SAINT PETERSBURG

St. Petersburg, recently celebrated its three-hundredth anniversary. It is often called the "Northern Capital" of Russia, its not only an open-air museum, but also a reflection of the last three hundred years of Russian history. Having survived 11 Emperors, dozens of floods, the revolution, three years of the terrible blockade and economic reform, Saint-Petersburg is able to surprise even the most experienced tourists. 

On 27 May 1703, the day of the Holy Trinity, the fortress "St. Peterburgh” was founded. This day is considered to be the day of the foundation of St. Petersburg. The city’s beginnings were humble: only the Peter and Paul Fortress, designed by Swiss-Italian architect Domenico Trezzini, on the swampy land of Zayachy (Hare) Island near the mouth of the Neva River. The tsar himself helped to build the fortress. The city was named in honor of the Apostle St. Peter, who is considered to be the keeper of the keys to paradise, according to the Christian tradition. It is also believed that Peter is one of the patrons of the city, protecting it from the troubles and disasters. Only a few years later the fortress was renamed the Peter and Paul Fortress, under the name of its main cathedral.

As any Russian textbook would have you know, Peter the Great wanted to “hack a window to Europe,” which meant not just a port and a navy on the Baltic Sea, but also a city that looked European and lived in accordance with European standards. The area around St. Petersburg was previously known as Ingria or Ingermanland and was largely populated by Finns.

There was never an official decree about moving the capital to St. Petersburg, but by 1713 the court settled there and Peter himself started spending all of his time in the new city. Building a new capital turned out to be the most costly of Peter the Great’s many initiatives. Between 20,000 to 40,000 people worked on the construction of the city; many of them died there. Peter called St. Petersburg “paradise,” but for many it became a cemetery.

A number of people were forced to move to St. Petersburg and each Russian province had to supply future residents to the new city. By 1725 the population reached 40,000, which made St. Petersburg the second-largest city in the country.

In the late 1720s under Peter II, Peter the Great’s grandson, the court moved back to Moscow. But the teenage tsar died at the age of 14. By the time new empress Anna Ioannovna decided to move the capital back to St.Petersburg, the main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, was already overgrown with grass.

During the reign of Catherine the Great, who famously said, “I do not like Moscow at all, but I do not have any prejudice against Petersburg,” St. Petersburg’s population grew to 160,000. More palaces were built in the city and its suburbs, and the empress started an art collection, which would later turn into the Hermitage Museum.

Under Catherine the Great, St. Petersburg’s embankments were all clad in granite, although this unfortunately did not prevent regular flooding. In 1824 St. Petersburg suffered an enormous flood, the largest in the history of the city, which caused enormous damage and was depicted in the well known poem “The Bronze Horseman,” by Alexander Pushkin.

St. Petersburg saw its fair share of revolutions, starting with the failed Decembrist revolt in 1825 and ending with the February and October revolutions of 1917, the first of which overthrew the monarchy, while the second handed power to the Bolsheviks.

St. Petersburg enjoyed the status of capital for a little over 200 years. In 1918, Vladimir Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow. After his death in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad.

During World War II, Leningrad withstood a 900 day Nazi blockade, which decimated the city’s population and greatly damaged the buildings and infrastructure. Leningrad managed to recover and rebuild quite quickly and became unofficially known as “the northern capital” or “the cultural capital”of the USSR.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse it was once again renamed St. Petersburg. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin hails from St. Petersburg and pays special attention to his hometown.

The city got a complete facelift for its 300th anniversary in 2003 and its many mansions and palaces are constantly being restored. St. Petersburg today spans 44 islands and is connected by over 300 bridges. With a population of over 5 million people, it remains the second-largest city in Russia.

Among the largest cities in Europe St. Petersburg is one of the youngest. The houses were built of stone, and the buildings, that had been erected before 1917, are almost entirely preserved. There are about 18 thousands old buildings in the city. The territory of the city from Obvodny channel to the Neva River and from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery to the port looks almost the same as before 1917. There is no city in Europe or America where you could find so many well preserved old buildings. Moreover, St.Petersburg is the only city in the world, where you can see the buildings of different architectural styles such as Classicism, Eclecticism and Art Nouveau.

Russian Orthodoxy is the main religion in St. Petersburg. There are about 91% Orthodox followers, but there are also followers of other religions, including 5% Muslims, 1% Catholics and 1% Jews. There are also groups of Buddhists, Seventh-Day Adventists, representatives of the Salvation Army, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.

The churches and Cathedrals of St. Petersburg form an integral part of the architectural and cultural landscape of the city. Saint-Petersburg is a city of different nationalities and religions, where churches are open for different confessions. They give a special charm to the city landscape, sometimes exotic, sometimes classical silhouettes of mosques, churches, synagogues emphasize multinational character of the city.

St. Petersburgis is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as an important center of tourism in Russia. During the nineteenth century the city assumed an almost mythical status courtesy of the many writers, some of them great, who lived there. Fyodor Dostoevsky is perhaps most synonymous with St. Petersburg. He once wrote: "there’s nothing you can’t find in St. Petersburg." He was probably right.

Renowned for its elegance and grandeur, Saint Petersburg is awash with stunning architecture, as majestic palaces and cathedrals jostle for space alongside its many canals and waterways. Located at the mouth of the Neva River on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, it is the second largest city in Russia after Moscow.

Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, for centuries, it was the capital of the Russian Empire. Everyone from artists and architects to composers, scientists, and writers were attracted to its shores. This turned the city into a cultural powerhouse, with fantastic art collections to be found alongside opulent opera houses hosting world class ballet, classical music, and theater performances.

Nicknamed ‘the City of White Nights’ due its endless summer days, Saint Petersburg and its startling array of museums, historical sights, and palaces is magical to visit at any time of year.

 

1. Church of the Savior on Blood

Saint Petersburg’s Church of the Savior on Blood looks very much like the world famous Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This similar design sees five richly decorated onion domes tower above the main body of the church below. Built between 1883 and 1907 at a colossal price, the gorgeous church was erected in the memory of Tsar Alexander II, who was fatally wounded by anarchists at the same site.

Inside is just as majestic as its fantastic exterior; every conceivable surface is coated in astonishing mosaics of saints and icons. After having been ransacked in the Russian revolution, used as a morgue in WWII and as a vegetable warehouse in Soviet times, the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, has thankfully been restored to its former glory.

 

2. State Hermitage Museum

The second largest art museum in the world after the Louvre in Paris, the State Hermitage Museum’s vast collection is remarkably spread across five buildings and 360 rooms in the center of Saint Petersburg. Founded by Catherine the Great, an avid art collector, the huge number of paintings, sculptures, and antiquities were added to by various tsars, and it was Nicolas I who opened them to the public in 1852.

Following the Russian revolution, many extensive private collections were seized, which only further bolstered its numbers. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has around three million artworks in its collection. With such renowned names as Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, and van Gogh on show, wandering around its galleries really is a treat. One could spend days, if not weeks trying to see everything.

Whether it is prehistoric art, the Italian Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age, or 19th century Russian art that you are interested in, the State Hermitage Museum is simply a must when in Saint Petersburg.

3. St Isaac’s Cathedral

One of the largest cathedrals in the world of any denomination, St Isaac’s gargantuan size is certainly staggering to behold; its enormous gold plated dome is visible from almost anywhere in Saint Petersburg. As it took 40 years to build, grander and more elaborate designs kept getting added to the original plans: over 100 massive columns were erected alongside several other smaller domes.

Inside is even more impressive as beautiful reliefs, mosaics, and iconostasis cover every imaginable surface. Although it still holds services, St Isaac’s Cathedral was turned into a museum in 1931 by the Soviet government and remains so to this day.

4. Peterhof Grand Palace

Commissioned by Peter the Great to outshine the Palace of Versailles with its opulence and grandeur, the Peterhof Grand Palace certainly makes a good go of it. Covering a considerable area, its series of palaces and gardens are simply spellbinding to wander around, with beauty, art, and nature on show wherever you look.

Built between 1709 and 1756, each new addition, palace, or building was grander than the last. Each architect added their own features, with the Throne Room and Chesme Hall being two of the most finely decorated of the lot. Located all around the palaces are a dazzling array of landscaped gardens complete with fountains, cascades, flowerbeds, and statues.

Not to be missed when in Saint Petersburg, the Peterhof Grand Palace fully earns its nickname of ‘the Russian Versailles’ and is equally splendid in terms of what it offers up.

5. Catherine Palace & Park

Located some 30 kilometers to the south of the city, the breathtaking Catherine Palace is where the Russian tsars came to relax and unwind during the summer months. The grand and flamboyant style of the palace dates to 1752, when the architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli redesigned and redecorated the original building, plastering elaborate stuccoes all over it. It is painted a bright bluish-green, with the white columns and gold statues and embellishments standing out delightfully; the Rococo palace really does make for a spectacular sight.

Inside are a number of lavish ballrooms for you to explore. The Golden Enfilade of staterooms are the undoubted highlight, while the Amber Room and Grand Hall are also must sees. Named after Catherine I who commissioned it, the palace is set in some fantastically laid out and landscaped gardens; these are perfect for taking a relaxing stroll in after all the overwhelming splendor you have just taken in.

6. Kronstadt Naval Cathedral

Built between 1903 and 1913, the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral is quite unique and unusual in terms of its design: it combines Neo-Byzantine and Romanesque architecture with various Russian features. Located on the small island of Kotlin that lies in the Gulf of Finland, the glimmering white cathedral was financed by the Russian navy and is dedicated to fallen seamen everywhere.

While its beautiful cupola and facade are delightful to gaze upon, its cavernous interior is no less impressive, as grand chandeliers and mosaics look down upon its marble floors and columns. As it is located just a short ferry ride away from Saint Petersburg, it is well worth spending half a day or so in Kronstadt to see the town and its gorgeous cathedral.

7. Peter & Paul Fortress

Set in the exact spot where Saint Petersburg was first founded, the Peter & Paul Fortress was built all the way back in 1703. It is from its star shaped defensive fortifications that the city slowly spread out around it. Occupying a prominent position on the banks of the Neva River, the fortress has lots of fabulous buildings for you to explore, such as the Trubetskoy Bastion and the magnificent Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Besides its fascinating historical sights and interesting exhibitions that relate to the Russian revolution and Imperial Russia, the fortress also hosts a number of festivals, events, and concerts during the year. In addition to this, the sandy beach that lies at the foot of its wall makes for a popular sunbathing spot when the sun is shining.

8. General Staff Building

Gently curving its way around the south of Palace Square, the General Staff Building is one of the most famous architectural monuments in the city and faces both the State Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace. Designed by Carlo Rossi, the elegant Neoclassical building was built between 1819 and 1829, and its two wings are separated by a majestic triumphal arch.

This was erected to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleonic France in 1812 and has some marvelous statues perched atop of it. Once the headquarters of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, the eastern wing of the beautiful building is now part of the State Hermitage Museum and houses a stunning array of awe-inspiring art pieces.

9. Yusupov Palace

Also known as Moika Palace, due to its location on the banks of the river of the same name, Yusupov is one of the best places to visit if you want to see how aristocrats lived in Imperial Russia. While its exterior is quite plain, besides its pastel yellow color, the interior is simply staggering to explore: its many halls are decorated with only the finest furniture, artworks, frescoes, and tapestries that money can buy.

Built in the 1770s and named after the wealthy Russian noble family that owned it, the colossal palace remarkably even boasts its own private theater. In addition to all its many riches, Yusupov Palace is famously where Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic who was believed to have influence over Tsar Nicolas II, was murdered in 1916.

10. Mariinsky Theater

One of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the country, the Mariinsky Theater, has been dazzling opera and ballet goers since it was founded in 1859. A fitting setting for all the world class dancers, singers, and musicians that have performed on its stage over the decades, the lavishly decorated concert hall really is a delight to gaze upon.

Named after the wife of Tsar Alexander II, the Mariinsky Theater is one of the best places in Saint Petersburg to watch a show, along with the Mikhailovsky Theater.

11. New Holland Island

Built in 1719, the artificial New Holland Island is so named because the waterways and canals all around it make it look as if it has just popped up out of Amsterdam. The triangular island came into being when Admiralty Canal and Kryukov Canal were dug to connect the Moika River to the Neva River and by extension, the Gulf of Finland.

Once a shipyard and naval base, New Holland Island has been renovated in recent years and now boasts numerous art galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants.

12. State Russian Museum

Occupying one entire side of Arts Square in the center of Saint Petersburg, the State Russian Museum is a fabulous place to head to if you want to learn more about Russian art. Established in 1895, the museum is located in the enormous Mikhailovsky Palace, which itself is a work of art: the Neoclassical building is home to lots of exquisite rooms and galleries.

Beginning with artworks and Byzantine-inspired icons from the 12th century, the comprehensive collection takes you on an incredible journey through the ages, with socialist realist works on show alongside portraits of princes and epic landscape paintings. Often overlooked in favor of the Hermitage, the State Russian Museum is well worth checking out if you are at all interested in art.

14. Alexander Nevsky Monastery

Sprawling over a vast site, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery is one of the most important spiritual centers of the Russian Orthodox Church and is still in use to this day. Founded by Peter the Great in 1710, it is located on the spot where Alexander Nevsky, a former prince and now patron saint of the city, is said to have defeated the Swedes in battle in 1240.

Encompassing two fine Baroque churches, the Neoclassical Holy Trinity Cathedral, and a host of ornate tombs of famous Russian figures, the monastery and its leafy grounds are certainly fascinating to explore.

14. Faberge Museum

Located in the stunning Shuvalov Palace, this wonderful museum hosts the most extensive collection of works by the famous Russian jeweler Peter Carl Faberge, after whom it is named. Containing over 4,000 artworks, its refined rooms and sophisticated galleries showcase everything from porcelains and paintings to intricately carved and ornately designed bronze, silver, and gold objects.

The undoubted highlights are the museum’s nine Imperial Easter eggs that Faberge himself created for Alexander III and Nicolas II, the two last Russian Tsars. Bedecked in jewels, they shimmer and shine in the light and exhibit some exquisite and elaborate craftsmanship.