Founded in 1703 by Peter the great, its name has changed three times: Petrograd (1914) Leningrad (1924) and then back to St Petersburg (1991).
Many of the grand classical and baroque buildings, palaces and churches have been beautifully restored; the city reminded me of both Vienna and Venice – two cities I loved.
The most famous of the ‘sights’ is the 4000 room Winter Palace where the October Revolution started and finished. Swathed in malachite, jasper, agate and gilded mirrors, this famous palace was residence of Russia’s rulers from Catherine the Great (1762) to Nicholas II (1917). The palace houses the State Hermitage Museum and three other portions are the Gallery of the 1812 – Portraits of the 1812 War Heroes. The gold-rimmed green and white palace houses one of the World’s finest art collections begun when Catherine bought 255 paintings from a Berlin art dealer. Many of the best known artists of the European Renaissance and pre-renaissance periods are represented in the collection which now number over 3 million works.
I describe here some of the tours that are likely to be available – although these can vary depending with which tour operator or cruise company you travel with. If you participate in the tours arranged by your cruise line you will normally not require to apply for a Russian Visa (UK passport holders), otherwise a visa is normally required.
Half Day Tour of St Petersburg
Your first stop will probably be The Strelka which gives marvellous views over the Neva River including the colourful buildings and Winter Palace. Close by is the Russian battleship Aurora which became a symbol of the Russian Revolution when on 25th October 1917 her crew joined the Bolsheviks and refused an order to take to sea. At 9.45pm on that date, a blank shot from her forecastle gun signalled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace, which was to be the last episode of the October Revolution.
The tour normally continues to the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which lies within a fortress accross the Neva River. It is the oldest church in St Petersburg, and also the second-tallest building in the city (after the television tower). It is home to the graves of nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great. The Cathedral itself marked a radical departure from traditional Orthodox churches, being built in early Baroque style. The graves of the former rulers and their families from Peter the Great onwards, are very extravagant, and well worth seeing.
One of the many areas you will pass is The Field of Mars. A large park and square in the centre of St Petersburg, named after the Roman god of war, the field was the setting for military parades and drills for imperial guards’ regiments. During the 1917 February Revolution many people were killed here which led the Bolsheviks to construct the existing memorial and eternal flame and to rename the field to ‘Victims of the Revolution Square’.
You will end up at the famous Church of Our Savior of the Spilled Blood. The marvellous Russian-style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated on March1, 1881. Constructed between 1883 and 1907, the church was designed in the spirit of 16th and 17th century Russian architecture, inspired particularly by St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. The interior of the church, a memorial to the late Emperor Alexander II, was decorated with different shades of marble and several thousand yards of mosaic. Today, the church’s onion domes have been newly guided and its interiors restored to their former glory. There are also lots of souvenir stalls nearby eager to take your euros, dollars or local currency. This area is obviously where many of the tourist coaches end up so beware of quite aggressive vendor activity.
Half Day Tour – Canal Cruise and Shopping
This kind of tour which I would recommend will take you on a boat trip on the River Neva and the many canals and waterways – giving you the opportunity of relaxing and admiring some of the wonderful architecture.
The trip will include crossing the Moika River, the Neva and the Fountain River. There are many extremely low bridges including the Anichkov Bridge famous for its bronze sculptures of wild horses and the Lomonosov Bridge with its unusual stone turrets. You have to be careful not to stand upright on the open air section of the boat; no health and safety rules apply in Russia. The array of buildings you are likely to view include the Yuspov Palace, the baroque masterpiece Stroganov Palace, the Church of Our Savior of the Spilled Blood, and the imposing St. Michael’s Castle. Normally a time to shop follows at a named store – not the highlight of the trip.
Other Places of Interest.
There are many different tours normally to the Hermitage so you need to choose carefully, particularly if you are combining two half day tours. An internet site will eventually be available to view many of the works which should prove very interesting and helpful for future visitors to the Palace.
St Catherine’s Palace and Park, 12 miles outside of St Petersburg, is well worth a visit. Peter the Great presented the palace and estate to his wife Catherine in 1712. It was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War (57 of the massive halls were totally destroyed). Although the Nazis did not take Leningrad (St Petersburg), which was a major turning point in the war, they did occupy this Palace. Many of the treasures have been recovered and over half of this magnificent Palace and estate has been restored, including the intricate interiors. There is also Peterhof, the magnificent residence of Peter the Great.
Contact Simon at Designer Travel Tailor-made Holidays & Cruises
Photo: Interior St Peter & Paul Church (RG) 36