A city of windy canals, palaces and estates, St Petersburg is a fascinating place with an imperial past and revolutionary spirit. Established by Peter the Great, the city became the country’s window to the West. Its splendid architecture will take you back to the 18th and 19th century, and you will fall in love with the city’s bridges, mansions and atmosphere of freedom.
St Petersburg was founded on 16 May 1703 on the order of Tsar Peter I, with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The original name of the future capital of Russia was St Peter-Burkh. In the 1720s, it was replaced by St Petersburg. According to Peter's plan, the city was to become a new Rome, the political and cultural capital of the country. St Petersburg, with its rich and sometimes tragic history, was a beloved child of Peter the Great.
Zayachy Island, with its military buildings and bastions, was the first symbol of the city. The Peter and Paul Cathedral symbolises Russia's access to the Baltic Sea. St Petersburg soon became an important trading point with a powerful navy.
In 1712, Peter moved the entire Moscow court to St Petersburg, and in 1721 named the city on the Neva River the new Russian capital. New authorities were established here: the Senate, the Synod, the Collegium, the first public museum, the Kunstkammer, the Academy of Sciences and the Academic University. All the streets were constructed by foreign architects, and any visitor had to pay a stone tax.
The city’s land was distributed for free. St Petersburg was expanding fast, and by 1725 it already had 40 000 inhabitants.
The Public Library and Hermitage were established under Catherine II. During that time, the Russian army attacked the Turks and received Crimea, Lithuania, Belarus and part of western Ukraine. The population of St Petersburg was growing rapidly, and by the end of the 18th century, it had reached 230 000 people.
The next period of prosperity was under Alexander I, whose reign (1801-1825) was called the golden age of St Petersburg. The Smolny Institute, Kazan Cathedral and the Stock Exchange were built during this period, and the number of residents increased to 400 000 people. In 1824, St Petersburg survived the most devastating flood in its history. More than 500 people died, and many houses were destroyed. Serfdom was abolished under the great reformer Alexander II. This was also a time of cultural prosperity. Nicholas II was the last Emperor of the country. Despite the political unrest, the city on the Neva River continued to develop. In 1914, St Petersburg changed its name to Petrograd. In 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power, and Petrograd ceased to be the capital. After the death of Vladimir Lenin, the city was renamed Leningrad. During the Great Patriotic War (WWII), about 800 000 people died of starvation, cold and the bombings. Leningrad became the first Soviet Hero City. After the collapse of the USSR, St Petersburg regained its historical name.
Where to Stay
St Petersburg offers a wide range of accommodation for any taste and budget. Like any big city, it has numerous hotels, apartments, hostels and B&Bs. If you want to stay right in the heart of the city, opt for Palace Square and the Golden Triangle. Check out the Kempinski Hotel, Nevsky Hotel Grand or Pushka Inn Hotel. Vasilevsky Island district is home to the city’s oldest buildings, such as the Stock Exchange or State University. It combines historic charm and a bohemian atmosphere. Have a look at NashOtel or Shelfort Hotel. Nevsky Prospect district has a variety of shops, bars and restaurants. You can book the Nevsky Forum Hotel, Simple Hostel Nevsky or Akyan St Petersburg Hotel. The Vitebsk Station area is a middle-class neighbourhood with a high concentration of hotels and apartments (Helvecia Hotel or Fifth Corner Hotel). The Obvodny Canal can boast several fabulous examples of historical architecture and comparatively cheap hotels. Have a look at the City Hotel Comfitel or Bristol Hotel.
Bars and Restaurants
St Petersburg is often referred to as the culinary capital of Russia, and offers Russian and international cuisine. There are numerous restaurants with local delights à la Russe, such as Palkin or Russkaya Ryumochnaya No 1. Here, you can try brined mushrooms and vegetables, famous caloric salads with mayonnaise such as Olivier or Seledka Pod Shuboi, pancakes with caviar and ice-cold vodka. The number of pubs and beer restaurants is increasing every year. Spend an evening at Dickens or Shamrok to taste Russian beer. The city can also boast places with nice outdoor verandas (Grad Petrov or Terrassa). To enjoy a great cup of coffee, visit Surf Coffee, Double B, Pif Paf Coffee or Espresso Bike.
What to See
- Zayachy Island with its Peter and Paul Cathedral and Trubetskoy Bastion is the heart of the city. This is the place from which St Petersburg grew into the modern cosmopolitan city we see today.
- The State Hermitage Museum contains a huge collection of masterpieces on display in 360 rooms. It consists of five buildings along the riverside. The Imperial General Staff Building with its wide marble staircases and high walls is a historic building on Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square. It’s a new exhibition complex of the Hermitage.
- The Yusupov Palace is a magnificent building on the Moyka River. It’s a rich palace with chandeliers, painted halls, tapestries and decorated furniture. The place is also famous as the location of Rasputin’s murder in 1916.
- The colourful Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is a fairy-tale building with 7000 sq.m.of mosaics and a fabulous interior.
- The Mariinsky Theatre is a must-see for theatre lovers. It has seen the greatest dancers, musicians and opera singers perform. Here, you can enjoy a state-of-the-art ballet or opera, and admire the building’s architecture.
- The golden dome of St Isaac's Cathedral dominates the city’s skyline. If you want to enjoy a superb view from above, climb the 262 steps of the colonnade.
- Sightseeing outside the city:
- Peterhof is an enormous imperial estate not far from the city. You can start by exploring the Grand Palace, and then take a rest in the Lower Park with its picturesque canals, fountains and lanes.
- Pushkin (or Tsarskoe Selo) is a suburban estate that resembles Versailles in France. It takes a full day to explore its top attractions, the Catherine Palace, Catherine Park, Cameron Gallery and Alexander Palace. Pushkin was named in honour of Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin.
The city’s public transport network is really convenient and efficient, but may become overcrowded during rush hour. You can even use the canals to get around the city. Transport fares are comparatively low. If you are planning to stay for a week, it’s better to buy a travel card. The city’s metro is less busy than in Moscow. The bus and tram network is extensive, so you can easily get to any city district. A marshrutka is a private minibus, but the drivers sometimes exceed the speed limits. Taxis are reasonably priced.
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