Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that St. Petersburg was named for its founder, the czar Peter the Great. It was named for Saint Peter. This version has been corrected.
It’s good to be czar.
I certainly felt like one when my chauffeur-driven Nissan sped through the gate at Russia’s massive Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg, zooming past hordes of tourists trudging from their buses a mile away. Ours was the only car in sight as we zipped up the vast, empty courtyard, pulling to a stop just a few steps from a side entrance, where a VIP greeter came out to meet us.
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.
To make the most of it, we consulted friends who had visited the former Russian capital. They recommended a private, escorted, custom-designed St. Petersburg tour to make the best use of our limited time.
Polly e-mailed tour operator Tatiana Alexandrova and received an itinerary detailing her recommendations for one entire day. We prepaid the $1,720 fee by check to CitiBank. That allowed us to simply listen, learn and leave the thinking, driving and negotiating to others. It wasn’t cheap, but I can’t think of a better way to see a lot in a little time, especially when some of the sights are miles apart.
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Tatiana met us at 8 a.m. sharp in the lobby of our hotel, handed us off to our guide and driver, then left.
Our guide, Olga, sat in the front passenger seat of our snazzy tan Nissan and introduced herself in near-perfect, relaxed English as we sped southward through a low-industrial area — past a giant statue of Lenin with his hand outstretched as if directing traffic — and onto rural roads that led to the vast estates of the czars. The driver, Slava, spoke little English as we wove through traffic, but he provided much more than just expert driving. He knew the fun parts of town, hooked us up with restaurants and even recommended a good breakfast cafe that catered to tourists at affordable prices.
Slava had been at this a while.
Olga, in her mid-20s, is a lifelong St. Petersburg resident who attended the prestigious St. Petersburg State University, where she studied English. Intrigued by American idioms, she soaks up everything from her clients. She got a kick out of my questions about which attraction was St. Petersburg’s “big draw” and which street was the city’s “main drag.”
The morning included a brisk and informative personal tour of the lavish baroque palace at Tsarskoye Selo, whose robin’s egg-blue facade is more than three football fields wide. It’s known as the Catherine Palace and was designed by 18th-century Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Peter the Great recruited Rastrelli to design several buildings, including the Winter Palace in the center of the city.
Olga explained that the “big draw” these days at the Catherine Palace is the magnificent Amber Room, whose original amber panels, backed by gold leaf and mirrors, were a gift to Peter from Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. The room was destroyed during World War II but has been rebuilt in the past several years and is now open to the public.
After 90 minutes at the Catherine Palace, we jumped back into the Nissan and sped several miles west to Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, which Peter built on the shores of the Baltic Sea to celebrate his victory over the Swedes in 1709. Even the well-connected Slava couldn’t drive us to the door of the Peterhof: The palace is surrounded by acres of manicured gardens dotted with a parade of fountains set in the middle of ornamental ponds.
In 1941, the invading German Army got as far as Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof when it was stopped by the Red Army. But for nearly three years, the Nazis fired endless artillery barrages at the distant city. The most interesting parts of Peterhof for me were the informative exhibits outside the palace, documenting the occupation and reconstruction of the grounds and buildings. Olga said that some St. Petersburg streets, miles away, still have signs telling pedestrians which side of the street is safer from the artillery.
Peterhof’s Throne Room, with its parquet floor and grand paintings of the imperial family filling the walls, was the highlight inside. But the big payoff was outdoors, the Grand Cascade of 64 fountains — featuring 142 water jets and numerous bronze statues — that descend in a series of terraces from the palace to the Gulf of Finland about a half-mile away.
Olga walked us through the leafy trails in the lower gardens, then suggested that we take a short walk to a corner of the grounds to visit Marly Palace, Peter’s personal sanctuary on the grounds, far less grand than the Peterhof and an interesting peek into how royals and their guests lived a century ago.
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Around noon, we boarded a hydrofoil and practically flew across the Gulf of Finland to where it meets the mouth of the Neva River, disembarking half an hour later for our tour of the city sights. Polly and I had decided to eat a big breakfast (our disappointing hotel buffet was around $45 apiece and included canned fruit) and forgo lunch.
We found ourselves in Petrogradskaya, near the central district of St. Petersburg. It was thick with tourists on a warm, sunny Thursday in August. But Slava — a force of nature — did it again. Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral is literally within a fortress, surrounded by a moat. He squeezed the Nissan through a narrow gate, flashed his wallet at the stern-looking guard and dropped us in a courtyard a few feet from the spectacular cathedral.
As a reporter, I insist that people cut to the chase and give me the information I want. The combination of Slava’s traffic smarts and Olga’s command of Russian history paid off with a maximum input of information in the two hours or so we had allotted for some of the city’s main cathedrals.
Each of the churches we visited had something to offer. Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral is a burial place for all but two of the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas II, the last czar, who was executed along with his family after the October Revolution. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is a memorial to Alexander II, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1881 in the spot where the church now stands. The giant St. Isaac Cathedral, built near the city’s Senate Square, is just big, covering nearly 50,000 square feet.
The tombs of the czars at Saints Peter and Paul were moving. What I found most fascinating and surprising was the rehabilitation of Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, and his family, signified by his tomb’s reverential setting in a separate corner chapel. The white marble tomb rests beneath a ceiling of cherubim peeking from behind clouds and is surrounded by the family’s tombstones, as well as religious paintings.
Polly hasn’t been able to stop talking about the Church on Spilled Blood, especially the thousands of square feet of mosaics covering its immense walls, pillars and vaulted ceilings. Olga told us that the embankment had to be extended into the adjacent canal so that the exact spot where Alexander II, a reformist czar who emancipated the serfs, was killed could be memorialized. We spent half an hour at the church, but you could lose yourself for an afternoon gazing at the mosaics and the architecture and people-watching in the outdoor plaza.
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The highlight of the afternoon was the Hermitage, the 365-room national museum on the bank of the Neva. The museum is so large, Olga said with a note of pride, that if we went at the rate of viewing one item per second, it would take weeks to see all of its 3 million objects. Olga asked us what areas of art most interested us, then escorted us straight to the Rembrandts, Titians, da Vincis and Raphaels.
But the most enduring image Polly and I have of the Hermitage was not its exhaustive and impressive collections, including Rembrandt’s moving and ethereal “Return of the Prodigal Son” (which some consider to be the most perfect picture ever painted).
It was the open windows. We’re not museum experts, but I was stunned that not far from centuries-old, priceless masterpieces, screenless windows stood open to views onto the street and down toward the Neva a few yards away. The wood on the window frames appeared to be peeling in spots, making me think that the Hermitage could use some rubles from a rich Russian plutocrat.
We walked out of the Hermitage onto the grand Palace Square, which includes the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building. The square has been the scene of several historical events, including the October Revolution.
An hour-long private boat trip along the canals and the river, which slice through and around the city, was the perfect finale to a long and busy day. We sat in the bow while Olga narrated a back-alley view of the city, filling us with ideas of where we would ramble the next day as well as pointing out historical hot spots such as the palace where the mystic Rasputin was poisoned and shot before finally being thrown into the river to drown beneath the ice. The stubborn monk did not go easily.
I’d given Slava a generous tip in U.S. dollars when he dropped us off at the boat. After the tour, and out of cash, I asked Olga to walk us back to our hotel so that I could tip her. We gave her the last of our American money — about $100 — and said goodbye.
Worth every dollar, I thought as she walked away.
Heath is a business reporter for The Washington Post.