Northern Europe Trip Report: St. Petersburg

Our second port day was in St. Petersburg, Russia! I never thought I’d make it to Russia in my lifetime. Bucket list item for sure.

Tue, June 2
We were in port for about 15 hours and I wanted to make the most of our time so we booked a private guide & driver with SPB Tours. It was definitely a splurge but it was well worth it to do everything on our own time.

Upon arrival in port, we quickly inhaled our breakfast (room service bagels & coffee) and headed over to immigration. We went through relatively quickly and got new stamps in our passports. Woot!

Once outside, we easily found our tour guide V (short for a name I unfortunately can’t remember) and driver Anton. They treated us to a fantastic – but fast-paced – day! Right away they whisked us away for an approximately 45 minute drive to the Peterhof Palace. We got to see some of the residential areas on the way and my first impression was that St. Petersburg is much more European than I imagined. That was quite unexpected.

Here’s Rob at the entrance gates to the Grand Palace and the Upper Gardens. Immediately we saw the grandeur and opulence with all the gold on the exteriors.

The gorgeous exterior of the Grand Palace! Getting through that crowd of people at the entrance doors was insane. We had early entry before general admission and we had to push our way inside because no one wanted to move aside to let us in. UGH. Not to mention that we also had to go through coat check and put on shoe covers to protect the parquet floors.

Sadly, no photos are allowed inside. 🙁

V lead us through the palace and we got to see a variety of rooms (throne room, dining room, sitting room, study, etc) — all of which are incredibly lavish. We spent about an hour admiring the interiors.

Upon exiting the palace, this is the view of the Lower Gardens and the Grand Cascade, which is the iconic ensemble of fountains that runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace all the way to the canal. It’s spectacular!

That’s us with the Grand Cascade!

The fountains are just gorgeous.

This fountain is known as Chess Hill or Dragon Hill Cascade.

We also stopped at a couple of the famous Joke Fountains that are manned by hidden employees to surprise tourists, especially kids. We watched as several passersby were randomly sprayed with water. HEE!

Peter the Great looking over the gardens.

Monplaisir Palace and Garden — also known as the Summer Palace. The tulips were so beautiful! And that gorgeous, bright red color is striking and vibrant. I wish we had more time to stroll in the gardens — there’s so much to see and it definitely requires many hours to truly explore.

The view looking back at the Grand Palace as we made our way to our next destination — the hydrofoil terminal at the end of the canal.

This is the hydrofoil we took across the Gulf of Finland over to St. Petersburg. The ride was a nice way to take a quick break from all the walking we’d done so far. Rob fell asleep as per usual.

When we were back in the city center, Anton picked us up from the hydrofoil exit and we made our way to lunch. OMG. We got to see classic St. Petersburg traffic firsthand. We were basically trying to make a u-turn on Nevsky but it’s not allowed so we had to make a series of right turns to do so and it took FOR-FREAKING-EVER. Yikes.

Walking to lunch along the Moyka River. Next time I hope to have more time in the city in order to take one of these canal boat cruises.

Lunch was at a local cafe; I wish I asked for the name. We were served a traditional soup topped with sour cream, a meatloaf-type entree covered in croutons with a side of mashed potatoes and chocolate ice cream for dessert. It was all very hearty and rich but so good! We also had coffee at the end of our meal and it was amazing due to the milk – so creamy and yummy. Mmmm.

From lunch, we walked a few blocks to Palace Square and the Hermitage Museum, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. There are six main buildings that house the collection (five of which are open to the public) — if I remember correctly, we spent most of our time in the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage and the New Hermitage.

Upon entering the Winter Palace via the courtyard entrance, we walked up the stunning Jordan Staircase, which leads to the east wing and the rooms known as the Great Enfilade. These rooms are some of the most extravagant in the Hermitage as they showcase the wealth and power of Imperial Russia…

Peter the Great’s Memorial Throne Room…

The spectacular Armorial Hall…

And the incredible Pavilion Hall that was designed to house the 18th century golden Peacock clock. The clock was unbelievably detailed — too bad I couldn’t get a good photo of it. SO MANY people!

Found in the Italian Renaissance galleries, the above is known as the Raphael Loggias, which is a replica of the loggia at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City created by Raphael.

We also got to see both of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings that are housed here — Madonna with a Flower (commonly known as Benois Madonna) of 1478, and Madonna and Child (or Litta Madonna) from the 1490s — sadly, no photos again due to the crowds. Trying to get a good view of the paintings was very challenging. We were almost hit multiple times by SELFIE STICKS! UGH.

We exited onto the massive Palace Square where you can see the Alexander Column marking victory over Napoleon’s armies.

Back in the van, we drove over to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, where Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881. This was my absolute favorite sight of the day! The architecture is so elaborate and distinctly Russian. I couldn’t stop gawking at it.

The interiors of the church are just as stunning — all the intricate detail and those ceiling mosaics! Wow.


Looking at the church and the Griboedov Canal. What an amazing sight!

After visiting the church, we had some free time to stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare running through the city.

Along Nevsky, we admired the huge neoclassical Kazan Cathedral, stopped into a Starbucks (to add to my mug collection!), bought souvenirs and did some people-watching.

Before heading back to the ship, we made one last request. We wanted to stop at a McDonald’s to pick up some comfort food to take with us. HEE! We managed to place our order with a lot of pointing and gesturing (V had run to a store next door and didn’t get back before we ordered). I think there were some unique, regional menu items but I couldn’t tell you what they were. We devoured our meals back on the ship and it totally hit the spot (Big Mac for Rob, Chicken McNuggets for me)!

Next time I’d love to book a cruise itinerary with more than one port day in St. Petersburg (we were limited to certain itineraries due to dates & costs – plus, I wanted to cruise Disney). But I still feel so lucky to have visited — I found SPB to be charming and more accessible than I imagined (mostly because of its European feel). If we’re lucky to make our way there again, my “to see” list still includes Catherine Palace (it was closed the day we were there), Faberge Museum, a canal boat cruise, an evening at the ballet and more time to try local foods. Until then SPB!

For more pics, check our Flickr here.