The winter of the Russian and Arctic far north is a magical scene, from the snow-covered cathedral domes to the expansive frozen tundra. Bundled in the downiest parkas and gripping thermoses of hot tea, one can explore whimsical Christmas markets, take sleigh rides past palaces, go snowshoeing or dog sledding and search for the northern lights. One moment you might be touring the iconic Snowhotel, while another you’re cozily watching a traditional Karelian folk music concert.
Combining the allure of luxury rail travel with the storied history of Russia and the Arctic, a journey aboard the Golden Eagle takes you nearly a thousand miles from St. Petersburg to the tip of Scandinavia. On what is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you’ll traverse the Arctic, while enjoying the lavish details that defined the grand European rail travel of yesteryear.
Ensconced in first-class accommodations on the privately chartered train, you’ll whisk along as the aurora borealis shimmer above and the crystal and silverware gleam below in the handsome dining room. Dine on the hearty Russian specialties that define the cities you’ll visit, including St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk. As you prepare to experience these fascinating cities and their historic landmarks, you’ll be treated to enriching activities and programs, including presentations by Nat Hab naturalist guides, cultural lectures and Russian language lessons.
Russia Revealed: What You Can Expect to See in St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk
Known as one of the major cultural and industrial centers of northwest Russia, Petrozavodsk is also the capital of the Republic of Karelia. Karelia is a distinct geographic and cultural region that encompasses both territory and people in Finland, Sweden and Russia. The city itself stretches along the western shore of Lake Onega, the second largest lake in Russia.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
A highlight of your visit to Petrozavodsk, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in the early 19th century, is emblematic of the high classical style of the time. In 1929, after the Russian Revolution, the cathedral was transformed into a museum. In 1991, however, the cathedral was returned to the diocese, fully restored and consecrated in 2000. Interesting fact: Alexander I first gave consent to build the cathedral, offering 30 thousand rubles for construction. This was not nearly enough to complete the construction of the planned structure, so most of the expenses were covered by the merchants and workers of the project.
Fine Arts Museum
Known for its collection of Russian Orthodox icons and paintings, the Fine Arts Museum is located in Kirov Square, the historic center of Petrozavodsk. Spend a couple of hours browsing the permanent exhibitions with their eye-catching examples of embroidery, weaving and birch-bark creations. Permanent exhibitions feature medieval icons and a collection of 18th-century Russian masters, including a haunting Christ in Gethsemane by Ilya Repin. Sections include Russian art of the 18th to 20th centuries, icon painting of Karelia of the 15th through 19th centuries and modern Karelian art.
Eastern Karelian Folk Music Concert
This cultural experience is all about the senses. Listen as a local kantele ensemble—a traditional Finnish plucked-string wooden instrument—entertains the audience with the same instrument said to have been used by the demigod Väinämöinen, the main character in the national epic Kalevala and a central character in Finnish folklore. It’s as if you’ve stepped into your own northern fairytale.
St. Petersburg, founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, served as the capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 to 1918. Here, on the site of a captured Swedish fortress on the Baltic Sea, Peter the Great sought to establish a strategic seaport, thus setting the stage of Russia’s entry into modern history. Today, you can sense the stories and history of this grand city as you explore its myriad monuments and centuries-old palaces and residences.
This aristocratic home on the Moika River is one of two surviving St. Petersburg residences owned by the wealthy Yusupov family. It is famously the scene of the assassination of Grigory Rasputin. A wooden palace belonging to Peter the Great’s niece once stood on this same land before Andrei Shuvalov, in 1770, commissioned French architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe to build a new palace on the site in 1770. Explore the lavish original interiors, the Rasputin display, the reception rooms and the living quarters on the ground floor of the palace.
Marvel at the second-largest art museum in the world, founded in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great. Housed in the former Winter Palace of the Tsars, the royal art collection contains over three million works. It is said that one would need 11 years to view each exhibit in the museum for just one minute. Catch the collection’s highlights, reserving time to seek out the works you’re particularly interested in, from Impressionist masterpieces to Oriental treasures.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
When it was completed in 1858, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was the largest in Russia. Today, its gilded dome still dominates the city skyline and it remains one of the must-see landmarks of St. Petersburg. On the exterior, notice the sculptured facades and massive granite columns made from single pieces of red granite. Inside, you’ll see incredibly detailed mosaic icons, malachite and lapis lazuli paintings and columns and a brightly colored stained-glass window of the “Resurrected Christ” inside the main altar.
The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood
One of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, the former Orthodox Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood is now a fascinating museum. Five extravagantly colorful and bejeweled onion domes offer a hint of the 23,000 square feet of glittering mosaics within the church. The cathedral’s façade features sculptures and columns made of single pieces of red granite, while inside, like in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, you’ll find malachite and lapis lazuli elements throughout.
The Faberge Museum
Located in Shuvalov Palace, The Faberge Museum houses an exquisite collection of imperial Easter eggs, created by artisans employed by the House of Faberge for the last two Russian emperors. At that time, European society considered Russia to be unparalleled in silver and gold decorative arts. Explore some 4,000 exhibits in 12 rooms according to type and history. In the central hall of the Palace, the Blue Room contains the first egg created for Tsar Alexander III in 1885.
Peter and Paul Fortress
For history buffs who visit St. Petersburg, the Peter and Paul Fortress is a must. This original citadel of St. Petersburg is the birthplace of the city. Though it never served its intended defensive function, it has a history as a military base, the seat of governmental departments, a burial ground of the Russian Imperial family and a jail for some of the country’s most prominent political prisoners.
Traveling to Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg, Russia and the Arctic Circle in the winter reveals a sense of place unmatched during other seasons. This distinctive time of year is particularly special for those seeking the culture and history of the region, complemented by nature and wildlife activities. With a vodka aperitif in hand and a warm train carriage in which to cozy up, one can watch a winter wonderland pass by out the window en route to the next captivating northern destination—every scene seemingly springing from the pages of a fairytale.