Silver Cloud: Three Days in St. Petersburg

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Silver Cloud spends three full days in St. Petersburg, which allows enough time to get to see and experience this beautiful city.

Silver Cloud offers a number of tours, ranging from Splendid St. Petersburg, a 3.5-hour overview of the city for US$79 to a full-day excursion to Moscow and the Kremlin for US$1099.

Quite a few people I spoke with enjoyed the Splendid St. Petersburg tour, but the local tour operator and Silver Cloud’s Shore Excursions desk recommended a four-hour Peterhof Palace tour for $169 (more on that below).

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Perhaps the best way to see St. Petersburg, however, is to work with your travel agent to arrange a private tour. I did this in 2005, and it allowed us to see quite a bit more than we would have seen on one of the organized tours.

No matter what you choose, you’re only going to get a taste of Peter the Great’s city. After all, this city of 5 million spans a large area, covering more than 200 square miles. Add to that the choke of traffic, and even three days here gets consumed fairly fast. Hermitage/Winter PalaceThese are general guidelines that will help you plan a visit to St. Petersburg. Again, work with your travel agent to formulate the best program for you.

Plan to spend one day in the city itself, and another day visiting a couple of palaces outside the city. That leaves you one day to fill in with tours of your choice.

In the city, you’ll want to visit The Hermitage, the world’s second largest art museum (Paris’s Louvre is the largest), a cathedral or two and Nevsky Prospect, Russia’s most famous street.

The Hermitage alone boasts some 400 rooms containing more than 3 million exhibits (Catherine the Great began the collection in 1764 with only 225 pieces). For a taste, visit the “masterpieces of the masterpieces,” such as the original works of art by da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

The Hermitage houses the second biggest Rembrandt collection outside Amsterdam as well as the largest collection of French art outside France, including original works by Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse. Book a private tour if possible to visit the Hermitage, as you will not only be allowed in early but also breeze through the museum past the large tour groups.

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Plan to visit St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg’s largest, and/or the ornate neo-Byzantine Cathedral of the Resurrection, also called Church on Spilled Blood, constructed on the very spot where tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

When visiting any of these attractions, you’re either on or near Nevsky Prospect. The famed street is to St. Petersburg what the Champs Elysses is to Paris, or Broadway to New York.

Ask your guide to take you to a cafe for a coffee, Russian beer or Soviet champagne (technically, sparkling wine). “Walk along Nevsky Prospect, have a cup of coffee, watch people pass by, and you understand all of Russia,” says Timophey Beliaev, of the Corinthia Nevaskij Palace Hotel, situated on Nevsky Prospect.

At the end of the day, take in ballet or opera. St. Petersburg is chock full of theaters, notably The Mariinsky Theater, one of Russia’s largest and oldest music theaters, famous the world over for opera and ballet.

On one of the two other days, visit Peterhof, a magnificent 18th century European palace and gardens, features more than 150 fountains and four cascades.

Head to the suburbs of sprawling St. Petersburg to visit the region’s impressive palaces and parks. From the cruise terminal, you can get to Peterhof, a magnificent 18th-century European palace and gardens (inspired by Peter the Great’s visit to Versailles in 1697), by bus or hydrofoil.

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Take the hydrofoil if possible, 30 minutes each way as opposed to about an hour each way by bus, advises tourist guide Tatiana Ivanova. She recommends that time-pressed cruise passengers stroll only among the gardens at Peterhof to admire the waterworks, featuring more than 150 fountains and water-jets that shower gilt statues of ancient gods and heroes.

Though not all cruise lines offer it, combining Peterhof with Catherine’s Palace works well (you can easily do this on a private tour).

Situated at Pushkin, also about an hour from St. Petersburg but only 30 minutes from Peterhof, Catherine’s Palace is striking, with an imposing facade in white, gold and blue. Inside, are the real treasures, including the Amber Room, which was dismantled by the Nazis and smuggled to South America — lost forever. Russian craftsman used six tons of amber to replicate the panels that adorned the walls and reopened the room in 2003.

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The first thing you need to know about visiting St. Petersburg is that you will need a visa. That’s right, the tedious and time-consuming paperwork for obtaining a visa must be completed — but not necessarily by you. That’s because Russian visas come with several caveats. The one you need to know about is that if you are arriving by cruise ship, the cruise line that operates that ship has a relationship with a ground operator approved by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That ground operator has obtained a “blanket” visa to cover all passengers on the ship.

These so-called “transit” visas, good for visits of up to 72 hours, allow you to exit the ship only on group or private tours conducted by that ground operator. You are not allowed to disembark the ship and travel on your own — not even to stroll Nevsky Prospect, the most famous street in all of Russia — unless you’ve taken the time to apply for a tourist visa.

But there’s a way around all of this. Let your ship take care of it. As one tour guide told me, “Think of me as your visa.”

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