Dazzling show of strength
Two decades of massive investment in St Petersburg has paid off, write Tom Masters and Simon Richmond.
NCE a desolate swamp, Russia’s imperial capital is today a dazzling metropolis whose sheer grandeur never fails to amaze. Not since the paint first dried on Rastrelli’s buildings in the late 18th century has St Petersburg looked so good. The city’s facades are bursts of beautifully painted colours once again. Built from nothing by westward-looking Peter the Great, St Petersburg was, from its inception, to be a display of imperial Russia’s growing status in the world. Fine-tuned by Peter’s successors, who employed a host of European architects to add fabulous palaces and cathedrals to the city’s layout, St Petersburg grew to be the Romanovs’ showcase capital and Russia’s first great, modern city. It has retained this status despite the capital moving back to Moscow after the revolution. Despite all that history has thrown at it, St Petersburg still feels every bit the imperial capital, a city largely frozen in time. Whether you’re cruising the elegant canals, crossing one of the city’s 342 bridges or watching ships on the mighty Neva River at night, you’re never far from water in St Petersburg. With the historic centre’s canals lined by Italianate mansions and broken up by striking plazas adorned with baroque and neoclassical palaces, it’s unsurprising that the city is often compared with Venice. St Petersburg is an almost unrivalled treasure trove of art and culture. You can spend days in the Hermitage, seeing everything from Egyptian mummies to Picassos, while the Russian Museum, spread over four sumptuous palaces, is perhaps the best collection of Russian art in the world. Add to this world-class ballet and opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, classical concerts at the Shostakovich Philharmonia and numerous big-name music festivals over summer, and you won’t be stuck for cultural nourishment. If contemporary art is more your thing, there’s also the fantastic Erarta Museum, showcasing the best in modern Russian art, and a small but buzzing gallery scene.
1. White Nights
The ultimate St Petersburg experience is in mid-June when the sun slumps towards the horizon but never fully sets, meaning that the nights are a wonderful whitish-grey. Petersburgers indulge themselves in all-night revelry, several festivals take place and the entire city enjoys an uncharacteristically relaxed atmosphere. It’s the busiest time to visit the city and most hotels are booked up weeks in advance, but there’s nothing quite like it, so don’t miss out – even if you come in May or July you’ll be impressed by how late the sun stays out.
2. The Hermitage
Perhaps the world’s greatest museum, the Hermitage’s vast collection is quite simply mindboggling, with Egyptian mummies, more Rembrandts than the Louvre, and a collection of early 20th-century art unrivalled by almost any other. Plus your entry ticket allows you to walk around the fascinating apartments and dazzling staterooms of the Romanovs. Then there are still the other museum sites: the Winter Palace of Peter I, General Staff Building, Menshikov Palace, Imperial Porcelain factory and excellent Hermitage Storage Facility (hermitagemuseum.org).
3. St Isaac’s View
No other viewpoint of the historic centre beats the one from the stunning gold dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral, which rises majestically over the uniformly sized Italianate palaces and mansions around the Admiralty. Well worth the climb up the 262 steps, a panorama of the city opens up to you – with fantastic views over the river, the Winter Palace and the Bronze Horseman. The cathedral’s interior is also well worth seeing, with a wonderfully overthe-top iconostasis framed by columns of marble, malachite and lazurite.
4. Russian Museum
Even though the Hermitage is unrivalled as St Petersburg’s most impressive museum, make sure you visit this lesser-known treasure trove of Russian art, spread out over four stunning palaces in the centre of the city. The main building, the Mikhailovsky Palace, presents a fascinating collection of Russian art from medieval icons to 20th-century avant-garde masterpieces, while the Marble Palace houses a wing of the Ludwig Museum, and the Stroganov Palace has some of the most spectacular interiors in the city (rusmuseum.ru).
5. Church on the Spilled Blood
The Church on the Spilled Blood never fails to impress visitors. The church was built to commemorate the death of Tsar Alexander II, who, in an event that gave the church its unusual name, was attacked here by a terrorist group and later died of his injuries in 1881. Despite its grisly heritage, the glittering, multicoloured onion domes and intricate interior mosaics are simply stunning.
General Staff Building
The Hermitage is in the process of making the most progressive change in its 250-year history – shifting its celebrated stash of Impressionist and postImpressionist works from the main building to the newly modernised galleries of the General Staff Building to sit alongside a steadily growing collection of contemporary exhibits. Installations should be complete by the end of 2015.
The Mariinsky Theatre has played a pivotal role in Russian ballet ever since it was built in 1859 and remains one of Russia’s most loved and respected cultural institutions. After more than a decade of construction, the Mariinsky’s state-of-the-art new building finally opened in 2013. A superb new opera and ballet venue for the city, it’s a must for any music lover, even if its thoroughly modern exterior hasn’t exactly thrilled the city’s preservationists (mariinsky.ru).
Central Naval Museum
The beautifully repurposed new premises for St Petersburg’s long-established Central Naval Museum brings the impressive collection of models to life with excellent lighting, plenty of space and interactive displays, all in a new location across from the former shipyard of New Holland (navalmuseum.ru).
When to go
May to September is best, with the White Nights the peak. Winter is cold and dark, but beautiful. Go in early May and September to avoid the crowds.
Arriving in St Petersburg
St Petersburg is well connected to the rest of Europe by plane, train, ferry and bus links. The majority of travellers arrive by air at Pulkovo Airport. Flight time from London to St Petersburg is three hours, and from Moscow it’s under an hour. This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet St Petersburg (7th Edition) by Tom Masters and Simon Richmond, © Lonely Planet, 2015. Published next month, RRP: $29.99 SPECIAL OFFER for Escape readers: 20 per cent off Lonely Planet print guides and PDF chapters at shop.lonelyplanet.com. Enter code ‘ESCAPE20’ at checkout.