Saint Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and let me tell you what — Russia did not disappoint. This is a city that is filled to the brim with culture. It’s one of those places I could visit again and again . . . and maybe again. I would say that you probably want to spend at least 3 or 4 days here, but if you stayed for a week or two you wouldn’t run out of things to see. We’ve put together a list of our top recommendations for exploring the “Paris of the north.”
The Hermitage – One good thing about visiting this museum during peak tourist season is that while it may be crowded and noisy, it is crowded and noisy. Thus, your kids don’t have to be the portrait of perfection. No one will notice if they are a little bit wiggly or even a little bit loud. Even in the off-season, the Hermitage is a pretty busy place, so plan for a crowd almost any time of the year. With the little ones in tow you’ll never see it all, so here is a great top 10 list if you are looking to hit the highlights. Also, before you brave this epic gallery, you might want to read our tips on taking kids to museums. (Note: The Hermitage is closed on Monday’s.)
St. Isaac’s – This Cathedral took 40 years to construct. It is 333ft. tall and is plated in pure gold. From both the inside and outside it is a beautiful building. The interior used to have canvas paintings, but due to the cold, damp environment, the paintings began deteriorating, and have been replaced almost entirely with mosaics. There is a ticket office on the North East side of the structure (near the tour bus parking), where you can buy tickets to enter the museum and the dome, which you can climb for a fantastic view of the city. There are 200+ stairs to get to the top. We carried our littlest one but our 3-year-old made the trek just fine. The top is completely protected, so there is no worry of kids falling from a height. Keep in mind that St. Isaac’s, as well as many of the other top tourist sites in the city, is closed on Wednesday’s.
In the park to the north of the cathedral, there is a wonderful little playground where the kids can take a break and play for a while. It’s about half way between St. Isaac’s and the statue of the Bronze Horseman (and just a bit to the east). The Bronze Horseman is a giant statue of Peter the Great, and is situated atop the thunder stone (the largest stone ever moved by man). The statue is about a 10 minute walk from St. Isaac’s, so be sure not to miss it if you are in the area. It is akin to the Statue of Liberty for Russia.
The Peterhof Palace – This gem is often called the Russian Versailles — and for good reason. The interior is both interesting and beautiful, and for an extra fee you can take a short tour. The real reason to go, however, is to see the gardens. Wow! 500 acres of fountains, sculptures, and immaculately groomed flora: all right on the waterfront. You can spend a whole day here, but you can certainly squeeze it in to a half day if you are short on time. As you wander, you’ll find lots of fun things for the kids. Many of the fountains are designed to splash in and get you wet. Our kids had a great time playing in the water and skipping through the shaded pathways. What a backyard. This is a wonderful way to spend a summer day. Here is a great list of some of the fun things not to miss with kids at the Peterhof.
You can get there by bus or train from the Baltiskiy Station (about 45 min. to an hour). If you have a car, you can also make the drive in about an hour. However, the best (and most fun) way to get to the Peterhof Palace is by Hydrofoil (35 min). At the end of the Marine Canal, you’ll find several companies that run regular waterfront services to and from the main entrance of the palace.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood – This was our FAVORITE thing that we saw in St. Petersburg. When you picture Russia in your mind, this is what your imagination draws up. The church was built on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II. It is constructed in the classic 17th century Russian style. Bright colored mosaics and onion domed towers adorn the outside of the church. The exterior is stunning, but pales in comparison the interior. Once inside, you’ll find more than 7,500 square meters of mosaics: the majority having been made with real gold leaf. This church, all by itself, is worth the trip to St. Petersburg (Closed Wednesday’s).
The Peter and Paul Fortress – This fortress is a bit off the beaten path, but it’s a fun area to walk around and explore. Every day at noon, a blank shot is fired from the cannon at the Naryshkin Bastion. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1873 as a way for the citizens to synchronize their watches. On Saturdays, after the shot is fired, you can watch the ceremonial changing of the guard. Aside from the Naryshkin Bastion, the fortress houses a museum, a bell tower, and the beautiful Peter and Paul Cathedral.
If you are looking to grab a bite, there is a fantastic, family friendly restaurant in the area. It’s called Koryushkyu, and it’s located on the southwest corner of the fortress island. DO order the corn soup. DON’T order the bottled water – it’s imported and REALLY expensive. Go for an apple juice or a soda instead. The food is fantastic and there is a great play area for the kids. Sometimes I still dream about this place. SO good!
Getting there – Overall, just remember that Russia has very strict entrance and exit laws. Thus, you will most likely need a visa to enter. It can be a bit confusing, so we would recommend going through a third-party organization to secure your visa’s and make sure can safely enter and exit the country. However, if you enter by Ferry from Helsinki, Stockholm, or Tallinn, you can sidestep the visa requirements (but you are only allowed to stay for 72 hours). The St. Peter’s Ferry Line (now operated by MOBY travel) is the only company that makes the journey. We’ve entered and exited Russia by boat, train, and plane. I will say that if you can afford the Visa fee, the process of coming in by train (from Helsinki) or by plane is much smoother. The ferry feels a bit more stressful, but it is absolutely doable with kids.
All in all, we found St. Petersburg to be a warm and friendly place. We felt safe and comfortable and had a great stay. It’s a fun vacation spot for kids and adults alike, and by far my favorite city in Russia.