St. Petersburg is one of the great tourist cities in the world with an incredible concentration of attractions within a small area. Starting with Peter the Great in 1703, the city was built on the swampy eastern limit of the Gulf on Finland. Peter wanted Russia to have an outlet to the West, build a Navy and combat Charles XII of Sweden who was encroaching on Russian territory. This incredible city was built on inhospitable land in an uninviting climate. Today tourist boats float on the large Neva River and the smaller canals and rivers which were once part of the swamp. We were fortunate – on average St. Petersburg has 50 sunny days each year. We were there for two of them.
Because of the popularity of the city during the season – May to September – the attractions can be overrun with tourists. Timing is key so I would suggest that you spend the extra money and get a private tour. (See below for the tour company we selected.) A good company will get you in early before the crowds overrun the most popular attractions.
The Hermitage, which served as a winter palace for Romanov Czars and Czarinas, is now one of the world’s great art museums. You will also see the public rooms of the rulers with all the gold and glitz that characterized the Russian monarchs. Above is the Grand Staircase and the front of the Palace (in the distance is the spire of the Admiralty – Peter’s Naval Academy). Amazingly the staircase is a toned down version of the original Baroque creation which burned in a fire.
There are many sources for information about the art contained in the Hermitage so I won’t go into detail on that. What I will say is that the craftsmanship of the decor is breathtaking. What I remember of the art were Renaissance masterpieces including 2 DaVinci Madonnas and one Michelangelo sculpture, classical sculpture from Rome and Greece and Dutch masters including many works of Rembrandt. What we didn’t see were the Impressionist and Modern works which have been moved to an Annex very recently. If you want to see these you will need to make a special request or select a tour that mentions them.
In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by anarchists on the spot where the Church of Spilled Blood was built. The design of the building is an exuberant variation on the traditional Russian Orthodox style. While the onion domes are it’s most famous feature, I found the interior more appealing. The walls are entirely covered with icon-like portraits and illustrations. Nearly all are mosaics. Only the ceilings painted since the weight of tiles would not be possible inside a large dome.
The largest church in St. Petersburg is St. Isaac’s Cathedral (above). The columns weigh 80 tons each. (Above our guide, Alexandra, tells John Miele how they were able to raise the columns.) This cathedral is the fourth largest in the world and took 40 years to complete. The exterior looks very similar to the US Capitol which was built during the same period.
The original location of St. Petersburg was a small island in the middle of the Neva River, which Peter the Great built as a fortress to defend against invading Swedes. The fortress was never needed but Peter’s first home in the city (gold building – lower left) and the Peter and Paul Cathedral remain. Within this cathedral are the crypts of the Czars, Czarinas and many members of the Romanov families from Peter the Great onward. The church is not at all Russian in style reflecting the influence of European architecture on Peter. In an annex to the Cathedral is a nice display about the Romanov dynasty from Peter onward to Nicholas II whose family was massacred by the Bolsheviks.
That was the end of our first day in St. Petersburg. Next: Day 2.
We booked our private tour with Star Travel DMC. If you want a wonderful guide ask for Alexandra.