ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Influenced by his travels and yearning to bring culture to the city he built, Peter the Great opened St. Petersburg’s first museum, but worried it might not be patronized.
The solution was to offer a free glass of vodka at the museum exit, thus spawning a lifelong love of culture among St. Petersburg residents to go with their lifelong love of vodka.
Four years after sprucing up for its 300th anniversary celebration, St. Petersburg remains the cultural crown jewel of Russia. Westerners who have never been to Russia will be stunned by the beauty of a city known as “Venice of the North.”
Before Peter the Great designed the city, he visited Amsterdam and Venice and wanted St. Petersburg to have Amsterdam’s look and lure. Today’s St. Petersburg is clearly Russian in heritage, but with a definite European feel, attracting dozens of cruise ships annually, most of which stay in port two or more days.
Visiting St. Petersburg via cruise ship allowed us to explore the city by day and at night and then return to the luxury of our ship.
Spread over 101 islands with 66 canals and hundreds of bridges, the city offers popular river tours with stunning views of churches and museums topped by golden spires above pastel-colored walls. Monumental and decorative art exist everywhere.
Museums, theaters, concert halls and churches flourish within the city, while some of the palaces that royalty built are suburban jewels at least an hour-long trip away.
One of the most famous palaces is Peterhof (Peter’s Yard), which we visited via hydrofoil boat. Devastated during World War II, it took another 50 years to restore its grandeur, with spouting golden sculptures, the Great Cascade – foaming water descends in steps from the palace toward the sea – shining white columns against freshly painted stucco and manicured lawns and walkways.
Inside, diverse architectural styles – Baroque, Rococo and Classicism – are found in rooms furnished with period pieces and facades, as well as pieces of art.
Another world-famous building is the Imperial Winter Palace, home of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Theater, which began as Catherine the Great’s personal theater and now offers ballet and concert performances open to the public.
Modern history comes alive in a visit to the “Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad” who endured a 900-day blockade by Nazi Germany during World War II. When the Germans left, every living resident of the city had lost at least one relative.
The monument occupies the exact spot on the front lines that divided the city and Nazi-occupied territory. A short film contains actual footage of Russian soldiers trudging across the iced-over Baltic Sea and women digging trenches and sweeping rubble from the streets after a bombing raid. In photos of stick-thin children and gaunt adults, you can sense the silent, stubborn resolve not to surrender.
Like many tourist attractions, the monument can be reached by the Metro, the city’s subway system, which was started prior to World War II and now spider-webs the area.
Colorful churches dominate the skyline, topped with golden spires, so that, according to legend, God can notice them quicker. Some made famous in photographs are The Cathedral of the Resurrection and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
St. Petersburg is one of the few Russian cities with statues commemorating Lenin and Stalin. In 1991, when anti-Lenin and Stalin sentiment swept the nation, most cities destroyed their statues, but St. Petersburg left more than 100 standing by noting that famous sculptors had built the statues and they were part of history. Culture won out over political correctness.
Other Baltic Ports
A towering 70-foot limestone hill is the centerpiece of a vibrant city with cobblestone alleys winding beneath medieval turret-topped walls. Historic buildings dominate this small country, which broke from Russian rule in 1990. Toompea Castle dates from the 10th century and now houses the parliament. St. Olav’s Church, built in the 1100’s with a 521-foot steeple since felled by lightning, still holds services.
Reputed to be where the Christmas tree tradition began, Riga boasts the Latvian Open-Air Museum, an outdoor museum featuring wooden buildings, most more than 200 years old.
Soviet-occupied until 1990, Klaipeda is an active transportation hub with less cultural and religious architectural influences, but visitors will find an intriguing Maritime Museum and Aquarium.
• Russian visas are expensive – the price depends on length of stay – but will allow you to move freely around the city with a private tour guide; passports won’t work.
• Rubles are the only currency accepted in most Russian state-run museums and palaces. Get your money changed earlier. Be prepared to have to pay to take photos in some places.
• Be careful. Stay with your group. Hiring an interpreter or security guard is an option to be considered.