Tour St. Petersburg without the crowds
Our guided tours of St. Petersburg in winter ensure you see all the artworks & sights in relative peace! Read our Destination Specialist Asko, fabulous St. Petersburg tour.
My partner and I had a chance to visit St. Petersburg on our Glorious St. Petersburg tour last December, just before our Lapland Christmas. Prior to arrival, we had organized a variety of tours with a private guide and driver for our short 4 day stay.
We met our guide Ada at the hotel reception on our first morning. We had no trouble finding her as she greeted us in the lobby with a rather large sign.
Today's program was to visit the Pushkin area: Catherine’s and Paul Palaces (Pavlovsk Palace). These palaces are located about 25km outside from the city, so our driver Andrei was waiting us outside the hotel. When arranging your Russian holidays with us, you will have same guide and driver for whole stay.
As it was my first time in St. Petersburg, the drive through the city and then in the countryside was all very fascinating. Our guide, Ada, kept us well informed of the landmarks and sights as we passed them. Just before entering the Pushkin area, it started snowing, magically transforming the scene into a fairytale with fresh white snow on the ground and trees.
The tour of Catherine’s palace was fascinating with Ada really enhancing the experience by telling us so much about the royal history and the palace. Most of the palace was destroyed in WWII by Nazis, but it has now been restored back to it’s former glory.
After the tour we had a lunch close by at the Provorie log-house restaurant. This was a great stop, a beautiful traditional Russian restaurant with live music and traditional costumes. The menu was pre-ordered and included Russian tasting plates including Vodka and Russian wines. Of course, Ada gave a quick lesson how to drink Vodka in Russia, making it a great start to our Russian holiday.
Next stop was Pavlovsk Palace, or known in English as Paul’s Palace. After spending the morning in Catherine’s palace, it was interesting to see this smaller but still beautiful palace with original artwork and features. Again, Ada’s knowledge of the history of this palace was amazing.
Unfortunately the snow started to melt this afternoon and we did not get a chance to go to Troika ride (horse drawn cart) in the park around the palace. If you are visiting during winter months, remember to ask about the ride when you're booking your trip.
It was dark when we got back to the city and the hotel, and after this full day excursion, we felt quite tired, had dinner at our hotel and had an early night.
Today started as the day before with Ada waiting at the reception around 10am. As we stayed at the Moika Kempinski hotel, we just walked to our first destination, the Hermitage – an easy 5-minute stroll. Part of the Hermitage Museum, Winter Palace is actually a ‘must see’ building and we had already walked around the building and Palace Square this morning before breakfast.
The Hermitage during our St. Petersburg tour
The museum is so large that one day would not be enough to see it all, but with Ada’s guidance we saw as much we could in a few hours. She took us to the main galleries to see the “da Vinci” and “Rembrandt”. It was incredible to be here without any crowds – we moved swiftly through the building with Ada explaining the building and the art works as we went.
With limited space, The Hermitage Museum has always struggled to exhibit all their artworks. Luckily, they have finally opened another wing, just across the square in the old ‘General Staff Building’. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to visit this new gallery, which houses the Impressionist painting collection. If you wish to do both galleries, I suggest allocating a whole day for this, or splitting the gallery visit across your stay. If you visit in winter, you have the luxury of visiting the gallery several times during your stay as you will not need to factor in the crowds or lines to get into these popular galleries.
From the Hermitage, we walked a short distance (15 minutes) to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (Khram Spasa na Krovi). This church was also one of the highlights of our visit to St. Petersburg, a “must see”. It was fascinating to learn more about the history of this Church – be sure to see the amazing mosaics inside. An insider tip from our guide was that this is a good place to use the bathroom, as there is a shortage of recommended public toilets around central St Petersburg.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood during our St. Petersburg tour
Today’s lunch was in a small traditional restaurant called Demidov. We were served a 3-course lunch starting with a soup, a stroganoff for a main and dessert. For me, eating out in Russia is a treat, as I do love Russian food. After lunch, our driver, Andrei, was waiting for us outside and we drove around the city as a part of the city tour with Ada pointing out significant buildings, history or just facts about St. Petersburg.
Our city tour then took us to the Peter & Paul Fortress and Cathedral. There we felt like we were part of history as Ada talked us through more detailed facts about this impressive Fortress. The Church is also a final resting place for Imperial Romanov Dynasty including Maria Feodorovna, the Danish princess and Empress of Russia as spouse of Tsar Alexander III.
As we had quite busy schedule to see all the sights in only 4 days, we needed to rush to our next location, the Faberge Museum where we had a tour booked for the afternoon. As with many museums in St. Petersburg, you will have set times with your ticket, and you must be on time. The Faberge Museum is privately owned, so you must join a guided tour to visit.
Paul Fortress & Cathedral during our St. Petersburg tour
Faberge palace was again just stunning, and of course the largest selection of Faberge eggs on display, not to forget, the additional amazing silver collection. As with other palaces, you need to cover your shoes with plastic before entering and leave jackets and bags at the cloakroom. Our guide helped us with all the protocol for visiting these museums.
After another full day touring, we returned to the hotel and had a light dinner in the hotel, as we were still quite full after our traditional Russian lunch.
Our third day started with a short walk along the Moyka River to Yusupov’s Palace. I did not know the history about this palace, so I was looking forward to learning more.
If you have only limited time in St. Petersburg and don’t feel travelling outside of the city to see Catherine’s or Paul’s Palaces, this is good option too. It’s much smaller but still a stunning palace with a rich history. We learned more about the history of Rasputin, or at least the last days of Rasputin as this is where the process of his assassination started.
Yusupov Palace during our St. Petersburg tour
On arrival, we chanced upon a short morning concert by a local choir, and we joined the audience. We actually ended up purchasing their CD as we enjoyed the concert very much.
Today we had the afternoon to ourselves, and it was time to get some souvenirs. We walked to the main street Nevsky Prospect and bought some Matryoshkas (Russian stacking dolls). You can find novelty dolls that have been tailor-made for tourists; for example, be on the look out for ‘Collingwood Football Club” or “Real Madrid” versions.
Having a free afternoon allowed us the energy to plan dinner; our choice was a nearby restaurant called Sadko. This restaurant is well known for the performing waiters while serving on selected nights, as most of these waiters study performing arts at a near by college.
The restaurant is also located just next to the Mariisky Theater, where we went to see the Ballet Don Quixote. As this was my first time to see Ballet, what better place to go than St. Petersburg? Sitting in the exquisite Mariisky theatre was an experience in itself with such fine architecture and perfect small details.
Our Ballet Don Quixote evening!!
This morning we started with a walking tour at St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Fortunately, St. Isaacs doesn’t open until 11am – a sleep in was in order.
St Isaacs is another “must see” while in St. Petersburg. It is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the city – no doubt about it when you look up as you walk in. Again Ada explained the history of the cathedral to such detail that even the whereabouts of the stones we were walking on was shared.
St Isaacs Cathdral on our final day
The last place to visit for us was the State Russian Museum. Here you find the largest selection of Russian art in St. Petersburg. But the scale of the museum is more manageable than the Hermitage, and you can quite easy explore the museum in a day. Just another worthwhile museum!
The State Russian Museum
Alas, we did not have much time to explore this final palace as we were booked on the Allegro train to Helsinki that afternoon. After the tours Ada and Andrei drove us to the railway station to wish us a goodbye and we started our other adventures from there. Visiting this region gave me a real insight into Russia and I came away from this experience with a strong sense of the Russian people’s pride in their rich history and culture.
Our St. Petersburg Independent tour can be found here. Add Moscow to your itinerary on this independent tour.