Why you must visit St Petersburg
It’s taken a while but we are finally seeing St Petersburg as its creator dreamed it would be. The beautiful, slender spires of the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island mark the place where Peter the Great slept rough from 1703 while his city rose on the banks of the Neva River. Like our capital city, Canberra, it was planned from the outset and the pattern of winding streams and straight avenues is the foundation of the city's beauty. For two centuries until 1918 it was the seat of the Russian imperial court.
There is a great cultural and scholastic tradition in St Petersburg. Here Mendeleyev developed the Periodic Table of Elements, Pavlov performed his experiments on conditioned reflexes with his dogs and Pushkin wrote his verse. Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov lived here and the Imperial Ballet - best known as the Kirov but now the Mariinsky - produced the brilliance of Nijinsky and Pavlova, Baryshnikov and Nureyev.
History of the city
It’s not only the Cyrillic script that makes Russian travel a challenge – it’s also name changes. So around the time of the Russian Revolution the city became Petrograd then Leningrad and, after a narrowly-won vote in 1991, back to St Petersburg.
St Petersburg’s Piskariovskoye Cemetery is one of the city’s most dramatic sights: over half a million residents lie here in 186 mass graves. Russia paid a higher price than any other nation in defeating Hitler and of the nation’s 20 million casualties, 900,000 died of hunger in St Petersburg during the 900 days siege. That’s from an urban population of 3.4 million in 1939.
However, a walk along Nevsky Prospekt reveals none of the privations of wars or the drab days of the Soviet era. This has always been the heart of St Petersburg, the wide avenue that leads from the golden spire of the Admiralty on the river eastwards and onto Moscow. It's one of the grand thoroughfares of Europe. Gogol wrote "There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt - in St Petersburg it is everything."
The shops of Nevsky Prospekt aren't London’s Bond Street or New York’s 5th Avenue but the always-stylish architecture is now reflected in the quality of the goods sold. Most notable is Gostiny Dvor, one of the world’s first shopping malls that was built in 1757. It’s hard to recall that less than 20 years ago one of the highlights of a trip to Russia was visiting the GUM Department Store to look at the empty shelves.
As long queues attest, the one attraction in St Petersburg that no traveller can miss is the Hermitage. This was the Tsars’ Winter Palace and the huge green-and-white Baroque confection on the banks of the Neva River reflect Catherine the Great’s extravagant tastes. She was the one who started the art collection, too, when she bought 255 paintings from Berlin in 1764. It now has 2.7 million exhibits so if you spent a minute examining each exhibit the visit would take 11 years!
The rooms themselves are just as much artworks as the paintings and there are over 1000 of them in the palace. Even experienced curators carry compasses to find their way around this overwhelming building with its ridiculously glorious cultural overload.
If you prefer your palace to have a garden, head an hour out of town (preferably by hydrofoil ferry) to Peterhof Palace a sprawling estate that Peter the Great founded in 1710. This is the most beautiful of the summer palaces where the gleaming interiors are almost as impressive as the gardens and fountains. However, the main attraction is the Grand Cascade where gilded figures watch an equally-golden Samson battle a golden lion while fountains spurt and cascades flow. Don’t arrive too early as the fountains run on local water pressure and take a while to reach their full flow.
In winter, the fountains are frozen and you’re better off travelling to the town of Pushkin to visit Catherine’s summer palace with its quite delicate gilded onion domes. When the area is under a blanket of snow it’s magical.
Back in town, in summer or winter take a riverside walk by the Neva to Falconet’s imposing Bronze Horseman, a representation of Peter the Great astride a prancing horse on a giant granite block that was commissioned by Catherine.
Then there are the churches. St Isaacs Cathedral is the largest and its golden dome can be seen across the city. The interior is remarkably elaborate and the columns of malachite and lapis lazuli are beautiful. On a stroll down Nevsky Prospekt it’s impossible to miss Kazan Cathedral with an imposing horseshoe colonnade. For colour, seek out the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood. The multi-coloured onion domes look like St Basils in Moscow’s Red Square though this one is situated on a pretty canal on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
The most significant reminder of the Russian Revolution is the Cruiser “Aurora”, tied up in the Neva River and now a museum. It fired the shot that signalled the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917.
While the mid-summer “White Nights” festival has been taken up by other high latitude cities, St Petersburg is where it all began. The sun doesn’t set until after 10pm and the all-night festivities are marked by spectacular fireworks and “Scarlet Sails” a celebration of the end of the school year. This year it’s on 23 May to July 10.
While its origin is classical, St Petersburg today is far from just being a historical city. It’s a bustling modern city, as it’s always been. Built as the centre of the great Russian empire, made splendid by Catherine, and the starting point of the revolution, St Petersburg is again one of Europe’s most vibrant cities. To find our more click here.
Ready to take on your bucket list travel destinations? Read our top 10 cities to visit here.
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