The Russian metropolis is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and not without good reason. And a particularly impressive time to experience the city overlooking the Gulf of Finland is during the ‘White Nights’ of mid-summer.
Gigantic, romantic, overflowing with art and culture – St. Petersburg, the city built by Peter the Great on the marshy shore of the Neva Delta over 300 years ago to secure a port on the Baltic Coast and create a ‘window on the west’ for his vast empire, is all this and much, much more besides. The classicist-Baroque centre of the city, with its 2,300 palaces, offers seemingly endless attractions to lovers of architecture and the arts. And thanks to the countless bridges and rivers that make up the city, St. Petersburg is also known as the Venice of the North. Russia’s second city is at its most beautiful around the summer solstice, between late June and mid-July, the weeks known as the ‘White Nights’, when the sun never sets in the evening and the magnificent buildings here are bathed in a magical twilight around the clock.
The story of St. Petersburg’s birth reads like a historical drama – with a high-calibre cast. Peter the Great employed drastic and coercive measures while pressing ahead with construction of the city on the marshy ground surrounding the delta of the River Neva. And when his grand project was finished, in 1712, the Tsar immediately declared St. Petersburg the capital of Russia rather than Moscow. The royal court and its nobles were forced to move there, where they built magnificent new residences out of their own pocket. These can be admired to this day, on Nevsky Prospect, the city’s stunningly beautiful promenade.
Indeed, some of St. Petersburg’s loveliest landmarks can be found at the end of the 4 kilometre-long grand boulevard. The first of these to meet the eye is the Admiralty, home to the Supreme Command of the Russian Navy. This magnificent building, with its soaring golden spire, is something of a recreation and orientation point for the city’s 5 million inhabitants. A few minutes’ walk away, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its golden cupola, houses numerous mosaics and vast paintings, and is by far the most imposing place of worship in the city. Nearby restaurant Mansard offers an amazing view, and is the perfect place to enjoy a breathtaking panorama of the golden cupola and the rest of the city, ideally over a glass of vodka and Russian pirogue.
A little further along the banks of the River Neva is the world-famous Hermitage – one of the highlights of the city, if not the highlight. This was where the tsars liked to go to withdraw from the everyday political intrigues of running their country, surrounding themselves with nothing but the arts and entertainment. And the museum, one of the largest and most important anywhere on Earth, is the impressive result of this centuries-long tradition. Today’s vast complex of buildings houses no fewer than five palaces and 350 halls, and over 60,000 exhibits, including works by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Matisse, Pablo Picasso and others. But the buildings alone – first and foremost the Winter Palace and the old Hermitage – are imposing tourist attractions in their own right.
A short distance away, halfway across the Neva, is Hare Island, home to the Peter and Paul Fortress, another landmark of the city. This is where Peter the Great laid the first foundation stone when constructing his new capital. Palace Square, home to the Winter Palace, permanent residence of the Tsars with its 500-ton Alexander Column, and the nearby Church of the Redeemer are other spots any tourists with a love of culture should be sure to head for. That’s far from all, however: there is a vast range of other (equally impressive) tourist attractions a few kilometres outside the city. These include the Catherine Palace, with the recreated Amber Room, and the Peterhof Palace, the Tsars’ summer residence, located directly on the coast.
It‘s not just these buildings that live and breathe history, culture and the sciences, however; in St. Petersburg, the entire city does so.
The city, which was the capital of the Russian Empire until 1918, has had to change its name three times over the centuries. When the First World War broke out, it was immediately russified and named ‘Petrograd’. Six years later, after Lenin’s death in 1924, it was renamed ‘Leningrad’. But it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the city was given back its original name, and it has been St. Petersburg again since 1991.
Together with Moscow, the city remains the centre of Russian art, culture, the economy and science to this day. It has been a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 1990, and is home to over 120 colleges, 80 theatres and 100 concert halls. In its Mariinsky Theatre and eponymous ballet, St. Petersburg boasts a world-famous opera house, which first opened its doors back in 1783. World-class composers such as Dmitry Shostakovich and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as authors including Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, lived and worked here.
St. Petersburg has a vast range of superlatives to offer, indeed – almost too many for visitors with just a few days to spare. Not least of these is the historic city centre – lovingly referred to as “Peter” by its residents – with its bookshops, countless restaurants, stylish cafés and chic boutiques. The Metro is also well worth marvelling at.
If you’re looking for a comfortable and above all romantic way to do the city, however, then be sure to include a night-time boat ride along the countless rivers in the ancient Tsarist city, with their magnificent, shimmering buildings, bridges, churches and palaces.
Think you might fancy visiting St. Petersburg? The city’s Pulkovo Airport is just two-and-an-half hours away from Vienna Schwechat. Book here now!