72 hours in St Petersburg

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Peter the Great’s architectural gem is now closer than ever to its western neighbour of Helsinki. Tourists entering Russia by sea can spend three days in the country without a visa.

Peter the Great originally established St Petersburg as a fortress in 1703, but by the time he died in 1725, the city had grown into a lively town of 40,000. During the rule of his successor Catherine the Great, a supporter of science and the arts, the gorgeous Winter Palace was built along with the Small and Old Hermitages to store the queen’s ever-growing art collection. Catherine’s grandson Alexander I, meanwhile, ordered St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the construction process of which lasted 40 years. These and thousands of other buildings, each concealing intriguing stories, surround Neva and its tributaries.

Visa-free cruises

Taking in St Petersburg’s sprawling harbour from onboard the m/v Princess Maria cruise ship, it’s not difficult to believe that nowadays this is the fourth largest city in Europe. As the ship approaches the city in the morning sun, it spends several hours meandering between cranes and container ports.

St. Peter Line’s berth at the Fasade terminal on the island of Vasily is near the historical centre of St Petersburg. This is especially beneficial during rush hour, when travelling through the widely spread megacity would be a burdensome process.

St. Peter Line offers cruises between Helsinki and St Petersburg that allow travellers to spend up to 72 hours in the city without a visa. www.stpeterline.com

Tsarist stomping grounds

Sometimes coined the Venice of the North, St Petersburg can be explored via a mini-cruise on the Neva; some companies, such as Neptun, even offer a glass of champagne to passengers.

On the way to the Versailles-worthy Peterhof Palace, for example, one can see the city’s many faces, from delicate wooden villas to a nuclear power plant. The hour-long journey through town by water can be two hours shorter than by car. Companies offering river cruises include Astra Marine and Anglotourismo, which specialises in tours in English. anglotourismo.com

Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, Peterhof Palace was one of the royal family’s primary summer residences, and around it formed an entire mini-city populated by servants and soldiers.

This day trip destination, crowded during the weekends, is at its most impressive from the spring to the late fall. Visitors can pack a picnic basket and enjoy a meal on the grass as local families do.

Chill out

On cold days, a visit to one of St Petersburg’s numerous spa hotels comes recommended. During the summer and early fall, travellers can also hop on a train at Finlandski station and head to the famous sandy beaches of river Teri; these were immortalised by painter Ilya Repin (1844–1930).

Only a half an hour from St Petersburg’s noise and dust is a different world. Restaurant Runo (422A Primorskoye shosse, www.runo.ru) offers relaxation in the form of bossa nova, fluttering white curtains and the scent of shashlik delicacies on the grill. From the restaurant there’s a short walk to Ilya Repin’s Memorial Estate (411 Primorskoye shosse, eng.nimrah.ru/musrepin)

Bread and circuses

In the evenings, sports fans will appreciate a visit to Petrovsky Stadium, home of St Petersburg’s largest football team, Zenit.

Fans of more dexterous athletics can head to the Bolshoi St Petersburg State Circus; its acrobats seem to defy the limitations of nature, and the lions, elephants and bicycling bears are likely to both fascinate and divide opinions.

Zenit: www.uefa.com > Teams & Players > Teams > Zenit, tickets available at the stadium.
Bolshoi St Petersburg State Circus: www.circus.spb.ru , tickets 300–1500 rupies (about 8–38 euros).

TIP: Culinarists can spend between a few and a few hundred euros at St Petersburg’s restaurants; ask your hotel concierge for recommendations and avoid the tourist traps of Nevski Prospect.

To plan your trip,
see www.st-petersburg.net  
and http://petersburgcity.com/ 

Text by Eeva Puhakainen
Photo by iStockphoto
A version of this article was previously published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (October 2010). 

Published June 22, 2011

Category: Local features

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