They say November is a bad time to go to Saint Petersburg, it’s windy, chilly, wet, slushy and days get really short. Guess what time of the year I got to be there! And I must say I didn’t give a damn about the weather, delighted as I was to step in the city of the Tsars. Short days? No problem, as the buildings in the historic centre – that stunning and gorgeous historic centre- are all illuminated casting their reflections onto the canals. Just put on a coat and join the crowds in the lively streets. Cold? Enjoy a traditional soup in one of the city’s great restaurants and some shots of vodka too. Buy a mug with a picture of Vladimir Putin riding a bear and some Soviet memorabilia in a souvenir shop. Walk by the palace where Rasputin was killed. Get lost inside the legendary Hermitage Museum at the Winter Palace and picture a revolution like no other. Remember Rashkolnikov in his way to murder the pawnbroker. It is so easy to get inspired by the city of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoyevsky, Peter the Great’s dream city, his window to the West at the shores of the Baltic Sea.
Legend says the tsar and his companions were sailing the Neva delta looking for the perfect island to start his grand project when they landed on Hare Island. Suddenly, an eagle, symbol of the Russian imperial house, flew over them. Peter took it as a sign and ordered a fortress to be built on that spot – which curiously happened to be the best strategic position to block the passage to any potential enemy fleets sailing that way, at the mouth of the Neva river, at the tip of the Finland Gulf.
Hence, the first stone of the Peter and Paul Fortress was laid in May 1703. A city was born. The wooden hut the Tsar had built for himself painted in red to mimic the colour of brick can still be seen by the Petrovskaya dock, inside a pavilion.
Next Peter the Great founded the Admiralty that would spawn his Baltic fleet. From this site a straight chunk of forest was cleared to open a road towards the Aleksander Nevsky Monastery, which today is the main avenue of the city, Nevsky Prospekt. The Tsar ordered the houses of the city to be built in European style without the traditional Russian front gardens. His Saint Petersburg is seen in buildings like the Palace Menchikov or the Summer Palace – built at the shore of the Neva surrounded by gardens, marble statues and fountains. The Tsar’s personality also determined the look of the residence palaces at the outskirts of the city, like Peterhof or Tsarskoye Selo.
And even though his descendants would distance themselves from his initial ideas for the city it is Peter’s vision inspired by his love of progress and science that gives Saint Petersburg its personality and makes it the breathtaking gem it is.
Санкт-Петербу́рг, Sankt-Peterburg, is located 640km away from Moscow and only 7 degrees below the Polar Circle – giving it 19 hours of daylight during the month of June and what it is known as the “white nights”.
Capital of the Russian Empire for two centuries, it is today the second city of Russia with a population of 5M. Site of the October Revolution in 1917 it is the cultural capital of the country, a vibrant, dynamic, modern city with an amazing restaurant scene, bars, shops and crowded lively streets.
The Venice of the North – at least one of them- is built on top of 42 islands, crisscrossed by canals and subsidiaries of the Neva, with its distinctive bridges, which may seem idyllic at first glance but actually used to be a flooding nightmare every spring and autumn. The most destructive floods ever recorded happened in 1777, 1824 and 1924. The problem was finally solved in the 80s with the building of a 29km dike across the Gulf of Finland to tame the swelling river.
After the fall of the USSR, Saint Petersburg came back to life thanks to the restoration of all facades and iconic buildings. Most of the historic and cultural heritage of the city is located around the Admiralty. This is the core of the original city, a UNESCO World Heritage historic centre.
The Admiralty (Admiralteystvo) is one of the oldest and most important buildings of the city, located at the intersection between three main roads: Nevsky Prospekt, Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, and Voznesenskiy Prospekt.
The original building was erected in 1706 by order of Tsar Peter and the location was determined by the range of a cannon shot from the Peter and Paul Fortress. The whole of the Baltic fleet was built in its dock. The first stone building was from 1719 and was already topped with the gilded spire and the golden weather vane in the shape of a sail warship, one of the icons of Saint Petersburg. The current building was designed by Adrian Zakharov in Imperial Russian style in 1823, with its 72m high tower crowned with a spike and decorated with 28 statues.
The dock closed in 1844 after having manufactured 262 warships in 140 years. It is currently used as headquarter for the Russian Navy.
The closest subway station, Admiralteyskaya, is the third deepest in the world (86m deep, long enough to sit at the escalator and read a book on your way). Around this station we can find some of the most iconic buildings of Saint Petersburg, like Saint Isaac’s cathedral or the Palace Square.
The huge golden dome of Saint Isaac’s cathedral, rising 105m,can be seenfrom most of the city centre. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander I and designed by the French architect Auguste Montferrand it took 40 years to build (being completed in 1858). The giant portico columns are made of single pieces of red granite weighting 80 tonnes. The eight colourful columns in the inside are made of malachite and lazurite. It is used as a museum and masses are only celebrated here on very special occasions.
The extensive Palace Square is one of the most spectacular and iconic spots in Saint Petersburg. With The Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage on one side, and the General Staff building with its triumphal arch on the other and the Alexander column– a 47m high red granite monolith of 600 tonnes crowned by an angel- in between.
The greatest landmark in the city is, without a doubt, the Winter Palace, former residence of the Tsars. The building we see today is the fourth erected in this spot and it was designed in the middle of the 18thC in Baroque style by Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, commissioned by Empress Elizabeth, who initially just intended to refurbish the previous palace but she ended up building a new one from scratch– I guess things got out of hand. 4000 people worked to build a three-floor structure with 1000 rooms, 1.786 doors, 1.945 windows and 117 stairways – which was finished in 1762. It had four unique facades decorated with white columns and golden frames on a pink background – which has changed in colour over the years, being currently green.
176 statues top the 150m long and 30m high façade. Catherine the Great changed the Baroque interior for a Neoclassic one, which would be later redesigned by Tsar Nicholas after a fire in 1837. It was Catherine who built an annex to keep her art collection, which she called the Hermitage – providing the seed for today’s museum.
From this palace the Tsars ruled over a 22.400.000km2 territory and 180M subjects. And even though Tsar Nicholas didn’t use it as a residence anymore it was – and is still today- the symbol of power and ostentation of the Romanov Imperial family when the revolution in February 1917 forced Nicholas to abdicate and form a provisional government. That wasn’t enough to placate the revolution. In October 1917 the Bolshevik under Lenin and Trotsky’s orders stormed the Winter Palace, then seat of that provisional government. An assault for history that would become the symbol of the Russian Revolution and of the people’s struggle against oppression. On July 17, 1918, the Tsar and his family were apprehended and executed at Yekaterinburg. A very sad end for the Romanov dynasty.
Today the Winter Palace hosts one of the most legendary museums in the world, the Hermitage, with a collection of 2.7 million pieces from all over the world (spanning from the Middle Ages to the 20thC). It has one of the most complete collections of western paintings (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque and Flemish) and an important collection of Asian art. They say if you wanted to spend one minute at each work of art you would need 11 years to visit the whole museum. And that estimate is not taking into account the site. Just strolling around the rooms of the Palace is a wonderful experience, that starts when we climb up the main staircase – with its 10 granite columns, the awesome fresco on the ceiling representing the Gods of Olympus and the Italian sculptures- as foreign dignitaries did when they attended official receptions at the time of the Tsars.
The Triumphal Arch at the General Staff building leads us to Nevsky Prospekt, the main avenue of the city and one of the most famous streets in Russia. Some of the most iconic buildings in Saint Petersburg are located along this road: the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, the former Singer headquarters, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the Grand Hotel Europe, the Russian Museum, the National Library, the shopping arcade (Gostiny Dvor), the monument to Catherine the Great or the Anichov bridge (and its equestrian figures). Nevsky is the main shopping road and the centre of the nightlife scene, with many restaurants and bars. It is a very vibrant street.
Our Lady of Kazan was modelled after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with a massive semi-circle shaped stone colonnade encircling a garden with a central fountain. The Bolsheviks turned it into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Although mass services resumed two years ago, they are still sharing the space with the Museum of the History of Religion. Atheism, however, is now out of the picture (I’d say Lenin must be turning in his grave if he wasn’t mummified for all to see in Moscow).
At the spot where Emperor Alexander II was murdered in 1881 the imperial family commissioned the church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the only building in orthodox style amid a very European historic centre, even though its architect, Alfred Parland, was not born in Russia. It is decorated with mosaics in the inside as well as on the outside, with the typical Russian coloured domes, and located by a canal, making a very picturesque image, one that really takes your breath away when you turn the corner and see it for the first time. Not surprisingly it was closed down by the Bolsheviks, but reopened in 1997 after a thorough restoration.
The Italian architect Carlo Rossi designed the Arts Square and the iconic buildings surrounding it, like the Mikhailovsky palace, built by the Great Duque Mikhail in 1825. At the 19thC became the seat for the Russian Museum, exhibiting a collection of pieces from the 12th to the 20th C (http://en.rusmuseum.ru). We also find the Ethnographic Museum, The Maly Opera and Ballet and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra Auditorium around.
Shopping arcades in Russia, called Gostiny Dvor, became in fashion at the 19thC, being the ones in Saint Petersburg the first to be built in the whole world (it took 28 years to finish them after the first stone was laid in 1757). They expand 53.000km2 now, as they grew in time. The inside was all refurbished to create a modern shopping centre but they kept the Neoclassical façade.
Just strolling by the canals is a great experience as we step into iconic buildings and charming spots everywhere.
Churches, for example. We mentioned already three of them but we also come across the Trinity Cathedral and Saint Nicholas Cathedral.
The Trinity Cathedral catches out eyes with its colourful blue domes adorned with golden stars rising 80 metres above the roofs of the surrounding buildings. Designed by Vasily Stasov in a classical style it was consecrated on May 1835. After the Revolution its icons and treasures were pillaged and the Ministry of Communications of the USSR used it as a storage facility. It was not until 1990 that returned to the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church, which restored it. At its side there is a small market with stalls selling fur hats and souvenirs. We can find magnets featuring Dostoyevsky, Lenin, Putin or even Stalin. The city’s souvenir shops sell a mix of traditional stuff like matryoshkas, hats, Fabergé eggs, vodka bottles, Soviet Union Memorabilia and mugs featuring cats – they have a thing for cats in Saint Petersburg- and Vladimir Putin in various stances (the most memorable being the one with him riding a bear shirtless). It is worth your time to go explore them as they are really fun.
Saint Nicholas Baroque cathedral stands in a park on a meander of the Griboedova canal. It is known as the sailor’s cathedral because it was founded by sailors under Peter the Great rule. Initially built on wood, Empress Elizabeth commissioned the current stone building, which was consecrated in 1760. Its walls are decorated with naval scenes and it guards 10 icons of saints venerated by the navy donated by Catherine the Great. It is one of the few cathedrals that remained open during the Soviet Era.
The second big cultural institution in Saint Petersburg, after the Hermitage, is the Mariinky Theatre, sit of the opera and ballet, the most important in Russia. Ballet have always been big in the city and traditionally first ballerinas became mistresses of noblemen and Tsars – and after the Revolution of leaders of the communist party. I guess some things never change as long as men are in charge.
In this theatre, opened in 1860, composers like Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov premiered some of their works.
A second modern stage with 2000 seats was added in 2013, not exempt of controversy due to the cost and architectural style.
Following the Moika river we find some other jewels. Like, for example, at Saint Isaac’s square, opposed to the cathedral, the Mariinsky Palace and the forged iron Blue Bridge from 1818. The neoclassical palace built in 1844 was home to the Great Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, commissioned by his father Nicholas I. In the square, in front of the palace, there is an equestrian statue of the Tsar himself and apparently Maria didn’t like to see his father’s ass from her window all the time. In 1884 it was passed to the State Council of the Russian Empire and since then it has been used for official state purposes.
Following the river we come across Yusupov Palace, the scene of the famous murder of Grigori Rasputin on December 1916. Legend says the mysterious healer who befriended the Tsars (specially tsarina Alexandra) was poisoned at the basement of this palace with cyanide cakes. However, he didn’t die, so they shot him in the back, but he survived and he was even able to get up and walk away. Then they knock him out, tied him with ropes and threw him into the Moika river, where the resilient bastard finally died of hypothermia. After recovering his body, they ripped his heart out and cut off his dick (now presumably exposed somewhere). It is just one of the many palaces in the city and obviously we chose to come here out of morbid curiosity. Who wouldn’t?
Saint Petersburg, by night, is a bright city. Literally. All facades of the historic centre are illuminated, not only the important monuments. Therefore, even during the dark winter days, the city is alive and vibrant and it’s totally worth a visit outside the summer months. And the best of it, you will be able to avoid the crowds and enjoy all landmarks in relative calm.
We choose to end our visit where it all started, the Peter and Paul Fortress, on Hare Island. The two-headed imperial eagle salutes us from the top of the entrance door. Among these walls by the Neva, inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Russian Imperial family lies buried. In front of the cathedral we pay our respects to a curious weirdly proportioned bronze statue of the Tsar, by Mikhail Shemyakin. Every day, at noon, the canon on the Narishkin bastion shoots, a tradition started by the man himself.
We take the walk over the walls, which offer a magnificent view of the river front of the historic centre of this gorgeous, gorgeous city. Even with the freezing Baltic breeze punishing us on this November morning it is a beautiful way to say goodbye to the city of Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoyevsky. A thought begins to take shape in our minds: In Winter, covered in snow, must be spectacular.
November in Saint Petersburg
We took Aeroflot’s midnight flightfrom Barcelona (BCN) to Moscow Shermeteyevo and then to Saint Petersburg Pulkovo (LED). The transfer in Shermeteyevo takes a long time, like 1.30 hours. Aeroflot serves dinner around 1am, which is annoying when you want to sleep (it’s a 5 hour flight). The second time around I had food before boarding and chose to sleep. It was way better.
The food scene in Saint Petersburg is amazing. We came across a fine bunch of restaurants, both traditional and modern, of an excellent quality. I discovered some traditional Russian dishes and mors, a drink made of berries.
My favourite restaurant in the city (and one of my favourites ever): Hamlet and Jacks. I fell in love with this restaurant, with a modern and original cuisine based on traditional Russian gastronomy. The tartar steak is scrumptious and the beetroot goat cheesecake with baked potato ice cream is out of this world. http://hamletandjacks.com
Severyanin. Russian traditional food from the North of the country. Stolyarny 18. Tel.: +7 921 951 63 96.
The Katyusha Restaurant. In frontof the Kazan Cathedral, for traditional food and vodka tasting. Nevskiy 22-24. Tel.: +7 (812) 640 16 16.
Dnevnik Cafe. For a bite, breakfast , cake or a pasta dish. Vosstaniya 55. Tel.: +7 (921) 433 66 85.
Charlie.Good food, great service. Kanala Griboyedova 54. Tel.: +7 (812) 92 60 012
Skyfall Hookah Bar. This is a small restaurant and cocktail bar with a live DJ, better for partying than for a quite dinner. The menu is bold and the cocktails are great. https://skyfall.business.site/
Av. Ligovskiy 39. Tel.: +7 (981) 939-00-39
Bonch. Stop for a coffee or a hot drink in this hiptser café at Bol’shaya Morskaya Ulitsa, 16, http://bonchcoffee.ru/