoir, Cezanne, Monet and Manet, a number of paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and several sculptures by Rodin.

No one can come to St. Petersburg and skip the Hermitage Museum with its varied and fabulous collection of art. Even if one is not interested so much in history and art, a visit is warranted just for the sheer grandeur of the place. It is suggested that one takes a tour, instead of trying to see the museum on one’s own.

Trivia: It would take 11 years to see all the exhibits in the Hermitage if one spent just one minute looking at each!

Churches & Cathedrals

St. Petersburg is dotted with striking churches and cathedrals whose shining spires and gilded domes dominate the skyline of the city. With some of the most grandiose and ornate religious buildings in the world, ranging from the small churches to large impressive cathedrals, St. Petersburg has a wealth of spectacularly beautiful places of worship.

St Isaac’s Cathedral – One of the city’s most prominent landmarks, the St Isaac’s Cathedral is the work of a French architect August Montferrand, and was completed in 1858 after 40 years in the making. Built of granite and mosaic, the exterior of the cathedral is in neo-classical Russian-Greek style, but it is the inside one has to see – icons made of mosaic that are so beautifully executed that they look like paintings, rich interiors that are second to none. The St Isaac’s Cathedral is an attraction not to be missed when in St. Petersburg.

Trivia:The magnificent dome of St Isaac’s is plated with 100 kgs of pure gold.

Church of Spilled Blood – Inspired by the St Basil Cathedral in Moscow, the Church of Our Savior of Spilled Blood was built on the exact spot that Russia’s most liberal tsar Alexander II was assassinated. His son Alexander III immediately ordered a memorial to be built for his father and construction on this distinctly Russian style church started. The church fell into disrepair after the Revolution of 1917 and in 1920 was eventually closed down. Miraculously, the Church was never brought down though many attempts were made. In 1970 a massive restoration program was undertaken and after more than 25 years, the Church of Spilled Blood was restored to its former glory and re-opened in 1997. It is a conspicuously beautiful church with its multi-coloured onion shaped domes that dominate the sky of St. Petersburg.

Trivia: The Church of Our Saviour of Spilled Blood was sadly used as a vegetable market after the Revolution of 1917.

Cathedral of SS Peter & Paul – In the middle of the Peter and Paul fortress is situated the impressive Peter and Paul Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. Built between 1712-33, the church was built entirely of stone and in a most unusual design, different to the churches of that era as it was a departure from the traditional Orthodox style of architecture. A landmark golden spire rises into the sky and on top of that is an angel holding a cross. The cathedral is the highest building in the city at 404 feet tall.

Trivia: The Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul has served as a burial ground for all of Russia’s rulers from Peter the Great to as recently as Nicholas II in 1998.

Peterhof

To fully comprehend the grandeur of the Russian tsars, none has to make the 45 minute drive out of the city to visit the grandiose Grand Palace and the well-manicured grounds of Peterhof. Often compared to Versailles,(yes, the inspiration came from there) if the interiors are lavishly impressive, then the grounds outside with its terraced fountains and gardens only add to its beauty. Millions of tourists flock to see the sheer grandeur of these grounds, the Grand Cascade – a set of 64 fountains, the beautifully landscaped gardens and the smaller palaces on the grounds.

Trivia: Peterhof, though almost destroyed by German troops during World war II, was resurrected and by military engineers and over 1,000 volunteers, and was fully restored to it original glory by 1947.

Mariinsky Theatre

If you want the full Russian experience, you just have to take in a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theatre – the home of the cultural scene – ballet and opera – in St Petersburg. Watch a riveting ballet performance on a stage where the great Anna Pavlova and Rudolph Nereyev have performed, and get transported into a world of Tchaikovsky and the Swan Lake. Its an out of world experience and certainly one you should not miss!

Trivia: The Mariinsky is a theatre but also has a world famous ballet company named after it and Rudolph Nureyev, Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Baryshnikov are some of its luminaries.