Summer Days in Saint Petersburg
As the playground for Russia’s gilded monarchy, Saint Petersburg was purpose built to demonstrate that Russia had arrived as a European power.
Hot Take: The only city in Russia we would want to visit again, Saint Petersburg’s charm is undeniable, and its history unfolds around every corner. (4.0 stars)
Pro Tip: Restaurants are cheap (by Western standards) and full of delightful foods (just make sure you leave 2+ hours to eat because service is SLOW).
As Russia’s most charming city, Saint Petersburg captivated us with its history, architecture, and energy. The city was our first visit to Russia and we were a little apprehensive about arriving there (as the American media had filled us with dread about street hooligans and cyber criminals). However, we quickly realized that the reality could not be further from the media’s portrayal as we generally found the locals to be cosmopolitan, engaging, and eager to help a couple of World Cup, Western tourists. Of course, Russians don’t really smile (but that is a cultural thing, not a mark of poor hospitality). We spend a too-brief 3 days here, bur should have stayed for a week.
Today, Saint Petersburg is a city of over 6 million people, but you would never know it when you are in the main tourist area downtown as the buildings are all 18th, 19th and early 20th century gems that were built in the time of Tsars and Tsarinas. That means that the buildings are all below 5 stories tall and decorated with amazing facades painted in myriad stately colors. The whole of the historic center of Saint Petersburg constitutes a UNESCO World Heritage Site! The city, build by the monarchy as their imperial home, has survived numerous external conquest attempts before falling to communist rule, which makes for an immensely fascinating history.
Highlight: Free Walking Tour
As is our tradition, during our first day in Saint Petersburg we took a free walking tour with St. Petersburg Free Tour. Because of the World Cup, there were over 100 people on our tour (which is way more than the ideal number of about 20) but the tour guide was interesting and the history of the city was fascinating (so we would highly encourage the tour under more ‘normal’ conditions). While we won’t spoil the fun of the taking the tour yourself, the overwhelming feeling that we left with is how desperately the nobility of Russia wanted to be taken seriously as prosperous Europeans. You can see this desire all over the city from the location itself (on the only Western warm water port in Russia), the larger than life construction projects (including a freestanding Alexander Column made of one piece of granite that weighs over 600 tons), and the French/Italian architectural influences (the canals and basically every single building).
Highlight: Royal Palaces
Located in the center of Saint Petersburg, the Winter Palace was, from 1732 to 1917, the official residence of the Russian monarchs, the Romanovs. In fact, there were more than four Winter Palaces built on or near the current site. The current Baroque structure (which is currently painted in Catherine the Great’s preferred color of teal) is a massive building (befitting an empire that ruled over almost 1/6 of the Earth's landmass), 705 feet (215 meters) long with 1,786 doors, 1,945 windows, 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases. While we have seen some impressively large buildings in our travels, you cannot be a bit awed by the powerful imagery of the Winter Palace. One fun fact is that to battle the rodent problem, hundreds of cats would wander the corridors of the Winter Palace. While the cats no longer roam free at will in the galleries, almost 100 cats still roam the back hallways you can adopt them as the ultimate Russian souvenir!
Located in 45 minutes from Saint Petersburg along the coast, the Peterhof Palace was the summer palace of the Romanovs (sometimes referred to as the ‘Russian Versailles’). Constructed on the orders of Peter the Great, the palace is about half the size of Versailles (though still very impressive); however, it is the magnificent fountains amongst the gardens that are the palace’s calling card. Fed by supplied from natural springs and collects in reservoirs in the Upper Gardens, all of the fountains operate without the use of pumps as the elevation difference creates the pressure that drives most of the fountains of the Lower Gardens, including the Grand Cascade. The most impressive feature, the Samson Fountain where a lion's mouth shoots a 60+ foot (20+ meter) vertical jet of water, is supplied by a special aqueduct that is over 3 miles (4+ km) in length. On a warm summer day, we had the most marvelous time wandering through the gardens and gawking at the most impressive gilded fountain display we have ever seen (sorry Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas).
Highlight: Church Mosaics
Of course, Saint Petersburg has a number of impressive churches as you would imagine for a major historical city of Europe (despite the destruction and alternative uses for churches employed by the Soviets). However, what really stood out to us was the use of mosaics to adorn the insides of these Russian Orthodox palaces. In particular, we were amazed by the wall to wall (and ceiling) mosaic work in the Church of the Saviour on Blood Church (there are over 80,000 square feet (7,500 sq meters) of mosaics, more than any other church in the world.). The church also has one of the more interesting histories. Originally built to commemorate the assassination of the much beloved Emperor Alexander II, the church was built between 1883 and 1907 by the imperial family. After the Russian Revolution (when religion was suppressed), the church was ransacked, looted, and closed in 1932. During World War II, the church was used as a morgue for those who died in combat as well as from starvation and illness and, after the war, it was used as a warehouse for vegetables. After the fall of Communism, the church underwent 27 years of restoration to return it to its current splendor.
Highlight: The Arts
As the generally acknowledged cultural capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg houses some of the fantastic collections of centuries of Russian power in the form of painting, sculpture, and other art. Of particular note (and driven by the Russian monarchy’s wealth and desire to be perceived as European) museums like the Hermitage house some of the largest collection of Italian statures and French impressionism outside of their home countries. We were also fascinated to see the Fabergé Museum, where for $8 each we could tour a restored palace filled with a large collection of one-of-a-kind Easter eggs commissioned for the monarchy from the French fashion house Fabergé. These works are truly stunning to see (and their opulence and costs highlight the disconnect between the monarchy and the peasants which precipitated the Communists rise to power).
Highlight: The Dumplings
It wouldn’t be a highlights list of ours without mentioning our favorite food we enjoyed in the city. In Saint Petersburg, dumplings stole our heart. We have been fans of dumplings (generally of the Asian varieties) all of our lives, but the Russians have taken dumplings to a whole new level with savory, sweet, and soupy taste bombs that have to be tried to believe. While the pelmeni variety will get most of the attention, we LOVED the Khinkali dumplings (originally developed in Georgia) that added a soupy juciness to the dumpling experience. Russians love their dumplings so much that one of the top-rated restaurants in the entire city, Pelmenya, was dedicated solely to dumplings from around the world.