St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its attraction comes from its greater, never-ending history. What strikes you immediately when you visit St Petersburg is its architecture: complex, elaborate, and decidedly over the top, and yet so terribly elegant. It is in those very finely decorated palaces and in its streets that some of the most important chapters of human history have been written.
St Petersburg is also the city that more than any other keeps alive the memory of how Great Mother Russia was before the Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union, and is the city that represents the splendour and pomp of Imperial Russia that led to the epilogue that we know only too well.
It is also undoubtedly the city of art: the Hermitage Museum is one of the most important museums in the world and its astonishing collection is one of the largest that a museum can have; St Petersburg is also culture and literature, the city where some of the best nineteenth-century novels are set and for this reason it is easy to outline some literary itineraries to follow in the steps of Tolstoy's characters.
Visiting St Petersburg is an unforgettable, unique experience that will fill your mind and eyes with beauty for those with the privilege of walking around its streets. Here are the places that we will visit and discover together, taking a trip into the history, culture and traditions of this magnificent city.
- Royal Rooms in the Winter Palace
- General Staff Building
- Catherine Palace, Amber Room and gardens
- The Peterhof Palace and Lower Gardens
- The Hermitage Museum
- Peter and Paul Fortress
- St Isaac's Cathedral
- The Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood
- Kazan Cathedral
- Mariinsky Theatre
- Aleksander Nevsky Monastery and Cemetery
Royal Rooms in the Winter Palace
Let’s start with one of the symbols of St Petersburg, the Winter Palace.
It is iconic starting with its aquamarine façade, white pillars and golden stucco work. The Winter Palace was built by Peter the Great and was to be the representation of the power of the Russian Empire, as the Tsar governed one sixth of the entire earth from this palace.
Given its imposing nature and given the fact that during the Russian Revolution it was take to be a symbol of the Tsarist regime’s absolutist oppression, we can say that Peter the Great succeeded fully in his intent.
The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Tsars from 1732 to 1917 and its monumental structure was designed by several architects, the most famous of whom was Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Its interior is spectacular and at least as monumental as its façade.
There are about 350 rooms in the Winter Palace, which, as well as being real works of art in themselves, also house three million works of art over a surface area of about 20 kilometres. It is astonishing to think that the same rooms we now walk through to admire various kinds of items and works of art, once were home to the Tsars in person, the same legendary and mysterious Anastasia, the princess who disappeared.
On the matter of legends, as this is an important institution, there are naturally several here. It is said that there are several ghosts wandering around the galleries and halls of the palace, the most significant being that of Peter the Great whose wax statue is said to e at night and greets anyone passing by.
General Staff Building
In St Petersburg they truly know what palaces, perspectives and breath-taking views are all about. The General Staff Building is one of these. This is a giant semi-circular building with two wings that are separated in the middle by a three-sided arch of triumph. In turn, the arch is decorated with statues sculpted by the Russian sculptors Vasilij Ivanovič, Demut-Malinovskij and Stepan Pimenov, and they celebrate the victories of the Russian people during the Russian Campaign.
The palace was made the general headquarters of the Russian government until 1918, when Moscow became the capital, but even today its west wing is the Leningrad Military District headquarters (the east wing is part of the Hermitage Museum complex).
You can gain your first glimpse of the famous Nevskij Prospect through the arch of triumph that characterises this incredible building. This is the main street that crosses the whole of St Petersburg and is talked about in “Petersburg Tales” by Nikolaj Vasil'evič Gogol.
Catherine Palace, Amber Room and gardens
Let's leave St Petersburg for a moment, more precisely let's go to Puškin, 25 kilometres from the old Russian capital. Why? To visit the magnificent, imposing and superb summer residence of the Russian Tsars, Catherine’s Palace.
The construction of this palace began in 1717 on the wishes of Catherine I - who gave the palace its name - but the work continued for a long time, through the reigns of several empresses and with them, also several architects and architectural styles: from the flamboyant Rococò style of Rastrelli wanted by Elizabeth, with its 100 kilos of gold for the façade and countless statues and stuccoes, to the Palladian style wanted by Catherine II who, had the interior of an entire wing of the palace renovated in this style.
On the subject of interiors, the most famous inner part of the palace is the so-called Golden Enfilade: this is a number of communicating rooms: each of them is a true spectacle of paintings, finely decorated details, gold and colours, and the series of rooms culminates with the Amber Room.
The Amber Room is a sight that is difficult to describe in words. We can only say that it is considered the eighth Wonder of the World and its walls are entirely covered in gold, mirrors and six tonnes of natural amber. The Amber Room is so precious that it was stolen from during World War Two, and was then reconstructed afterwards. In fact, it was only reopened to the public in 2003!
Another place not to be missed are the palace gardens, a true park with two recognisable styles, distinguishable to the point we might say that the park is divided into two parts: the old garden in classical style and the new garden in English style.
The Peterhof Palace and Lower Gardens
The Peterhof Palace is part of the Seven Wonders of Russia, and rightly so: this complex of gardens and palaces was built on the wishes of Peter the Great between 1714 and 1723, and was used as the Imperial residence until the October Revolution.
The palace comprises five buildings, three parks and several fountains. The Grand Palace is the main building in the whole complex, it is glorious and imposing - as are indeed the other buildings wherever the architect Rastrelli had a say - and is the one where there are the reception rooms, like the sumptuous throne room, for example.
Montplaisir and Marly Palace were used for guests, the former was the place where the Tsar received any visitor, while the second was a guest buildings, and is inspired by the King of France’s hunting lodge.
There is also the Hermitage Pavilion that it located on the Gulf of Finland, and was designed as the private dining room where the Tsar could eat and entertain his closest friends, and the Cottage, a romantic estate dating back to the early nineteenth century built by Tsar Nicholas I for his wife Aleksandra.
The gardens deserve a mention and are to be visited too. There are three of them, the Upper Garden, the Lower Garden and Aleksandra’s Garden. The first was a French-style, formal garden, full of fountains and located in a flat area; the Lower Garden is also French in style, containing several prestigious fountains but also with wilder woodland areas; Aleksandra's Garden is a lush, mainly woodland garden that is home to the romantic neo-Gothic Cottage that we mentioned earlier.
Peterhof Palace has one particular feature: not only can it be reached by land, like all the palaces we know, but can also be accessed from the sea. Hydrofoils leave from the Winter Palace and cross the River Neva, through the Gulf of Finland until you reach the palace.
The Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage Museum is one of the largest, most important and most famous museums in the whole world. This huge worldwide institution is so big that very often people are confused about how big it actually is.
So let’s start by trying to get rid of all those doubts. The Hermitage Museum is not inside the rooms of a building: its collection occupies five main buildings, that are the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage designed by Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe and Jurij Velten, the Large Hermitage (also known as the Old Hermitage) designed by Jurij Velten, the New Hermitage by the architect Leo von Klenze and the Hermitage Theatre designed by Giacomo Quarenghi, and also part of other buildings such as the General Staff Building, the Porcelain Museum, the Menshikov Palace, the permanent exhibition at the Strelna Palace and the Staraja Derevnya Restoration and Storage Centre. One study has calculated that it would take eight years to visit the entire Hermitage collection dedicating one minute to each piece of work, and at this point, these figures are not even surprising!
But how did this huge collection of works of art begin? It was Catherine the Great who founded this museum. He had a small hermitage built where she could retreat for some peace and quiet and began to decorate it with works of art that she bought in Europe. Over the years, the collection became larger and larger - on advice from Diderot she bought about 2000 paintings in Europe - to the point where it was impossible to keep them just in one building.
Today, the Hermitage collection comprises 3 million works of art, by such great artists as Caravaggio, Paul Cézanne, Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello, Antonio Canova, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiziano, Vincent van Gogh and Velázquez.
Peter and Paul Fortress
St Petersburg has its own fortress, the Peter and Paul Fortress that was built strategically during the Great War of the North. It was Peter the Great in person to who placed the first stones to build the fortress!
The Fortress is located on Hare Island on the River Neva. It is an extremely picturesque place, but it is also full of history. During the Red Terror, the island was the theatre of bloody massacres, to the point that it is believed that there are thousands of bodies buried there from this tragic period.
Speaking of burials, many members of the Romanov family are buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress, in the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. One interesting fact here concerns the burial of Tsar Nicholas II and his family: the corpses were only transported and buried in the cathedral in 1998, a good eighty years after their deaths.
The Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul is extremely important for the city of St Petersburg: its 120-metre high spire is a characteristic of the city skyline and the angel on its top who holds a cross in its hand is one of the most famous and important symbols. Another interesting fact is about this angel: in 1997, restorers found a note in the folds of the statue’s garments; the note had been left by those restoring the angel forty years previously, and it was an apology for having carried out shoddy work.
The church is now a museum, but some religious ceremonies have been celebrated there once more since 2001.
St Isaac's Cathedral
Let's continue our trip around St Petersburg by visiting one of its more iconic places, St Isaac's Cathedral. Famous for its giant golden dome and its 112 red marble columns that decorate its façade, St Isaac's Cathedral is a joy to behold.
The cathedral has more than 400 sculptures, several pieces of relief work, paintings and frescoes and its interior is completely covered in 14 different types of marble. Not just that: to decorate it, another 43 types of stone were used, in some cases also semi-precious stones, like the beautiful bright green malachite used to build the columns. This is why the building has earned itself the name “museum of mineralogy’!
The dome, on the other hand, is one of the largest in the world and it was a huge engineering feat to create it: it is actually a kind of matryoshka comprising three different parts placed on top of one another, where the interstices are filled with about one hundred thousand empty terracotta pots (an ideal solution for heat and acoustic insulation of the cathedral)
The other dome is made of metal and sheet copper, and owes its golden colour to a special procedure, which is also hazardous (about 60 people died due to the toxic wast caused by gilding the dome): each sheet was covered with a gold and mercury compound and was then heated with a live flame until the layer of gold adhered to the copper in solid form. About 100 kilos of gold were used to gild the dome, but about 400 were used for the entire construction of the cathedral.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood
It is perhaps the most famous and symbolic church in the whole world. Construction began in 1883 on the wishes of Aleksander III: he ordered a church to be built in the exact place where, two years earlier, his father Aleksander II was assassinated by the explosion of bombs thrown by two Narodnaja Volja militants when he was crossing the tow path in his carriage.
The exact place of the assassination is now marked by a precious altar embedded with topaz, lazurite and other precious stones of high value. The entire church is in itself a precious jewel. It is almost entirely covered in mosaics (more than 7000 square metres in all!), painted ceramic, coloured glass, enamel in a thousand colours; if that weren’t enough, there are five domes also adorn the church, domes that are set with precious stones themselves.
The external façade is just as varied. It bears no similarity with neoclassical or Baroque churches that can be found in the rest of the city; here we can distinguish the influence of medieval Russian architecture and is actually reminiscent of the famous St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
This precious place did not always receive the respect it deserves: during the city siege, it was used as a vegetable storage unit, then as a mortuary, and at the end of the war, before being restored to its current splendour, it was used as a storeroom for an opera theatre nearby.
Let’s end this short review of the churches in St Petersburg with a final important cathedral, that is very different from the ones we have seen thus far.
We are talking about Kazan Cathedral, which is just as iconic as the others thanks to its imposing Corinthian colonnade with 112 pillars standing in a semicircle, which is actually a façade for the Nevskij Prospect.
This hug colonnade with its dome may be familiar to you: it is, in fact, reminiscent of St Peter's Square in Rome. This may seem like a bizarre coincidence for a cathedral in an orthodox city, but it is no coincidence at all (nor is it bizarre): the emperor started the building of Kazan Cathedral in 1801, with the exact intention of making his desire to unite the orthodox and catholic churches a reality, ignoring the contrasting voices from the orthodox church who didn’t think it was a good idea to build a copy of a catholic place of worship in the Russian capital city of the time.
Kazan Cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan', one of the most venerated Virgin Mary’s in the whole of Russia.
Its mint green façade framed by white stucco is unmistakeable and some of the most important operas and ballets in history have been performed on its stage. We are talking about the Mariinsky Theatre, that was the imperial theatre of St Petersburg during the Tsars’ rule and is now home to operas, ballets and concerts with its own company of artists.
As mentioned, there have been many great works that have been shown to the public for the first time in this building: of all of them, the Mariinsky Theatre can boast it hosted the premières for “Sleeping Beauty”, “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky.
Today the Mariinsky Theatre hosts performances of prestigious operas, ballets and concerts: next season, for example, will included “Turandot”, “Don Quixote”, and “Les Noces. Le Sacre du printemps” by Igor Stravinsky.
Aleksander Nevsky Monastery and Cemetery
Let’s end our visit of the splendid St Petersburg with the place that is perhaps more than any other the cultural centre of the city. It is, in fact, the Monastery named after Prince Aleksander Nevsky from whom the members of the Romanov family received their education.
The Nevsky Monastery is a complex that includes about ten buildings, the main one being the neoclassical Holy Trinity Cathedral, built by the architect Ivan Egorovič Starov, and three cemeteries. Also, in one of the three cemeteries next to the Nevsky Monastery, some famous literary personalities are buried, such as Dostoevskij, Giacomo Antonio Quarenghi, Tchaikovsky, and Eulero.
Discover St Petersburg with Costa Cruises
Set sail with Costa Cruises to discover St Petersburg, its incredible history, the splendour of its palaces, where the Romanovs once lived and that are now beautiful museums, and magnificent churches and cathedrals that are true jewels. Be enchanted by its literary atmosphere, the attraction of the Neva and the Nevskij Prospect and much more too.