Words by Dawn Bradnick @DawnJorgensen
A Baltic seaside city known for its culture, cathedrals and canals, Russia’s second-largest metropolis after Moscow lies on a series of islands in the Neva River delta with more than 342 ornately decorated bridges crisscrossing its waterways.
Founded in 1703, Saint Petersburg has played a vital role in Russian history. Memorials, sculptures, palaces and monuments take you on a mesmerising journey through its dramatic past – while walking you into its welcome modern day era.
A cultural renaissance has burst through the seams of St. Petersburg, with world-class museums, galleries and theatres adorning the streets, the city is a blazing hub of European culture.
The imperial capital for two centuries having been founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, it was intended as a display of Russia’s growing status in the world and refined by Peter’s successors who employed European architects to contribute palaces and cathedrals to the city’s layout.
St Petersburg grew to be the House of Romanov’s showcase capital and while the title may have officially moved to Moscow in 1918, St Petersburg has retained its sovereign feel with a historic centre preserved in time.
The former official residence of the Tsars, the Winter Palace is now part of the Hermitage Museum, which is one of the oldest art museums in the world and second only to Paris’ Louvre in size. The museum houses over three million works of art and artefacts, and it would take days – or months, to see them all.
In a city shaped by water, it’s almost compulsory to enjoy a canal boat ride, which will offer excellent views of the brilliant Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood – St Petersburg’s most recognisable landmarks. The Church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881 and its recent extensive restoration has revised its former glory.
St Petersburg remains Russia’s cultural star with venues such as the Mariinsky Theatre hosting opera and internationally renowned ballet, and the State Russian Museum that’s spread over four sumptuous palaces, home to the best collection of Russian art in the world.
During the Summer the northern sun barely dips below the horizon and the parks and gardens come to life with art festivals and outdoor concerts. But St Pete or Peter, as the city is affectionately known, is beautiful throughout the year, especially when the skies turn dark and the ground is white with snow.
Whenever you visit, you’ll find that there’s something magical about Saint Petersburg. Perhaps it’s the colourful fairy-tale-like buildings combined with modern city life that gives it an enchanting appeal. Or that this incredible city may look European, but has retained its distinctly Russian soul and exudes an energy that entices you to want for more …
A City of Islands
Built almost entirely on a series of islands – as many as 42 and many of which are separated only by narrow canals and connected by the city’s many ornate bridges forming two seemingly unbroken strips of land along the banks of the Neva.
Vasilyevsky Island is the original centre of the city as envisioned by Peter the Great, and home to some of Saint Petersburg’s most famous and impressive buildings. Krestovsky Island has been the ‘playground of the working class’ for centuries and is home to the city’s biggest amusement park.
The nature lover will be drawn to Yelagin Island at the mouth of the Neva River. The car free island becomes a winter wonderland in colder temperatures, with sledding, cross country skiing and ice-skating on offer. In summer, hike or bike, or even take a paddle around the lake. Aptekarsky Island is home of Saint Petersburg’s expansive Botanical Gardens.
A tale of two Peters
Saint Petersburg is not named for Tsar Peter the Great, but after Saint Peter, one of Christ’s Twelve Apostles. Peter the Tsar did however rule Russia from 1682 until his death in 1725, and is recognised as the city’s true father.
Insider Tips and Must Do’s
In Mosaic Yard, or Mozaichnyy Dvorik, everything is made of mosaic, from the walls, sculptures, curbs and even a children’s playground. Created by Artist V. Lubenko and his students from the Small Academy of Arts, it is one of the most intriguing places in St. Petersburg with pieces depicting the gardens of paradise, angels, people dancing and even children flying on the backs of geese.
Dom Knigi or the House of the Book is set in the historic Singer house building on the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Canal Griboyedova. This famous and incredibly impressive bookstore draws many tourists, students and intellects to its heavily laden shelves.
Don’t miss the white nights, those 80 or so evenings between May and the end of July when the city emerges from the cold and dark months of winter to celebrate the return of those long days when the skies only reach twilight, but not complete darkness.
If you’re shopping for a souvenir there’s not much more synonymous with Russia than the Babushka or Matryoshka doll. A set of wooden dolls of decreasing size that fit into each other. Depictions of the cheery figures can be found on sale throughout the city.
The Hall of Vitebsky Station is considered the most beautiful railway station in the city and is very photogenic. Dating back to October 1837, it was the first railway station in Russia, is built in art nouveau style and would do a palace proud. Think lush lounges, a grand piano, marble staircase, balconies and platforms with pressed metal ceilings.
Where to Stay
As with most great cities, you’ll find an array of affordable and high-end accommodation. For something boutique style and extremely well located, try the Art Hotel Rachmaninov. If ultra-luxury is your preference, look to the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe. Apartments by At Hermitage House offer you more independent living within easy walking of Kazan Cathedral, Palace Square, the Hermitage, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Savior on Spilled Blood.
Public transport in Saint Petersburg is efficient and effective. The Metro covers nearly all of the city and has some spectacular station architecture. Look for signs with a big blue ‘M’ that mark the entrance to the stations. If you are there for more than a day or two, it’s worth getting a Podorozhnik Smart Card as it works out to be more cost effective.The Metro is fully signed in English, so it’s easy to use.
Buses and trams are a handy way to get to areas that the metro doesn’t cover. Uber is available throughout the city, as is the nationally run Yandex. One mode of transport we recommend you try is the Aquabus, an inexpensive water taxi that runs throughout the city and allows you to sight see as you travel from A to B. Hiring a bicycle on one of the days is always a good idea.
The main airport in Saint Petersburg is the Pulkovo International Airport (LED), located a 45-minute drive from the city centre. The airport is serviced by a multitude of airlines, with the best flight options for South Africans likely with Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, SWISS and Qatar Airways.
Visas: South Africans passport holders can visit Russia as tourists visa free for up to 90 days.