With its grandiose buildings, intricate architecture, grand boulevards and storied past, St. Petersburg, Russia is one of the world’s most historically significant cities. Made up of 47 islands connected by winding canals and 500 bridges, the city is like a mix between Paris, Amsterdam and Venice—just as Peter the Great intended when he commissioned the best architects from around Europe to design the city centuries ago.
For most people a visit to Russia is the trip of a lifetime, yet due to costly visa requirements it’s not always easy to get there. Fortunately those restrictions are waived for those arriving in St. Petersburg as part of a cruise, which means most tourists experience the city for the first time by arriving via the Gulf of Finland. Even though they get less than 48 hours to explore the city before it’s time to set sail for the next port, it’s still one of the top highlights of a Baltic cruise. With that in mind, here’s a travel guide for how to see the top sights in St. Petersburg in just two days.
Day 1- St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Hermitage Museum, Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Cathedral, Ballet
Start off your tour in the heart of the city at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which is famous for its Vatican-like golden cupola hoisted up by giant columns. It took 40 years to build the impressive Russian Orthodox church, which is a true masterpiece both inside and out. Admire the exterior from all angles, then head through the bronze doors to take in the beauty of the mosaics, vibrant paintings and gorgeous stained glass windows that adorn the interior. The massive complex is large enough to hold 14,000 worshipers, but today is used more as a museum than for religious services.
Top tip: Climb the nearly 300 steps up to the top of the cathedral, and be rewarded with incredible panoramic views of the city.
The next stop is a place where one could easily spend hours, if not days: Palace Square. The beautiful plaza is anchored by the world famous Hermitage Museum, which is made up of five buildings including the Winter Palace which formerly served as a residence for Russian emperors. The Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, and has been open to the public since 1852. Today, it houses nearly three million priceless exhibits, including works from the likes of Da Vinci and Raphael.
Though it will be tough to tear yourself away from the masterpieces, there’s still plenty of city to explore—including one of St. Petersburg’s most photographed sights. Head over to the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, an exquisitely-designed, elaborate Russian Orthodox church built on the very spot where Alexander II was assassinated more than a century ago.
Designed to mimic iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral found in Moscow’s Red Square, the 81-metre tall structure features five onion-shaped domes, mosaics, vibrant facades and an extravagant interior which is open to the public. For the best vantage points of the architectural masterpiece, grab a spot on the nearby footbridge, from the water during a canal tour, or walk right up to the front doors for a unique angle.
After crossing the picturesque Troitskiy Bridge that stretches over the Neva River, you’ll arrive at Peter and Paul Cathedral. Built by forced labour in the early 1700s, it was initially a fortress that served as a political prison. However, it eventually grew to include the blindingly-brilliant, gold-gilded cathedral marked by a towering spire. Today, it’s a must-see for any visitor to St. Petersburg, as it houses the tombs of Russia’s imperial family including Peter the Great, Nicholas II and Catherine the Great.
There’s no better way to end your first day in St. Petersburg than by spending the evening at the ballet—the dance originated in Russia, after all. One iconic spot to enjoy a production is at the historical Mariinsky Theatre, which dates back to 1783 and has hosted world class performances from great Russian singers, orchestras, operas and dance companies.
If you don’t manage to snag tickets ahead of time for a concert at Mariinsky, another option is the grand Alexandrinsky Theatre which has been operating since the mid-1700s. The golden balconies are draped with thick red curtains, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house to take in classic performances like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker.
During intermission, be sure to grab a glass of champagne and head out to the balcony, which is the perfect place to watch the sunset over Ekaterininskiy Park.
Day 2- Catherine Palace, Peterhof Palace
The second day of exploration actually means a trip outside the city, as some of St. Petersburg’s most significant sites are found about a 45 minute drive from the city centre. While it is possible to get to them by public transport, it’s much quicker to get there by car, so try and hire a private driver or book a guided tour.
The first stop should be magnificent Catherine Palace, found in the town of Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village). The opulent palace was designed in the rococo style, and highlights include the gilded Great Staircase surrounded by baroque staterooms, and the dazzling Great Hall which is lined with mirrors and chandeliers. Give yourself plenty to time to wander throught the interior, before heading out to explore the sprawling grounds which include 1,400 acres of manicured gardens and a lake.
The final stop of your grand St. Petersburg tour should be Peterhof Palace, which is one of Peter the Great’s crowning achievements and is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gargantuan estate is found in the town of Petergof, which is about a 45 minute drive from Catherine Palace or the city.
Nicknamed the “Russian Versailles,” the extravagant summer residence was built in the 1700s, and features a lavish, sunshine-yellow Grand Palace perched high on a hill overlooking the grounds. Visitors are welcome to tour the interior, where rooms are decorated with silk tapestries, frescos and sculptures. The dramatic ballroom where golden facades drip off the walls is a highlight, as is the White Dining Room which is lined with exquisite chandeliers.
As impressive as the palace is, the grounds steal the show thanks to the numerous fountains, lush gardens, canal and statues that surround the estate. Visitors love the daily turning-on of the Grand Cascade fountain, which sees water shoot out of a golden sculpture and pour down the hillside in time to classical music.
Once your visit to Peterhof is all wrapped up, you can drive back to the city or meet your ship by taking a hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland—the perfect way to end a whirlwind trip to St. Petersburg, Russia.
Timing is everything: The customs lines can be loooong, especially if you’re arriving via a mega cruise ship. With that in mind, be sure to account for at least an hour just to get through passport patrol.
Out and About: If you’re arriving by boat and didn’t arrange for a special tourist visa prior to arrival, the only way you’ll be allowed to explore St. Petersburg is with an accredited tour operator. There are plenty of options, including those organized through your ship, organized group tours based out of St. Petersburg and even private drivers.
Lucky enough to be free to roam on your own? It still might be worth booking a private driver or paying for a hop on/off bus and canal tour, which will take you directly to the main sites so you don’t need to try navigating the public transportation.
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Globe Guide explored St. Petersburg as a guest of Viking Cruises. As always, hosts have editorial influence on articles