Monday, July 01, 2013

St. Petersburg: Fantastic Walking Tour

My search for tours in the internet led me to find Get Your Guide, which provides a lot of touring options of many different cities around the world, including St. Petersburg. As there are a lot of places to visit in the city center, I booked a private walking tour of St. Petersburg with Ulko Tours through Get Your Guide so we had someone who could bring us to the key places of interest within the city.

Our tour started at 9 AM when our guide, Irina, met up with us at the lobby of our hotel which is located at the far end of Nevsky Propspekt, the main street in St. Petersburg. Our hotel proved to be a good starting point as our guide walked with us through  entire street and talked to us about the history of St. Petersburg, interesting facts about the city and its important sights, how life is here, and how things are a bit different here when compared to Moscow.

I won't list down every place we visited and everything we saw since that would make this blog post too long (it's long enough as it is). I will, however, share some of the most important places we saw. Probably the best place we visited that day was the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. This cathedral was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It is inspired by the medieval Russian architecture which is why it more closely resembles St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow than  most other baroque or neo-classical buildings in St. Petersburg.

This elaborate and awe-inspiring church is a must-see when you visit St. Petersburg. As if the facade hasn't impressed you enough, when you step inside, you are greeted by walls and pillars that are elaborately decorated with 7500 square meters worth of multi-colored mosaic. Unbelievable! From a distance, everything looks to have been painted. I can't even imagine how much work it took to prepare every single piece of mosaic in the right color and put in the right place. Entrance is 250 rubles but it is definitely worth it. You can read more about this spectacular cathedral here.

Not too far away is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, or simply Kazan Cathedral. It was modeled after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and its remarkable colonnade is probably the most impressive part of its exterior. Photos are not allowed inside but entrance is free.

To complete our church experience of St. Petersburg, we also visited St. Isaac's Cathedral, the biggest in the city. The main area of the church (entrance: 250 rubles) was closed to visitors when we were there because I think they were preparing for an important ceremony.

We did head up the 300 steps to the colonnade at the base of the massive gold-plated dome (entrance to the colonnade is 150 rubles). Here we had pretty awesome views of the city.

Our walking tour wasn't just about churches. We also visited other sights of cultural and historical significance. A short walk from St. Isaac's Cathedral is the Bronze Horseman, a statue of Peter the Great riding a horse. This statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great and came to be known as the Bronze Horseman after a poem written by the Russian literary great Alexander Pushkin.

Along Nevsky Prospekt, I saw this interesting countdown to the 2014 Winter Olympics that will be held in Sochi, Russia.

Our guide Irina also took us to the Winter Palace, which houses the spectacular Hermitage museum. Our visit to the Hermitage was reserved for the next day but we did get to enjoy the beautiful architecture of the palace and visit the Alexander Column which stands at the center of Dvortsovaya Ploshchad, or Palace Square.

We also visited the Eternal Flame in the Field of Mars, which used to be a military training ground but has become a park open to everyone. The eternal flame commemorates the victims in St. Petersburg of all wars and revolutions.

Irina also took us to see Chizhik-Pyzhik, a small statue of a bird at the embankment of the Fontanka River. Similar to the rabbit statue at the Peter and Paul Fortress, the local custom is to throw a coin at the statue and make a wish. If you land the coin on the pedestal, your wish will come true. Irina told us that this statue is very popular with students hoping to pass a very important exam.

Our tour lasted 8 hours, and most of that time was really spent walking or standing. We did have a bit of a break when our guide took us to a hole-in-the-wall for lunch that serves great pirogi, or Russian pie that can be either sweet or savory. However, despite our walk being done at a leisurely pace, we were still pretty tired after. At 5pm, Irina brought us back to a section of the Nevsky Prospekt near the Russian State Pushkin Academy Drama Theater where we had a meal at Chaynaya Lozhka. We intended to head back to our hotel after but with some food and coffee in our system, we got our second wind and decided to see more of the sights in the city and look for souvenirs. We passed by the Chocolate Museum which houses an exquisite array chocolate sculptures that are for sale.

We then walked further along Nevsky Prospekt to visit Yeliseyevsky, a beautiful building that houses one of the oldest food stores in St. Petersburg.

There is an assortment of products you can buy in this posh gourmand shop. My mom bought a small bottle of vodka as a souvenir. We never got around to it, but I thought it would be nice to have some coffee and pastries here.

I took a snapshot of this intricate roof structure at the top of the corner edge of the Singer House. This low-rise building is apparently the first steel-structure building in Russia.

Despite having a tremendously long and full day, we decided to pass by the Galeria Mall before heading back to the hotel. Irina told us that there was an H&M shop here which we checked out, along with a few other shops. I capped off the evening with a meal and coffee at Coffee House (or КОФЕ ХАУЗ as written in Cyrillic). My mom was still full though so as I was eating, she continued to go around the mall for more window shopping.

Thankfully this mall was only one metro stop away from our hotel. We had a bit more time to rest that evening since our guided tour of the Hermitage the next day was going to start at 11AM. Next post: The Hermitage.

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