VENICE OF THE NORTHTHE former capital of Russia, St Petersburg is unlike any other Russian city and a historic and cultural gem. JOY DODDS reports.
Europe’s fourth largest city, royal city St Petersburg, known as ‘Piter’ to locals, is a fascinating mixture of influences. Perched along the Neva River with its myriad canals are impressive C18th and 19th buildings, including the world-famous Hermitage and other former palaces.
Its creation on the Neva’s marshy estuary on the edge of the Gulf of Finland was commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great from 1703 onwards. An admirer of all things culturally European, he envisaged a great city dedicated to art and culture, commissioning the best European architects to design the new city’s buildings.
St Petersburg has a colourful history - in 1991, the city reverted to its original name, after periods as Petrograd (post-1917) and Leningrad (post-1924). Massive restoration followed for the 300-year celebrations in 2003 and are ongoing so that today, St Petersburg shines brilliantly.
This city of art and architecture is dominated by stunning riverfront buildings, such as the Winter Palace, a Baroque masterpiece with lavish interior, and the Hermitage, built in 1764 to house the private art collection of Catherine the Great. Now comprising five buildings, the Hermitage museum is second only in size to Paris’ Louvre.
Baroque and neoclassical palaces predominate in the old centre which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990. An array of churches house magnificent artworks and all-pervading incense, including the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in Palace Square, St Isaac’s and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.
Historic buildings aside, some of the most memorable experiences in St Petersburg are to be had simply hanging out on Nevsky Prospekt, its streets and side streets lined with cafes where locals enjoy Turkish ‘shishis’ (water pipes) and good food (yes, Jamie Oliver has a restaurant in nearby Konuyshennaya Square!) as well as underground clubs with pulsating music and folk music.
Also not to be missed is a stroll around the Spit of Vasilevskiy Island near St Petersburg State University, and a walk over Dvortsovyy Bridge, one of countless many in the city. Some of those over the Neva River open at night to allow ships to pass and during summer, it has become somewhat of an event to watch the midnight openings – but make sure you watch from the same side of the river as your hotel as they stay up for hours!
Lesser-known museums are equally fascinating – such as the Russian Vodka Museum in the former barracks of the Imperial Horse Life Guards prior to the 1917 revolution. Then there’s the ‘Feel Yourself Russian Folkshow’ - overlook the name and don’t miss this exciting traditional Russian folk dancing and music show in the grand Nikolayyevsky Palace.
Above all, make sure you get into the groove during your St Petersburg sojourn, enjoying its ultimate pleasures including classical music from some of the world’s most famous composers and ballets at its many theatres, including Rimsky-Korsakov or Shostakovich theatres, a summer concert at Princess Yusupova Palace. During the peak summer season, many famous companies are touring which makes the cooler season, September to June, peak ‘culture vulture’ time.
Based mainly in the Winter Palace, this extensive collection ranges from Egyptian mummies to Picassos, so that some devotees explore the museum for days. Avoid horrendous queues in the high season by booking on-line or through your hotel.
The large Palace Square in front of the Hermitage pulsates with life and horse-drawn carriages. The centrepiece is lofty Alexander Column, commemorating Russia’s victory over Napoleon.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood:
Multi-domed and with magnificent mosaics, the canal-sited cathedral was built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
Peter and Paul Fortress:
Located on a small island in the Neva, this is the original military base (1703) and battlements for the future city. Also on the island is St Peter and Paul Cathedral, with its needle-like golden spire, and where Russian tsars were buried, and Naryshkin Bastion from where a cannon is fired at noon.
St Isaac’s Cathedral:
The world’s fourth largest single-domed cathedral dominates the skyline. The cupola’s upper colonnade offers great city views while the ornate interior, its sculptures and paintings, are sumptuous . It now houses the State Memorial Museum. Behind is Decembrists’ Square with its famous statue of the Bronze Horseman of Peter the Great.
Best known for where Rasputin met his end, it is now a museum with dazzling interiors.
Also not to be missed are Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the Russian Museum, the Steiglitz Museum, Rimsky-Korsakov Theatre, to name just a few.
RUSSIA’S MOST FAMOUS HOTEL
Russia’s first five-star hotel, now Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, occupies a historic building dating from 1824 with original façade, art nouveau interiors, well-appointed suites, all magnificently restored. Guests have included Tsar Nicholas II, Peter Tchaikovsky, Anna Pavlova, George Bernard Shaw and Grigory Rasputin. A sojourn at the sumptuous Grand Hotel Europe is a must, centrally located near the Russian Museum, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the Mikhaylovsky Castle, opera and ballet.
The hotel houses Russia’s oldest and most historic restaurant, L’Europe, outstanding from its giant stained glass window of ‘Apollo in his Chariot’ to its Friday evening Tchaikovsky music and ballet – to experience dancers performing the ‘White Adagio’ from Swan Lake on the stage, is unforgettable - not to mention the food and wine list. The Caviar Bar’s signature dish, Egg in Egg, is world-renowned, as is the Lobby Bar. <br>
RUSSIA’S MOST FAMOUS STREET
Handsome Nevsky Prospekt captures the essence of St Petersburg. From the spire of the Admiralty near the Moyka River, to the Kazan Cathedral and the arte deco Singer Building opposite, this busy promenade oozes character. Opera and ballet devotees will love the Marinsky Theatre, the home of the Kirov Company, while Mikhaylovsky Theatre with its world-acclaimed ballet and opera is nearby. A huge statue of Catherine the Great stands at the centre of Catherine Gardens (Ploshchad Ostrovskogo), near Aleksandrinsky Theatre. The large shopping centre, Gostiny Dvor, is also located on Nevsky Prospekt, the essential St Petersburg experience.
Trains from Helsinki to Finland railway station, St Petersburg, take about five hours, via Vyborg.
Vitebsk Station links to the Baltics, Belarus, Germany and Ukraine, and Moskovsky Station to Moscow.
Pulkovo Airport is 17km south of the city centre.
A Finnish ferry links St Petersburg and Helsinki three times weekly.
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media