While we felt that St Petersburg lacked the heart of Moscow, it is a beautiful city that very much lived up to its reputation. We spent eight days here and busily moved about during nearly every daylight hour of our stay, which is substantial given St Petersburg’s northerly location and long early summer days. We were also fortunate to have two welcoming couchsurfing hosts.
This place is truly a massive place, so large that it would be impossible to see everything on offer in even two or three days, let alone one. Here there is nearly every type of art imaginable from all times from which art has survived, and not just one. Did you want to see one ceramic Greek vessel from 1000BC – well, here’s a room of 200 of them! Did you come hoping to find a few Picassos/Monets/Rembrandts – well here are three rooms full of each! That is why the Hermitage is overwhelming.
Aside from all the glorious art and relics, the architecture and the unique decoration of each of the many rooms are themselves very interesting – especially if, like most, this is your first stop in St Petersburg and you haven’t already been spoiled by the many, many grotesquely lavish palaces.
Each room is decorated differently though all grandly. The famous Jordan staircase is covered in white plaster and gold gilding, with marble columns. But every room seems to have marble columns.
One section that was fascinating was in the Asian art gallery. We stumbled in here looking for early 1900s central asian art similar to what we’d seen at the Savitsky Gallery in Nukus and instead wandered into a number of rooms containing paintings that were stolen from the Bezeklik caves near Turpan, China, a place we had been only a month or so earlier. The placards stated that they were ‘gifts’ from Berlin – gifts that somehow made their way from Germany to Russia during WWII, a time during which official giftgiving between the German and Russian governments was probably not an altogether common event. I’m sure the Germans that tore the paintings out of the Bezeklik caves themselves – knife marks which we have seen – also claimed the paintings were gifts from the Uighers of Turpan. Its amazing how war and plunder bring out the selflessness in everyone! For what its worth, the Chinese still want their traditional artworks back.
Very few places would allow photos of such paintings, but the Hermitage does and we (obviously) snapped away. Again, the quality of works is just astounding.
The Russian Museum (Mikhailovsky Palace)
This was another massive museum filled with all Russian art dating from old folk art to more modern arts of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The folk art and art from the 18th and 19th centuries are housed in the original part of the Mikhailovsky Palace, itself lavishly decorated though not quite as much so as the Hermitage, while the 20th century art is housed in an addon that appears more like a conventional museum with whitewashed walls.
This place would probably have much more international recognition if not for the Hermitage being just down the street. Some of the artists around the turn of the 20th century were particularly of interest to us, most notably Repin.
Additionally, some of the more modern works in the new wing were quite interesting as many related to Soviet times.
Russian Museum Extension (Marble Palace)
An extension of the the Russian Museum is housed in what is commonly known as the Marble Palace, a ridiculous place of many differnt kinds and colors of marble that Catherine the Great built for one of her lovers. The art here was less impressive, but the marble palace was itself pretty remarkable.
Another Russian Museum (Stroganov Palace)
There wasn’t much to view here, but the interior had recently been renovated in 2004/2005 to match the old style. This was the house of a prominent family (the Stroganovs) and the place that the beef dish of the same name was invented by the house chef. There was a pleasant German exhibit however the placards were all in German and Russian.
This odd Cathedral consists of a large domed central chapel flanked with two symmetrical arcing collonades that partialy surround a pleasant green park and fountain, a brutally robust and masculine structure. The interior is muche the same, with large marble columns supporting the high arched roof and many iconic paintings. General Kutuzov, the revered Russian general that is credited with defeating Napoleon, is buried here alongside the French flags which he captured in battle.
In the small town of Peterhof is a beautiful Peter and Paul Cathedral. We did not enter this cathedral as there was a funeral underway, but the exterior of this building was unique to anything we’ve seen elsewhere in Russia. The exterior lines suggest a symmetrical set of staircases immediately behind the entrance doors that are steep and this gives the Cathedral a different look.
The Peterhof Palace is A UNESCO World Heritage-listed sight and it is obvious that a lot of upkeep is necessary to maintain its grandeur, gardens and fountains. There are hundreds of fountains on the grounds, all are powered only by gravity – a truly remarkable feat.
This royal estate marks the place of Peter the Great’s original home, the first building of his new settlement of Petersburg as Peter decided that a strategic base at the Neva River was necessary here. That building still stands, along with many other much more elaborate palaces. However, it is said that even after the other palaces were build Peter still preferred his little house on the seaside.
There were photos in the Peterhof garden of its state following the Nazi occupation of St Petersburg during WWII, and it was nearly completely destroyed, the buildings all but razed. The first items the Russians reconstructed were the fountains, and there are odd photos of beautifully restored gold-gilded fountains in full operation in front of completely decimated palace buildings that had not yet been restored.
We choose to take the least travelled path for cruises – while most cruises go into the Neva and view the major landmarks we opted for one that mostly stayed on St Petersburg’s less travelled canals (by this time we’d seen most all the major attractions near the Neva on foot). It was a good choice as we saw some of the older, if less spectacular, buildings and some out-of-the way churches.
State Museum of Political History of Russia
This museum is housed in the former home of a wealthy St Petersburg merchant which is also the building that the Bolsheviks comadeered and used as their base during the revolution. It contained some fascinating and well-presented information, though the museum’s organization left something to be desired. Still, there was information in English and a multitude of things to see here dating back to the early 1800s and documenting many of the early anti-Tsarist movements and how each Tsar tried or did not try to work with voices of dissent.
Lenin’s office is preserved in the second floor corner room, with his desk and some of his writings still present. The office opens out onto a balcony, which is apparently where he delivered his many addresses to the people of St Petersburg during the later stages of the revolution (considering he wasn’t actually in Russia when it started).
Church of the Savior On Spilled Blood
This church is probably one of the most photographed buildings in Russia, and its easy to see why with its colorful and textured exterior as it perches above one of the city’s many canals. If this looks familiar, thats because it is loosely based on St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, though you’ll notice a more unconventional color scheme was adopted – maybe this is the Russian Orthodox Their Satanic Majesties Request to St Basil’s Aftermath. I always prefered Their Satanic Majesties. Anyway, this place was built where Tsar Alexander II was assissinated by a bomb, thus the name.
The exterior is beautifyl and while the interior trades the shady cool arched hallways of St Basils for one large open space, the insane mosaic-covered walls are truly something to ponder. Every inch of these huge walls is covered with tiny tiles of a size that could perhaps replace your pinky toe nail.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
The interior of St Isaac’s is grand. The exterior is grand. This is just a huge place and you can climb the 250 stairs to the base of the dome and see out over all St Petersburg.
There are bold blue and green marble columns and marble throughout – floors, walls, everything. The iconostasis is partially supported by brilliant green malachite and blue marble columns.
From the moment we saw a photo of this place Angie was taken with it, calling it ‘The Candy Cane Cathedral’. It was well out of the way, but we made time to travel to it our last day. More fun than history, it was really a unique building.
Other sights viewed include: Vladimir Cathedral. Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg Central Mosque (which is apparently based on Samarkand’s Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, which we visited in Uzbekistan), Alexander Nevsky Monastery and the Trinity Cathedral.