Since I was a little girl, I had dreamed about St. Petersburg, Russia. While most girls wanted to be Belle or Cinderella, I was infatuated with Anastasia. As I stood in the center of the city, with rain pouring around me and the countdown to our mandatory departure impending, I could not help but be a little let down. The Summer Gardens were impossible to navigate and the Peterhof Palace and the Tsarskoe Palace were out of reach.
But with no time to lose, we were determined to squeeze in as much of the city as possible before having to get back on the boat to Helsinki. Right on the Nevsky Prospeckt we found one of the several locations of Market Place. This adorable, cafeteria style cafe was a perfect place for breakfast. You have about three different counters to choose from with things like eggs, granola, or pastries. For a quick meal, I would highly suggest this place.
But the real reason we chose this cafe was because it was just down the street from St. Isaac’s Cathedral; one of Russia’s main attractions. This iconic church in the center of town completely engulfs the skyline as you get closer, and it is no wonder the Helsinki Cathedral was inspired by this beautiful structure.
A quick note: you do not have to stand in a queue for tickets or even order ahead of time online. There are ticket kiosks at the entrance of the cathedral where you can purchase your entry. The cost to enter was 250 rubles.
The first thing we noticed when we stepped inside the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city was the ceilings. Our necks were not designed to go back so far to see the ornate detail that rose up to 101 meters. But between the emerald green columns and the mosaic artwork on the different walls, we were captivated.
We noticed there were no places to sit inside the church, so the crowds of people made for walking around a bit difficult. But weaving through the throngs of people was completely worth it to see the icons on display and the gorgeous chandeliers hanging from the rafters.
Construction on this church began in 1818 by Tsar Alexander I to replace the previous church on the same ground. The current St. Isaac’s Cathedral standing is the fifth in line beginning with Peter the Great’s commission in 1710. It took forty years to complete the newest church under a French-born architect, Auguste de Montferrand. But when communism took over the Soviet Union, all of the gold was stripped from the church, and in 1931, it was turned into a Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. During the Second World War, the pure gold dome was painted grey so it would not become a target for the city, but it was restored to its original glory once the war was over.
Since it took so long to build in the 1800s, the Finnish came up with an expression: “to build like St. Isaac’s Cathedral,” which basically refers to never-ending projects. But as we walked through the large interior of the church, we were certainly glad to see it still standing (albeit with scaffolding on the top) and ready for tourists to snap picture after picture.
While St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a famous icon of St. Petersburg, the real eye-catching church is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. I first saw this church from a distance, and like the Winter Palace, was drawn to it. The bright colors and onion dome tops were something out of a dream.
This striking church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was killed in 1881. Alexander’s son, Tsar Alexander III started the construction on this quasi-memorial in 1883 and was finished in 1907 by Tsar Nicholas II. On March 13, 1881, Alexander’s carriage was hit by a grenade. The Tsar was unhurt by the explosion, but he got out to confront the attacker. This is when a co-conspirator threw another grenade or bomb which mortally wounded the Tsar. He died a few hours later inside the Winter Palace.
The church was modeled after the iconic 17th century Yaroslavl churches in Moscow. But what also makes this church so special is the interior. The ticket is 250 rubles to go inside, and the first thing you see is the massive shrine to Tsar Alexander II. It was hard to see at first because of the throngs of people crowded around, but as you wait for the crowds to clear, you’re given a moment or two to look at the 7500 square meters of mosaic tiles that coat the walls. Not a scrap of wall space is spared as the whole room reflects and glitters religious icons and images. It’s truly breathtaking.
During the Russian Revolution in 1917, the church was looted and damaged. It was closed 15 years later by the Soviet government when most of the damage was already done. During WWII, many citizens were starving and dying thanks to the Nazis, so the church had to be used as a temporary morgue, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the church reopened to the public as a museum. It never was reconsecrated, so it does not act as a place of worship.
Just outside the church, in the Griboedov Canal, we noticed several people tossing coins into the murky water. As we looked down, we saw what looked to be a bronze or gold hand. People were hoping to gain some luck by tossing a coin into the palm of what must be Jesus’ hand.
Our final hours were counting down in St. Petersburg, and we had two more places to visit. On the west side of the Neva River, the Cruiser Aurora sits stationed as a point of interest to the city. This ship was high on my list of things to do, so on a rainy morning, we set out to see it. The ship is closed permanently to go inside, but where it sits is where it sat in 1917 when the guns signaled the beginning of the October Revolution. Looking at a map of the city, it is no wonder the famous cruiser was chosen because it is quite close to the Winter Palace and there is no doubt that the entire town heard the gun explosions.
We took the metro to the Gorkovskaya stop near the Peter and Paul Fortress to walk the rough mile and a half to the cruiser parked where the Neva River meets the Bolshaya Nevka River. We made it to the corner and saw there was just open water, so we decided to walk a little further thinking the ship may have been further than the map led us to believe. With the clock ticking away our time in Russia, we meandered down the Petrogradskaya Embankment to no avail. A few pirate ship recreations were parked along the way, but there was nothing resembling a battleship.
I finally ducked inside a Volvo car dealership and luckily found a receptionist who spoke English. With misty-wet hair and a tattered tourist map in hand, I asked her to help me find this historic ship. I must have looked like a mad woman, but she pulled up on her phone the exact same location we had. Convinced we had somehow missed a massive ship in the river, we walked back to the same river intersection to finally see the marble slab of a sign with Cruiser Aurora written in Russian. But there was no ship.
It wasn’t until later we discovered the ship had been moved for restoration. We went on this mad, wild goose chase to no avail, and again, St. Petersburg won.
As of a few weeks ago, the ship has been returned to its rightful spot for tourists. It costs 800 rubles to go on board, but some reviewers have expressed disappointment in the update and restoration erasing so much of the historical charm. Also, reviewers have stated a lot of information is not in English, and without translation, so it is difficult to know all of the information.
Laughing about the ridiculous situation we found ourselves in, we walked the mile back to the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the Romanov family is buried. After the disappointments of the weather, ship, and time limit, I was holding very high hopes for this massive and ornate fortress. We had seen it from across the Neva River the last two days, and every time I saw the tall, golden spire, I just said to myself, soon. We walked across the small bridge and paid the 350 rubles to go inside.
This original citadel founded in 1703 by Peter the Great is a small complex with many buildings and exhibits. There are several buildings consisting of a small jail, boat house, museums, and then the actual chapel. We did not have time to explore all of the buildings in earnest, so we just focused on the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
The compound was built to protect the Russian capital from a Swedish attack during the Northern War, but the fort never fulfilled its purpose. It was then turned into a political prison and garrison. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was once held prisoner there, as well as the famous Leon Trotsky. During the October Revolution of 1917, the fortress was attacked and the held prisoners were freed. Most of the land was converted to a museum in 1924, but was heavily damaged during WWII.
The cathedral in the center of the fort has the tallest tower in the city at 122.5 meters. You do get to climb it for an extra 150 ruble fee, which I wanted to do so badly. I climbed the stairs to get a panoramic look at St. Petersburg, but had to be monitored by volunteer guards since I was the only one up there. Each time I made a turn, someone else playing on their phone would stand and follow me to the next person standing guard. It was a bit surreal to be watched as I snapped photo after photo of the Russian skyline.
When I had my fill, I checked the time, and then bolted down the stairs as fast as I could. It was close to time for the noon-day gun, and I was not going to miss it. We raced around the corner to the Naryshkin Bastion where the gun sat and we watched for three minutes while they played strange, quirky music over the sound system before the massive explosion rocked our senses.
Check out my video, but please pardon the massive shake at the end. The explosion was much louder than I had anticipated, and I’m pretty sure I left the layer of skin I jumped out of there. If you want to skip the music, go to 3:00.
After the crowds dispersed, and we collected ourselves, we walked around to the Peter and Paul Cathedral. The small church is completely covered with green, pink, and gold. But the first thing that caught our eye were the white, marble tombs. These were not hidden away or in vaults. These tombs were out in the middle of the church, dotted around in a semi-random layout.
Toward the front of the chapel, behind a gate, lies Catherine the Great. I was thrilled to see her grave even if it was through a hoard of other tourists reaching to take a photo with their selfie sticks and iPads. But the real challenge was trying to see the famous final Romanov family. I waited patiently as the crowd slowly filed in and out, and I made my way to the front of the group. Before I snapped a photo of the plaques mounted on the wall, I just stared. There they were. Finally.
In 1998, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Grand Duchess Olga, Grand Duchess Tatiana, and Grand Duchess Anastasia were interred in the cathedral. Both Grand Duchess Maria and Prince Alexei were held in a repository since 2007. The two family members were denied entry into the vault because the Orthodox Church would not believe the resulting DNA reports since the bodies were found about 43 miles away from the others. Nonetheless, today, the entire family are together again in a small antechamber inside the church, and the moment I had been waiting for had finally arrived.
Pushy tourists were trying to get their own photos of the chamber, so I quickly snapped my photos before saying my goodbyes to the Romanov family. Despite all that Russia had put us through, the whole trip was worth it for those precious moments admiring a royal family I had fantasized about for years.
We made our way back toward the metro station by way of a fantastic little restaurant on the water called Korushka. I had the most delicious Georgian soup with lamb and amazing spices as we looked over the water. The menu had dozens of choices, so if you’re looking for a nice night out, you can’t miss with this place. It also caters to the gluten-free!
As we took in our final sights of Russia, we did walk by the famous Rostral Columns just outside the Old Stock Exchange building. Designed to be a marker for the intersecting river, the columns were designed in 1810 and modeled after the Roman columns of Italy. Today, the red and green towers are an integral part of the St. Petersburg skyline.
We boarded our cruise ship back to Helsinki and waved goodbye to Mother Russia. While I felt disappointed at things left unseen, I also loved every second on the mysterious soil. This is a city that I have not yet crossed off my bucket list since I plan to return.
Stay tuned next week for a complete change of pace as we make our way to Thailand.
Left Luggage Note in St. Petersburg: Many of the train stations have large lockers you can store luggage for a fee. Check out Moskovsky Station, Vitebsky Station, Finlandsky Station, or Ladojsky Station for options. We used the Moskovsky station to store our bags for the day. We paid 250 rubles for a full day ($4), but note that the attendants only speak Russian, so I would suggest bringing translation cards or a phone app to make sure you get what you need. We found a way through hand gestures, but it became quite frustrating to the growing line of Russians behind us who were flabbergasted we didn’t know a single Russian word.