St Petersburg: Must See Places And Things To Do
The grand city of Imperial Russia was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great after his triumph in the Great Northern War against the Empire of Sweden. Although, the capital has since changed to Moscow, St Petersburg remains the cultural capital of Russia.
The history of Russia is best understood by knowing some of Imperial Russia’s Tsars who ruled until the Russian Revolution in 1917. At minimum it is essential to know Peter the Great who was the founder of St Petersburg and great modernizer of Russia. Catherine the Great whom brought European culture, ideology, vast art collections and national expansion. The assassinated Tsar Alexander II who is best known for abolishing serfdom and Nicolas II who was the last Emperor of Russia until the fall of the Romanov Dynasty at the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Social and political unrest followed and brought on the Soviet Era with the spread of communism led by Marxist Lenin.
Fascinating history aside, St Petersburg is a magical city containing world-class art museums, ballet, architecture, churches, Imperial palaces, and one of Europe’s most vibrant nightlife scenes. For me, a Top 10 city of the world, there I said it. This trip really did mean everything to me, and with 5 sunny days in mid-October, a miracle was granted.
Important Before Going:
Rubles: Order from your bank so when you arrive you have some cash. Cash is needed for tipping (10% in restaurants) and for certain vendors. Otherwise payment by credit card is mostly available. Notify your bank before leaving so ATM /charges will be approved.
Visa: Most foreigners require a visa for entry and can be somewhat challenging to obtain. Refer to the Russian Consulate website for the best option for your area and nationality. Most importantly plan ahead and the receipt they give you on entry is essential for exiting, so keep it safe.
When to go: May-July is exceptional and known as the time of White Lights when the sun never fully sets and festivals abound. I chose October and reveled in the fall colors and shorter lines. Winter is cold with shorter days, but equally beautiful, I am sure.
The Winter Palace was constructed in the early 1700’s and home to the Monarchy until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Best known resident, Catherine the Great, had a love of European culture and vast art collection that has now become the State Hermitage Museum. This museum is amongst the largest worldwide and holds the largest collection of paintings in the world.
The impressive palace rooms should not be missed, keep and eye out for the Malachite room, the Gold room, the Grand Church, the Throne room and Nicolas Hall. There is a lot to see and if you have been to the Louvre you will understand my advice to see it over a few days. If you have one day to see it, pick and area of interest and enjoy the many corridors and views of the Neva River. If you are visiting during high season, be sure to order a ticket online to lessen the wait times. A small extra fee will allow you this privilege.
The State Russian Museum
Established in 1895, this state museum is the largest Russian fine art collection and easily a favorite of mine. The museum is formed from nationalized private collections, the Hermitage, Alexander Palace, and The Imperial Academy of Arts. The collection is composed of art from the 12th to the 20th century and will leave a lasting impression. If the line is long, check the second entrance in the back, next to the canal.
The largest private museum of contemporary art in Russia, containing nearly 3000 pieces. Erarta’s mission is to support Russian artist at home and abroad, showcasing over 300 artists. The museum contains permanent and temporary exhibitions and continually adds to it’s collections with a focus on talent over populous movements. The museum has many works of art from the Soviet and post Soviet era that show a dialog of resistance and repression of the people. A fascinating account of history in this beautiful, inspiring museum.
Located an hour outside of St Petersburg this glorious seaside Baroque palace, gardens and famed fountains were inspired by Versailles. Peter the Great began plans for Peterhof soon after Russian expansion and his victory over the Swedes. Construction began in 1714 and was quite a feat considering the wetlands and elevation involved. Most interestingly the 64 fountains in the Grand Cascade are not controlled by pumps but rather by flow of gravity and fed by natural springs. Be sure to come March to October to see the fountains in action.
The palace contains around 30 elaborate rooms, the gilded and mirrored ballroom, the Chesma Hall of naval paintings, Picture Hall of portraits, the oriental rooms, among other ornate rooms.The museum and palace are open all year and are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Rococo palace and gardens are in the town of Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin), 15 miles south of St Petersburg.
The palace was summer residence to the Tsars and commissioned by Catherine I in 1717. The palace was expanded and redesigned by architect Rastrelli in a grand rococo style. Don’t miss the Great Hall, Amber room, The portrait hall, and the palace Chapel.
German forces had nearly completely demolished the palace structure during the occupation in WWII. Keep an eye out for photographs at the end of the palace tour that show the destruction and document the massive undertaking to restore this Imperial Palace to its former glory.
The expansive Catherine Gardens are truly spectacular and are composed of many building and structures like the Creaking Pagoda, Siberian Marble Bridge, the Cameron Gallery, and the Chesme Column. The Siberian Marble Bridge is at the far end of the lake is of particular interest. The magnificent bridge was modeled after the Palladian Bridge in England using marble from the Ural Mountains and is a beautiful dusty grey blue. Truly a highlight and an excellent place for photography.
Originating in Italy, popularized in France, refined and perfected in Russia. With the world’s top ballet dancers, you are bound to see the very best ballet of your life. Be mindful that ballet in Russia is a grand occasion and locals very much dress up for the theater, it is highly suggested you do too. Two ballet theaters in St Petersburg are famous worldwide and are both housed in equally beautiful theaters.
Composed of two theaters, the “Old” Mariinsky I (1860) and the “New” Mariinsky II (2003). The theaters show world class opera and ballet and are home to the Mariinsky: Ballet, Opera and Orchestra companies. The Ballet company has produced some of the worlds greatest talent. Ballet stars shine bright here, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Pavlova, Zakharova, Balanchine & Niijinsky to name a few. I saw Don Quixote, easily the best talent I’ve seen yet, so precise. It is highly suggested to buy tickets online well ahead of time, especially during the celebrated White Nights.
Founded in 1833 by Tsar Nicolas I and recently luxuriously renovated and celebrated as a premier musical theater at the forefront of contemporary ballet and world theater. See award-winning, cutting edge Ballet and Opera at it’s finest. I saw the newer production of Sparta and it was a spectacular action packed ballet. It is best pre-booked online as well.
Peter and Paul Fortress
The first stone building in St Petersburg built by Peter the Great after the Great Northern War in 1703, and the original citadel of the city. The fort was a prison and execution site for Bolsheviks and rebels during times of unrest. Now, the fortress serves as the burial site to nearly all the Tsars and as a state museum. The Peter and Paul Cathedral’s gilded bell tower stands 402 ft tall and is the tallest in the city center. The fortress walls overlook Neva River and the sandy beaches below are widely popular during summer months. Also, a fantastic spot for photos and lunch with views across the bridge to the Hermitage.
Church Of The Savior Of Spilled Blood
This Iconic and beloved landmark of St Petersburg was built 1883-1907 as a memorial to assassinated Tsar Alexander II who had been attacked by an anarchist on same grounds in 1881. The Imperial family commissioned the church under rule of Nicholas II and is said to have cost over 4 million rubles. The church resembles St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and holds more mosaics than any other church in the world. The 7500 Sq meters of mosaics depict biblical scenes and have extremely fine detailing. The church had been badly damaged during the Soviet era and also during WWII, it is now fully restored and serves as a mosaic museum rather than a place of worship. An absolute must see.
St Isaacs’s Cathedral
This Neoclassical Russian Orthodox cathedral was ordered by Tsar Alexander I and was completed after 40 years in 1858. The largest cathedral in Russia, with the gold platted dome rising 333 ft. The pedestrian walk-way offers a 360 degree view over St Petersburg and the River Neva. The interior is impressively covered with monumental paintings, mosaics, sculpture, stain-glass, stone works and malachite and lapis columns. Be sure to buy a combo ticket and take the 300 steps to the top.
This historic landmark Art Nouveau building was completed in 1904 and is located on the central vein that is Nevsky Prospekt. Originally designed for the Russian branch of the Singer Sewing Company and inspired by the Singer Building in New York (demolished in 1968). This exquisite six-story Art Nouveau structure was meant to be a skyscraper, as in New York, but Imperial law dictated that no building shall be taller than the Winter Palace. The building is now home to the superb House of Books, Singer Cafe, and VK headquarters (Russian Social Network).
The immensely popular Ginza Project restaurants all have different themes and serve wonderful Russian specialties. One of my favorites, Mari Vanna, serves authentic Russian cuisine and has frequent live music by local musicians like singer Alexander Kuropatkina. Consider trying Borsch, creamed salmon soup, dumplings, and Russian tea served with pryanik, pashkha and jam. Other favorites were Ginza’s popular Koryushka with a beachfront terrace and cottage styled Katyusha on Nevsky Prospekt.
The Kupetz Eliseevs Emporium
Housed in the historic 1903 Art Nouveau building, this food hall and trading company dates back to 1812. The interior has been restored to its former glory and is an absolute marvel for the eyes. The shop sells tea, coffee, confections, fine foods and Russian specialties such as caviar and vodka. I chose loose leaf black tea with Siberian berries & white tea with silver needle.
Said to have some of Europe’s best nightlife, there are plenty of bars to choose from. The trendiest district is Rubinstein, and along the hallmark street of Nevsky Prospekt.
Craft Cocktails are perhaps best curated in St Petersburg, where mixologist create their own tinctures and potions from Russian berries and herbs. My favorite is Sea Buckthorn which is a small yellow berry known to grow in Siberia and the Himalayas. Bartenders also look the part, tall handsome, bearded young hipster, done right, type of fellows.
Jazz Bars: Dom 7, The Hat, 48 Stul’yev, all have excellent live music and no cover.
Prohibition/Craft-cocktail Bars: Kabinet, Apotheke, The Depressive, El Copitas, & Orthodox.
The Wynwood Hotel is a new design hotel in the heart of St Petersburg. The hotel is named after the art and design district in Miami and has a beautiful mural painted by the Russian artist, Pokras Lampas. Breakfast is included and served in the Jungle cafe. In summer season the roof top bar is a beautiful spot to have a drink and look over Kazaan Cathedral. Staff are gracious and friendly, rooms are generously big, with clean modern amenities. The front desk was kind enough to help call cabs for me, to/from the airport, Palaces, and around the city. This is essential, as hailing a cab on the street is really not done or recommended. I will definitely be staying at the Wynwood again, a total treat.
After Spending just shy of a week in St Petersburg I am already dreaming up another trip to see more of one of my very favorite cities in the world. To me this city has something special, intangible, a perspective of humanity that resonates with me. Yes, my kind of town indeed. Perhaps next time I will see the White Lights and include a train trip to Moscow.
As always, feel free to leave a question or comment, I’ll be happy to reply. All photography here taken with a Moment Wide Lens. More pictures from this trip can be seen on Instagram @girl_welltraveled