St Petersburg, Russia — a brilliant city for a family break

July 4, 2013

So, in case you’ve been wondering why I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging/twitter front for the past week (I know, right?), it’s because No 1 Son and I have been on a Baltic cruise. We started off in Stockholm, and visited Helsinki before spending two days in St Petersburg, Russia; then it was on to Tallinn, Estonia, before flying home from Copenhagen.

For both of us – him because of the history, me because of the romanticism – the chance to visit Russia was the main attraction of our trip. And the advantage of cruising to St Petersburg is that you’re able to travel visa-free; but you do have to join an escorted tour while you’re there. This may seem like a negative, but actually, we were very grateful for our brilliant guide, Alexander, who had an encylopedic knowledge of Russian history, art and culture. He kept everyone enthralled with tales of the real Russian Cinderella and Catherine the Great, Lenin and life under the Communist Party, bloody battles, the Nazis and extraordinary wealth. Like a live version of Horrible Histories, in fact.

Bride in St PetersburgWe were visiting during the ‘White Nights’ – midsummer, where the sky never darkens; instead it stays a perfect azure blue, which highlights the extraordinary beauty of the city. Magnificent buildings painted in vanilla, ochre and pale pink line the banks of the Neva river, which flows through the city, and it’s absolutely breathtaking – on a par with Rome in the mind-blowing architecture stakes. The only blot on the landscape, perhaps, being the former HQ of the KGB, which is basically a concrete block.

Church at PeterhofThe other advantage to being on a tour for our first visit to St Petersburg is that it is a huge city, and it would have taken us quite a while to discover everything we saw during the weekend by ourselves. There are perfectly preserved palaces and galleries and monuments and churches absolutely everywhere, and the contrast between the pre-Revolution architecture and the Communist apartment blocks which followed is extraordinary. (At first I thought these were rather ugly, but then you’re told how up to 10 families would share one bathroom in an old apartment before they were rehoused in these modern blocks, and suddenly it all starts to make sense.)

Peterhof PalaceIn St Petersburg, we discovered, all that glitters is almost certainly gold. No 1 Son and I are both like magpies when it comes to shiny, pretty things, and the palaces offer some full-on bling. You have to walk around in special slippers to protect the parquet floors, which are wonderful. Parquet floor Peterhof

The Russians had the foresight to preserve as much as possible – mostly, of course, to show future generations the full extent of the ostentatious greed of generations of the Romanov royal family that ruled Russia for centuries before the Revolution. It works, although some of it is simply stunning, which probably misses the point.

Winter PalaceWe visited magnificent Peterhof, emperor Peter the Great’s palace; the fabulous white, blue and gold Winter Palace; the Church of the Spilled Blood, with its vibrant onion domes; and The Hermitage, where we saw works of art by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Da Vinci. We saw wide boulevards and trams and bridges. St Petersburg is a constant feast for the eyes. And ears: we were treated to a performance by a male a capella group at the Winter Palace, and serenaded by musicians playing the balalaika (including, of course, Someday My Love, the theme tune from Dr Zhivago. I can’t explain why this brought tears to my eyes, and those of many other grown women around me, but Communist Party HQit did).

We also saw the Communist Party HQ and numerous sobering statues of Lenin.

Of course, so much sight-seeing can be exhausting, particularly when you’re travelling with kids. But we had plenty of breaks, including a rather grand lunch at the former palace of a duke, and I watched one young boy having the time of his life running along the paths at the Winter Palace.

There was shopping, too, and No 1 Son was delighted with the t-shirt he bought, while I resisted the Matrushka dolls (there are just SO many and I found it impossible to make a decision) and went instead for a hand-painted Christmas decoration to add to our collection.

St Catherine's ChapelPerhaps the most emotional part of our visit to St Petersburg was the last stop of our tour: Peter and Paul Cathedral. It’s here that several generations of the Romanovs are buried, including Peter the Great, and again there’s a lot of gold everywhere, including the steeple.

Romanov family, St Catherine's chapelBut it’s a little fenced-off corner of the church, St Catherine’s Chapel, that everyone stops at the most. This is where the remains of the last Russian royal family, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife and children, including Anastasia, are kept. It is terribly moving to think of those children being executed at close range, and although No 1 Son shrugged it off I’m sure he was affected, too. It certainly raised some interesting discussion points.

If I think about all the incredible things we saw and experienced during our two days in St Petersburg, I don’t think either of us can quite believe it. We’re still taking it all in – all that history, and art, and culture. This is the kind of experience that will stay with No 1 Son forever – with both of us, in fact, and that’s why I think St Petersburg, Russia, is a brilliant city for a family break. It would be impossible not to fall in love with this beautiful city. I know we both did.

*We travelled as guests of Celebrity Cruises.

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  • Galina V September 2, 2013 at 10:28 am

    I haven’t been in St Petersburg for over 14 years, I think, you made me feel all nostalgic. Such a beautiful city, with an amazing history

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  • Selena @ Oh, the places we will go! July 4, 2013 at 9:52 am

    We are going on a Baltic cruise next month and I’m so excited! Thank you for sharing this.

  • Jennifer Howze July 4, 2013 at 9:45 am

    I’ve been dying to go to St Petersburg. Didn’t realise you could do cruises that took in so much of that area.

  • Trish July 4, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Fascinating, Liz. We have been considering a Baltic cruise for some time now. My son, who I think is just a year younger than yours, would get a lot out of it.
    Your description of the disparity between the bling seen in the palaces and the stark architecture of the communist buildings reminds me of Berlin: the eastern parts are very bleak and functional.
    And yes, I would have cried at the Dr Zhivago music too!