Grand city of the czars
St. Petersburg renowned for its architecture
St. Petersburg continually amazes me. Once a swamp, then an imperial capital, and now a showpiece of long-ago aristocratic opulence, it is Russia’s most accessible and tourist-worthy city.
During the Soviet era, the city was drab and called Leningrad. Its striking beauty today is all the more remarkable given that this place was devastated by a 900-day Nazi siege during the Second World War.
As if turning the clock back to its glory days, the metropolis once again goes by its original name, and its architectural treasures have been spiffed up. Today St. Petersburg sparkles, with restored palaces, gardens, statues, and bridges arching over graceful waterways.
St. Petersburg was Russia’s capital from 1712 until 1918. The fabulously wealthy Romanov czars and czarinas were in power for all that time, and the imposing buildings they erected were just one of the ways they said, “We’re in charge here.”
It started in the early 1700s, when Peter the Great, inspired by a trip to Amsterdam, laid out his city in a grid plan with canals. Many of those original neighbourhoods survive, their canals now filled in and converted to parks. Palaces and fancy apartments line the surviving waterways and boulevards.
On a sunny day, take time to walk and admire the cityscape. The upper facades are sun-warmed and untouched by street grime. The palette of pastels is as pretty as a Fabergé egg.
You can t race the city’s story through the architectural legacy of its great rulers and their favourite designers. Peter’s daughter Elizabeth, who reigned from 1741 to 1762, imported the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, whose grandiose buildings burst with Baroque energy. Rastrelli’s most famous buildings are the huge Winter Palace on the Neva River and the grand Catherine Palace just outside town.
With the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the age of czarist rule was over. Today, Russians have developed a nostalgia for the art and architecture of those imperial days. They, and the tourists who visit St. Petersburg, have come to appreciate the remarkably harmonious cityscape conceived by Peter the Great and added to by his successors.