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Cruising White Nights Part V: St. Petersburg, Day Two

Hermitage/Winter Palace

[Eurodam overnighted in St. Petersburg. The story below suggests how passengers might make the most of two days in the Russian city.]

Today, St. Petersburg is both welcoming and increasingly hospitable. Sure, the city could use infrastructure improvements (such as new highways to alleviate city center traffic), but even with its imperfections, 303-year-old St. Petersburg leaves visitors smitten.

On the coast of the Gulf of Finland, in the estuary of the Neva River and on the islands of the Neva Delta, St. Petersburg was well positioned to embrace the rest of Europe while maintaining the grandeur of the Russian Imperial Court.

The city’s opening to the sea made it Russia’s cultural oasis while its architecture evoked Russia’s former Imperial power. From 1712 to 1918, St. Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire. Having survived 11 emperors, revolutions, economic reform, floods, a 900-day siege during World War II and more, St. Petersburg emerged as a destination that astonishes even the most experienced traveler.

How do you make the most of your time in St. Petersburg? Resolve that no matter how quickly you speed through all of St. Petersburg’s attractions, you’re only going to get a taste of Peter the Great’s city. After all, this city of 5 million spans a large area, covering more than 200 square miles. Add to that the choke of traffic, and 48 hours gets consumed fairly fast. There are ways to get a more satisfying first taste, however.

My advice is to spend one day in the city itself, and the other day visiting a couple of palaces outside the city. In the city, you’ll likely want to visit the Hermitage, the world’s second-largest art museum (Paris’s Louvre is the largest), a cathedral or two and Nevsky Prospect, Russia’s most famous street.

The Hermitage alone boasts some 400 rooms containing more than 3 million exhibits (Catherine the Great began the collection in 1764 with only 225 pieces). “If you spent one second looking at each exhibit, you would spend nine years seeing it all,” guides are fond of telling visitors [Editor’s note: Since there are 31.5 million seconds in a year, you could spend 10 seconds on each piece and see everything in the Hermitage in 365 days]. You, unfortunately, don’t have nine years. You have 90 minutes. For a taste, visit the “masterpieces of the masterpieces,” such as the original works of art by da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

The Hermitage houses the second biggest Rembrandt collection outside Amsterdam as well as the largest collection of French art outside France, including original works by Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse. You’ll be glad you booked a private tour to visit the Hermitage, as you breeze through the museum past the large tour groups.

St. Isaac’s CathedralPlan to visit St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg’s largest, and/or the ornate neo-Byzantine Cathedral of the Resurrection, also called Church on Spilled Blood, constructed on the very spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

When visiting any of these attractions, you’re either on or near Nevsky Prospect. The famed street is to St. Petersburg what the Champs Elysées is to Paris, or Broadway to New York. Ask your guide to take you to a café for a coffee, Russian beer or Soviet champagne (technically, sparkling wine). “Walk along Nevsky Prospect, have a cup of coffee, watch people pass by and you understand all of Russia,” says Timophey Beliaev, of the Corinthia Nevaskij Palace Hotel, situated on Nevsky Prospect.

At the end of the day, take in a ballet or opera. St. Petersburg is chock-full of theaters, notably the Mariinsky Theater, one of Russia’s largest and oldest music theaters, famous the world over for opera and ballet.

Late-night canal cruises also are offered. Located on 44 islands formed by the Neva River and 90 more rivers and canals, St. Petersburg is known as the Venice of the North.

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