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St Petersburg City Guide by Fiona Lazareff
For most people Russia still conjures up images of a land of bitterly cold winds, cutting across desolate wastes, of people queuing for hours just to buy bread. It's also home to vodka and James Bond villains. But this is a country so hard to define that it prompted Winston Churchill to call it a 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
St Petersburg is widely thought of as the most European of Russia's cities; indeed, it was created by Peter the Great as his 'window on the west'. This year is St Petersburg's 300th anniversary and the city has been getting ready for the celebrations, since last year, with buildings being spruced up courtesy of Unesco funding. Not surprisingly, the city hasn't yet adapted to individual foreign visitors. Tourists are still reckoned to be of the Russian variety (which until the Soviet Union disintegrated was, of course, a huge market), which has both benefits and drawbacks. The obvious upside is that it's refreshing not to have to swat hawkers and beggars away every few seconds and it makes a delightful change not to be treated as a dumb foreigner, ripe for the ripping off. The downside is that few Russians speak any foreign languages, which makes it almost impossible to ask questions, also most of the tours are in Russian. To get around this you need either to stay in an upmarket hotel, where management are used to organising things for foreigners, or to make sure you have an English-speaking guide to show you around when you get there. The latter of these options is surprisingly cheap and easy to arrange, making it the best way of getting to know this enigmatic country.
As the city is so big, it's best to take a guided tour by car, but don't think you can leave your walking shoes in the hotel - you shouldn't pass up the chance to get up close and personal with some of this city's most stunning sights. The list of must-see sights is endless, but should certainly include the following: the State Hermitage Museum, the State Russian Museum and Arts Square, The Marble Palace, Stroganov Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress, the Summer Palace and Cabin of Peter the Great, Mikhailovsky Castle, Sir Isaac's Cathedral, the cruiser Auroroa, Our Saviour of the Blood Church, the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, and Astrosky Square with its statue of Catherine II. By the time you've taken in these sights you should have a good idea of the history and layout of the city. If you need to put your feet up for a while, take to the water - St Petersburg is made up of 43 islands and 352 bridges, so one of the best ways to see the city is by boat.
Often known as the Venice of the north, St Petersburg is an architectural delight, with palace-lined waterways and elegant streets. Almost everything revolves around a long wide avenue called Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg's equivalent of the Champs Elysées. Once home to such notable residents as Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky, this vibrant street is an attraction in its own right, as well as being the backbone of the city. The death of the Communist era has given birth to Western-looking bars, fast food outlets and a handful of designer boutiques, intermingled with delightfully old-fashioned department stores and grocery shops, still resplendent in their original turn-of-the-19th -century fittings. Nouveaux Riche Russians, dressed from head to toe in designer clothes, rub shoulders with the poor, who sell everything from hand crocheted bonnets to small pets at the entrance of the metro. Clapped out Soviet-era cars rumble along, overtaken by tinted-windowed four-wheel drives. It is a fascinating mix of old and new, rich and poor, that is characteristic of post-war Russia.
Once you've finished your guided tour, you will know which things you want to visit in detail. The famous State Hermitage Museum is a must - people used to come to St Petersburg for this alone, and once you've seen the treasures piled within you'll understand why. But the complex is the size of a small town, so take a good guide or you'll end up being overwhelmed. The striking thing about the museum is that its rooms are invariably as breathtaking as the objects in them, so it can be difficult to absorb the two at the same time. The collections are spread over five of the most beautiful early 18th century buildings in St Petersburg, all former palaces of the Tsars. Exhibits include prehistoric culture, Egyptian art, the art of antiquity, Scythian gold and a great collection of Western European paintings and sculptures spanning 400 rooms. Take your pick of Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya…
It would be easy to let the Hermitage eat up all of your trip, but there are plenty more treasures to be found in this city. The State Russian Museum is housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace, built for the Duke Michael. With almost 400,000 exhibits, it has the largest collection of Russian art in the county, from ancient icons to Avant-garde. The Museum is on Arts Square; perhaps the prettiest square in St Petersburg, with its recently repainted 18th century cream and white buildings, including the Museum of Ethnography (next door) and the Philarmonia (opposite), where you should book a ticket for an opera, ballet or concert.
You should also find time to go inside Our Saviour of the Blood Church. It was built in 1907 to honour Alexander II who was assassinated on some cobbled stones that you can still see inside the church today. It's a true example of Russian-style architecture and decorative art during the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and is modelled on the photographer's delight that is St Basil's in Moscow's Red Square. The detail of the mosaic on the floors and the paintings on the walls is startling, and it's astonishing to discover that this immense, lavishly and intricately decorated church was completed in just eight years. It is also worth going off the beaten track to see the ancient sacred monuments which Nicholas I bought back from Egypt in 1832, and the Smallnic Cathedral, which is the most perfect example of Russian baroque. Painted in sky blue and white, it is a gem hidden in the government area of the city.
St Petersburg and its surroundings must surely have more palaces per square foot than anywhere in the world. But they never fail to delight and inspire; the eyes never grow weary of their golden facades gleaming in the cold grey light. It is well worth taking a trip to one of the palaces outside of the city - we chose to visit Tsarskoye Selo, a former residence of Russian emperors and a fascinating testament to the world's architectural and gardening arts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally Catherine's Palace, it was almost destroyed in the Second World War, but has since been lavishly and lovingly restored.
A Walk on the Wild Side
But it would be all too easy to lose yourself in the splendours of the past and leave the city without ever having gained a sense of what it's like to live in the St Petersburg of today. Gone are the days of gold and gems - the magnificent buildings that line the graceful streets are sadly decaying, occupied today by ghosts and the desperately poor.
If classic souvenirs of the Russian doll variety aren't your style, the shopping prospects in St Petersburg aren't very promising. But there is always plenty of caviar for sale and its very good value for money. Always worth a look is Yeliseyevsky on Nevsky Prospect, which sells all kind of food and is a visual delight, with its marbled floors, original wood and brass display cabinets, wood-panelled walls and brass art nouveau lights in the form of flowers. The shop sells everything the average customer might need to buy, at moderate prices, and it's one of the cheapest places to buy caviar, with half a kilo of black caviar costing 4,000 rubles or 133€. On the opposite side of Nevsky Prospect is the city's biggest department store, also worth a visit simply for its original turn-of-the-century furnishings.
Concerts, Opera and Ballet
St Petersburg is world famous for its opera, ballet and concerts, so be sure to get tickets for at least one performance while you are there. If you want to be sure of getting them before you leave, www.divento.com has up to date information on the major performances. You can also book at your hotel upon arrival, but odds are that prices will be substantially higher, and of course performances may be sold out.
The Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theatre
Built in 1833 to honour the brother of Emperor Nicholay, it is famous for being the first to stage works by modern composers.
Iskusstv pl, 1. For more details and bookings, go to our Russia web page.
The Shostakovitch Philharmonic Hall
Where to stay
There is a shortage of accommodation for tourists in St Petersburg, which is likely to get progressively worse from 2003 onwards. There are four five-star hotels that are more or less at the same standard as their counterparts in other European cities, but with prices to match.
The Corinthia Nevskij Palace Hotel, by contrast, is modern but it's very convenient to for getting to most of the city's main monuments and sites. The Admiralty restaurant serves typically Russian food - not just caviar, but lots of lesser-known regional dishes. The Georgian specialities are original and delicious washed down with a full-bodied Georgian red wine, whilst listening to the live band. The hotel, with its conference rooms, a business centre and health club, is perfect for business.
How to organize your trip
Fairplay in partnership with bookitfaster.com organizes a variety of tours which include a city tour by coach or car, ballooning or helicopter trips, tailor-made trips to the Hermitage, guided tours to the palaces outside St Petersburg, and even a tea party if you want to meet the locals. In addition, they arrange activities for children and shopping in nearby markets as well as stores. To find out more and to book go to our page on St Petersburgh.
A brief history of St Petersburg.
In February 1613, amidst the filth and debris left by foreign invaders in the great Kremlin Palace, an obscure 16 year-old prince named Mikhail Feodorovich Romanov was proclaimed Tsar and Autocrat of Russia. He was to establish a dynasty that would determine the destiny of Russia for three centuries. A line of dynastic rulers would come in his wake: Alexei--who would raise Russia to a position of importance in Eastern Europe; Peter the Great--who would build an invincible army and a new capital, St. Petersburg, and forcibly bring Russia out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world; and in the 18th century a succession of three extraordinary empresses, Anna, Elizabeth, and Catherine the Great, who would break with the tradition of supreme male authority. Catherine would bring the ideas of the Enlightenment to Russia and create a court whose splendour would rival that of Versailles.
At its height, in the mid 19th century, the empire of the Romanovs comprised more than one sixth of the earth's surface. It was a "whole world, self-sufficient, independent, and absolute", flaunting the greatest wealth in Europe. Its culture, both rich and brilliant, would continue to shine, decades after the demise of its imperial benefactors. This was the world that ended with the murders of the last of the Romanovs: Nicholas II and Alexandra, and their five children.