St Petersburg Russia – The Gem of the Baltic

Peter Morrell and his wife fulfil a lifelong ambition and visit this unique city on a Fred. Olsen cruise

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My wife and I recently put a very big tick on our bucket list when we visited St Petersburg. We were on a Fred. Olsen Baltic cruise and the call into this fascinating city was one of the highlights. As getting a tourist visa to visit Russia is a complicated and expensive process arriving on a cruise ship is ideal as you can land visa free if you go on an official excursion.

Peter the Great

Before writing about St Petersburg it’s worth giving a background to the city’s founder, Peter the Great. He was born in 1672, when he was 10 his half-brother Feodor died and he became joint Tsar with his other half brother Ivan. After a series of inter family disputes Peter became the sole Tsar of Russia at the age of 22.

He was a very forward thinking ruler, and began to modernise the entire political and establishment structures of the country. Many of these changes are still in place today. In 1697, he embarked on an 18 month ‘Grand Embassy’ tour, travelling incognito to a number of Western European countries. At 6 foot 7 inches tall, a huge size in the 17th century he was soon identified which gave him access to kings and people of influence. He visited many countries during his grand tour including the UK where he was impressed with the town planning of Manchester and Amsterdam where he leant many life skills including ship building.

In 1703 Peter captured a Swedish settlement at the mouth of the Neva River where it entered the Gulf of Finland, Strategically situated, he built a port there which allowed Russia to trade with other Baltic states. He commissioned the design of St Petersburg based on his grand tour, Manchester featured in his thoughts for layout and the criss cross of canals was influenced by the Dutch capital. As the size and importance of the city grew Peter declared it the new capital of Russia in 1712.

Peterhof – The Summer Palace

So with all of this in mind we set off for a day of exploration. After being cleared for landing by the stone faced border officials we were on our way to Peterhof, the Tsar’s summer palace. This is about an hour’s drive from the centre so it gave us the opportunity to see city and its hinterland. On the drive out there was evidence of the city’s layout with wide streets, solid buildings and of course the famed canals. We spotted some very elaborate buildings which could have been mini opera houses but the M sign at the apex of their pediments marked them as metro stations. Apparently the interiors are decorated like art galleries.

The city soon gave way to a more suburban landscape with mile after mile of Soviet era blocks of flats served by very old two car trams. We soon arrived at Peterhof which was captured by the Germans in WWII and prior to their retreat they both blew up and set fire to the palace. What we saw was the result of meticulous restoration. Both the house and the gardens have got a very western feel to them to the extent that Peterhof is known as the Russian Versailles.

The palace is in renaissance style and is a celebration of baroque decoration although most of this was introduced by Peter’s daughter Elizabeth. Art works hidden before the Nazis arrived are now back in the grand salons. Highlights included an extravagant gilded Ballroom, the Throne Room and the Drawing Room of the Tsar’s private apartment decorated with chinoiserie. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the palace so there are no images.

Outside is where the Versailles epithet is most evident, two highly ornate stepped water features adorned with gilded statues cascade down the bluff to Samson’s fountain on the lower level. A canal surrounded by formal gardens leads from the fountain to the Gulf of Finland which allowed visitors to arrive by boat.

There are a number of smaller palaces in the gardens together with some amusing attractions. Peter the Great was a roistering party animal, he founded the all-joking, all-drunken synod of fools and jesters club and he had a wicked sense of humour. An example was a fountain in an enclosed area surrounded by pebbles, step on the wrong stone and you will get soaked with jets of water.

We reluctantly left Peterhof which had been an intriguing place to visit and arrived back in central St Petersburg at lunch time, stopping at the Mindal Cafe right by the Egyptian bridge over the Fontanka River, It was a cosy restaurant serving food with a Georgian twist, a popular cuisine all over Russia, of course there was an obligatory shot of vodka to go with the meal.

The Hermitage – The Winter Palace

Next stop was the Hermitage, and for us it would fulfil a lifetime’s ambition, The huge winter palace on the banks of the Neva River is now home to more than three million works of art. But it isn’t just the collection of artefacts that people come to see, it’s the spectacular architecture of the interior as well. The museum is so well respected that Russians put on their ‘Sunday best’ for a visit.

The collection leaves you almost speechless as Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt pass before your eyes. It not just the paintings, there are sculptures, furniture, clothes and clocks. The collection is still expanding and includes more modern works by Picasso, Renoir and Matisse. One of the star exhibits is the The Benois Madonna by Leonardo Da Vinci and my personal favourite was the Kolyvan Vase, made from a single piece of jasper and weighing more than 19 tons.

We could have spent all day in the museum and although our time was limited in the Hermitage it was a thoroughly rewarding experience and way above out expectations.

We only had one day in St Petersburg and devoted it to the two major palaces but Fred. Olsen are offering a similar cruise next year (see below) which features a two day stay in this captivating city. This extra day will give passengers the opportunity to explore many more attractions. There are walking tours available, a waterways cruise, a visit to the Yusupov Palace with the chance to do some shopping, the Royal Palace and Cathedrals and the most iconic piece of St Petersburg architecture, the Church of the Spilled Blood.

Our cruise had been thoroughly enjoyable, in addition to St Petersburg we stopped at Copenhagen, Tallinn, Riga and Germany for a day trip to Berlin. Cruising was the best way to see the the Baltic cities. Our ship, the MS Balmoral, scored highly on good food, comfort and relaxation with the added bonus of being able to visit Russia visa free.

You can read about our cruise experience here…

Next Year’s Cruise

A similar cruise in 2018 with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines will be a 14-night ‘Cruising to the Heart of the Baltic’ cruise (M1823) on board Braemar, departing from Southampton on 14th September 2018. Ports of call include: Copenhagen, Helsinki, an overnight stay in St. Petersburg, Riga, Travemünde and cruising the Kiel Canal, arriving back in Southampton on 28th September 2018.
Prices currently start from £1,879 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.

Further details on this cruise can be found by following this link.

For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website at or call Reservations on 0800 0355 242 (Monday – Friday, 8am – 8pm; Saturday, 9am – 5pm; Sunday, 10am – 4pm).