After this seamless arrival, we slipped surgeon’s booties over our shoes and headed straight for the building’s highlights, including its killer Amber Room and the vast Great Hall, with its mirrors and ceiling paintings.
If you don’t have a lot of time, and if you don’t mind stretching the budget, this is the way to see the sights in St. Petersburg. It cost us $1,720 a day, not including tips. The deal included the chauffeur-driven car, a personal guide, private boat trips, tickets and VIP access to all the sights, allowing us to bypass lines and breeze through checkpoints as if it were the 18th century and we were Russian aristocrats.
We jammed two or three days of sightseeing into just 12 hours.
My wife, Polly, and I usually like to ramble through vacation cities. We select a loose set of sights we want to see over a few days, and then we wander — exploring neighborhoods, seeing what unfolds around a corner, lunching at cozy cafes. We don’t like tight schedules.
But Russia doesn’t lend itself to much spontaneity.
The terms of the Russian tourist visa require you to state exactly when you’re coming, exactly where you’re going and exactly where you’re staying. In fact, the Renaissance St. Petersburg Baltic Hotel in central St. Petersburg — where we enjoyed a high-ceilinged room filled with light from a wall of windows — had to issue an invitation for us to get a visa in the first place.
We planned our Russia visit as a sidelight to a two-week stay in Scandinavia last August. Because we’d be in the neighborhood, Polly suggested that we take a couple of days to visit St. Petersburg, which is a short flight from Stockholm, and whose 60-degree weather sounded more comfortable than windy Copenhagen.
The city, named for Saint Peter, was built by emperor Peter the Great in the 18th century on the Gulf of Finland, in part as a naval port to serve as a bulwark against rival Sweden. Known as Leningrad during the Soviet regime, it’s the northernmost large city in the world, with a population of almost 5 million. It has vast squares, large churches and bright yellow government buildings that convey Imperial Russia.
It’s also Russia’s most international city, a onetime home to the poet Alexander Pushkin, novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov and the great composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and a center for art, theater, music and dance. Because it was home to the emperors, some of the nation’s most convulsive events occurred there, including the storming of the Winter Palace that culminated in the 1917 October Revolution.
But we had only three nights and two full days to spend there. Period.