When your ship arrives in St. Petersburg, you’ll typically have 48 hours to explore this great city. How to make the most of your time? Spend one day exploring inside the city (see the Avid Cruiser’s guide to exploring the City of St. Petersburg). The next day, get outside the city to explore some of the great palaces.
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. Take the hydrofoil if possible, 30 minutes each way as opposed to about an hour each way by bus, advises tourist guide Tatiana Ivanova.
Ivanova 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 offered by the cruise lines). 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.
When I visited in 2007, on St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary, the palaces and museums were not particularly crowded, hard to imagine when you visit St. Petersburg today. I got lucky. During peak season, you can sometimes wait for a couple of hours until it’s your group’s turn to enter an attraction. There is a way to avoid the lines, however: Return during the winter.
White Nights/White Days
During the summer, St. Petersburg is known for its “White Nights.” Winter, it’s “White Days,” which take place when the ground is blanketed in snow. To acquaint yourself with just how beautiful the Russian winter can be, rent the movie, “Dr. Zhivago,” a romance featuring the hauntingly beautiful Russian winter as its backdrop.
“Everybody should come twice to St. Petersburg, once in the summer and once in the winter,” says Timophey Beliaev, of the Corinthia Nevaskij Palace Hotel, situated on Nevksy Prospect. “In the winter, you feel really Russian. You feel frozen, but it is just as nice as summer.”
“St. Petersburg is beautiful in the winter when it is covered in snow,” says Irina Khlopova, of Grand Hotel Europe, an Orient-Express Hotel and a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. Returning during “White Days,” she says, “gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy a typical Russian winter, the experience of troika (being pulled on a sled by three horses abreast) and an opportunity to visit the museums and theaters — with no crowds.” In December, she adds, Grand Hotel Europe, situated in the cultural heart of the city on Nevsky Prospect, constructs an ice bar outside, where vodka and caviar are served in typical Russian fashion.
Your cruise gave you a taste of St. Petersburg. Return during the winter for the main course.