St. Petersburg – a hot mess worth knowing
After being there twice this summer with Viking Cruises we are sharing our suggestions of things to do in St. Petersburg Russia. Keep in mind that you need to have an appreciation for high drama to really absorb this city. The royal intrigues and various revolutions have left the city a glamorous, slightly exhausted grand dame who never seems to do anything the easy way.
We all know someone like that; it’s easier to take from a city than a person.
The Peter and Paul Fortress
When Peter the Great re-claimed (from somebody or other) the lands along the Neva River in 1703 he decided to build a fortress to prevent attacks on the city. Specifically, he was worried about the Swedes but the conflict with them was resolved before the fort was completed.
So, if you aren’t going to use a fortress to protect your city then why not put it to use as a prison for your son? Later, the list of famous residents included Dostoyevsky, Gorkiy, Trotsky and Lenin’s older brother, Alexander. Guess Peter switched his focus from the enemy without to the one within.
The centerpiece of the Peter and Paul Fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral. It’s one of the most admired baroque buildings in St. Petersburg and was the tallest building in the city until the 20th century. Built 1712-1733, it was considered to be the greatest work of the architect Domenico Trezzini. It was also a bold statement of Peter the Great’s all-consuming desire to adopt Western European styles in architecture, the arts and much else.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral houses the remains of almost all the Romanovs, emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas II and his family. Also buried here is Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia for 34 years.
The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
Here is another example of Russian drama done in grand style.
Emperor Alexander II (aka The Liberator) was a prominent statesman in the late 1800s and his social, military and economic reforms turned Russia into a major world power. But that success didn’t impress the executive committee of “People’s Will”, a revolutionary organization that aimed to overthrow the monarchy. They declared a death sentence on the emperor and made a couple of unsuccessful assassination attempts on his life. The last proved to be fatal (probably why it was the last). A bomb was thrown at the emperor’s carriage and the site of the church is where the emperor was mortally wounded.
Our Viking tour guide told us that after the Bolshevik’s closed churches in the 1930s this beautiful church was used as a morgue, as a place to store vegetables and as a place to store theater sets (not all at the same time we hope). Finally, in 1970 the long and laborious process of cleaning the place by hand was begun. It opened to the public in 1997.
A high ranker among things to do in St Petersburg Russia is The Hermitage Museum
One of the most important things to do in St Petersburg is to allot several hours, if not a full day, to seeing the Hermitage Museum collections. The complex consists of five buildings, each designed by celebrated architects from the 18th and 19th centuries. The most famous of the buildings is the Winter Palace, designed by Bartolommeo Rastrelli (a fav of Catherine the Great’s). It was the residence of the Russian emperors until 1917.
Today, the buildings house part of the Hermitage’s extensive European, Russian, Impressionist, Modern, Roman, Greek, Islamic, and Egyptian collections. There are more than 3,000 items in the collections. Our guide claimed that if a person spent a minute looking at each thing it would take 11 years to see it all. We suggest you allow ample time but less than 11 years.
Lines to get into The Hermitage are very long so we strongly advise booking a tour that lets you skip the line. We were lucky enough to go on Viking River’s private Behind The Scenes tour. We waltzed right in but it was still fairly crowded once inside.
St. Nicholas Church
We’re fairly sure our guide brought us here to kill some time because we were running ahead of schedule but even if that’s how we ended up here we’re glad. This is another one of the architect Rastrelli ‘s masterpieces (he wasn’t a minimalist). The creation of this church is where Peter the Great’s scheme for planning to develop buildings similar to those in Western Europe paid off. Rastrelli was designing so many important buildings that he couldn’t do all of the work himself. So, Peter had him hire Russians to help and this created the first group of indigenous architects in St. Petersburg.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of travelers and sailors. There are various ceremonies held throughout the year to memorialize sailors. A monument in the park of the cathedral is dedicated to the officers and sailors who died on the battleship “Emperor Alexander III”.
Things to do in St. Petersburg Russia when you can’t handle another church
If you’re anything like us there’s a point when, no matter how impressive they are, if someone tries to show you one more church you develop an overwhelming need to run in the opposite direction.
If you want to escape in St. Petersburg (and you have a visa that allows you to be on your own) go for a nice long walk on Nevsky Prospect – the city’s showcase boulevard.
After hearing about dramatic exploits, lives cut short and the interesting and varied love life of Catherine the Great you may just want to have a snack and take a break. Yelisev’s Food Hall is a high-end food emporium (all kinds of fancy pants caviar) and cafe. Relax and enjoy.
Another kind of treat is the small Faberge Museum which we wrote about in this post. It’s a lovely place and not packed with crowds; very doable and worth it.
If the weather is nice (good luck with that) you can walk along the Neva River and admire the ancient Egyptian sphinxes on Annunciation Bridge (there are great views there too). The sphinxes are roughly 3,500 years old and (allegedly) among the finest examples of Ancient Egyptian colossal sculpture kept outside Egypt. (Discuss the ethics of this on your own time please.)
St Petersburg, if you listen to the tales of its history and appreciate its spectacular architecture, will keep you entertained and leave a lasting impression unlike any other city.
You may agree with us that its life has been a hot mess but you’re glad you got to know it.