Private Tour of Saint Petersburg, Russia
After our fabulous eggs Benedict breakfast at our hotel Lotte in Saint Petersburg, we were really looking forward to getting out and exploring the city. St Petersburg had been on both Jonathan and my bucket list for a very long time. We met with our guide Elena and driver Alexey from Strelka Travel in the hotel lobby. They laughed when we greeted them with our terrible Russian but Elena said, their hearts melt like ice cream when tourists try to speak a few words of Russian. I think that was meant to be a compliment!
Before setting out by car, we took a gentle stroll through St. Isaac’s Square which the Hotel Lotte overlooks. We couldn’t believe what a great location our hotel was in – right in the historic heart of the city. Saint Issacs Square is one of St. Petersburg’s main squares and the imposing St Isaac’s Cathedral is the fourth largest cathedral in the world (depending on how you measure). Fortunately, because of its huge golden dome that dominates the city’s skyline, it meant that we could always find our way back to our hotel – a great landmark. In the centre of the square, was a giant iron statue of Tsar Nicholas I dressed in his gala uniform riding a horse and on the opposite side of the square, was the Mariinsky Palace which was a gift from Nicholas I to his daughter, Maria Nikolayevna. Wow, so much history and we were just getting started!
From here, we set off by car and drove over to Vasilevskiy Island, home to St Petersburg State University, one of the oldest and one of the best universities in Russia. It was founded in 1724 by Peter the Great.
To the east of Vasilevskiy island lies the Strelka (yes, like the travel company) which offers fantastic views of the Hermitage, St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Admiralty and the Peter and Paul Fortress. We stopped here for a while to take photos, admire the scenery, learn a little more about the fascinating history of St Petersburg and of course, do a little bit of souvenir shopping. I love those Russian dolls!
The Peter and Paul Fortress is known as the birthplace of St Petersburg as it was the first building to be constructed in the city. It was initially built to act as a defence but too late, it was defeated by the Swedes before the construction was completed. Up until 1917, it had been used as a prison. One of the first prisoners here was Peter the Great’s son who was imprisoned, tortured and killed for betraying his father.
Located close to the Strelka, we noticed some very strange looking columns with ship parts sticking out of the sides. These are the Rostral Columns. The columns are 32 metres high and adorned with ships’ prows and four sculptures which represent the four main rivers of Russia. During the 1800s, they were used as navigation beacons and on major holidays such as New Years and Victory Day, the beacons are lit, sending seven-metre flames into the sky. That would be really cool to see!
From Vasilevskiy Island, we crossed over to Petrogradsky Island where the Cruiser Aurora is moored. The ship just looked like a normal warship and we wondered why we had stopped there, totally unaware of its historical significance. But from this ship, on the night of October 25, 1917, a shot was fired at the Winter Palace. This shot was the signal for soldiers, sailors and workers to storm the palace and that was the very moment that triggered the start of 70 years of Communism leadership in Russia. Ah, so that’s why we stopped. It had played rather an important role in recent history!
As we drove across the island, we passed a cute little stone house, very unassuming and very different to some of the more lavish homes in the city. Unfortunately, because it was tucked away behind trees, it was difficult to get a photo but this was Peter’s Cabin. Peter’s Cabin is one of the oldest buildings in St Petersburg, built for Peter to live in while he supervised the building of his city.
From Peter’s place, we headed once more across the Neva River, passed the Mars Field with its eternal flame, although the view of the eternal flame was obstructed by a tour bus, before stopping to visit the stunning Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. This beautiful church was built on the spot where in March 1881, Alexander II was mortally wounded when a bomb was thrown at his royal carriage. The church is well worth a visit for its incredible artwork and mosaics. It was beautiful. Remember to look up, the artwork on the ceiling is amazing.
Entrance fee for the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Adults – 250 Russian Rubles approx $4
Children – 50 Russian Rubles
Opening Hours for the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Daily except Wednesday. Open 10.30 to 18:00. From May until September, it is open until 22:30.
After a full morning of exploring with the very knowledgeable Elena, we stopped for a traditional Russian lunch at a local restaurant. Soup and dumplings, perfect for a chilly day.
Next stop, the world-famous Hermitage Museum.
The Hermitage Museum is the most visited attraction by visitors to St Petersburg. It’s enormous, and it’s impossible to see everything in one visit. They say if you spent a minute at every exhibit, it would take you at least eleven years to see everything. Yes, it really is that large. It’s a good idea to have a guide to show you the highlights, and we were pleased that our guide Elena from Strelka Travel was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about art.
Most of the Hermitage collection can be found in what was once the official residence of the Romanov Tsars, the Winter Palace. Much of the artwork was bought by Catherine the Great from European aristocracy, but some were from confiscated goods by the Bolshevik and seized assets from Germany by the Red Army. As well as admiring the various works of art, it was fascinating to see the extravagantly decorated state rooms of the Romanov Tsars.
After spending a few hours exploring the museum, we stepped outside into the Palace Square. Apparently, in 2009, Madonna held a concert in Palace Square and that’s how they know the Square can comfortably hold 80,000 people!
After a great day exploring St Petersburg, we headed back to Hotel Lotte to relax before heading out to Rubinstein Street to explore the city’s many bars, cafes and restaurants. We have another tour of St Petersburg tomorrow! The city so far has completely exceeded our expectations!
(Our Russia tour is a paid partnership with Strelka Travel.)