Updated: Jul 26, 2021
“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” got to the root of the matter Winston Churchill back in 1916. I strongly believe that, more than to any other place in our country, these words can be applied to Saint Petersburg – Russia’s second largest and the most European city that bears the status of the country’s cultural capital.
Is it possible to put into words the atmosphere of St. Petersburg? The “Northern Palmira”, the “Northern Venice”, the “Window to Europe” are only few of the names St. Petersburg has had throughout its, a bit more than, 300-year history.
Skillfully built across the marshlands of the Neva River by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, St. Petersburg became the birthplace of the Great Russian fleet and the capital of the Russian Empire, one of the most powerful in Europe.
Romanov dynasty sovereigns spared no expense to create the distinctive appearance of their great city and its suburbs. They invited the best of the best artists and architects such as D. Trezzini, B. Rastrelli, C. Rossi, A. Brullov, N. Benois and many others.
Unfortunately, the life of the splendid Saint Petersburg wasn’t always serene. Back in the day, it witnessed Bloody Sunday and was the center of the Great Russian revolution, started from a cruiser Aurora single blank shell. And, finally, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) heroically survived almost a 900-day siege during the World War II.
Nowadays St. Petersburg can be rightfully called the most beautiful, the most mysterious, the most contradictory and the most romantic city of Russia.
How to see the sights?
To explore a vast under-the-open-sky-museum territory of St. Petersburg you can select from a wide range of means that can fit every taste, from cultural walking tours to rooftop tours (Note, it is officially allowed to enjoy the most gorgeous views and sunsets from the top of St. Petersburg historical buildings.), from comfortable hop-on\ hop-off double decker excursion buses and boats to private luxury yachts and helicopter tours that allow to see the city from a bird’s-eye perspective! Most active and adventurous visitors can join in a SUP tour, and, literally, study every nook and cranny of the city from its most interesting angle – from water.
You should certainly travel by the St. Petersburg Metro to experience the world’s deepest underground system that is itself a masterpiece (You might even have your ears blocked while going down to Admiralteyskaya Metro station).
You can either opt for a coach tour or melt into locals and get on a high-speed comfortable above ground train “Lastochka” to get to the famous St. Petersburg suburbs (former countryside summer residences of the Russian establishment) to enjoy the Fountains of Peterhof and to admire the Catherine Palace, famous for its Amber Room, in Pushkin.
Must-see places of interest
Palace square (“Dvortsovaya ploschad” in Russian) is the most harmonic and magnificent architectural ensemble in the world.
Stand in the center, next to the Alexander Column, designed by Auguste de Montferrand, and you’ll get an eyeful of the State Hermitage Museum complex, including the Winter Palace and the General Staff building with the Triumph arch. From here on, you can either proceed to the Nevsky prospect and enjoy the colossal Kazan Cathedral and the word famous Zinger Company building (by the way, do not hesitate to come in, you’ll be totally amazed by the interior design and the variety of gastronomic specialties offered by Zinger cafe), or you can cross the Palace bridge and go to the memorial sign Strelka (“arrow”) of Vasilievsky Island. It provides you with a clearer view of Peter and Paul Fortress, the Admiralty and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
You may also continue to walk along the University embankment to visit the baroque building of Menshikov Palace and Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (the Kunstkamera).
The Hermitage main complex should be, by all means, in the top of everybody’s bucket list. Catherine the Great founded it in 1764 to entertain her guests.
Today the State Hermitage Museum comprises 365 rooms and some 3 million objects, including the world’s largest collection of paintings (including the masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, Rembrandt and Rubens, as well as the works of such impressionists and post-impressionists as Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Picasso), graphic works, sculptures, and works of applied art (the famous Peacock Clock), archaeological artifacts and numismatic objects. It would require more than a decade to spend a minute with each piece and a journey of nearly 22 kilometers (13 miles) to traverse every room (Note that every first Thursday of each month is admission free). In addition, you can visit the Treasure Gallery with its Golden and Diamond rooms and the Hermitage Theatre.
One of the best-known Russian opera and ballet theatres is Mariinsky theatre.
You have certainly heard, at least once, about the worldwide famous Swan Lake and the Nutcracker by P. I. Tchaikovsky, no matter whether you are a genuine theatre goer or not. Don’t miss the opportunity! Seeing is believing!
If you are interested in the historical mysteries, don’t forget to include The Yusupov Palace into your travel itinerary. The Palace went down in Russian history as the place where Grigory Rasputin, a mystical spiritual mentor and friend of the family of Emperor Nicholas II was assassinated in 1916.
St. Petersburg has always inspired poets and writers, such as A.S. Pushkin, L.N. Tolstoy and, indeed, F.M. Dostoevsky. The city is especially personalized in his many literary works. If you want to get off the beaten track, you may, as well, wander about St. Petersburg of Dostoevsky. Having lived in the city for the total of 28 years, Dostoevsky never stayed in one place for more than 3 years, choosing a corner apartment so that he could have a wider angle overview on the suffocating, depressing, capturing, dark and dirty Petersburg of his.
Does it still exist? Accept the challenge and find it out!
And … wait for it… the famous White Night Festival, the landmark of the city with its most massive and famous public event of the Scarlet Sails.
The tradition is highly popular for its spectacular fireworks, numerous music concerts and a massive water show. The Wight Nights is also the best time to watch the bridges raising their “wings” either on a “drawbridge boat tour” or from the river bank. (Anyway, don’t forget to take a warm jacket, it can be chilly).
More modern attractions
Once a forgotten island, New Holland has become a buzzing hub of cultural life in the city.
Each summer season you can get a ten sitting right on the grass, take part in a chess tournament or regular yoga events, and enjoy weekly summer jazz concerts and an annual festival of documentaries about city life and culture.
Erarta Museum, is the biggest contemporary art museum in the city.
You will find an impressive permanent collection of Russian artists, as well as a great program of temporary exhibitions with artists from all over the world.
The Sevkabel Port on Vasilievsky Island (abandoned former ship-cable factory) is now a creative public space with endless hip eateries, food, and art, music festivals and the best sunsets.
If you are a star gazer, Planetarium № 1 is right up your alley. It is the biggest Planetarium in the world. The diameter of its dome is 37 meters! The guests can enjoy a 3-D flyover of St Petersburg and a historic retrospective of the city.
Parks and Gardens
St. Petersburg is unthinkable without its parks and gardens, where you can take a break from a noisy city and rest in peace or meditate (choosing carefully the next place to go to:). Each has its own charm. You can admire snowdrops in The Botanical Garden of Peter the Great in April and examine various statues in Letniy Sad (Summer Garden). You may feed the ducks in Mikhailovskiy Sad all year round. It is located next to Mikhailovsky Castle, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the Russian Museum, and the Field of Mars.
But one of the most visited among the local residents is probably Kirov's Central Park of Culture and Leisure. It is a unique protected natural complex with tame squirrels and titmice. It is mostly famous for its occasional festivals (Festival of Traditional Culture “Roar, Maslenitsa festival”, International Street Theatre Festival “Yelagin Park”) and recreation activities.
In summer there are special volleyball courts, rollerdrom and appointed roller track. Summer in the Park starts reading room in the open air, where visitors of all ages and preferences can find books to taste. In winter there are two skating rinks (You can also find some in New Holland, The Sevkabel Port and Dvortsovaya square.) Stay active by skating around and make new friends!
All hotels in Saint Petersburg and its suburbs are famous for their high quality service, no matter how-many-star hotel you choose, a de lux Rocco Forte Astoria, or a much less expensive hostel Railway capsules, for instance.
Frankly speaking, St. Petersburg residents themselves have fondness for spending a couple of days in a hotel accommodation.
People and Language
But above all, St. Petersburg is known for its citizens, creative and inspired, sympathetic and erudite; always ready to give a hand.
They stand their ground, asserting that only St. Petersburg is worth being the capital of Russia. St. Petersburg inhabitants have their own vocabulary and pronunciation peculiarities marked by the Saint Petersburg phonetic school that distinguish their speech from that of the Moscow residents. Come and face the challenge of learning to understand the locals. And it will probably be you who will solve the mystery of turning “porebrik” (a kerb in Saint Petersburg) into “bordyur” (a curb in Moscow).:)
By and large, St. Petersburg is a unique Russian city with the atmosphere that is beyond words. It consists of inconsistent, it expresses inexpressible, it embodies unconceivable. It is reflected in every tint and shade of an artist, and it resonates in every sound and melody played by a musician. Should you visit this city once, you cannot help coming back again and again.
Discover your St. Petersburg!