A 24-Hour Whirlwind Luxury Tour of St Petersburg

Twenty four hours in any city is a frustratingly short amount of time. But it is possible to see a great deal in just one day. Your best bet is a private guide and your own chauffeur. And a schedule crammed with a good balance of sightseeing and cultural treats. I arranged such a whirlwind private city tour with TJ Travel for my recent trip to St Petersburg.

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My TJ Travel tour guide for the next 24 or so hours, Viktoria, met me as I arrived at St Petersburg’s railway station on a dank grey afternoon. Within minutes we were whizzing to The Hermitage. My guide was on duty even before we arrived at the iconic museum, delivering a fascinating overview of St Petersburg’s history and architecture from the back seat of the car. She pointed out some of the city’s most beautiful buildings such as the Church of the Saviour on Blood, as I craned my neck through the window for a view.

Armed with some solid fresh fundamental knowledge about the city I had just arrived in, I entered The Hermitage feeling confident that it would be a fruitful if fleeting visit. Viktoria was an exceptional guide, brimming with knowledge and anecdotes about the pieces that we came across, as well as The Hermitage itself.

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Highlights included the Hermitage Rembrandts and the Jordan Staircase in the Winter Palace. I found myself just as enthralled by the flamboyant, opulent interior of the museum, all marble, oak, gold leaf and velvet drapes. I also found myself looking up often; The Hermitage’s colorful painted ceilings are hard to ignore.

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Viktoria delivered some interesting insights into The Hermitage beyond the art on the walls. She explained candidly how she often finds herself waiting behind Russian tour groups to view a piece of art. They tend to take longer than average to inspect art pieces; due to the denigration of religion during the Russian Revolution and the era of Communism, their guides need to explain religious scenes and allusions in paintings that Americans or Brits for example would instantly recognize.

After a wonderful afternoon exploring The Hermitage, I headed to a concert hall in one of the old buildings of the Imperial Anichkov Palace for a Russian folk show, a unique experience that TJ Travel can arrange.

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I was struck by the resplendent baroque interior as soon as I walked in. I climbed the fantastic restored Gala Staircase lined with red carpet and enjoyed some complimentary wine and caviar at the top of the balcony.

Below, about halfway down the Gala Staircase, male dancers dressed as courtoise cavaliers and ladies dressed in elaborate crinolines engaged in traditional Russian court dance. All this before the show had even begun. Soon I took a seat in the concert hall and the main event kicked off. It was an entertaining show, filled with dynamic tributes to traditional folk dance, colorful costumes and plenty of humor.

After the concert I went back to my hotel for the night. I was determined to get a good sleep in order to get the most out of part II of my whirlwind 24 hours in St Petersburg.

The next day Viktoria picked me up in the chauffeured car and we headed to the Erarta modern art museum. Not many tourists in St Petersburg go to this alternative establishment. However, it is a fascinating window into contemporary authentically Russian art. And as wonderful as The Hermitage is, one drawback is perhaps the lack of Russian pieces.

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I enjoyed the colorful, stimulating paintings by Vladimir Aldoshin, the vibrant bucolic scenes in paintings by Elena Figurina. I also could not help but be taken in by the dismal, macabre works of Peter Gorban that the Erarta holds.

One of the highlights of my visit to the Erarta was the Russia in Erarta exhibition, which is all about giving a platform to modern Russian talent. There were artists not only from Moscow and St Petersburg but also Perm, Novosibirsk, Samara, Krasnodar and other places here. Erarta is also about more than paintings, with installations, video art and interactive pieces all proving popular mediums of expression.

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My 24-hour tour with TJ Travel ended with an authentic lunch with a Russian family in the suburbs. It was interesting to get a flavor of ordinary life in St Petersburg. My host had prepared a traditional lunch of berry juice, borsch, Russian salad (with plenty of mayonnaise!) and blinis with homemade Russian jam. We chatted about modern Russian life – everything from the education system to soaring house prices. It was a fantastic insight into St Petersburg beyond its wonderful culture and museums. And the perfect way to end the tour.

Sherelle Jacobs

Sherelle Jacobs is a regular contributor on LuxeInACity.com, a luxury travel blog curating hotels, spas, restaurants, boutiques, products as well as once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences.