Things to Do in St Petersburg
The State Hermitage (Государственный Эрмитаж) is one of the largest and oldest art and cultural museums in the world. The museum was originally built privately under the orders of Catherine the Great, housing her ever-growing collection; however, in 1852, the doors were opened to the public, since acquiring enough art to fill its six magnificent buildings residing along the Neva embankment and near the Winter Palace.
The museum displays an array of work, with pieces that exhibit the development of world art from the beginning of recorded history through modern day. The museum shows perhaps the most impressive displays of primitive art, archaeology and cultural pieces, as well as work from the Soviet era.
There are also large Western European art exhibits that feature sculptures, applied arts and paintings from the 13th century onward, as well as Egyptian antiquities that bring the life and culture of ancient Mesopotamia to life.
Possibly the most iconic site in St. Petersburg after the Hermitage Museum, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood stands out with its multicolored façade and onion-shaped domes. Sometimes called the Church of the Resurrection of Christ or the Resurrection Church, it was built on the site near the Griboedov Canal where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Completed in 1907, the church’s design was inspired by traditional Russian styles, as well as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev. The interior, designed by some of the most popular Russian artists at the time, features more than 7500 square feet of mosaic tiles covering the walls and ceilings.
The church endured significant damage over the years, first in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and later during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, when it was used as a morgue.
Nevsky Prospekt (Не́вский проспе́кт) is the most famous street in Russia and main street of St. Petersberg, spanning from the Admiralty (Адмиралтейства) to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (Александро-Невской лавры).
As a major central street in the city, Nevsky Prospekt is oft the stomping grounds for many holiday, national, and other celebrations, such as Victory Day, and Day of the City, hosting events from festivals to parades. The street is also home to many sculptures that captures both Russian heroes and historical figures including Nevsky himself, Catherine the Great, city hero of Leningrad Obelisk, Kutuzov, and one of Mikhail Barclay do Tolly, located in the Kazan area.
Long upheld as the lifeline of the city, the Neva River runs straight through the heart of St Petersburg, with its many tributaries and canal ways crisscrossing the city center. For visitors to St. Petersburg, following the path of the Neva River makes a popular route for walking tours and sightseeing cruises, with many of the city’s top attractions lining its banks. The grand façades of the Anichkov Palace, the Winter Palace and the Mariinsky Theatre, the Classicist buildings of New Holland Island, the historic Peter and Paul Fortress and the lush Summer Gardens all face onto the waterfront, punctuated by iconic drawbridges like the Peter the Great Bridge and the Palace Bridge.
The most romantic time to stroll along the Neva River is in late June or early July during the city’s famous ‘White Nights’, a phenomenon caused by the city’s high latitude where the sun never sets.
No visit to St Petersburg is really complete without spending a few hours at the site where it all began – the Peter & Paul Fortress. This is the original citadel of the city, built on Hare Island near the north bank of the Neva River between 1706 and 1740. And this is where you can get a feel for St Petersburg’s more than 300 year old history, from royal tombs to prison blocks to historical museum exhibitions.
The Peter & Paul Fortress was originally built to protect Russia’s new capital from a possible Swedish attack, but it never really served that purpose. Instead, it soon became a prison for high-ranking and political prisoners, beginning with Alexey, the son of Peter the Great. In 1872, a new prison within the walls of the Trubetskoy Bastion was built and over the next forty years, it held thousands of prisoners who were considered to be enemies of the state.
Completed in 1811 and standing at an impressive 203 feet tall (62 meters), St Petersburg's Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan exhibits Russian classical architecture, having replaced a wooden church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral took 10 years to construct and today encircles a small square with a double row of beautiful columns, while the interior is adorned with the works of some of the country's greatest artists and sculptors, such as I.P. Prokofyev and F.G. Gordeev, with reliefs on the facade by I.P. Martos, S.S. Pimenov and I.P. Martos.
Among some of the cathedral's other beauties are the Tsar's silver-casted gates and a golden frame decorated with precious stones, made specifically for the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan. The site has served as the setting for many of Russia’s historical events, including Tsesarevish Pavel Petrovich’s marriage and the celebration of many Russian military victories.
Peter Carl Fabergé was born in St Petersburg in 1846 and went into the family jewelry business. Appointed to serve the Russian court in 1885, he became the darling of the ill-fated Russian Imperial family for his intricate golden eggs, jewelry and ornate carved clocks. Following the assassination of the Romanovs in 1918, the Bolsheviks stole the Imperial jewelry collection and Fabergé fled to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he died two years later.
In over 35 years of Tsarist patronage, Faberge, his diamond cutters and goldsmiths created 54 gold eggs for them to mark significant occasions from coronations to royal weddings; of these, only 47 are accounted for. Post Communism, Russia has been quietly buying back its cultural heritage, and as the most famous name in Tsarist decorative arts, the fabulously bling Fabergé eggs were deservedly awarded their own museum in 2013.
With its gigantic golden dome coated with over 220 pounds of gold and an impressive red granite portico, St Isaac’s Cathedral looks more like a palace than a cathedral, and it’s no surprise that the eye-catching masterpiece is among St. Petersburg’s most visited attractions. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander I in 1818 to mark the defeat of Napoleon, the magnificent cathedral took over 40 years to build and still ranks among the largest domed cathedrals in the world, with a capacity for up to 14,000 worshippers.
Set on the banks of the Neva River, the cathedral’s extravagant design was the work of French architect Auguste de Montferrand, blending Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical elements, and sparing no expenses. The cathedral interiors are equally lavish, featuring painstakingly sculpted reliefs, grand bronze doors and a colonnaded iconostasis adorned with semiprecious gems.
The Bronze Horseman is a statue of Peter the Great on a horse. Catherine the Great had the statue built in the late 1700s to honor Peter the Great as the founder of the city of St. Petersburg. She commissioned the French sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet who had spent a long time studying the movements of horsemen on reared mounts. The horse stands on a rock meant to represent a cliff. This huge block of granite weighs more than 1,600 tons and took more than nine months to transport from the Gulf of Finland.
Visitors can still see an inscription on the stone that says "to Peter the First from Catherine the Second” in Latin on one side and in Russian on the other side. The statue faces west to represent Peter “leading Russia forward” because he drew inspiration from countries in the west. Legend has it that St Petersburg can never be taken by enemy forces as long as the statue remains standing in Senatskaya Square.
More Things to Do in St Petersburg
Art enthusiasts visiting St. Petersburg will already have the State Russian Museum at the top of their itinerary and the prestigious gallery doesn’t disappoint, with an incredible 400,000 exhibits dating back as early as the 10th century. This is the world’s largest and finest museum of Russian Art, as well as Russia’s first state-owned art museum, and walking its halls is like taking a journey through the country’s art history.
The museum was opened in 1898 inside the grand Mikhailovsky Palace and its collection has steadily grown, amassing a large number of private art collections and religious art confiscated during the Russian Revolution. Today, the extensive exhibitions are housed in a complex of palatial buildings including the Benois Wing, the Stroganov Palace, St Michael's Castle, the Marble Palace and the Mikhailovsky Gardens.
The Admiralty Building is one of St. Petersburg's oldest structures. It was built by Peter the Great and originally served as a dockyard. It once housed the Admiralty Board, which was in charge of ship building and eventually became part of the ministry of the navy. Some sections were built in the 1700s while other additions were constructed in the 1800s.
Unfortunately visitors today won't be able to see the building in its original state. Many of the statues were destroyed in 1860 when the Orthodox church declared them to be pagan. The building was also damaged during the blockade of Leningrad and was attacked by the Germans in World War II. The Admiralty Building does still have lots of sculptures and reliefs to admire. There is also a 240 foot golden spire with its weather vane, a little ship, that sits on top of it and is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. The original is in the Naval Museum, so the one you see here today is a replica.
Fittingly for a drink that dates right back to the 12th century, the perfect place to sample Russian vodka is located in St Petersburg’s former military stables and is part of the Museum Quarter project to protect the historic buildings of the city center. Exhibitions at the Russian Vodka Museum romp through the story of the spirit’s production and its cultural importance, detailing its rise in popularity and refinement from a drink for medieval peasants to the favorite tipple of the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century. Displays include shot glasses, an enormous collection of unusual vodka bottles, posters from previous advertising campaigns and ancient equipment used in distillation. All visits to the museum terminate with a tasting of several different flavored vodkas accompanied by Russian snacks known as zakuski – ‘little bites’ of caviar, salads, pickles, smoked meats or fish normally served with flatbread as hors d’oeuvres before dinner.
Originally named the Decembrists’ Square, after the December 1825 uprising, Senate Square (Ploschad Dekabristov) is one of St. Petersburg’s most famous public squares, encircled by some of the city’s top attractions. Linked to the central hub of Palace Square by the 407 meter-long Admiralty building – the one-time Russian Naval Headquarters – Senate Square is also home to the grand Senate Building and the early 19th-century Cavalry Manege, now home to the Central Exhibition Hall, and backs onto the grounds of the gold-domed St Isaac’s Cathedral.
The unforgettable centerpiece of Senate Square is its Bronze Horseman statue, one of the most iconic symbols of St. Petersburg. Commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1778, the statue is the work of French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet and depicts a horseback Peter the Great atop the “Thunder Stone,” an enormous cliff-like pedestal fashioned from a single piece of red granite and weighing in at around 1,500 tons.
St. Petersburg’s preeminent opera and ballet venue, and home to the world-renowned Kirov Ballet, Mariinsky Theatre has long been at the center of the city’s rich arts scene. Built in 1859 by architect Albert Cavos and named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the theatre saw a host of prestigious performers grace its stage during its pre-Revolution heyday, including dancers like Vatslav Nizhinsky, Matilda Kshesinskaya and Anna Pavlova, and opera singer Fiodor Shaliapin.
The Mariinsky Theatre’s present-day building was restored in 1944, after being damaged during in the Siege of Leningrad, and features a 1,625-seat auditorium. Today, the historic theatre is accompanied by the Mariinsky Theatre concert hall, or Mariinsky II, an incongruously modern building that opened next door to the original theater in 2007.
With its orange-brick façade and gilded church spire, hemmed in by the waters of the Fontanka and Moika Rivers, Mikhailovsky Castle offers an enchanting first impression, but it’s the palace’s somber history that will stick in the minds of visitors. Built between 1797 and 1800 during the short reign of Emperor Paul I, the castle was the result of the enigmatic leader’s near-obsessive fear of being assassinated. Claiming that he was visited in a dream by the Archangel Michael and advised to build a castle on the site of his birthplace, the Tsar did just that – erecting a supposedly impenetrable fortress underlain with secret tunnels and protected by fortified ramparts, drawbridges and a moat. Somewhat ironically, fate stepped in, and just a month after moving into his safeguard the Tsar was murdered in his sleep.
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