I’ll get the football reference in early. I’m a Chelsea fan. Which means I know what a Russian oligarch can do when he wants to build a football team.
Now imagine what a bunch of Russian tsars can do when they want to build a city?
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great wanted to establish a trading seaport on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Nevermind that this was a cold, desolate, mosquito-infested swamp; the tsar of all-Russia gets what he wants.
From the founding of St Petersburg in 1703 until his death in 1725, Peter the Great shaped the city according to his will and predilections and his pan-European tastes resulted in a unique style of architecture called Petrine Baroque.
Buildings in the city reached their grandiose pinnacle under Empress Elizabeth who gave her favourite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, carte blanche. The results were the Winter Palace, the Peterhof, and the Catherine Palace.
But wait, there’s more! Here’s a roundup of the sights and sounds you should definitely take in when visiting Russia’s other capital.
1. The Bronze Horseman
This is a massive statue of Peter the Great astride his horse, arm outstretched, gazing imperiously over the Neva River. The statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great and its name is actually derived from the Alexander Pushkin poem. That poem is one of the most significant in Russian literature and every child in Russia knows it by heart. Basically that statue is damn important. So by just standing next to it, your culture quotient immediately climbs at least 10 levels. But to me, the most interesting thing about the statue is the stone pedestal on which it stands. The pedestal, known as the Thunder Stone, is apparently the largest stone ever mined. It weighed 1,500 tonnes and all kinds of ingenious feats of engineering were required to move it to its present location from where it was found in the Gulf of Finland.
2. The Hermitage
I have two critical pieces of advice for the Hermitage. 1) Buy your ticket online before going (otherwise you’ll be facing a very, very long ticket queue). 2) Have a plan of what you want to see. You must have a plan, even if it’s a vague one. The Hermitage is possibly the largest art museum in the world, and it is HUUUGE.
The problem with not having a plan is that very soon, it can start to feel like ‘old crap in one room followed by old crap in another room’ as one friend rather elegantly put it.
The centerpiece of the Hermitage is the Rembrandt collection and that is likely to already be part of your plan. However, the Rembrandt room is going to be packed so if you need a breather, the Rubens room is nearby (it also has some Van Dycks unceremoniously consigned to a dark corner!).
The real surprise for me, though, was a small Spanish art room which had a couple of El Grecos (!), and it was practically empty. And if the Picassos are part of your plan, please note they are in the General Staff Building which is across the Palace Square (do NOT spend two hours stalking the halls of the Winter Palace in a fruitless search for them like I did).
If you want a break from art, there is a giant mechanical golden peacock somewhere and for a bit of history, visit the Malachite Room and Tsar Nicholas II’s study.
3. St Isaac’s Cathedral
The largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in St Petersburg. The interior is breathtaking – and really, no one overwhelms you with gold better than the Russians. What is most special about the cathedral is that you can climb (262 fairly manageable steps) to the colonnade around the drum of the dome – this gives you probably the best bird’s eye view of the whole city.
4. The Church on Spilled Blood
Pictures of the Kremlin will always include St Basil’s Cathedral with its whimsical, multicoloured onion domes. This is the St Petersburg version, perched precariously on the Griboedov Canal and really quite unmissable. Brave the crowds and go inside to view the incredible mosaics.
5. Peter and Paul Fortress
Where most of the tsars since Peter the Great are buried. Whilst this isn’t as far out as the Peterhof or the Catherine Palace, I’m putting this here because it’s a little more of a trek on foot than the main sights listed above and requires crossing the Palace Bridge to Hare Island. Is it really worth making the effort? Yes, only if you can make it there in time for the midday cannon shot which can be heard across the city.
6. The Peterhof
The Fountains of Versailles? Please. Mere water sprinklers compared to this. The best way to do the Peterhof is to do it in style, which means arrive by hydrofoil; from the jetty you walk through the amazing lower gardens to get to the fountains. Do not, as some guidebooks advise, get there by subway followed by a marshrutka (mini-van);the marshrutka was stifling in the winter and I cannot imagine what it will be like in the summer. Do the tour of the palace, there are only about a dozen rooms and thus not too overwhelming. Try to avoid the crowds and go first thing in the morning or late in the evening.
7. Tsarskoye Selo
Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace and the location of the famed Amber Room. I’m really in two minds about this one. The Catherine Park is awesome and the palace itself is probably the grandest of a pretty grand bunch. But the experience inside is pretty dispiriting – the place is packed to the gills (no escaping this time!) and you’re shuffled along from room to room like parts on an assembly line. Those who’ve been sardined into the Sistine Chapel will know what I’m talking about!
8. Try the St Petersburg Metro
Specifically, get onto the line from Admiralteyskaya Station which is just off St Isaac’s Square. The escalator there gives you the impression you’re descending into the bowels of the Earth; it’s so long you could probably finish a chapter of Anna Karenina before you get to the bottom. The St Petersburg Metro is also proof that subterranean train stations do not have to be dirty (London Underground), dangerous (NY Subway) or utilitarian (Singapore MRT). Put it this way – the platforms were lit by chandeliers.
10. Walk the Nevsky Prospekt
From Admiralteyskaya Station, head to Mayakovskaya Station. From here, you have the option to walk the prospekt (street) towards shopping or the Anichkov Bridge (famous for its horse sculptures). Russia does get a bad reputation for dangerous streets and dangerous people but I found it perfectly safe to walk around, even at night, and never felt threatened. The atmosphere is really rather European (Peter the Great’s vision lives on!). This isn’t an endorsement to start wandering off into the outer suburbs but Nevsky itself is very brightly lit and lively through the night.
11. The Faberge Museum
Housed in the recently restored Shuvalov Palace and near the Anichkov Bridge, the museum holds nine Imperial Easter eggs and includes the egg which started it all – the First Hen egg commissioned by Tsar Alexander III for his wife.
12. The Yusupov Palace
It is said that there was one family who was richer than the Romanovs – the Yusupovs, and the Moika Palace was their favourite palace of the four (!) they had in St Petersburg. As this was primarily their home, the rooms give a mind-boggling picture of what the lifestyle of the rich and famous was like in 19th century Russia. Apparently they couldn’t do without a private art gallery, a ballroom and a 50-seat theatre.