St Petersburg travel guide
Situated on the Gulf of Finland and spread over numerous islands in the Neva Delta, St Petersburg is a city of arched bridges, winding canals, wide boulevards, elegant palaces, impressive squares and ornate churches, and as such is often referred to as the 'Venice of the North'. It has an elegance also reminiscent of cities like Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, but is at the same time too uniquely Russian to be European, and beguiles with a charm all its own.
It is the country's most beloved and beautiful city, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. It became the original capital of Tsarist Russia, and the greatest artists, sculptors and architects worked together to create the city's elegant look. Rich aristocratic palaces and government buildings line the streets, along with majestic cathedrals and elaborate churches, including the golden spires of St Peter and Paul Cathedral, the magnificent gleaming dome and grand colonnaded façade of St Isaac's, and the colourful multi-domed Church of the Resurrection.
Although the Russian capital moved to Moscow after the Revolution, St Petersburg remains the principal artistic and cultural centre of the country. St Petersburg is the birthplace of Russian ballet and performances by the Kirov Ballet, rivalling the Bolshoi ballet in Moscow, are shown in the historic Mariinsky Theatre. The magnificent green and white Winter Palace forms part of the Hermitage Museum, one of the world's greatest art galleries, and the city's foremost attraction.
With its romantic waterways and decorative Tsarist architecture, St Petersburg is also the perfect setting for the famous 'White Nights', and the summer months of June and July are crowded with visitors who come to experience the dreamy twilight that takes the place of night in this northerly latitude, along with music festivals and cultural events.
The Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum
The magnificent green, white and gold Winter Palace is superbly
situated on the banks of the Neva River, a 656 foot-long (200m)
Russian Baroque building that is the biggest and most lavishly
decorated palace in the city. The palace was the official residence
of the tsars, and Catherine the Great later added the Small and
Large Hermitages onto the palace as a sanctuary for herself and her
private art collection.
The Hermitage Museum comprises a stately complex of buildings strung along the embankment, with the Winter Palace at its heart. The Hermitage Museum is one of the world's greatest art museums, with a collection that has grown from the paintings of Catherine the Great in 1764 to a collection of more than three million exhibits. This vast collection is housed within the sumptuous splendour of one of the most luxurious palaces in the world. The three floors cover a full range of world art from ancient times, to Russian works and 20th-century European examples, as well as a fabulous collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, set against the rich interior of white marble staircases, golden ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and elaborate mosaics. Of the highlights, the lavish State Rooms, the Golden Rooms, containing a spectacular collection of royal jewels, gold and silver, and the modern European art section are the most popular.
Address: Dvortsovaya Square
The main square of St Petersburg and one of the world's most magnificent plazas, Palace Square contains the picturesque Baroque buildings of the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum on one side and the Classical yellow and white former General Staff buildings of the Russian army on the other. The focal point of the square is the Alexander Column, a tall monolith of red granite topped by the statue of an angel and a cross, dedicated to Russian military victory in the Napoleonic wars. Palace Square has been the site of numerous political protests, most notably the demonstrations of Bloody Sunday in 1905 that started the first Russian Revolution. Today the square, with its beautiful views of the Admiralty's golden spire and the dome of St Isaac's Cathedral across the vast stone paving, is filled with markets, outdoor cafes and the sound of horse-drawn carriages.
Address: Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square)
Almost three miles (5km) long, Nevsky Prospekt is one of the
best-known streets in Russia and is the main thoroughfare of St
Petersburg, starting at the Admiralty whose gilded spire is a
famous city landmark, passing the Moscow Railway Station and the
Alexandr Nevsky Monastery where some of the country's most
celebrated artistic figures are buried. Nevsky Prospekt has been
the hub of St Petersburg for centuries, cutting through the most
historical part, and home to the most important sights.
Intersected by rivers and canals, the most beautiful part of the avenue surrounds the Griboedova Canal. Here the impressive colonnade of the grand Kazan Cathedral catches the eye, curving around a small grassy square, and opposite the view towards the multi-coloured onion domes of the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood (officially called the Resurrection of Christ Church) is breathtaking.
Modelled on St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and adorned with exquisite mosaic panels, the church is one of St Petersburg's most striking landmarks, built on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. As well as many churches the street boasts St Petersburg's finest shops and restaurants, old manors and impressive buildings, and a beautiful mixture of architectural styles from the different periods of its history. If you walk down only one road in St Petersburg make it this one.
St Isaacs Cathedral
The golden dome of St Isaac's Cathedral dominates the skyline of St Petersburg, with the colonnade around the cupola offering superb panoramic views over the city. It was commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to be a magnificent imperial cathedral, and the ensuing masterpiece was of grandiose proportions, taking more than 40 years to build, and was decorated in the most extravagant manner. The Russian Classic exterior encloses a splendid interior adorned with red granite columns, exquisite mosaics, painted ceilings, sculptures, frescoes, and a beautiful stained glass window, incorporating many different kinds of stone and marble work into the massive structure. The cathedral can accommodate 14,000 worshippers, but today services are only held here on special occasions. It is worth noting that no photography or filming is allowed in either the Cathedral or the Colonnade.
Address: Isaakievskaya Ploshchad 1
Peter and Paul Fortress
Situated on a small island on the Neva Delta, across the river from The Hermitage, the Peter and Paul Fortress is the oldest surviving building in St Petersburg. Planned by Peter the Great as a defence against possible attacks from the Swedes, the fortress never served its original purpose as the Swedish were defeated before its completion, and the six bastions at its corners were turned into high security political prison cells. The notorious dungeons held many famous people, including Alexei (the son of Peter the Great), Trotsky, and Gorky, and is now a museum. Other buildings in the fortress house the City History Museum and the Mint. The midday gun is fired every day from the roof, echoing around the city from across the water. Also enclosed within the imposing walls is the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, its distinctive golden needle-like spire visible throughout the city. The first church in the city to be built from stone, it has a richly decorated interior containing the tombs of every Russian Emperor since Peter the Great.
Address: Petropavlovskaya Krepost
Transport: Gorkoskaya metro stop
The Pavlovsk Palace, about 19 miles (30km) outside St
Petersburg, is one of the smaller and more restrained of the
palaces located in and around St Petersburg. It was built in 1780
by Catherine II's son Paul, the future Emperor Paul I, and was
designed by the Scottish architect Charles Cameron along with
landscaped gardens in the British style. The palace was turned into
a museum after Russia's 1917 revolution, but was almost entirely
destroyed during World War II. Following the war, the palace's old
furnishings and artwork were tracked down and the palace was
Today the palace is once again a museum open to the public, displaying rooms furnished and decorated exactly as they were when occupied by the Russian royalty. The extensive grounds are beautifully kept and are available to visitors for strolling and picnicking. Visitors can reach the palace by train from St Petersburg, a short journey that showcases a little of the lovely Russian countryside.
Tsarskoe Selo, meaning 'Tsar's Village', is a former Romanov
summer residence located about 15 miles (25km) outside of St
Petersburg. The estate was originally a gift from Peter the Great
to his wife Catherine I, and over the course of many years it was
developed by different emperors and empresses. The Catherine
Palace, built in the Baroque style, and the Alexander Palace, built
in the neoclassical style, are the main buildings on the
The Catherine Palace has been kept in much better condition over the years than the Alexander Palace, although both palaces are well worth a visit. The Catherine Palace houses the famous Amber Room, a room panelled entirely with pieces of amber and filled with amber artwork. The palaces' grounds are extensive and contain many surprising small buildings added purely for visual effect, notably the so-called Chinese Village in the Alexander Palace's gardens. The Cameron Gallery, a small building designed by the Scottish architect James Cameron in the 1780's, houses widely varied temporary exhibitions.
Tsarskoe Selo is an easy train-ride from St Petersburg's Vitebsk train station followed by a short bus ride to the palace gates, all of which should take no more than 30 minutes if there is no traffic. It is an extremely popular spot in the summer months and queues as well as traffic can get very bad, so it's a good idea to arrive early.
Stars of the White Nights Festival
This festival of performing arts is the essence of the Mariinsky Theatre's artistic achievements, home of the celebrated Kirov Opera and Ballet, and is a must for ballet, opera and classical music lovers. The annual White Nights Festival derives its name from the short summer season when the sun never sets, and the beauty of these white nights contributes to the festival's special atmosphere and its world-class programme of concerts, as audiences exit the historic theatre at midnight into daylight to stroll home through the theatrical setting of St Petersburg. The festival presents the company's most exceptional productions with performances by leading Russian and international artists, and combines famous historical productions along with new premieres and contemporary pieces.
Venue: Mariinsky Theatre and Philharmonic Hall; Date:26 May to 23 July 2017; Website: www.mariinsky.ru/en
Pulkovo International Airport
Location: The airport is situated 14 miles (23km) south of St Petersburg.
Time: Local time is GMT +3.
Contacts: Tel: +7 812 104 3450.
Getting to the city: Buses leave for Moskovskaya Metro Station from outside the terminal, from where metros go to the city centre. Passengers who are staying in a major hotel can usually arrange to be picked up.
Car rental: Hertz, Avis and Europcar, among other companies, are represented in the terminal.
Airport Taxis: Taxis are available outside the terminal. Be sure to agree on a price before leaving the airport as tourists are often overcharged.
Facilities: Facilities include a few duty-free shops, a bureau de change, snack bars, restaurants, a business centre, a tourism centre, baby care room, internet access and an ATM.
Parking: Free parking is offered in unguarded lots fairly close to the terminals. Otherwise, airport parking nearer the terminals costs RUB 150 to RUB 200 per hour or RUB 450 to RUB 1,200 per day.
Departure tax: None.
Locals in St Petersburg make good use of their public transport, which is extensive if not efficient and reliable. There are multiple tramlines, close to 200 bus routes and numerous trolley buses, but no night service is available after midnight. All these are overcrowded, irregular and often break down. Bus, tram and trolley bus tickets can be bought from kiosks or the drivers and validated on boarding. Tram and trolley stops are marked with a 'T' sign hanging from the overhead wires. A popular form of local transport, more efficient than the buses, are passenger vans called marshrutka which follow the same routes as buses and trams, and stop on request. St Petersburg's metro has five lines and 67 stations and is extremely efficient and easy to use, even though signs are not in English. Tokens and multi-journey cards can be obtained at booths on the stations and are valid for as long as you are inside the system. Taxis are clearly marked and can be hailed in the street or by telephone. Passengers should check that the meter is working or negotiate before departing. Most private car drivers in the city will act as a taxi and offer you a ride, but be sure to settle the price before accepting. Self-driving is difficult due to the thick traffic and bad road surfaces and the fact that road signs are in Cyrillic. Far easier is hiring a car with a driver, the preferred option offered by the main car rental companies.
St Petersburg's climate is mild, though unpredictable. Winters are cold (November to March), with freezing winds and snowfall, and temperatures average 16°F (-9°C) to 26°F (-3°C) in January and February, the coldest months, sometimes dropping lower. June to August is usually the warmest time of year, though temperatures are still relatively low and average in the mid-60s Fahrenheit (about 20°C) at their highest. Summer tends to be the most popular time to travel to St Petersburg.
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