Built from the vision of one headstrong tsar, the elegant and impressive St Petersburg has gone from marsh to metropolis in 300 years, and it’s clearly not finished there…
♦ ASSISTANT EDITOR ♦ Aiming to set foot among the European-crafted delights of St Petersburg
St Petersburg is down to one man’s tenacity. Mere marshland a little over 300 years ago, its boggy setting would tell most builders that it’s no place for a city. Not Tsar Peter the Great. Once he nabbed the land off the Swedes in 1703, he set to work. It came at a price – the bones of labourers line its foundations – but just nine years later, Russia had a new capital.
At the time it was a big statement of intent, and its elegance has stood the test of time. The web of canals built on the marsh draws comparisons to Venice today, and its smart mansions and avenues smack of Paris – not surprising considering the Tsar’s fleet of European architects at the time.
Russia can be a divisive country among travellers yet it’s clearly growing in your affections – finishing seventh in the ‘Top Country’ category of our annual Reader Travel Awards. We have a sneaky feeling the ‘Venice of the North’ had a little to do with that.
Getting there & around
Both British Airways (britishairways.com) and Aeroflot fly direct to St Petersburg from Heathrow and Gatwick respectively, taking around 3.5 hours. Return fares from around £144.
On arrival, St Petersburg has a large public transport system, consisting of trolleybuses, buses, trams and a metro. Single journeys start from RUB40 (50p), or buy a Podorozhnik travel card for RUB51 (65p; valid on all transport), which offers discounted rates. Alternatively, travel passes range from RUB180 (£2.30 for one day) to RUB680 (£8.70 seven days).
The Tsar saw St Petersburg as a ‘window looking into Europe’, and its western influence has only grown. Nevsky Prospekt, its main artery, buzzes to the sound of coffee cups and chatter, all under the electric-blue domes of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral.
Extravagant buildings aren’t in short supply here. The candy-coloured Church of the Saviour On Spilled Blood marks the spot where Alexander II was assassinated, while the golden-topped St Isaac’s Cathedral boasts fine ceiling paintings.
But nothing beats the vast Winter Palace (see p150), the seat of Russia’s emperors until the 1917 Revolution, when the capital reverted to Moscow. Its Hermitage Museum is truly world class, with many a lost day spent wandering its art collection.
Gaze across the Neva River and you’ll see the roots of the city. Built in 1703, the Peter and Paul Fortress began it all and, prior to the Revolution, was the chief resting place for Russia’s monarchs, including Peter himself. There’s still plenty to see, from its cathedral and jail to a host of exhibitions. The panoramic views from its Curtain Wall alone is a swoon-worthy reminder of how far St Petersburg has come – not bad for an uninhabitable bog.