For quite a while I’ve had a quite distinct image in my head of St. Petersburg being a hotbed of opulent, sumptuous architecture. Photos of the lavish exteriors of palaces, in particular, come to mind. So I guess it’s probably no surprise that the city was high up on my “travel bucket list.” I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t stress that those baroque palaces are a mere fraction of the architectural beauty St. Petersburg has to offer.
Logistically, this trip was one of our most complicated to plan as, normally, Russia would require a visa for foreign tourists. There is, however, a way around that. They offer a program in which you can visit St. Petersburg for up to 72 hours, visa-free. This primarily benefits operators of Baltic cruise ships, which also make stops in Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn & Riga. Now. We are not cruise people. We hate traveling on a schedule that wasn’t made by us and being herded around on someone else’s itinerary. So we took advantage of the one non-cruise option in order to craft our own Baltic Tour, of sorts.
Aside from major cruises [à la Princess & Carnival], there is one other option for getting to St. Petersburg for the 72 hour visa-free program: St. Peterline. It’s somewhere in between a ferry & a cruise, with the trip being long enough that you have a cabin to sleep in. I’ll write a separate post about our experience with St. Peterline and the ins & outs of traveling to Russia that way. But first… the good stuff!
When I started doing my research I was quite surprised to find that the city of St. Petersburg is far younger than I had ever known or expected, especially in comparison to elsewhere in Europe. It was founded in 1703 by its namesake, Peter the Great, who wanted it to serve as a seaport to better connect Russia with Western Europe. St. Petersburg subsequently served as the capital of the Russian Empire for around 200 years. Peter & Paul Fortress was the initial Russian imperial settlement, making the cathedral there the oldest landmark in the city. The city then expanded from a plan created by the fortress’s Swiss-Italian architect, Trezzini. In addition to designing several of St. Petersburg’s earliest major buildings, he was essentially the urban planner for the layout of the city’s streets and canals.
Another notable figure in the city’s history is Russian-Italian architect Rastrelli. He created some of St. Petersburg’s most glamorous & iconic buildings, including Peterhof & parts of the Winter Palace. The style he popularized is referred to as Rastrellian Baroque, or also Elizabethan Baroque, as the style came into popularity during the reign of Empress Elizabeth. In more general architectural terms, it is part of the late-baroque Rococo movement that was used in some of Europe’s most beloved architecture & interiors: Germany’s Würzburg Residenz & Sanssouci Palace, Portugal’s Palace of Queluz, Denmark’s Amalienborg… and countless others. The overall style idea is the same, but it takes on its own twist in St. Petersburg. The opulent & colorful palaces that have been stuck in my head as my visual of St. Petersburg are, in fact, linked to Rastrelli.
Hot on the heels of Rastrellian Baroque was the Russian nationalism movement. In a city that was founded as a connection to Western Europe and showed heavy cultural influence from Western Europe since its inception, it’s not surprising that strong feelings of nationalism eventually took hold. In short, it was a pro-Russia, national pride movement. Its darker side encompassed political/imperial loyalty & a “Russia for Russians” slogan that was against multiculturalism [remind you of anything in current times???]. But it did also bring about wonderful artistic achievements, in rightful celebration of Russian culture. Works by author Tolstoy and composers Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka & Borodin all fall into this category. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, which quotes Russian Orthodox liturgical chants, is an excellent example [and holds a special place in my heart, since I played it in youth orchestra when I was a teenager]. From an architectural standpoint, Russian Revival style took hold, drawing on influences from Byzantine architecture & centuries-old Russian styles. Probably the most recognizable feature of this style is the onion domes that we think of as being so distinctly Russian [St. Basil’s in Moscow is the historic real deal, but most others are Russian Revival].
Of course, after this architectural heyday in Russia’s history came its 69 year period as the Soviet Union. During this time many of St. Petersburg’s most beautiful buildings languished. Most were used in some way [like as office space or for storage], but their architectural value was generally of little concern or consequence during that usage. Sadly, some were even torn down. When I’m able, I’ll try to mention how each building we visited was used during this period. Fortunately for the world, they’ve now been restored to their former glory based on old pre-Soviet photos. I must also mention that although I thought I knew what Soviet design was, I was surprised to learn that it’s more complex than just the stereotypes! Being a classical musician who is very familiar with the incredible music written by Soviet composers [like this Prokofiev symphony], I should have known better than to make assumptions in other artistic areas. I’ll write more about that toward the end.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
This is the largest orthodox church in St. Petersburg… and there are many. It was built over a period of 40 years in the first half of the 19th century as a replacement to one that previously stood on the same site. And they really went all out to build it! It’s filled with many unusual features. These days, we don’t really give too much thought when we see its red granite columns. But, at the time, raising those 112 massive columns was a challenging feat of engineering. Inside the cathedral is a very cool model of the system that was created to achieve just that. Another intriguing architectural feature is the dome’s cast iron structure – something that I didn’t ever know existed [or was even possible]. And the standouts continue in the details, too. Flanking the main altar are columns made of vivid green malachite & blue lapis lazuli. Our guide pointed out something otherwise invisible: they’re actually made from zillions of small pieces of the stones fitted together as an inlay, as there are not solid pieces big enough to make those columns. Mind blown! The final unusual thing I want to mention is the religious decorations, the angels & people. Walking around, they looked like perfectly ordinary cathedral decorations [i.e. gold & plentiful]. What I didn’t know until our guide told us is that in orthodox churches, decorations are always flat [paintings, mosaics, picture frames, etc]. Many of the decorations in here, however, are 3 dimensional – a Western European style. Unusual? Yes. But, given that the city itself was planned on the concept of being a European city… perhaps it’s quite fitting.
During the Soviet period the cathedral was stripped of its decorations & turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, with a Foucault pendulum hanging down from the dome [photo of it here]. It has, of course, since then been fully restored.
Kronstadt Naval Cathedral
Designed in Neo-Byzantine style, this cathedral is stunning, to say the least. Never [anywhere in the world] have I ever seen a dome that was decorated on the exterior like this one. Unlike many Russian church domes, it is not gilded, but rather clad in silver. What really sets it apart, though, is the gilded anchor & rope pattern overlaid on the silver, which looks to the naked eye like a delicate lace. The interior is filled with shimmering mosaics, a nod to its Byzantine inspiration. In addition to religious figures, the colorful & varied patterns done in mosaics are incredible.
Admittedly, the term “naval cathedral” was a bit perplexing to me. As I turns out, it’s quite simple. The city of Kronstadt occupies the majority of an island located smack dab in the middle of the Russia-surrounded portion of the Gulf of Finland. This made it the obvious prime location for the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet. The cathedral was built as the main church of the Russian Navy 1903-13, just before the Bolshevik revolution, but it only enjoyed a brief 16 year stint as a church before being repurposed for non-religious usage. During its life it has served many functions, including cinema, concert hall, officer’s club & museum. After much difficulty during its initial restoration activities, it held its first religious service since 1929 in 2005. The full restoration wasn’t completed until 2013, for its centennial anniversary. Owing both to its quite recently completed restoration & its relative inaccessibility from St. Petersburg proper, it remains unknown & unvisited by most tourists.
St. Petersburg Mosque
St. Petersburg might be an odd place to go see a mosque, but when I first saw a photo it went straight onto my list. This building is decorated in the same stunning style as numerous mosques in Uzbekistan & Iran – two places I’d love to visit [to see their mosques of this style, among other things]. In fact, the dome is a near exact copy of one in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It was even more gorgeous in person than I ever could have expected! It’s not possible to go inside which is a bummer, since I think it has the same blue tile work on the interior, as well. Nevertheless, the exterior has amazing features!
Church on the Spilled Blood
I was also confused by this church’s name. Like the naval cathedral, the explanation is pretty simple. It is built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was attacked with bombs in 1881 [he died from his injuries shortly after]. His son, Alexander III, had the church built as a memorial, with construction beginning only 2 years after the assassination. It’s one of the most famous churches in St. Petersburg, primarily because of its exterior. Designed in Russian Revival style, it is reminiscent of St. Basil’s in Moscow, with its colorful onion domes. Sadly, the tallest dome & spire is currently covered, as part of a 20 year restoration project. The interior is just as ornate, completely covered in mosaics. On a sunny day, like the one when we were there, the natural light imparts a glow into the bright turquoise & blue background of the mosaic designs. I really loved checking out all the different designs filling in the spaces here & there around the holy figures.
When not in use as a church during Soviet times it functioned as a morgue, a vegetable warehouse & a museum. It was restored during the final decades of Soviet rule and it is still technically a museum, as it was never reconsecrated.
Our visit inside Trinity Cathedral was brief as it is still actively used. No photos are allowed inside, but it was a pretty standard looking orthodox interior – nothing particularly fancy. Sadly, that is because it was looted during the 1920s. The main reason I wanted to visit is that it has gorgeous domes: bright, sky blue with stars. While the cathedral was being restored in 2006, the main dome & a smaller one caught on fire and collapsed. The new restoration was completed in 2010… really not so long ago.
During Soviet times, it served as a Ministry of Telecommunications warehouse.
Peter & Paul Cathedral and Fortress
Peter & Paul Cathedral is part of the fortress that began the city of St. Petersburg and was designed by Trezzini, the first architect I mentioned earlier. Its 123 meter high spire is the tallest orthodox bell tower in the world. It might not be the biggest or most glamorous church in St. Petersburg, but it it very historically important. In addition to being part of the oldest portion of the city [built 1712-33] , it is also the burial place of most of the imperial tsars and empresses.
The church was turned into a museum in 1924 and still remains one today, although it did resume holding services in 2000.
St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral
Built in the mid-1700s, this church is typical of St. Petersburg’s ornate, colorful baroque architecture of its time. We only viewed it from the outside.
Surprisingly, this church was never closed during Soviet rule, a rarity compared to all the others I’ve already mentioned.
St. Isidore Church
I never really got a chance to get a proper photo of this church, since I just spotted it as we were driving by. Like the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral, it was built very shortly before the Bolshevik revolution [1903-1907]. What caught my attention was the combination of green onion domes & yellow exterior, features typical of its Neo-Byzantine style, but in distinct colors. It was built for an Estonian Orthodox congregation, but a separate, smaller hall also held Russian-language services.
During Soviet rule it was a factory producing banners & posters of political leaders. It has been undergoing a slow renovation process since the mid-90s [I’m not entirely sure if it’s completed yet].
Grand Choral Synagogue
We only saw the synagogue from the outside as we were walking to another place, but it looks from photos to be worth visiting if you have time. Built in the late 1800s, it is the third largest synagogue in Europe.
Winter Palace [Hermitage Museum]
The Winter Palace is probably the prime example of Rastrellian Baroque… as he was the architect who transformed the palace into what we know today. The palace underwent many iterations over the centuries [the first being in 1711-12] and served as the official Russian imperial residence for 185 years. Interestingly, its iconic mint color only dates to the mid-20th century. It was yellow in the 18th century until being painted red in the 19th century. It wasn’t until Soviet post-WWII reconstruction that it gained its famed color, which was the standard color used during that time for baroque buildings.
While the exterior is certainly breathtakingly beautiful, the interior is filled with seemingly endless rooms and hallways, each more incredible […and blingy…] than the last. To say that the palace is huge would be an understatement. According to our guide, it was determined that seeing everything in the palace would take 10 years [without eating, drinking or sleeping]! I believe it, because I know we only saw a very small portion and even that was substantial. It truly is indescribable, so I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.
The Palace became a military hospital during WWI and also was home to a provisional government after the abdication of the last tsar, Nicholas II. It was then stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917, who destroyed the interior of the palace & many of its remaining treasures [fortunately, many items had already been sent to Moscow for safety or were in the undamaged museum portion]. Restoration of the palace [and reopening as a museum] began shortly after WWII, but many treasures that remained were sold internationally or transferred to other locations in Russia. Unsurprisingly, all imperial symbols were removed from the building, although they have since been restored.
When we arrived in St. Petersburg and met our guide in the ferry terminal one of the first things she asked us was “Do you definitely want to visit Stroganov Place?” It was one of my requests, but I hadn’t realized how under-the-radar it is. We assured her that we love architecture… and especially hidden gems. For being a Rastrelli-designed palace [and along the busy Nevsky Prospect, no less], it really is shocking how empty it was during our visit. All of the other baroque palaces were plenty popular, but we barely encountered anyone else here, aside from museum employees. One of the many side benefits of visiting an often overlooked place is that you’re sometimes given the “royal treatment,” so to speak, as turned out to be the case at Stroganov. In one of the rooms an employee graciously opened an extra door and invited us to visit an extra section not normally open to visitors. Lucky us!
For anyone who sees the name Stroganov and thinks of beef stroganoff… Randolph did, too. He was just too embarrassed to ask the guide about that. But she actually volunteered the story of how the dish [supposedly] came to exist. Apparently, whenever the Stroganovs held a ball they also served a meal to any member of the public who stopped by during that time. It was a soup kitchen of sorts, I think. During a week in which they were holding multiple events, their chef had to get creative with what ingredients he had remaining for the public meal, thus leading to beef stroganoff.
During Soviet times the building went through several uses: museum & botanical institute in the earlier decades, then government office space the rest of the time. They painted the exterior of the palace the same green as the Winter Palace, but it was later restored to its original pale pink. If you’re a lover of mint green, not to worry – there is still plenty on the inside!
This palace is definitely even more obscure than Stroganov Palace. In fact, I did not even know of its existence until taking a photo of it while walking past and then doing some online digging after the trip to see what the beautiful building was. Although somewhat similar to Stroganov in appearance [i.e. pink and floofy looking], it is neo-baroque, rather than true baroque. Its extravagant, rococo-esque appearance stems from the 1840s – more than 80 years after the end of Rastrellian Baroque.
It was used as the headquarters of the “Regional Committee of the Communist Party” for Leningrad during Soviet rule. It is now a cultural center, hosting concerts and other events.
Peterhof Palace is referred to as “Russian Versailles,” and for good reason. It is enormously opulent & extravagant, with a huge garden. It is located outside of St. Petersburg proper, along the coast of the Gulf of Finland. Because of its enormous size and our limited time, we visited only the gardens. This alone takes a significant amount of time.
The highlight of the gardens is 144 fountains. They range from huge [the Grand Cascade & Chess Mountain] to small [the many delightfully clever “trick fountains”]. One of the most fascinating things about all these fountains is that they’re operated without the use of any pumps. They use water from natural springs at a higher elevation farther inland, so that the declining elevation supplies the necessary water pressure. The Grand Cascade is supplied by a 4 km long aqueduct.
The palace was captured by Nazi forces during WWII and was pretty thoroughly destroyed by them. Restoration was started immediately after the war and still continues.
As musicians, Mariinsky Theater was an obvious place to visit. Sadly, we weren’t able to make it to a performance, but our tour company did arrange for a personal backstage tour! We couldn’t take any photos inside, but it was stunning. And our tour was extremely thorough! We went into the hall, we walked onto the edge of the stage, into the props room… and even climbed all the way up to the loft above the stage where they paint backdrops. Mariinsky has a couple of unusual features. First of all, the stage is inclined [I think the theater guide said it was something to do with perspective?]. Only Russian dance companies use this stage now and international companies use the other, newer hall, as it’s very difficult to dance on an incline is you’re not trained to. Second, most theaters paint backdrops on a vertical surface, but Mariinsky actually spreads the fabric over the floor of a giant loft and paints them there [which we saw in action!].
The 1860 neoclassical building has remained a theater for its entire life. The ballet company that operates within it is called Kirov Ballet – a Soviet name that they chose to continue using for its recognizability.
It is, of course, no surprise that the centerpiece of the Fabergé Museum is its collection of 15 Fabergé eggs. But there is quite a lot more to see in the small museum – mostly other finely enameled treasures. As gorgeous as the eggs are, I was actually far more fascinated by some of the other items. The teeny tiny patterns done in colorful enamel are beyond exquisite! I had expected R would be bored by this museum, but he was more into the eggs than me!
There are two of these vibrant columns, which were once topped with giant oil torches to guide ships on the river. They’re now only lit for special occasions.
Narva Triumphal Arch
Although there are many triumphal arches in Paris and across the European continent, you’ll never see another one quite like this. The green color really grabs your attention the second you’re within eyesight but, amazingly, the locals milling around [it’s not really a touristy area] seem immune to it. The striking color comes from the patina of its hammered copper facade [not unlike the Statue of Liberty].
Over and over throughout St. Petersburg we saw evidence of the nearly comical need Russian tsars had to commemorate their superiority & dominance in battle [like some fountains at Peterhof]. I know that this is hardly a novel theme throughout Europe, but it somehow seemed more pronounced & repeated here. The arch was built in 1814 to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napolean [who, himself, commissioned TWO triumphal arches in Paris]. I find it simultaneously hilarious & cringe-worthy that leaders have been doing this “mine is bigger than yours” dance all throughout history… and still continue to do it today.
St.Petersburg Metro – Line 1
Immediately after seeing the arch, our guide took us to see something that had evaded my trip research: the metro. Little did I know that St. Petersburg has some insanely gorgeous metro stations! Line 1 was opened in 1955, during the post-war Soviet reconstruction era. Our guide explained that the idea behind these incredible works of art & craftsmanship was that something beautiful should belong to the people, as opposed to only being accessible to the wealthy, which had been the case during Imperial Russian rule.
The stations are one of my favorite things we saw, not only because of their beauty… but because of what they represent and how they challenged my assumptions. As an American, my concept of all Soviet design was one style: stark & industrial. That’s the only picture we’ve ever been given. The idea of creating beauty to be enjoyed by all is noble, to say the least. I sure wish we could all find our way back to that sort of thinking.
Soviet-era Apartment Buildings
The giant apartment buildings remaining from Soviet times are more what comes to mind for Soviet design. I was intrigued seeing how many of them had mismatched windows & balcony railings. I assumed that once people were able to own apartments post-USSR they started making individual improvements, which our guide confirmed was correct. She also added that it is no longer allowed for individual apartment owners to make such changes, but the old changes are grandfathered in. Personally, I think it’s a cool cultural & historical tidbit… she disagreed. I suspect that to locals it just looks shoddy.
Marine Station [Ferry Terminal]
I think the ferry terminal building is quite beautifully designed – another challenge to my assumptions about Soviet design [it was built 1973-83]. It was actually included in a guide book I looked at before the trip, so I was keeping an eye out. Otherwise, I likely would have overlooked it in the hussle & bustle of the ferry terminal craziness. The building’s cool waterfall staircase is, sadly, covered with banner ads. But still cool, nonetheless.
I had seen some Georgian restaurants in St. Petersburg while doing pre-trip research and I kept them in the back of my head. Ever since R went to Georgia [the country] for work and I heard about how delicious Georgian cuisine is I’d been wanting to try it for myself. So when our guide mentioned that Georgian food is quite popular there, I jumped at the chance to go to her favorite place. I finally got to taste Georgian food & wine and it was everything I’d hoped for! And we still have 2 bottles of Georgian wine at home that R brought back from that work trip…
On our first day our guide told us the place she had in mind for lunch and was talking about it as if she needed to sell us on the idea. I was like, “You had me at ‘pie shop’! Say no more!” We both love pies of all varieties… no convincing necessary here! The pies are definitely a different type than what Americans are used to, but that doesn’t make them any less tasty.
Another gem our guide introduced us to! When she described it as being “cafeteria style” I was definitely picturing something vastly different. As we were walking down the street R took notice of a plate of food someone was eating at an outdoor table, saying “oh that looks really good!” And that’s when our guide turned and entered that exact restaurant. Definitely a good first impression! You go through a line with a tray to pick out your food [that’s the “cafeteria style” part], but this ain’t cafeteria food! It is beautifully styled gourmet quality food. They had lots of meat dishes prepared in various Russian styles, but also plenty of fresh, healthy veggie options. We sat upstairs, where there is also a bar. When I saw someone at another table order freshly made lemonade I couldn’t resist getting some, myself. It was pretty hot & sticky during our time in St. Petersburg and I’d been craving some nice, tart lemonade the entire previous day. It definitely hit the spot!
We barely got to try any Russian food, since we didn’t have too many meals there. And, as our guide pointed out, Russian restaurants are guaranteed to be touristy, since Russians want something different if they go out to eat. We were able to try a little when we had dinner at our hotel the first night.
We don’t normally use tour guides, but we occasionally find them to be very helpful in navigating a city in a limited amount of time. We used White Nights Travel for this trip and couldn’t have been happier! When I booked with them, I sent a list of the places we wanted to see and they [somehow] managed to fit it all in, and then some. Our guide Asya was a perfect fit for our travel style, knew tons about every place we visited, and took us to just the kind of restaurants we love.
Seeing the gorgeous metro stations on our final morning really solidified a thought that had been in the back of my mind the entire trip: Russia is so much more than the cliches & stereotypes that pervade our American culture. Generations of Americans have been fed a narrow, singular idea of Russia [and the Soviet Union] that is so far from the full picture. The very idea of “evil Russian villains” is so pervasive & so engrained in us that it’s truly difficult to take a step back and see the reality. The people of Russia aren’t inherently villainous any more than Americans are. The average Russian person wants the same things as the average American person: to live their life with a reasonable amount of comfort, safety & happiness. Yes, they have sucky people leading their country… and we have sucky people leading ours, too. We’re so infinitely more alike than we are different and, yet, I have a feeling that most Americans would refuse to ever believe it. So with that, I leave you with a quote that best sums up my feelings: