Saint Petersburg is often regarded as one of the world's most
beautiful cities. You will see architecture and art treasures on our
visit that will astonish you! Unimaginable splendor was created during
the 18th and 19th centuries when the czars ruled with near absolute
power over the world's largest country. All of the wealth of this
huge land, which reaches half way around the world, was funneled into
the hands of its aristocracy living in St. Petersburg, who spent
lavishly to support the royal lifestyle and constructed grand palaces,
museums and great public monuments to themselves. These splendid
structures were preserved throughout all the turmoil of a century of
communist revolution and have been wonderfully renovated to provide some
of the world's richest sights for you to enjoy.
It all began with Peter the Great, who founded the city in 1703,
basing it on the great capitals of Europe. He chose this strategic
location where the Neva River joins the Gulf of Finland as the perfect
place to build his navy and launch attacks on his enemies to the north.
Peter was determined to catapult Russia from the Dark Ages into modern
times in a single generation, and he succeeded. Architects and artisans
were imported from Western Europe and put to work constructing a
glorious new city on what had been empty, swampy, muddy islands. It was
the only European capital to be built from scratch on a previously empty
patch of land, following a plan.
St. Petersburg continued as the nation's capital for two
centuries, growing ever grander, changing names now and then depending
on which way the political wind blew. It became Petrograd, to honor its
founder, then Leningrad, and now it's back to St. Petersburg.
Current population is about 5 million, spread over 100 islands that are
crisscrossed in all directions by rivers and canals.
Last century's social dislocations and lack of resources
ironically helped to preserve the city's grand historic
architecture, since there was no money for demolition or redevelopment.
Now these historic sites are valued as magnets to bring in tourists, so
they are kept in very good condition.
The grandest spectacle of St. Petersburg is the Hermitage Museum,
which would take a full day to see, but we will split our visit into
two half-days as even the most intrepid art fan can grow numb after too
many hours filled with masterpieces. The Hermitage has a splendid
collection that includes paintings, statues and decorative arts, while
the interior design of the palace itself really is the star of the show,
outshining even the great works on display. Other palaces, monuments
and interesting shopping neighborhoods will round out our visit.
We enjoy a city
tour by private bus, and also a boat ride through the canals, with our local
guide who will be with us throughout our stay in St. Petersburg. This
comprehensive overview of the city passes many of the major monuments and
squares, with opportunity to get off the bus now and then to take photos and
stretch your legs.
We start out with a visit to Palace Square, at
the very epicenter of the history and grandeur of St. Petersburg, with
the Winter Palace on one side, containing the Hermitage Museum, and the
magnificent General Staff Building of the Army on the other side, with
the huge Alexander Column in the middle. This is the world's tallest
pillar -- the tallest free-standing monument, 154 feet high,
commemorating Russia's difficult victory over Napoleon. It is in a
grand setting along the Neva River Embankment. Here we board our boat
for a peaceful ride through several canals, lined with former palaces
and green parks.
the bus tour, we stop by two bright red lighthouses that are reminders
this was an important port for Russia in previous centuries. Continuing
along the Embankment past the Admiralty, we enter Decembrists'
Square, with the great church of St. Isaacs in the center. St.
Isaac's Cathedral is one of Europe's great buildings,
designed in the grand style of the Italian Baroque with Byzantine
influences. Its huge dome, which soars 325 feet high, is covered with
200 pounds of gold leaf that sparkles brilliantly in the sun.
We continue our bus tour along Nevsky Prospect, the main street of
St. Petersburg, lined with shops and restaurants. Nevsky is the best
shopping strip the country has to offer, filled with thousands of
residents out for a walk, so it is a fine place for serious spending and
people-watching. Here we have free time to walk around and maybe do some
You will enjoy a
stroll into the city's main mall which occupies a large block in
the heart of the Nevsky Prospect. Called the Passage, it is a large
department store complex with hundreds of small shops filling two floors
of a mammoth structure, catering mostly to local shoppers. It is a fun
place to browse and hang out for a while to see what's up,
examine the merchandise and check out the locals. Just over a decade ago
these shops had very few items, due to a depressed economy that was
tightly controlled by communist bureaucrats -- so the merchants
have really come a long way. Gostiny Dvor, originally built during the
late 18th century to designs by Rastrelli as a merchants arcade called,
has been nicely renovated while retaining a historic character that
makes it a most unusual department store.
The Church on Spilled Blood is nearby on a canal. This is the most
Russian-looking major building in town, with its wild, colorful spires
similar to the famous St. Basil in Moscow's Red Square. It was
built in the Russian Revival style as a memorial to Czar Alexander II,
who was assassinated here by a terrorist bomb in 1881.
Returning to Nevsky Prospect from the church, you will be facing yet
another church, Kazan Cathedral, which looks like a smaller version of
St. Peter's in Rome, with a graceful dome and two long colonnade
arms reaching out around the plaza in front.
afternoon we visit Catherine Palace, one of the most beautiful of all
Russia's royal homes, an hour's drive outside of town.
This stunning place was created by Peter the Great's daughter,
Czarina Elizabeth I, who commissioned her favorite architect, Rastrelli.
That same pair were responsible for the two other major palaces we have
seen, the Winter Palace, containing the Hermitage, and Peterhof.
Catherine Palace was later expanded by Catherine the Great into the
magnificent structure we see today, helped by the innovative designs of
Charles Cameron, a Scot with no previous building experience. While she
had many palaces to choose from, this became her favorite residence.
Built over two generations, the palace displays a dramatic mix of
Baroque and Neoclassical styles. The faÃ§ade is nearly 1,000 feet
long, featuring many muscular statues of Atlas, whose massive shoulders
hold up the windows, doors and roofline, flanked by dozens of pilasters
and 200 types of stucco ornamentation that complete this amazing
Inside this museum are 20 rooms restored to their original appearance
as well as special exhibition galleries with informative historical
displays. The most important room is the Great Hall. The room is long
and narrow but gives a feeling of wide spaces because of the illusion
created by all the windows and mirrors, while the painted sky in the
ceiling adds a sensation of more space to this ballroom. Hundreds of
unique Rococo wood carvings on the walls of birds and flowers, with no
two images looking alike, extend the space even further. Walls of
several rooms are completely covered in precious Chinese silk, with
beautiful pictures woven into the threads depicting allegorical
landscapes and pleasant floral patterns, with many colorful birds and
natural scenes. Matching Asian furniture, vases and decorations enhance
When finished, we take a break in the excellent shopping arcade on
the ground floor with a dozen different stalls that sell the full range
of Russian souvenirs at negotiable prices. There is more to see in the
extensive royal gardens, with little duck ponds, rolling lawns,
manicured bushes, surprise gazebos and scattered statues, all connected
by comfortable gravel pathways.
Our private bus brings us back into town where we enjoy a free evening,
perhaps enjoying a night out at the ballet.
We start out with a visit to the Hermitage Museum, one of
Russia's most important attractions. This is the world's
largest art museum, with an enormous collection that covers the entire
span of art history. There are 15,000 paintings and 12,000 statues,
spread through 400 exhibition rooms, spanning an incredible range: from
the earliest prehistory into the medieval and Byzantine arts, then the
Renaissance, continuing through the Baroque, along with the 18th and
19th centuries, including a fine Impressionist collection, and finally
into the 20th century. It also has a wide variety of ancient art, with
important pieces from Egypt, Rome and Greece. The extensive Hermitage
collection is too big to see in one day, so we cover half today and come
back tomorrow for more.
Our expert guide will lead us through, explaining all the significant
pieces. We enter through the grandest staircase you have ever seen,
filled with beautiful statues, mirrors and golden decorations in the
elaborate Baroque style. The Malachite Room is one of the most famous
galleries, decorated in semi-precious green malachite stone. Pavilion
Hall, used mostly for entertaining, has a breathtaking white marble
design with lots of gold ornamentation. The Impressionists are a special
treat, with excellent works by all your favorites: Monet, Manet, Renoir,
Pissaro, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gaughin. There is also a nice selection
of more modern canvases by Leger, Kandinsky, Picasso and 37 paintings by
Matisse, Europe's largest collection of his works. After walking
through more elaborate rooms of the private apartments of the czar, we
shall save the rest for tomorrow.
is free time for us to explore the central shopping and retail district of
St. Petersburg along Nevsky Prospect, around the corner from our hotel.
This morning we complete our visit to the Hermitage, starting with the
Italian collection, which holds some of the museum's greatest
treasures, including Renaissance masterpieces by Raphael, Perugino,
Botticelli, Fra Angelico, two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and
Russia's only Michelangelo. Several rooms of Baroque art of the
18th century include Russia's only canvas by Caravaggio,
â€œThe Lute Playerâ€� and 26 major works by Rembrandt. Nearby is
a room filled with armor, featuring medieval knights sitting on
horseback. The Spanish section is considered to be one of the richest in
the world, perhaps second only to the Prado in Madrid. A large ensemble
of Rubens, Hals and Van Dyck fills the Flemish department.
our visit downstairs among the ancient statues from Greece, Rome and
Egypt. You will find the Hermitage is an entire intact palace filled
with treasure, wrapped in an amazingly decorated package. Every place
you turn there is something marvelous to look at. Too much art can make
the head spin, so it's a good thing you broke it into two days,
and that there are benches scattered throughout the rooms so we can sit
down to rest while processing this visual bombardment. What a museum!
PETERHOF and the GOLDEN CASCADE
This afternoon is a perfect time to visit Peterhof, a spectacular
palace in the suburbs. We get there on a fast, comfortable hydrofoil
boat that brings us along with our local guide. Considered to be the
most beautiful park in Russia, Peterhof was the main home of Peter the
The most spectacular feature of the palace is the Golden Cascade,
which just might be the world's most wonderful fountain! It has
dozens of golden statues drenched in a huge water display that
celebrates one of the most important events in Russian history --
the defeat of Sweden in the early 18th century.
Also known as Petrodvorets, this was the first major palace complex
constructed in St. Petersburg. A massive construction project began that
would finally finish 200 years later, but during Peter's lifetime
the early versions of the Great Palace and fountains were opened. There
are many beautiful sections of this park to admire, with formal gardens
stretching hundreds of yards towards the Gulf of Finland, sprinkled with
statues and smaller fountains on both sides of the palace. The gardens
are laid out in a formal French style with neatly trimmed bushes
arranged with regular symmetry along straight paths. When driving from
the palace back into town at the end of our tour, we pass through some
pleasant wooded areas in the countryside sprinkled with small villages
and farm plots.
Ballet, and more
ballet. Take advantage of the marvelous Russian dancers and go the
Mariinskiy Theater for a superb evening of sensual entertainment
provided by the world-famous Kirov Ballet. Don't worry if you
have never been to a ballet, or went once and didn't care for it
-- these performances are accessible to everyone. The colorful costumes
and beautiful sets in this majestic theater provide a dazzling
environment for the magic of the dance, accompanied by a live orchestra.
We will organize this optional activity with reserved tickets and
private bus transfer, so that the evening will be very easy and most
From St. Petersburg we fly to the final city on our itinerary, Amsterdam, Netherlands.