A First-Timer’s Guide to St Petersburg
In mid-October, just before the icy winds of winter approached and temperatures plummeted, I spent a weekend in St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city after its capital, Moscow.
St Petersburg boasts one of the world’s finest collections of treasures, from the artworks, antiques and jewellery on display in its many museums, to the palatial buildings themselves. The skyline is punctuated by cathedral spires and coloured domes, the streets interspersed with a vast canal network, criss-crossed by baroque bridges. Come in winter to see the rooftops dusted in snow; come in summer and the sun barely sets.
What to See
The Hermitage Museum
You literally can’t miss the Hermitage, as its collection of priceless artworks and masterpieces is housed mostly in the Winter Palace, whose bright green façade is visible all over town. If you come in summer, be prepared to queue for a good hour to get in, unless you’ve booked online, although it’s worth the wait to see works by Da Vinci, Monet and Rembrandt. For me though, it was not so much the exhibits as the building itself that intrigued me, its gold columns, marble staircases and glittering chandeliers giving it a very opulent feel.
Peter and Paul Fortress
St Petersburg’s original citadel, the Peter and Paul Fortress, was built between 1706 and 1740 and originally used as a prison. Laid out in an elaborate star shape, the fortress offers sweeping city views from the fortress walls, at the bottom of which is a surprisingly sandy beach. Today, the fortress is a part of the State Museum of the History of St Petersburg, with top sights including the Peter and Paul Cathedral – where many Russian emperors, including Peter the Great, are interred –the mint and the ornate entrance gate.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Probably the most recognised symbol of St Petersburg, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood’s five colourful domes can be seen from a fair few streets away, peeking out above the surrounding rooftops. The exterior of the church might be eye-catching, but inside you’ll find over 7,500 square metres of bright mosaics depicting biblical scenes, a sight that causes many a visitors to gasp upon entering.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals in my travels across the globe, but this one ranks up there with the best of them. It’s not just the size of the enormous golden dome, covered in more than 100kg of gold leaf, that impresses, but the vividly detailed paintings and chandeliers inside. You can also climb the 262 steps to the colonnade around the rim of the dome, giving wonderful views across the city and to Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s main street.
The Faberge Museum
The Faberge Museum opened in late 2013, housed in the suitably ornate Shuvalov Palace, and since then has shot up the lists of the top attractions in St Petersburg, with visitors mesmerised by endless glass cases housing exhibits dripping in gold, diamonds and precious stones. Look out for the Coronation Egg (pictured), made to commemorate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, which includes one large diamond plus 10 smaller ones, as well as a cluster of rose diamonds and gold petals.
The Mariinsky Theatre
If you’re only ever going to see an opera or ballet once in your life, the Mariinsky is the place to do it. Opened in 1860, this historic theatre has seen premieres from the likes of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. To take in its ridiculously grand auditorium, with its shimmering gold and blue velvet curtains, lavish ceilings and opulent private boxes, is impressive in itself, but to catch a performance on its stage is the icing on the cake. The theatre regularly shows ballets such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and opera such as Fedora and Le Nozze di Figaro.
Often called the Russian Versailles, Peterhof Palace’s richly furnished stately home would be an attraction in its own right, but most visitors come for its famous cascade of gravity-powered fountains. Easy to access by boat or road, Peterhof Palace is one of the most popular day trips from St Petersburg. I travelled by boat, docking at the bottom of the garden, which meant my first view of Peterhof was of the fountains flowing prettily in the sunshine – quite a first impression.
Russian food remains a mystery to many, but St Petersburg is the perfect place to get better acquainted with it. Start with borscht, a bright red beetroot soup, and work your way up to pierogi, dumplings filled with meat, vegetables or cheese, and blini (pancakes), which are often served with caviar, sour cream or fruit. Wash it all down with some Russian vodka, or perhaps a fancy coffee and chocolate cake.
How to Do it:
St Petersburg is huge. While a lot can be seen on foot, in order to cover all the sights you’ll have to use the Metro, which is fast and reliable, and also rather flamboyantly decorated. In summer, travelling by boat is a lovely way to soak up the city; take your pick from water taxis or scenic river cruises.
When to Go
Summer (June to September) is the best time to visit St Petersburg, as all attractions will be open, the river boats are running, and it’s warm. Better yet, from mid to late June St Petersburg experiences the White Nights, 24 hours of daylight, prompting street parties and general frivolity all over the city. Winter is a magical time to visit for the city’s dusting of snow, the frozen Neva River and the huge fur hats, but be warned: temperatures can plummet to -20°C and in December there is barely any daylight.