With its intriguing combination of lavish architecture and artistic integrity, St Petersburg is one of Europe’s most fascinating cities, as Jason Mitchell explains
No expense was spared in fitting out the Winter Palace to show off Russia’s riches to the rest of the world and the result is breathtaking
Palatial architecture, a rich cultural heritage, dreamy canal views and one of the world’s greatest art collections – it’s hard to believe that St Petersburg is just over 300 years old. Mind you, no-one ever accused Russia’s imperial tsars of false modesty. Peter the Great personally oversaw the creation of his new Russian capital on the marshy banks of the Neva, with the intention of showing off Russia’s great riches by creating a high-profile window to Western Europe. His determination and steely willpower saw this inhospitable landscape quickly transformed into a beautiful city of grand architecture and magnificent canals.
Not wanting to be outdone, Catherine the Great added the Winter Palace, among others, and dispatched her advisers to buy the best art at a price only a Russian empress could afford. The vision of these two rulers has been remarkably preserved in St Petersburg. Its historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a day spent exploring the city is an unforgettable experience.
St Petersburg has suffered more dark periods in its short history than many older cities. Perhaps that (and its long winters) explains why residents celebrate the summer light with an intensity rarely seen in Europe. It is the most northerly city in Europe; from the end of May to the beginning of July the sun never sleeps and it would be easy to believe that neither do its residents. This time is known as the White Nights and it brings a round-the-clock air of celebration, with the city’s famous performing arts companies and museums putting on a programme of shows and cultural events.
STATE OF THE ARTS
Visitors be warned – you could spend an entire day (or even weeks) exploring the Hermitage. St Petersburg’s best-known museum has more than 400 art-laden rooms and to visit them all you would have to walk more than 14 miles (22.5 kilometres). Famous art here includes work by da Vinci, Rembrandt, Raphael, El Greco, Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso and large sections devoted to Egyptian and Russian artefacts. The collection is so vast that only a twentieth of it can be on display at any one time. What’s more, the setting is just as magnificent as the contents. No expense was spared in fitting out the Winter Palace to show off Russia’s riches to the rest of the world and the result is breathtaking.
Another of the city’s world-famous cultural icons is the Mariinsky Theatre, perhaps better known under its Soviet-era name of the Kirov. Sitting in the gilded auditorium is like being in a lavish jewellery box and the performances of opera and ballet are just as sparkling; it’s definitely worth dressing up for. The regular repertoire is extensive – everything from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro to lesser-known ballets based on Russian folk tales, all performed to the highest standards.
St Petersburg’s historic centre contains so many magnificent buildings that it is often described as an open-air museum. The oldest structure, the Peter and Paul Fortress, justifiably regarded as the birthplace of the city, occupies its own island in the Neva, just upstream from the Winter Palace. Inside the sturdy walls, there are various museums and galleries to explore, but the main lure is the early baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral, the oldest church in St Petersburg. Most of the Romanov rulers were buried here, often in fabulously ornate tombs. The most poignant, however, is the most recent, that of the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were re-interred here in 1998.
Visitors dazzled by palaces and fortresses often overlook another of St Petersburg’s glories, the fabulous religious architecture. Among the most impressive is the extravagant and wonderfully named Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood, at the junction of the Moika and Griboedova canals. Based on traditional Muscovite church designs (think of St Basil’s), its patterned onion domes are a distinctive feature on the otherwise classical skyline, while its interior is memorable for the lavish mosaics which cover all the walls. Perhaps the best-known example is St Isaac’s Cathedral with its striking gold dome and elaborate interior decorated with more than a dozen types of marble, as well as stained glass, jasper, gilded stucco, frescoes and mosaics. It’s a far cry from the austere and elegant neoclassicism of 19th-century Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt, which was inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. By contrast, the Smolny Cathedral complex on the banks of the Neva east of Palace Square contains some of the finest baroque structures in the city, if not all of Europe. The climb to the top of the bell tower is not to be missed – the views over St Petersburg are well worth the effort.
SHOP AND LUNCH IN STYLE
Nevsky Prospekt is lined with glitzy new shops and historic arcades, where you can find anything from designer labels to the ubiquitous Russian nesting dolls. Among the oldest is Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor at no.35, an elegant yellow-and-white shopping centre that has been catering to the needs of Petersburgers (as the locals are known) since the 18th century. Its proportions are as impressive as the range of goods – caviar, fur hats, toys and much more – in its boutiques and stalls; one circuit is just over half a mile. Gain an insight into the life of the city’s wealthy elite at the luxurious Grand Palace at no.44, which is filled with glossy designer emporia teeming with sleek locals.
Resist the temptation to skip lunch in order to spend more time sightseeing. There are plenty of welcoming cafés close to the main attractions where you can enjoy a light lunch and drink in the company of local office workers and shoppers. On Nevsky Prospekt, you’ll find everything from blinis and baked potatoes to sushi and sandwiches. Don’t forget the arcades off it; there are several smart cafés in the Grand Palace, though the coffee bar on the top floor of venerable Passazh at no.48 has by far the better views.
A FINAL WANDER
With so many show-stopping buildings and wide avenues, it is easy to overlook St Petersburg’s quieter treasures. Take the time to explore the small canals and tiny lanes off Nevsky Prospekt or Palace Square – at the heart of many of the city’s most momentous events – and you’ll be rewarded with vistas of water and opulent architecture, and some peace and quiet in which to admire them.
Away from the crowds, it’s easier to appreciate why so many of Russia’s most famous writers, such as Pushkin and Dostoevsky, were inspired by the city. Wander freely past palaces and bridges; the centre is so small that you’re unlikely to get lost unless you want to. It’s the perfect way to round off a day in the city of Peter the Great.
This article has been previously published elsewhere. All information was checked at the time of its original publication.