Sep 24, 2014

Baltic Cruise: St. Petersburg, Russia


When we were planning our Baltic cruise, we all agreed one country absolutely had to be on our itinerary…Russia. It's not a place any of us could really visit unless it was part of a guided tour (for job reasons, as you can imagine), so knowing our sailing included an overnight in St. Petersburg made this cruise all the more exciting for our entire group. When the day came for all of us to hop off the ship into a country none of us had ever visited before, we had stars bursting from our eyes! What good fortune to be able to visit such a fascinating, seemingly untouchable country! I had high hopes for St. Petersburg.

 Truth be told, it turned out to be one of my least favorite stops on our Baltic vacation. Total bummer. I'm far from ashamed to say it didn't meet any of my expectations…in fact,  it left me scratching my head a bit. Why, you ask? Well, a few things. First, it just didn't scream RUSSIA to me. I know, what the heck does that even mean? I'm not even really sure I can articulate that to you. I guess I thought I'd be submerged into a world that looked and felt uniquely "Russian"--the touristy Russia I must have painted in my head thanks to TV, movies, and the news (kitschy nesting dolls, a plethora of colorful helmeted cupolas, yadda yadda). I wholeheartedly expected to have that "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" kind of moment. Instead, I was surprised to see so much European influence ingrained throughout the city. It was like I hadn't left the continent of Europe at all. Had I done my research beforehand, I'm sure I wouldn't have been so confused by St. Pete's architecture (it is called the "Venice of the North", after all). I think I was expecting to be met with more medieval architectural features, but the city was far ahead of my stunted dreams with Baroque and Neoclassical buildings littered around every turn. The only piece of the city that held to my medieval yearnings was the beautiful Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Romantic, commanding, a nod to nationalism--absolutely stunning! I could have stood there and marveled at its richly decorated facade for hours and hours. If it wasn't for all the cars and foot traffic huddling around the church, our brief 15 minute stop there would have been the highlight of my trip. Leave it to modern conveniences to make iconic areas less appealing. 


Secondly, having to explore the city within a tour group was the total pits. Because Americans must have a visa to visit Russia (and because cruising provides you a sort of automatic temporary visa for the days you're visiting), you must be a part of a guided tour to enter the city and sight-see. We got to experience Russian immigration and were rewarded with that coveted passport stamp (very cool and only slightly unnerving--no smiles to be found in that place!), but having to spend the rest of the day attached to a group of whiny elderly tourists made the experience less than enjoyable for me. We've taken tours in the past and they'd all been pretty wonderful, but this one, SHOOT ME. Par for the course for that cruise, I suppose. Everything felt rushed and we hardly had time to snap photos or read signage before moving on to the next attraction. They tried to stuff way too many things into 12 hours that day. Not to mention…12 HOURS. Longest vacation day ever. Even though we saw a lot, I still felt like I saw nothing. 


The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Now that's how you name a church! 


The canals were a pleasant surprise. Larger and more industrial than those of Venice and Amsterdam, but it's always nice to have water run through a city. Adds a little charm. 


Because of all my preconceived notions about what Russia would look and feel like, I think I robbed myself of having an awe-stricken experience with St. Petersburg (well, that and the fact that tour groups sometimes suck). While there were some shiny gold star moments (the Spilled Blood church, seeing Swan Lake at the Russian ballet and an amazing midnight sunset--more on those to come!), there was still so much lacking from our short 2 days there. I wish I'd done more research beforehand to give myself more of an open mind, or at least a less surprised one. Take that as a lesson, fellow travelers! Check your expectations at the border! If given the chance to visit again, I actually think I would...but only if I'm able to plan the itinerary myself and have time to enjoy it all without being herded like cattle from one attraction to another. That might never happen, but one can dream! This just goes to show, not every place you visit will be one you hold dear. We all have our failed travel destinations...this was just one of mine.

16 comments:

  1. Aww, I'm so sad you feel that way about St. Petersburg, though it is by far the most Western and European of Russia's cities. Sadly, a lot of the more "Russian" stuff there was destroyed during WWII (Siege of Leningrad) and during the Soviet Union. I absolutely hate being herded like cattle on tour groups though and have had cities lose their charm after that too. :(

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  2. That church is beautiful. I went a tour guide to with the MWR to Prague and didn't have a great time. Its so much nicer when you can just go by yourself and look at things but of course on the trip you had no choice.

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  3. That church....I can only imagine how breathtaking it would be in person. It looks magnificent!

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  4. Gorgeous! I want to go there so badly.. it looks like a magical place!

    http://www.thetouristoflife.com

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  5. Oh bummer! That stinks that it didn't hold up to your expectations. That is how I felt when we went to Greece. Pretty pictures!

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  6. Ugh, such a bummer! We had a similar experience on one of our cruises. We had ridiculously high hopes for Curacao, and were extremely let down. Not only did we port on a national holiday for them, but the entire city was covered in garbage! No one booked excursions because the shopping was supposed to be the best of the trip -- but everything was closed for said holiday. Total let-down ... and it was on the surface of the sun!!

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  7. Casey I went on a Baltic cruise 2 months before you did on Celebrity Eclipse. We stayed 2 nights in St Petersburg and I experienced a great tour. We went to Catherine's Palace in Pushkin and Peterhoff Palace. Peter the Great built the palace to rival Versailles. The fountains of Peterhoff are more elaborate than Versailles and it stayed on for a long time because it is powered by gravity. I had a great tour considering I went on a group tour provided by Celebrity cruise. Sorry that you didn't enjoy St Petersburg.

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  8. I've always wanted to visit Russia, and totally understand all the preconceived notions you had. I'd be pretty disappointed too. It still looks beautiful though! :)

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  9. We just went on a 12 hour bus tour of Quebec City and I'm so glad that we decided not to go on the river cruise that was offered because it gave us a break from the whiny elderly tourists :-) I'm sorry that your time in Russia wasn't what you hoped for.

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  10. Ouch, a 12 hour tour? That's wayyy too much - worse, you didn't have choice in the matter. It's over now though, phew!

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  11. Bummer! We had planned to go this past June/July, but decided against since 1.) the visa is expensive, 2.) the flight was like $700!!!! and 3.) well for obvious reasons. We ended up going to Tallinn and Helsinki instead... but anyway... I had asked a friend for guidance on visiting St Pete saying that I was nervous about going to Russia and she said it is no different than anywhere else in Scandinavia. I guess we gotta go to Moscow to get the more Russian feel??? We still have St Pete on the table, so maybe summer 2015.

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  12. Aw, bummer :( But hey,passport stamp!

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  13. Hm, I was told this is the place to go in Russia, but it certainly does look very European. I am not a fan of guided tour groups either, I think that it is a shame you weren't able to discover more of this city for yourselves, I am sure then you may have had a different experience there. However, I love the look of the church, and it looked like a beautiful day anyway.
    Katie

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  14. Thanks for your honest look at this city. I always appreciate when people give it to us straight:) I've always been curious about St. Petersburg and Russia in general, so i'll have to stay away from tours. I totally feel you on that…hate tours for the most part!! xoxo Can't wait to see more pics!

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  15. Shame you didnt enjoy it as much, but gven how you had to go through the city, i canunderstand why. I loved ourtime there but we had three whole days to explore it ourselves and had come from Moscow where the more' Russian/ Soviet Union' influences were and so St. Petersburg was a more welcoming place. Do give it a go agin if you get the chance to. You won't regret it.

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  16. I'm sorry you didn't like it - I spent three days there last fall (http://goo.gl/uju1sU) and I was swept away by the beauty of the city. But, um, what do you mean you felt as if you hadn't left Europe? St. Petersburg is in Europe, Russia spans both Europe and Asia and this is in the very west, it's definitely Europe :) I also think it's possible that you had a slightly negative idea of what you could expect beforehand. When I went there, we were handed questionnaires to fill in and one of the questions was about our expectations. The vast majority had a negative image in their heads because of how Russia is portrayed in American movies (we all watch them all over the world, right).
    Anyway, good that at least you liked the ballet, I'm hopping over to that post now. I watched The Nutcracker and loved it!

    Wandering Polka Dot

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