The northernmost city in the world to have a population of over one million is known for its beautiful streets and first-class attractions.
One of the world’s oldest and largest museums, the Hermitage is home to more than three million items: a collection so large that only a small amount of the works can be displayed at one time. And what a collection it is, including works from Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Canaletto, Raphael, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Matisse and Picasso, among many others. The collection also includes mosaics, jewellery, a tremendous assortment of artefacts from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Persia as well as antiquities from the Near and Middle East.
The museum spreads across a number of buildings that could be considered works of art in themselves, including the Winter Palace, the former state residence of the Russian emperors, the Small, Old (Great) and New Hermitages, the Hermitage Theatre and the Auxiliary House.
Weekdays (Tuesday-Friday) offer the best opportunity to explore the museum as the crowds are smaller. If you come in the morning, you can view the Treasure Gallery, which houses one of the world’s finest jewellery collections in its Gold Rooms and Diamond Rooms. (hermitagemuseum.org)
Tsarskoye Selo, Pushkin and Peter’s Summer Garden
As history has repeatedly shown, ruling the world’s largest country can be challenging work. To get away from it all, the Russian emperors needed somewhere pleasing to spend the summer months. Catherine and Alexander chose Pushkin, 25 km southeast of Saint Petersburg, as the location for their summer palaces and what they creating remains astonishing to this day.
Catherine Palace is home to the Amber Room, subject of one of the 20th century’s great mysteries. An ornate room lined with amber, often considered the “eighth wonder of the world”, the Amber Room was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and moved to Germany, never to be seen again. It was recreated in 2003 and is now open to the public.
The Alexander Palace was built in 1792–1796 by Giacomo Quarenghi for Alexander I: an elongated two-storey building with double wings on either side and a two-row colonnade on the northern side. One of the main attractions is its 120-hectare park including ponds, monuments and pavilions, which are starting to look a little ramshackle. It is a superb place to spend a summer’s day.
In Saint Petersburg itself, Tsar Peter the Great (whose Peterhof Palace is pictured above) created the Summer Garden in 1704, importing most of the trees and all 250 statues from Italy. After a century of exclusive use by the upper classes, Tsar Nicholas I opened it up to ‘well-dressed people,’ but these days you can wear what you like.
From 12th-Century peasants to 20th-Century presidents, vodka has long been Russians’ drink of choice. At the vodka museum, you will find displays of vodka bottles in unusual shapes, old advertising campaigns and some funny dioramas explaining the history of the spirit. An excursion organised by the school is recommended as the exhibits are in Russian only. In the tasting room, there’s also a chance to try out three different vodkas and traditional Russian snacks.
The museum (vodkamuseum.su) is part of Saint Petersburg’s Museum Quarter, which also includes a Nabokov museum (nabokovmuseum.org), communication museum and, wonderfully, a museum of cats (catmuseum.ru).
The Fortress is the cradle of the city, St. Petersburg’s first settlement. It houses the famous Cathedral of the Saint Apostles Peter and Paul, along with numerous museums, galleries and spectacular riverside views. Among the most popular attractions are the large Commandant’s House museum which examines the history of the city and the smaller, modern and fun museum at the Neva Curtain Wall which studies the history of the Fortress itself. The more unusual Engineer’s House and Museum of Space Exploration are quirky and good fun, while the Mint displays coin collections and the Printing Workshop contains printing and ceramic relics. Visit the Neva Curtain Wall archway for the best view, and brave a dip in the bracing waters… at your own risk!
Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood
This Moscow-style church with richly coloured onion domes looks a bit out of place in the European centre of St. Petersburg, but it’s one of the city’s most beautiful and memorable landmarks. It got its awkward name because it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881. Locals call it ‘the mosaic church’ because the interior is covered with magnificent mosaics, each wall with a particular Biblical theme.