Saint Petersburg is an amazing European city, with so much to see. In some ways it’s overshadowed by Moscow, but while Moscow has Red Square, St Basil’s and the Kremlin, when it comes to beauty and class, this is the city to see. Here are eight reasons why.
8. The Neva River and its Bridges
Flowing into the Baltic Sea just west of the city, the Neva River is wide and beautiful. A central part of the city, great Soviet-era bridges cross it, and each of these is impressive in its own right, and with Saint Petersburg being nicknamed the ‘Venice of the North’, there are certainly plenty of them. Most also open up Tower Bridge-style twice a night, making a great photo-op – with timetables for these available on Wikitravel.
7. The Russian State Museum
I’d never heard of this, but it was just down the road from my second hostel. One afternoon it was raining and something indoors seemed sensible, so I headed along.
The building’s exterior is impressive in its own right, but inside is where the treat is. Wall after wall of huge art, paintings from centuries ago, different styles, as well as a wing devoted to crafts – pottery, woodwork and clothing from various periods in Russia’s history.
I’m not a huge arts connoisseur but I could appreciate this, even if I didn’t linger too long at most exhibits, I was very impressed by the whole thing, and it’s a very accessible museum, without huge crowds and queues like the Hermitage.
6. The Saint Petersburg Metro System
I know, I know – not a normal tourist sight, but it’s simply surreal after years on the London tube, with statues, frescos, chandeliers and just monsterous stations all deep, very deep below ground. I timed one of the escalators out at nearly two and a half minutes – they’re LONG!
5. Nevsky Prospect and Kazan Cathedral
It’s funny, as a tourist in Saint Petersburg, you WILL walk along Nevsky Prospect – it’s the main street in the old district, and although neither the Hermitage or St Isaac’s Cathedral are on it, they are close by, while many others are. And right outside the Nevsky Prospect / Gostiny Dvor metro station exit – the first I came out of in the city, you’re presented with a view of Kazan Cathedral. And it’s big, bold, stately and impressive. I only wandered the grounds, to be fair – but if I return, I now know that inside it’s 69 metres long and 62 metres high and full of sculptures and icons.
4. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
If you’d shown me a postcard of this beforehand, I’d swear it was St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. I now wonder how many times I’ve thought this, because at first glance they are almost identical. Closer up, you can notice the differences in the designs on the towers, and certainly indoors – this one is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and has one big hall with various chambers leading off it, while St Basil’s has several separate chapels within it – each in its own room.
3. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral and Fortress
On the other side of the Neva river from the Hermitage and the rest of the main sights is this fortress. One of the biggest and most impressive in the north, rivalling Suomenlinna in Helsinki is an impressive sight, and centered within is Peter and Paul’s Cathedral – where like St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey in London, has many famous people of years past buried there – including almost all the Romanov Tsars since Peter the Great. Outdoors, it has several large grassy areas and the sunbathers are out in force during summer. A helicopter also runs frequent flights from just behind the fortress for aerial views of Saint Petersburg. Fun fact – standing 10m from the helicopter as it takes off is practically impossible, as is sitting – I was blown over backwards by the force! The fortress is free, but access to the cathedral and others sights cost – but unless you’re really keen, the Cathedral is the main attraction.
2. St Isaac’s Cathedral
Again, I’d not heard of this before I went to Saint Petersburg. Close to St Paul’s in size as the third highest cupola domed cathedral in the world, the outside is impressive enough. To enter you require two tickets, and you have to exit again inbetween using them (a bit confusing) – one for inside, and one for the collonade around the top outside of the Cathedral – and it’s quite the climb, but completely worth it for the fantastic view of the city.
Inside, it is absolutely incredible. Every single wall is covered in art, floor and ceiling, paintings, gold plating, even the doors are works of art. I expected to spend five minutes having a quick glance around – instead I was inside for close to an hour, trying my best to take it all in.
1. The Hermitage – the top attraction in Saint Petersburg
While St Isaacs is amazing and Peter and Paul’s Cathedral / Fortress is UNESCO Heritage, nothing can compare to the Hermitage. The collection on display features the highlights of the over three million pieces from around the world!
I started on the ground floor where much of the very historic artefacts are, from the corners of the various extents of the Soviet empire over time, meaning you see quite a mix of items that look Chinese in origin, to Persian, to Scandinavian!
This, however, was probably an error as I spent quite a while looking at each item and there are halls and corners and twists and turns. By the time I moved up a floor, I realised I wasn’t going to complete it – I knew that in advance but I didn’t realise just HOW big it is. I asked for a map, and found they were only in Russian, but fortunately they had the highlights as pictures with arrows – perfect! I could follow that – each room had a room number on it, and so I was able to find the Da Vinci painting, the Michaelangelo sculpture, the Monets, the Van Goghs (recognised his style before I read the details, felt quite proud of that one), the Reubens and the Rembrants. It’s so insanely huge that there are two full rooms of Monets – you simply can’t take it all in.
And then, on top of all the amazing artefacts, paintings, sculptures and more is this – remove all of them, and you’d still be left with a gigantic work of art. The building itself has a stylish exterior, with gold trimming, styled windows and magnificent columns. Each room itself is a work of art, with chandeliers, magnificent wood panelling, gold and more – priceless tables, cupboards and dressers.
The throne room, the ballroom (part of this was the Winter Palace once), and the views of the river – the location is quite possibly perfect, and the contents ridiculously incredible. A day is not enough, and nor would a week be. At the same time, there were tour groups doing it in a couple of hours – both good and bad, in the end.
There are several other attractions – St Catherine’s, the Admiralty, Palace Square, and more – even Pushkin or Peterhof just outside the main city. However by the time I’d finished the main attractions the outdoor ones remained and it rained the last few days in St Petersburg, and the Admiralty was undergoing repairs. Therefore, I checked out what I could and when I return, I have more I already want to see – St Petersburg is an amazing city.
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