A new day meant a new start, and even though our first day in St. Petersburg wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t wait to discover all of the treasures waiting for us on our second day. We saw so much on our first day in Russia and there was still so much left.
After another breakfast at Garden Café (which became our go-to for most port-day meals), we made our way through border control and met up with our tour group at ten to nine in the morning, our predetermined meeting time. Everyone was on time and everyone seemed to be in a better mood, too, and I think we were all determined to make our last day in Russia our best day in Russia.
Our day began with a photo stop at the Monument to Nicholas I and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The Monument to Nicholas I, who ruled as the Emperor of Russia for 30 years in the mid-1800s, has stood in St. Isaac’s Square since 1859 and was the first equestrian statue in Europe.
The photo stop was only a few minutes because we had things to do and places to be. Well, we had things to see (a lot of them!) and one place to be: the Hermitage, where we had early entry passes to the museum.
The Hermitage, also known as the Winter Palace, was the winter home of Russian monarchs from 1732 to 1917, but has been home to the Hermitage Museum and open to the public since 1764. The scope of the exhibits span a wide spectrum, from Russian antiques and restored rooms as they were when the palace was inhabited, to an expansive Western art exhibit featuring pieces from Rembrandt, Velázquez and Van Gogh and even a room of Egyptian artifacts (like a mummy and a sarcophagus!). It’s impossible to see all of the displays in a day (there are over three million of them, according to Tatiana, spanning more than 66,000 square meters), so while Tatiana walked us through a few of the highlights, we didn’t even scratch the surface.
Having early access passes was key here, as we were able to enjoy our tour without much interference from other groups and crowds. The Hermitage is one of St. Petersburg’s most visited attractions with over 3.5 million visitors every year. And of everything I saw or visited in Russia (and really, on this trip), the Hermitage was amongst my favorites. It really is spectacular, every room, every exhibit. All of it. I was in awe. It’s one of the greatest museums I have ever visited and a return visit to St. Petersburg is on the front page of my travel list solely because there’s so much of this museum I have left to see. Everyone in the group felt the same way – we all agreed to spend an extra hour in the museum to take in more of the exhibits!
After our walk through the Hermitage, Dmitri picked us up for the short drive to the Church of the Savior on Blood, better known as the Church on Spilled Blood. The church was built in 1883 (finished in 1907) on the land where Alexander II was killed in 1881. Designed with neoclassical and baroque influences, the basilica is, perhaps, the most distinctive structure in St. Petersburg (though it is often misconstrued as St. Basil’s Cathedral, which is much bigger and more intricate, but resides in Moscow).
The interior of the church is covered in stained glass ad mosaics, and though beautiful, wasn’t as spectacular as the ones we’ve visited in Italy. Viewing the outside of the church would have sufficed for us had the interior tour not been included in our tour.
Many in our group were anxious to do some souvenir shopping and the street along the Griboedov Canal was covered in shops, but Tatiana implored us not to buy anything expensive in a place that didn’t have a roof and promised to take us to a souvenir shop later on.
Lunch came after our tour of the church. It wasn’t included in our tour, so Dmitri dropped us off near Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St. Petersburg, where there were plenty of cafes and shops. We made a stop inside the Elisyev Emporium, which is a fine foods store and is stunningly gorgeous (and where we found some of the hard candies our grandma used to give us when we were little). We tried to find lunch afterwards, hoping to find a cafeteria to grab a quick bite in. The first place didn’t take credit cards and the second one didn’t have any English speaking employees. So we ended up back at the Elisyev, ordering some pastries to go.
We made a quick photo stop at the Neva River before proceeding on to our last tour stop at Peter & Paul Fortress. The fortress is surrounded by cobblestone walkways, which are killer on the feet but have a fun story behind them: apparently when the square was under construction, each visitor was asked to bring a rock from their home, and so the cobblestone streets are made of stones from around the world.
The Peter & Paul Fortress served as the birthplace of the city and the city’s first official structure, officially built as a military fortress commissioned by Peter the Great in the early 1700s and serving as a prison for the Bolshevik government as recent as the early 1920s. Nowadays, it stands as a cultural heritage site with the cathedral being the main point of interest for many tourists, as it serves as the final resting place for many of Russian imperial families.
Our tour took us inside the cathedral and Tatiana walked us past the tombs of Catherine the Great, Peter the Great and the Romanov Family. After we toured the various tombs, we stepped into a smaller room where we were treated by a live performance from a men’s choir.
The bus made one more photo stop after the Peter & Paul Fortress at the C-189 Submarine before heading back towards the cruise terminal, our time in St. Petersburg winding to a close. Before we left though, we had one more stop: a souvenir emporium that offered (more) free vodka shots before we entered. We didn’t buy anything (the prices were much higher than we had found them elsewhere), but we had fun perusing the expansive selection.
Back at the cruise terminal, we did some last minute shopping since we were finding the best prices there. If you’re looking for Matryoshka dolls, trinkets or generic souvenirs, the prices were reasonable and it was convenient to not have to look after shopping bags as we were touring.
It was a little late for lunch, but early for dinner when we got back on board, and since we didn’t really have a proper lunch, we were famished and that noodle soup from Shanghai was calling to us. After a long day of touring, a piping hot bowl of soup was exactly what we needed to decompress.
Char Siu with Rice Noodles
Glass Noodles with Chicken and Vegetables
We did that thing where we went back to the room to figure out what we wanted to do next and I laid my head on the pillow for just a minute and the next thing I knew, hours had passed and I had missed both sailaway from St. Petersburg and just about every evening activity I had planned. On the plus, though, I was super refreshed and wide awake, so the three of us headed out to walk around the ship and see what was happening. Norwegian didn’t have the same variety of entertainment options Carnival and Royal Caribbean do, but they did have live music in the lobby. And that piano bar we enjoy so much on Carnival’s ships? Norwegian has Howl at the Moon, which has dueling pianos, which means twice the singalong fun. The options were more limited, sure, but I was plenty entertained.
By the time we were hungry for dinner proper, most of the dining venues onboard the ship were closed, but room service is available 24 hours a day (for a small service charge) and O’Sheehan’s also features round-the-clock dining (with no service charge). We liked the options at O’Sheehan’s better and, bonus, the bar area was open to the lobby below, so we could take in more of those live tunes. And the food, as it was the first time, was generally good. Puzzling in some aspects (like the lemon wedge served with my fajitas and the jalapenos acting as the pickled peppers on the hot dog – as a lifelong Chicagoan, I hold an honorary degree in hot dogs and jalapenos make a poor substitute for the traditional sport peppers).
Warm Spinach and Artichoke Dip
Chicago Style Hot Dog
Mom and Stephanie went off to bed and I headed outside to the Waterfront to take some pictures of one of the most incredible horizons I’ve ever seen. It was well past 11:00 pm and there was still daylight on the horizon, layering up from the water in deeper hues until it touched the darkened sky, the only tell to the true evening hour. Traveling through the Mediterranean in the late spring always messed with my internal clock with the sun setting so late. Traveling through the Baltics was even more deceptive – there were nights when I went to bed in the early morning hours and there was still light on the horizon. Between that and the jetlag leading me to short bursts of sleep instead of full nights, my body was taking a beating, but what a way to go. There’s so much beauty in the world and how lucky was I, sailing off the Gulf of Finland, to experience this small slice of it.