Step into a city that has played a pivotal role in Russian history, where fine arts and culture meet museums dedicated to the country’s finest tipple – vodka.
St Petersburg, a city of around five million people, is Russia’s second-largest after Moscow.
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great – who was made Tsar of the empire in 1696 – this year it celebrates its 315th birthday, while of course throughout this summer it reverberated with the noise and celebrations of international visitors who arrived in town for the 2018 World Cup.
The city has been renamed twice, both at pivotal moments in Russia’s history. Its name – taken from its founder – was changed to Petrograd in 1914 and then Leningrad in 1924. However, a public vote in 1991 reinstated the original name.
St Petersburg is criss-crossed by around a hundred tributaries and canals, creating 42 individual islands that make up the area. One of the most fascinating facts about the city is that it is where riots broke out in early 1917, leading to the February revolution, which brought to an end the years of Tsarist rule.
Our first port of call on my tour with Oceania Cruises is St Isaac’s Cathedral and the surrounding area. The cathedral took 40 years to build, and its imposing columns at the entrance are made from single pieces of red granite, but our guide, Tatiana, tells us that, remarkably, workers managed to get them upright in a mere 45 minutes. The columns – not to mention the gold dome – really are a sight to behold, as is the monument, dedicated to Nicholas I, which stands directly in line with the cathedral.
On a road just to the right is the Hotel Astoria, considered to be one of the best in the city. What gives the Astoria added historical significance is the fact that this is where Adolf Hitler intended to celebrate his capture of the city. His war machine even went so far as to print and distribute invitations. But the city did not surrender and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Hermitage Museum, one of the biggest in the world, with over three million items in its collection, is also a must-see for travellers – although its sheer size makes it impossible to view every exhibit.
Onwards to our next photo opportunity, we pass the Russian Academy of Arts. This sits on the River Neva, the main waterway in the city, which flows through into the Gulf of Finland.
In the extremely cold winters the Neva freezes; the ice can be so thick that it is possible to walk across it, although, much to the disappointment of the daredevils among us, it isn’t recommended.
We also pass the Russian Vodka museum, which causes quite a stir among the guests; I think we’re all secretly wishing we could sample the country’s favourite spirit.
Any thoughts of a quick tipple disappear, however, as we approach the Peter and Paul Fortress. The very first structure to be built in St Petersburg, and, by extension, the birthplace of the city, it was intended to be a defence barrier against any unwanted attention. On a darker note, it was also used as one of the most feared prisons in all of Russia.
Inside the grounds of the Fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which deviates from the design of traditional orthodox churches, instead drawing inspiration from baroque style.
In the cathedral itself, the most aesthetically dramatic and historically significant attractions are the extravagant tombs of most of the Romanov rulers of Russia, from Peter the Great onwards.
For the history buffs, there’s also the chance to see the resting place of Nicholas II – the last Tsar of Russia – and his family, who were killed by Bolsheviks in 1918.
We travel from one point of history to another as our tour ends at the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. This marks the spot where Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881 and was built on the orders of his son, Alexander III.
The church, which has 7,000sqm of mosaics, took 24 years to build and used design inspiration from 16th and 17th century Russia. It was, we are told, used to store potatoes in the Soviet era.
It’s a small taste of what St Petersburg has to offer, and it certainly leaves me wanting more. Anyone fancy a trip to the vodka museum?
Selling St Petersburg: Bernard Carter, senior vice-president & MD, EMEA, Oceania Cruises
Highlight the history
From Tsarist Russia to relics of the cold war, each street, square and building tells a new story and any history buff worth their salt will want to experience it. Walking city tours take in landmarks that mark important historical and revolutionary events; you can also go by boat along the 186 miles of canal.
Capitalise on the culture
St Petersburg is known as the cultural capital of Russia and guests will be able to frequent global cultural icons such as The Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. Other cultural feasts include an evening of ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre and the Fabergé Museum, which houses the eponymous bejewelled eggs.
Russian visas can be a bit of a headache for guests and travel organisers alike. So why not take away some of the pain by recommending cruise line shore excursions? That way the cruise line takes care of the visa and your guests can sit back, relax and immerse themselves in the city.
Look for longer stays
With so much to do and see in St Petersburg, pretty much all sailings include an overnight in port. But there is a smattering of cruises that include two nights in port, with three whole days to explore the region, giving guests the chance to partake in up to five comprehensive excursions during their stay.
Move it to Moscow
If your clients have seen and done it all in St Petersburg, there is the option to take an excursion to travel to Russia’s capital Moscow by high-speed train, meaning guests can see the sights and still be whisked back to the ship later that night.