One of the most beautiful cities in Europe
DID YOU KNOW?
- The historical city centre of Saint Petersburg and its related monuments have been designated as World Heritage sites by UNESCO since 1991
- The city has one of the deepest metros systems in the world – on average, the stations are situated 60-70m underground. Proletarskaya metro station is 84m deep, and some escalators are more than 150m long
- St Petersburg has also been given the nickname “Venice of the East”. There are 93 rivers and canals in St Petersburg, creating a network of approximately 300 km of waterways and some 800 bridges within the city limits.
Moscow may be Russia’s seat of political power, but St Petersburg proudly claims to be the country’s cultural capital.
The northernmost major city in the world (population 5 million), for tourists, St Petersburg is the most popular destination in Russia.
Riding from Moscow to St Petersburg
Not only do we include St Petersburg in our Russia itinerary as an unmissable cultural experience, but the scenic secondary roads between Tver (181km north of Moscow) and St Petersburg, are a motorcycle rider’s treat.
The lightly-trafficked, almost 100% sealed road skirt past forested countryside, farms and quaint villages on the shores of Lake Seliger. You’ll also cross through the picturesque, gently hilly terrain of the Vladaysky National Park.
A beginner’s guide to St Petersburg
A popular myth is that St Petersburg was nothing but vacant swampland when a particularly ambitious Tsar named Peter the Great decided to build the capital of his empire here, on top of a slowly sinking and frequently flooding bog.
While the terrain was less than ideal, the area did command a strategic location between the confluence of the Neva and Izhora rivers and the Baltic Sea.
In fact, the Russians and the Swedes had been warring over the territory for hundreds of years before Peter finally captured the Swedish fortress of Nyenschanz in 1703.
Constructing the city of Peter’s dreams atop the muddy Neva River delta did prove to be rather challenging, costing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of starving and freezing serfs their lives.
Peter however, was not deterred. During his previous travels, he’d taken a particular liking to Versailles and other European palaces, and many of St Petersburg’s finest structures were inspired by his continental sojourns.
Peter brought in architects, engineers, artists and craftsmen from all over Europe to achieve his grand vision of a regal city to rival London, Amsterdam or Paris.
In 1713, Peter declared the city the nation’s capital, and it remained so until the Russian Revolution in 1918.
St Petersburg quickly became a thriving, cosmopolitan city, attracting scores of great artists including painters, sculptors, composers, novelists, playwrights and poets.
“Peter” (as it’s known to locals) boasts an artistic heritage whose legacy continues to this day. The city, known for its distinctly European vibe, boasts a vibrant contemporary arts scene, and is home to many of the country’s best modern galleries, performance spaces and live music venues.
How to explore St Petersburg for beginners
One of the great pleasures of St Petersburg is simply strolling down its splendid 18th and 19th century avenues and admiring the architecture that has contributed to its reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Some of the most picturesque parts of the city can be explored on a leisurely cruise along the canals, or on a romantic evening sail down the Neva River.
The Metro system is also reasonably easy to navigate, and while its underground stations aren’t as famously extravagant as those in Moscow, many are still extremely beautiful.
City of the Midnight Sun
Between the peak summer period of June and July (when our Russia tours generally visit St Petersburg), the city is blessed with a phenomenon known as the midnight sun, receiving almost 24 hours of sunlight a day.
During this time, the streets and parks are alive with late night strollers, vendors and street performers. A daily calendar of concerts and theatre events take place during the famous White Nights festival period.
Things to do and see in St Petersburg
St Petersburg is packed with must-see attractions year-round. A city sightseeing tour should include:
Nevsky Prospekt – the 4.5km thoroughfare that cuts across the historical centre of St Petersburg, the city’s high street is lined with many of its most impressive buildings. Among them are the Kazan Cathedral, the Stroganof Palace (now a fine arts museum) and the ornate Anichkov Bridge. The edge of the Griboedov Canal frames a fantastic view of the exuberantly decorated Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.
State Hermitage Museum – the former imperial Winter Palace, the Hermitage is the second largest museum in the world (topped only by the Louvre). Its cavernous halls and galleries house over three million priceless treasures, from artworks by the great masters (Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci, Monet etc.) through to ancient artefacts from Egypt, Greece, Asia and beyond.
Peterhof Palace – about 30 km southwest of the city on the Finnish Gulf, this open-air museum was once the opulent summer resort of the Romanovs. The massive World Heritage listed site is actually a series of palaces and parks, essentially Peter the Great’s distinctly Russian version of Versailles. Peter’s daughter Elizabeth greatly extended the gardens to include Peterhof’s elaborate network of fountains, including the majestic Grand Cascade.
Mariinsky and Mikhalovsky Theatres – These two atmospheric 19th century theatres are St Petersburg’s most famous venues for Russian ballet, opera and classical concerts. Purchasing tickets in advance online is highly recommended in order to skip the queue.
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)