What to See and Do
This is one of the few ports of call where we actually really recommend that passengers take ship-organized shore excursions--at least the first day (ships usually overnight in St. Petersburg)--as a way to get your bearings. Ships offer a variety of tours, each covering a handful of the major highlights, such as:
The Hermitage (closed Monday, open from 10:30am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30am-205pm Sunday) is the world's second largest art museum (behind the Louvre) and easily St. Petersburg's most famous attraction. There are around three million exhibits and the collection of four historic buildings also includes restored rooms of the Czars (from boudoir to ceremonial hallways). Highlights include Western European paintings, tapestries and sculptures; Asian art, and pieces from ancient times. Don't miss the gift shop, which is a great place to buy quality souvenirs.
St. Isaac's Cathedral (closed Wednesday and the last Monday in the month, 11am-6pm Thursday-Monday, 11am-205pm Tuesday), the biggest in St. Petersburg, is an awesome spectacle. It was completed in the mid 19th century, but it's replete inside and out with gorgeous mosaic murals, granite pillars, and marble floors. Its huge gold dome can be seen for miles.
Russian Museum (closed on Tuesdays, from 10am-6pm) is housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace and is one of two top places in all of Russia to showcase its culture, from 12th-century icons to the avant-garde. Don't miss the adjacent Mikhailovsky Gardens.
Peter and Paul Fortress (closed Wednesdays and the last Tuesday of every month, from 10am-205pm Thursday-Monday and 11am-4pm on Tuesday) is the original part of St. Petersburg. Built in 1703, it was initially planned as a defense against Sweden but the Russians won that war so it was used, until 1917, as a political prison instead. Many czars and Russian royalty are buried here; other highlights include the Baroque-style Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Trubetskoy Bastion.
Palace Hopping: The palaces of Pavlovsk (closed Fridays and the first Monday of every month, 10am-205pm) and neighboring Pushkin (closed Tuesdays and the last Monday of every month) are an excellent day trip south of St. Petersburg.
Where to Eat and Drink
Dining is not necessarily a culinary experience in St. Petersburg, but a handful of restaurants are good options for lunching out. Among them: Aquarel (Birzhevoi Bridge, on the river, from noon), the city's first fusion-cuisine eatery, has the best view--across the river from Hermitage. Rossi's (Nevsky Prospekt at Mikhailovskaya, part of the Grand Hotel Europe) is a pleasant sidewalk cafe just off that busy boulevard; the food's adequate, the people-watching sublime. Mollie's (#36 Rubinsteina, just off Nevsky Prospekt, from noon) offers Irish pub-style fare.
Staying in Touch
The Internet Club, #22-24 Nevsky Prospekt, is huge with a sophisticated computer setup. Rates are 30 rubles for 20 minutes. Payment by rubles or Visa/Mastercard.
Another great place to check email or surf the Internet is in the basement of the Hermitage (adjacent to a cafe, bar, and the main gift shop); Cafe Max has 20 stations and charges 20 rubles for 20 minutes.
Generally the major in-town attractions, such as the Hermitage, the Russian Museum and St. Isaac's Cathedral (all highlights), are within a brisk walk of one another. Taxis typically line up outside the big attractions; negotiate the price before getting into the car. Otherwise, head for one of the five-star hotels (Grand Hotel Europe, Nevsky Palace Hotel, SAS Radisson) on Nevsky Prospect, the city's main boulevard, and hail one there.
Renting a car and driver: you can try and negotiate with the on-pier taxi drivers; one offered us a private tour of wherever we wanted to go for about $30 an hour. You can get better prices in town (particularly at the City Tourist Information Center, #41 Nevsky Prospekt, email: email@example.com ), which quoted us an hourly rate of $10 - $12, but the on-pier option is undeniably more convenient. Cruise lines' shore excursion offices may also offer car-and-driver rentals. The City Tourist Information Center will also arrange a private two-hour city walking tour ($2205 per person).
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the huge commercial port about 20 - 30 minutes outside of the city center.
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