Every year, my family and I take a trip during summer to a new destination. This year’s quest for new discoveries and memories took us to St. Petersburg – a city, synonymous with ballet, Faberge eggs, matrushka dolls, caviar, and of course being the capital of Imperial Russia.
The city was discovered in 1703 by Peter the Great (Peter I), who travelled all over Europe and brought back different influences into the landscape of his city. You will notice buildings constructed next to each other as you find in Amsterdam, Egyptian sphinx and obelisks on the bridges, and canals which flow through the city, like in Venice. The city is very clean and has plenty of greenery and flowers throughout, despite it’s large influx of travellers. Beautiful historical buildings and Russian Orthodox Churches are dotted throughout the city’s landscape, having stood the test of time through harsh weather, revolutions, and wars. Coming from Serbia, a country which has had her share of political turmoil during the Communist Era, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the Russians realized the true value of their royal history and have restored most of the landmarks which were damaged during the destruction of the Red Army.
The city sights are easily accessible and well connected by metro, which has 6 different lines. A single journey costs just 55 Russian Rubles (less than 1 euro) and is very frequent. It is also very easy to get around the city by foot, especially in the city centre and via Nevsky Prospekt, the main street which is filled with cafes, landmarks, shops, malls, restaurants, travel agencies, museums … you name it!
Every corner of the city’s scenery looks like a time capsule taking us back in time during the beautiful days of Imperial Russia – and I invite you to follow our footsteps as we explored the majesty of St. Petersburg.
Of all the palaces I visited across Europe, Peterhof is my favourite, and can only be described in one word: magical. Nicknamed the “Versailles of Russia”, the estate has seen it’s share of historical turbulence. Built between 18th and 19th century on Peter the Great’s inspiration from the Palace of Versailles in France, more info? The estate suffered immense damage during WWII, but was one of the first sites to be completely restored thanks to the sponsorship of notable entities and over 1,000 experts.
Taking centre stage is the Grand Palace, a regal establishment enveloped in beige and white colour combinations and accented with gold embellishments. It is everything you would imagine of an enchanting palace, overlooking the beautiful Upper Garden, Grand Cascade fountain, and Gulf of Finland.
The grandiose palace interior’s unique style is a combination of different architects’ design through the years, however its remarkable how the overall ambiance has retained a similar appearance. We marvelled at the variety of prized collections such as hand-made tea sets, fine silk wall paper, royal jewels, sculptures, and beautiful fine art portraying the life of the royal family and their accolades.
I can’t express how fascinating the collections are so I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
Stepping outside of the palace leads you directly to the Gardens, which were designed in a variety of styles and layouts to represent almost 2 centuries of European royal fashion. Last summer I visited the stunning Boboli gardens of Florence who carry their own unique Tuscan charm. The gardens of Peterhof, however, are an element of their own and I am still highly impressed how the landscapers managed to overcome the extreme weather conditions of the country to maintain the sheer wonder of the flowers and foliage.
Even more impressive, are the numerous fountains, which attract millions of visitors to the estate. The most beautiful in my eyes, is the Grand Cascade which runs from the Palace and comprises of 64 different fountains. Taking the spotlight is a sculpture of Samson wrestling a lion designed by the architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. I caught a very precious moment with the sun’s rays mixed with the fountain’s sprinkles and created a rainbow, it was perfect. The gardens feature several other fountains like the Chess Cascade and Joke Fountains.
Located on the lower part of the estate is a charming house called Monplesir and was the personal project of Peter the Great, designed as a private retreat from his public life. It was built in 1723 and houses the Tsar’s personal 17th century art collection. One of my favourite parts of Peterhof is the courtyard outside of Monplesir which borders the shoreline of the Gulf of Finland and offers remarkably tranquil views of the sea, while on a clear day you can even spot the coast of St. Petersburg. The minute you turn around and look up at the Grand Palace, set against the backdrop of the stunning gardens, you will lose yourself in the magic, trust me.
It took me quite some time to formulate my words about this landmark, because it left me completely breathless (literally). To start, Hermitage Museum is St. Petersburg’s most popular attraction and the world’s 2nd largest museum. It is located in the Winter Palace, the official residence of Russian monarchs, and one of the most prestigious buildings I have ever been to, which was converted into a museum after the death of Catherine the Great. It is majestically located between the Palace Embankment and Palace Square with stunning views of the Neva River.
The museum holds over 3 million pieces in its collection placed in several exhibitions including: Ancient Relics and Arts of Eurasia, Art of Netherlands, French Art, German Art, Italian Renaissance Art, Spanish Painting, and so many more. My favourite was the private collections of the Romanov Dynasty which offered us an intimate look into the lives of the last Imperial family – a bittersweet feeling.
We were not prepared at all during our visit, on a very rainy day – so here is my advice. Buy your tickets online so you can skip the ques, otherwise, similar to the Louvre in Paris, you might wait up to 3 hours to get in. The works of art are extremely precious and impressive, and provides the perfect link to life in the past. You cannot visit St. Petersburg without exploring the Hermitage Museum, however, please be physically and mentally prepared for large crowds and plenty of congestion. It can get quite unpleasant especially as seating is restricted and some halls only have one way out.
PETER & PAUL FORTRESS
This bountiful fortress is located on a separate island from the main city centre and was the birthplace of St. Petersburg, built between 1706 and 1740. Its site was used for various purposes from military bases, governmental departments, prominent political prisons, and the final resting place of the last Russian Imperial family. Today the fortress is part of the St. Petersburg museum collection where visitors can get a glimpse of various historical occurrences and admire different architectural style.
Notable landmarks to visit include:
- Petrovskiy Curtain Wall and Gate – entrance to the fortress and one of the oldest surviving elements, which was built to celebrate the victorious Great Northern War between the Swedes.
- St. Peter and Paul Cathedral – one of the most majestic buildings in the city (and the oldest), and is the final resting place of the Romanov members, the last surviving royal family of Imperial Russia.
- Commandant’s House – beautiful baroque establishment built in the 1740’s which today houses the Museum of History of St. Petersburg. Here you can really learn all about the city’s past and get a glimpse into life through the ages.
- Trubetskoy Bastion – the main political prison of Imperial Russia which housed several prominent convicts who opposed to the royal rule.
- Menshikov Bastion – quite gruesome so we skipped this, but if you are into it, this establishment was used for torture and secret detention.
We were very lucky to catch the changing of the guard duty, which has existed from the beginning until 1926. The 15 minute long event which takes place on Saturdays at 12pm in the summer season, is a tribute to the tradition, and always starts with a cannon shot. Check out the video below 🙂
The views from the fortress are blissful and one can sit for hours just watching the waves lapping against the stone steps. It can easily be reach by taxi or very conveniently by metro which is located only 5 minutes’ walk from the main entrance.
ST. ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL
Of all the churches and cathedrals I have visited around the world, none have left me quite as speechless as this one. Its impressive façade is decorated with sculptures and granite columns while the interior is adorned with beautiful mosaics and paintings, depicting different Biblical stories. The cathedral can hold up to 14,000 standing people, and although it is a museum today, mass is held on special occasions.
The cathedral offers 360 degree views of the cityscape where you can enjoy impressive landmarks like the Winter Palace, Church of Saviour on Spilled Blood, Neva River and many more. It is topped with 5 bell towers, each weighing 100 kg of pure gold so you can imagine just how grand the cathedral is. On that particular day, after climbing 200 steps, my father and I enjoyed blissful views of the city set against the blue sky, as golden rays of sunshine seeped through cotton clouds. Picture perfect.
CHURCH OF THE SAVIOUR ON SPILLED BLOOD
While walking along Nevsky Prospekt street, your eyes will catch sight of a picturesque medieval church whose colours and funky design stand out among the city’s classical architecture. Located along the Griboyedov canal, the Church of Saviour on Spilled Blood was built to commemorate one of Russia’s greatest Tsars, Alexander II who was gruesomely murdered by the opposition. For those of you who don’t know, one of the Tsar’s greatest achievements was the abolishment of peasant slavery (5 years before the abolishment of slavery in the US).
The Church composes of 5 domes resembling colourful jewelry, or some might say a candyland in a children’s book. The exterior is made of 20 granite plates which depict important moments from Tsar Alexander II’s rule, while the interior is decorated with precious stones like topaz, jasper and mountain crystal. We marvelled at one of Europe’s largest collection of mosaics (spanning 2,150 metres), and were impressed to see a different design style compared to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The Church was badly destroyed during the Communist vandalism after which it took 27 years of restoration to bring it back to its original glory. (One of the domes is currently going further reconstruction as you will notice in the photos below).
One of my favourite aspects of Europe is famous streets which span long kilometres of pedestrian paths, are usually filled with vibrant nightlife, pictures cafes, abundant shopping, and always have a history of meeting points among the community. Just like Champs Elysee in Paris, Via Montenapoleone in Milan, Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, and Knez Mihajlova in Belgrade, St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt is everything you can imagine.
Spanning a distance of 4km starting from the Admiralty on the Neva River to Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the street is filled with shopping centres, street entertainment, cafes, bookstores, and beautiful architecture. The street cuts through the historical city centure where several important landmarks are located such as:
- Gostiny Dvor – largest department store in St. Petersburg
- Anichkov Bridge – one of the oldest and most beautiful bridges in the city across the river Fontaka, well known for its bronze horse statues.
- Singer House – one of the most impressive landmarks in the city, it’s the largest bookshop in the city
- Kazan Cathedral – located opposite of Singer House, you cannot miss this impressive Cathedral was inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
- Hermitage Museum – located in the Imperial family’s Winter Palace, this amazing museum is the most popular sight in St. Petersburg
- Church of Saviour on Spilled Blood – one of the city’s most colourful landmarks filled with gorgeous mosaics
It’s an amazing place to spend hours immersing in the spirit of the city, while enjoying authentic performances and beautiful city views.
ST. PETERSBURG BY BOAT
You may be wondering where the city got it’s nickname “Venice of the North” from. Well, with over 300 bridges dotted across the city, its easy to see why, and the best way to immerse in the scenery is by boat. St. Petersburg is well known for its many boat tours, after all walking along Nevsky Prospekt alone you will be bombarded by countless sales reps. We took a 1 hour cruise with Aquatours and passed by beautiful landmarks like St. Nicholas Cathedral, Mariinsky Theatre, Anchikov Bridge seen through the canals, while places like St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace), and the impressive Peter and Paul Fortress from the mighty Neva River. The tour cost 800 Russian Rubles (9 Euro), however be warned very few companies offer commentary in English.
I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves of our experience:
RUSSIA IN FAIRY TALES
There are so many live shows to be enjoyed throughout the city from folk dances to the ballet. No visit to St. Petersburg is complete without attending a ballet at the famous Mariinsky Theatre where Swan Lake debuted. Unfortunately we did not organize our tickets early in time to watch the ballet, but my father found a fun alternative – a live folk show called “Russia in Fairy tales”. Performed at the House of Officers, the show was one of the most impressive and fun events I have been to! It was filled with colourful costumes, impressive acrobatics, and vibrant music. During the intermission of 15 minutes we enjoyed a small reception of canapes and champagne, before returning to watch the closing act, a traditional Cossack dance. Check this clip out! 🙂
DINING IN ST. PETERSBURG
When it comes to food, St. Petersburg offers something for every taste as most of the restaurants have been commercialized by global food trends. We enjoyed a range of dishes from East to West and some we have experienced before. Some of the places where we dined are:
- Evrasia – a meeting point between European and Asian food, found all over Nevsky Prospekt
- Borsalino – Italian cuisine at the Angleterre hotel, food was average, but the restaurant offers first class views of St. Isaac’s Cathedral
- Cha Cha – authentic Georgian cuisine, a first for us and definitely delicious
- Katyusha – located in the centre of Nevsky Prospekt, this kitsch restaurant offer amazing Russian dishes and the best honey cake!
Every corner of St. Petersburg’s scenery looked like a time capsule taking us back in time during the beautiful days of Imperial Russia. 6 days is definitely enough to check out the main sights, however if you really want to dig deeper into the history and see the real magic of the city, a longer visit is a must. I didn’t have any expectations of the city prior to our visit, despite most of my friends lighting up when I told them where I was going. I can honestly say, that it has become one of my favourites cities in the world!
Click here for a complete visual experience of our trip!
- English is a language barrier as hardly anyone speaks it and there are almost no English street signs, so you might have to reply on a translator app, or find an English speaker if you are lucky.
- Book all your tours in advance. A handy app I found is called Get Your Guide, you can buy all tickets and skip those pesky lines. There is an extra charge through the app so don’t be surprised by the price change, but it’s totally worth skipping those long ques.
- Additional sights worth visiting are the Faberge Museum, a tour of the metro stations (trust me they are grandiose), Pushkin Selo, and Mariinksy Theatre. If you would like to watch a ballet at Mariinsky Theatre, make sure you buy tickets at least 1 month in advance. Also if you can, find the best rooftop cafes, because they have incredible views of the rivers, palaces, and cathedrals, especially near St. Isaac Church.
- You can also explore the city with the hop on / hop off bus which has several lines and covers all the main sights.
- River canals: www.saint-petersburg.com/river-trips/popular-routes/
- Orthodox Cathedrals: www.saint-petersburg.com/cathedrals/
- Get Your Guide: www.getyourguide.com
- St. Petersburg Metro: www.metro.spb.ru/en/
- St. Petersburg Tourism: www.saint-petersburg.com/
- Hop on / hop off bus: www.city-sightseeing.com
- Folk Show at House of Officers: www.balletandopera.com
- Hermitage Museum: www.hermitagemuseum.org
Disclaimer: All views are my own and all photographs are © My Pink Diary.