Jane Archer profiles the revolutionary Russian city, the highlight of any cruise in the Baltic
Murder, mystery, revolution: three reasons why St Petersburg is top of the stops when it comes to cruising the Baltic. There are more: lavish palaces, grand boulevards, one of the world’s greatest art museums. No wonder ships stay in port for two, sometimes three, days so passengers can get just a taste of everything the Russian city has to offer.
It is possible for passengers to explore the city alone but the language barrier is off-putting and the need for a visa a pain. Travellers have to apply in person at VFS Global’s offices in London, Manchester or Edinburgh to be fingerprinted – and fork out from £101.40 each for the permit.
As a result, most clients settle for visa-free tours booked either with their cruise line or licensed operators such as the UK’s Cruisingexcursions.com and Russian companies Red October (redoctober.ru) or SPB Tours (spb-tours.com). These are invariably cheaper than the cruise lines’ excursions and include either set tours or private outings that can be adapted to the clients’ interests.
Most cruise ships dock at Marine Façade, a huge port a little way outside the city that opened about six years ago to cater for the ever-increasing growth in vessels visiting St Petersburg. The port has seven berths and it’s not unusual for at least five to be occupied on any one day.
This year, more than 25 cruise lines, including the likes of Seabourn, Norwegian Cruise Line, Viking and P&O Cruises, have 263 cruise calls scheduled, up from 247 in 2017.
Although it is fun to explore alone, first-time visitors are probably well advised to join a guided tour as there is so much to learn about the city.
It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and became the capital of Russia until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when Lenin moved the government to Moscow. When the First World War broke out in 1914 it was renamed Petrograd (Petersburg was too German), became Leningrad after Lenin’s death in 1924 and only reverted back to St Petersburg in 1991.
After the Second World War, it was awarded the title of Hero City by Stalin for holding out against a two-and-a-half-year blockade by German troops, during which more than one million people died, mostly from starvation.
The list of things to see and do is exhaustive and exhausting. Visitors can admire priceless bejewelled eggs created for the tsars in the Fabergé Museum, see the sights from a canal boat (it’s not known as the Venice of the North for nothing) and go underground to admire beautiful metro stations with marble columns, chandeliers and themed décor.
There’s no rest in the evening, either, as cruise lines offer cultural excursions to the opera or ballet, or recreated imperial events at one of the city’s palaces.
The Hermitage is the top stop for most people, full of so much priceless art and so many palatial rooms that tours take a few hours, even with a guide to pick out the best bits (including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and more).
There is also the ornate blue-and-white Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, about 30km outside the city, which is loved for its spectacular Amber Room, and Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace, with its stunning cascade of golden fountains.
And then there are all the tales of murder and intrigue to uncover. Guides will point out the Mikhailovsky ‘Castle’, where conspirators did away with Tsar Paul in 1801 so they could put his son Alexander I on the throne, and take visitors to the elaborate Church of the Spilled Blood built where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
Tours also visit the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was poisoned and shot, and the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the remains of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were interred after they were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Those interested in revolution can visit the Battleship Aurora, which fired the shots that signalled the start of the October Revolution that overturned a 300-year-old monarchy and created the Soviet Union, read more at the Museum of Russian Political History and stand in Senate Square, where a revolt against Tsar Nicholas I in 1825 is acknowledged
as the first Russian rebellion.