Unless you are booked on a cruise line shore excursion, you need a visa before leaving home to visit St. Petersburg. To clarify, cruise passengers who book cruise line shore excursions do not need visas. Everyone else does.
Because of the visa requirement and the slow churn of Russian bureaucracy, prepare to stand in line when leaving the pier. Two forlorn customs officials stamped passports for nearly 2,000 passengers disembarking our ship. We stood for nearly 45 minutes before it was our turn. The wait, of course, was worthwhile.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and shortly thereafter becoming the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg accumulated all the grandeur of the Russian Imperial Court, and in two days, we saw quite a lot of it with our private car and guide. We began our tour at Peterhof palace, about an hour’s drive from the pier.
There, we wandered the formal gardens and grounds, with 62 cascading fountains and 142 water jets that shower gilded statues. We were glad we had our camera – not only for the grounds but also for actors in period costumes who pose for photographs. Tour guides recommend combining Peterhof with the lavishly baroque Catherine Palace, where the Amber Room opened in 2003. The 18th-century hall’s amber panels vanished in WWII and took decades to replicate using six tons of amber.
St. Petersburg’s museums are among the world’s most famous. The Hermitage boasts some 400 rooms containing more than 3 million exhibits Catherine began the collection in 1764 with only 225 pieces. “If you spent one second looking at each exhibit, you would spend seven years seeing it all,” our tour guide told us. “So we just do the masterpieces of the masterpieces: artworks by da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrant.” Of course, you’ll want to walk inside several churches, the most interesting for us being the ornate neo-Byzantine Church on Spilled Blood, constructed on the very spot where tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.