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Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg Resuming 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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 shopping.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.


Scandinavia St Petersburg Scandinavia St Petersburg This 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 façade 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 architectural scene.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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 the effect.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.


Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg Scandinavia St Petersburg This afternoon 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, “The Lute Player� 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.

Scandinavia St Petersburg We finish 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!


Scandinavia St Petersburg 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 Great.

Scandinavia St Petersburg 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.


Scandinavia travelersBallet, 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 enjoyable.

From St. Petersburg we fly to the final city on our itinerary, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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