— St. Petersburg, Russia — Once the country’s imperial capital has been nicknamed the Venice of the North, the City of White Nights, and the Palmyra of the North – all fitting names.
Over the course of 300 years, it has had several official names. Tsar Peter the Great named the city St. Petersburg after his patron saint in 1709. In 1914, it became Petrograd, and a decade later, Leningrad, in honor of Lenin.
When the Soviet Union was dismantled, citizens voted on their city’s name. It again became St. Petersburg. Although you see remnants of its Soviet days, the Baroque architecture and artwork you see are fit for royalty.
Here are the 12 of the best things to do in St Petersburg, Russia
1. Go to the Universitetskaya Embankment
Several plazas overlook the River Neva in St. Petersburg and the waterfront palaces (including the Winter Palace, which is now the State Hermitage Museum) on the opposite side of the river. One section of the embankment has two 3500-year-old sphinxes from Egypt. The pair have been overlooking the Neva rather than the Nile since the 1830s.
Continuing along the Universitetskaya Embankment, the granite Rostral Columns embedded with ship bows serve as a reminder of Russia’s naval history. They also functioned as lighthouses. Nowadays, the gas lanterns atop the columns are lit only on special occasions.
2. Visit the Palace Square
The square saw its share of bloodshed in 1905 on Bloody Sunday when demonstrators tried to storm the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The square is a grand open space in front of the State Hermitage Museum housed in the former Winter Palace.
The Winter Palace, a Baroque building in white and turquoise, was home to the Russian tsars from 1732 until the Russian Revolution in 1917. The other prominent building on the square is the General Staff Building – a buttery yellow and white building with a triumphal arch topped with a statue of a chariot drawn by horses.
An impressively tall red granite column stands in the square. Called the Alexander Column, it commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleon during the reign of Emperor Alexander I of Russia.
Passing through the Triumphal Arch, you’ll reach Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s most famous street.
3. Tour the State Hermitage Museum
Housed in the Winter Palace and adjacent buildings, the Romanovs and Empress Catherine the Great collected art and lots of it. The museum owns more than three million pieces of art. The impressionist collection with paintings by Monet, Cezanne, and Picasso is extensive. Unless you plan to visit only the museum during your trip to St. Petersburg, you’ll have to bypass some of the galleries.
A newly introduced navigation system can help you maximize your time in the museum. It serves to direct you to the most important works of art and helps with the one-way flow of traffic through the massive building.
4. Visit Peter and Paul Fortress
The fortress, built by Peter the Great in the early 1700s, was the first citadel of St. Petersburg, strategically located at the mouth of the Neva River. The city’s birthplace still holds the opulent Peter and Paul Cathedral with tombs of some of the former tsars.
The fortress had a dreaded prison for political dissidents. Rumor has it, Peter the Great’s son, Tsarevich Alexei, who rebelled against his father, was an early prisoner here. He died while awaiting his execution in 1718. The secret police for tsars were headquartered here, too. A steady stream of political prisoners stayed in the fortress until the Russian Revolution.
The fortress and its buildings are now the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg.
5. Admire St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Today in St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is the third church of this name. Peter the Great, the city’s founder, was born on the feast day of St. Isaac. Peter the Great married Ekaterina Alekseevna in the first St. Isaac’s – a more modest, wooden church.
The exterior of the current St. Isaac’s Cathedral shows a church of great symmetry with columns and a massive-gilded dome. Inside, carved malachite and lapis lazuli columns frame the iconography. A ceiling mural depicts Jesus’ judgment on the last day.
Today it serves as a museum except on special church holidays when services are held.
6. See the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Tsar Alexander II, who abolished Russia’s serfdom, was targeted by a bomb blast in this spot in 1881. The church stands where Alexander II’s blood spilled from injuries that would prove fatal later the same day. His son and successor commissioned this church which has served more as a memorial than a place of worship.
The Russian Orthodox church is topped with onion domes of different colors, sizes, and designs. Inside, mosaics cover the walls. It required extensive restoration after World War II when it was used as a morgue and after the Soviet days when it was used for vegetable storage.
For information on visiting both churches, visit this website.
7. Marvel at Fabergé Eggs
The Fabergé Museum is home to the largest collection of Carl Fabergé’s eggs – each a work of art made with unfathomable patience and skill. Jewelry and decorative household objects made by the House of Fabergé are included in the museum. Artwork by other Russian artists, including religious iconography, is housed in the museum as well.
The museum’s website has a room-by-room guide to the collection. You’ll also find information about audio guides.
8. Enjoy a Ballet
The historic Mariinsky, Alexandrinsky, and Mikhailovsky Theatres are themselves works of art. Within, you can enjoy some of the world’s finest ballets and operas. The Nutcracker debuted in the Mariinsky Theatre in 1892. The classic Russian ballet, Swan Lake, is performed at these venues as well.
9. Tour Catherine’s Summer Palace
Catherine’s Summer Palace lies 18-miles south of St. Petersburg in a town called Pushkin. Built for Catherine, the second wife of Peter the Great, in 1717, it was a modest two-story home in the beginning.
Peter and Catherine’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, put the palace through an extreme makeover. The robin’s egg blue façade has white columns, each supported by Atlas. The home was a favorite summer residence of the tsars and tsarinas.
Even though the palace was gutted during World War II, you’ll see a fully restored home complete with a Russian Orthodox church. Room after magnificent room speaks to the Russian Empire’s riches – one that was toppled by the Bolsheviks in 1917.
The Amber Room with floor-to-ceiling carved amber has been called the eighth wonder of the world. Nazis stole the original amber panels, but artisans recreated them from 12-million US dollars worth of amber from 1979 to 2003. No photography is allowed in the room.
Manicured gardens, statues, and lakes make for a pleasant stroll. You may even be treated to an impromptu acapella concert in the bathhouse as local musicians enjoy the acoustics and sell their CDs there.
10. Visit Peterhof Palace and Fountains
Peter the Great had Peterhof’s palaces, statues, and gardens built in the early 1700s in part to show the world that Russia was no longer a primitive, uncultured country.
St. Petersburg’s Grand Palace competes with France’s Versailles in terms of beauty and opulence and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Catherine’s Palace, gold onion domes mark the Russian Orthodox church. Its yellow and white façade matches that of the palace. Inside, gold drips from staircases, statues, and every embellishment in the ballroom.
Peterhof’s gardens, designed by the same architect of Versailles’ gardens, have 144 fountains and 200 statues. The gravity-fed fountains range from little dolphin-riding cherubs to one with Adam and Eve.
The Grand Cascade flows down the cliff from the palace to the gilded Samson and Lion fountain. Samson is opening a lion’s mouth – symbolic of Russia’s defeat of Sweden (lions are on the Swedish coat of arms) on Samson’s religious feast day. That defeat allowed expanded Russian territory and gave them access to the Baltic Sea.
11. Eat Traditional Food at Podvorye Restaurant
Podvorye Restaurant, near Pushkin, serves authentic Russian food in a rustic log cabin. Between my first trip to Leningrad – during its Soviet days – and my recent trip, food is more plentiful, fresh, and delicious, particularly at this restaurant.
They serve all the traditional dishes – borscht or beet soup, caviar, stroganoff, and pelmeni or dumplings.
12. Visit a St. Petersburg Cat Café
St. Petersburg Cat cafés are very popular with local people – men, women, young, and old. If you’re missing your fur baby, pop into one of the cafes, enjoy a cup of tea and cookies and spend time with purring felines as you read War and Peace or watch tik tok videos. It is an authentic St. Petersburg experience.
Whether you visit St Petersburg during a Baltic cruise, on a land-based Russian trip, before a Trans-Siberian Railway vacation, or as a stand-alone destination, you’ll need to plan ahead.
Russia requires a tourist visa to enter the country, and you need to have it before you arrive. You’ll be rewarded handsomely for your efforts beginning with your first glimpse of the city of Peter the Great.
*Opening photo © PixaBay
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Last Updated on March 25, 2021