Peter the Great’s influence is everywhere across this sprawling Russian metropolis. WORDS Erin Miller
“And the Summer Garden over there was also constructed during Peter the Great’s rule.” With a wave of her hand, our tour guide points out yet another landmark Tsar Peter the Great was involved with during his rule in the 18th century. He must have been one busy beaver, because you can barely turn around in St Petersburg, the city he founded in 1703, without tripping over a statue of him or a building he commissioned. Our tour of the city begins at one of the few churches that wasn’t closed during Soviet times – the St Nicholas Cathedral, with its pastel blue exterior and five gold baroque domes. A short drive away, on the shores of the Neva River and constructed on an island, is the oldest building in the city, the imposing, walled Peter and Paul Fortress. While it has housed several famous political prisoners over the years including Dostoevsky and Trotsky, it is now open to tourists to explore and is the resting place for many of Russia’s former leaders, including the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, who was shot dead in 1918. From there it’s on to the major sites in the centre of the town, which are scattered along Nevsky Prospekt, the 4km main street.
We cross several canals on the way, and with more than 600 bridges in the city, you can understand why it’s referred to as the Venice of the north. Just a few blocks from the river is St Isaac’s Cathedral, whose gold dome roof dominates the skyline. There are 262 steps to get to the top, but you’ll likely snap a few photos of the city laid out below you – so it’s well worth the climb.
Just off Nevsky Prospekt is the grand Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum. In the open space at the Palace Square, the Alexander Column looms high above the facades. Even in winter, a large ice skating rink and mammoth Christmas tree do little to fill the vast space. The sheer size of the collection at the Hermitage is quite daunting (there are more than three million items). It takes us several hours to work our way through the Italian art from the 13th to 16th century – and that wasn’t even stopping in front of each work. You’ll be hard-pressed to get through all the rooms so it’s probably best just to head to whatever era or exhibition most interests you. If old paintings and relics aren’t your bag, scoot up to the third floor for an extensive collection of 19th and 20th century works by artists including Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet and Matisse.
But perhaps the most striking attraction in St Petersburg is the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. It’s an incredibly long name given to the multi-domed church which was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated – hence its slightly gruesome name. Modelled on St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square, the church walls and ceilings are covered in mosaics, and there is a marble bust built on the exact spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by the terrorist group People’s Will in 1881. Across the road from the church are some markets, which are worthwhile visiting to haggle with the store owners over cheap souvenirs including traditional matryoshka dolls and fur hats.
After all that culture and history you’ll just about be at saturation point on a learning overload, so take a stroll in the Summer Garden to cap off your visit. Peter the Great was on to a good thing with the design of it – although since the plan is nicked straight from the park at Versailles, he can’t be given all the credit for this one.
» Erin Miller travelled to St Petersburg on a nine-day Baltic Explorer tour with Topdeck. Tours start from £649 (0845-257 5212).
Food and drink
No trip to Russia would be complete without necking a few tidy vodkas. The potent drop is served at bars across cities in large shot glasses. Just don’t go asking for it mixed with orange juice: you’ll get a filthy look from the barman for your troubles. It’s straight or nothing here.
Russia isn’t exactly known for being a foodie haven. Local speciality dishes include beef stroganoff, borscht (beetroot soup) and herring with potatoes. Be warned about meat pastries though – locals usually eat them cold, which doesn’t quite hit the spot the same way a Four’N Twenty pie does when it’s freezing outside.
Under no circumstances drink the tap water in St Petersburg, as it’s known to contain the parasite Giardia lamblia that can cause stomach cramps and nausea. Stick to bottled water and you’ll be fine.