Straddling the Neva River’s delta, St Petersburg is a living monument to 18th-century Russia’s imperial ambition. In conceiving the city, Peter the Great dreamed of rivalling great European capitals like Paris. The result is a latticework city of islands, bridges, canals, cathedrals, and grand palaces. Walking down broad prospekts (avenues) bordered with elegant classical and baroque façades, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Revolution had never happened here at all. Russia’s second city flaunts its cultural credentials instead. There’s the fine art powerhouse of the Hermitage, the Mariinsky ballet corps and the Mikhaelovsky Theatre, and the apartments-turned-state-museums of literary idols Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Nabokov.
Russia specialist Alice
St Petersburg is magical, known as the Venice of the north thanks to its waterways, cathedrals and cafe-lined streets. I have returned many times and I’m never let down by its charm and atmosphere.
Things to see and do in St Petersburg
Behind its imposing mint-green and cream colonnaded façade, this state museum is a gargantuan collection of art, jewels and antiques. Once a winter palace to the Tsars, the Hermitage’s collections are displayed over 1,057 rooms. To see everything would take years, so guides are adept at showing you the best of the exhibits.
Spearheaded by Catherine the Great, who bought many paintings during her rule, the collections were bolstered after the 1917 Russian Revolution. During this period, the Bolsheviks confiscated heirlooms and artworks from Russia’s gentry with the notion of protecting them on behalf of the Russian people.
Towards the back of the Hermitage is an intimate yet lavishly decorated ballet theatre where Empress Catherine would enjoy private performances. You can still see ballets performed here today.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
Rising up at the end of the Griboedev Canal, this church’s distinguishing feature is its five kaleidoscopic, gleaming onion domes. It purposely recalls St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This distinctive architectural style is called Romantic Nationalism, which was seen as authentically Russian. Its official name is the Church of the Resurrection.
The story behind the church’s existence is a dramatic one. It was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III after his father, Emperor Alexander II, was fatally injured in an assassination attempt (inside the church, a shrine made out of jasper marks the spot). Construction finished in 1907, and after suffering a period of neglect during the Soviet period (when it was used as a morgue and vegetable store), it was given a facelift throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The opulence continues behind the Russian Orthodox façade. The interior is encrusted with rainbow-hued mosaics and icons blending modernist and Byzantine styles.
St Petersburg’s flagship ballet corps is one of the leading ballet companies of the world. The Mariinsky Ballet (known during the Soviet era as the Kirov) have their official home at the city’s Mariinsky Theatre, a sea-green and cream wedding cake of a building. At its canalside setting in the heart of St Petersburg, it hosts performances of operas as well as classical ballets. The auditorium, with its ornate balconies, can seat 2,000 people.
The Mariinsky company dates back to the 18th century. Its alumni include Rudolf Nureyev, who famously defected to the West in 1961, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Anna Pavlova. The corps de ballet – the main company of dancers, as opposed to the star dancers and principals – are known for their perfect lines and discipline.
The ballet you’ll see depends on the works included in a particular season. Along with the Mariinsky Theatre, we like the Mikhaelovsky Theatre and the small Hermitage Theatre (see above).
The Palaces of Pushkin Village
Secluded in woods and meadows about 30 km (18.6 miles) from central St Petersburg are the former summer residences of Russian royalty. Pushkin Village, named by the Soviets after Russia’s beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, is also known as Tsarskoye Selo (Tsars’ village). Its most famous palaces are Catherine Palace, Peterhof (see below) and Pavlovsk.
Catherine Palace is something of a behemoth, with a blue, white and gold façade and impossibly extravagant, rococo interiors. Its highlights include a grand enfilade of state rooms, a huge ceiling fresco titled The Triumph of Russia, and a ballroom covered in gold and mirrors. The most sumptuous part of the palace is the restored Amber Room – entirely furnished in this glowing material.
Russian imperial life was rife with paranoia as well as grandeur. Pavlovsk Palace, down the road from Catherine Palace, is a stately lemon-hued villa built in a crescent. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great for her son, Grand Duke Paul. It’s thought to have been a way for Catherine to rid herself of her son, whom she loathed, while also keeping him close in case he mounted a coup.
Peterhof by hydrofoil
Located 25 km (15.5 miles) west of St Petersburg, Peterhof is part of Pushkin Village (Tsars’ village). If you’re visiting in the summer, the best way to reach this summer palace of Peter the Great is by hydrofoil over the Gulf of Finland. In winter, the Baltic Sea freezes over, making crossings impossible – but looking out over vast sheets of ice from Peterhof’s gardens makes for an impressive vista.
During summertime you can wander around Peterhof’s grounds, admiring the terraced fountains of the Grand Cascade. The architecture and landscaping consciously echo France’s Versailles, which Peter the Great visited in 1917.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
For some of the best panoramic views over St Petersburg, climb up to the colonnade of this 19th-century orthodox basilica. The cathedral itself is an imposing sight, as grand inside as it is outside, with a dome made from 90 kg (14 stone) of gold. With its golden iconostasis, and granite columns that were shipped over from Finland, the interior recalls the gilded grandeur of Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica. Officially classed as a museum, services are nonetheless held here on public holidays.
The Fabergé Museum
The riverbank palace of Shuvalov houses the largest collection of objets d’art by masterly Russian goldsmith Peter-Carl Fabergé ever amassed.
Inside, you’ll embark on a self-guided tour through ornately furnished halls to admire the museum’s highlights. In artfully lit display cabinets sit nine Imperial Fabergé eggs, which Russia’s royal family would exchange as Easter gifts.
Variously encrusted in opal, agate, pearls, pink enamel and diamonds, the eggs remain some of the world’s most beguiling artistic objects. Some are still thought to be lost. You’ll learn about the stories behind each egg’s creation and their features, from the simple Hen Egg to the art nouveau Lilies of the Valley Egg.
Behind the bright yellow exterior of this under-visited 19th-century building on the Moika Embankment lie illustrious interiors.
The home of a Russian aristocrat married to the niece of Tsar Nicholas II, Felix Yusupov’s wealth is evident in the decadent chandeliers and tapestries that decorate the palace. Some rooms have more exotic furnishings, such as the Byzantine Moorish Drawing Room and the Turkish Study. There’s also a small private theatre designed to seat 135 people.
The Palace is notorious for being the place where Grigory Rasputin was assassinated in 1916. A Siberian priest, he was suspected of having supernatural healing powers and exerting too much control over Tsarina Alexandra while Tsar Nicholas was away with his troops in World War I. Rasputin’s murder, orchestrated by Yusupov and another aristocrat, was complicated, and he ended up being drowned in the Moika.
Dinner at the Moika Kempinski Hotel’s rooftop restaurant
The Bellevue Brasserie offers 360-degree panoramas of St Petersburg. Punctuating the city skyline are all the major landmarks, including St Isaac’s Cathedral. The gourmet food served by the brasserie includes Russian classics like caviar, Kamchatka crab and seafood platters
Best time to visit St Petersburg
From late May onwards St Petersburg’s wintery weather dissipates, the fountains are turned on, and the cathedrals are kept open.
The winter period, though cold and dark, is also wonderfully atmospheric – especially when the sun finally rises on streets covered in fresh snow.
Festivals, events and seasonal reasons to visit
- From late May to early July, the days are long in St Petersburg. The brightest period, the White Nights, normally last from mid-June to mid-July. At this time, local people strip off the greys of winter and are joined by visitors from across the globe in a celebration of life and light.
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