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Saint Petersburg

The city of Saint Petersburg is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth, and virtually any building in the large historic center, threaded with canals dotted with baroque bridges, can be considered an attraction—and indeed, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a magical city, with a long list of major attractions. Its Hermitage Museum, housed in the Winter Palace of the Romanov Dynasty, is both one of the world's greatest and oldest collections of art, treasure, and antiquities, and one of its most beautiful buildings. There are more than 140 museums and around 100 theatres. St Petersburg is often referred to as an Open-air Museum.

Travel to St. Petersburg - The Venice of the North


In 1703, Tsar Peter the Great founded the city of St Petersburg on the mouth of the Neva in the Gulf of Finland. There, in that uninhabited flat marshland a modern capital would emerge, in emulation of Amsterdam. The strategically situated Peter and Paul Fortress and the Admiralty buildings were designed as defence works: the site was territory captured from Sweden. Architects from all parts of Europe supplied designs for the new city. Three rivers met at the confluence: Neva, Moika and Fontanka. Smaller meandering waterways formed the canals. The reclamation of the marshy soil was based on the Dutch model. As in Amsterdam, countless tree trunks were sunk into the muddy ground to provide the subterranean supports above which the buildings were erected. Dutch windmills powered the water pumps and sawed the timber; wood and stone were shipped in from far and wide.


This is a painting of one of the Hermitage halls by Russian artist Eduard Gau. Amazing attention to detail!


The tsar wanted a capital that provided Russia with a window to the West. Instead of traditional timber, this city would be made of stone. Architect Domenico Trezzini designed the first stone buildings: the tsar’s Summer Palace and the Peter and Paul Cathedral – the latter based on Dutch examples. Little stone is available in Russia for building. So all the material was shipped to Petersburg; no vessel could dock in the harbour without bringing a cargo of stone. Even so, the city’s first houses and the tsar’s temporary accommodation were of timber.

LIST_SIGHTSIn 1712, Peter the Great left Moscow and moved into his new residence in Sint-Pietersburgh, as the Dutch shipbuilders called the city. Russia’s foreign ambassadors, civil servants, merchants and craftsmen followed suit. Along the Neva and its tributaries rows of mansions and palaces appeared, belonging to leading families: the Orlovs, the Shuvalovs, the Shermetevs, the Yusopovs and the Stroganovs. The more serfs they had, the bigger the palace. As in Holland, all the buildings were arranged neatly along the embankments. None were more than four storeys high, in order not to overshadow the tsar’s Winter Palace. Three large avenues divided the Neva’s southern bank, one being Nevski Prospekt. The grand 18th-century houses on what is today the main thoroughfare are reminiscent of the country mansions along the Vecht and Amstel.

Around the city the tsar (and after him his successors) had huge parks built in different styles. Dutch gardeners were clearly influential, especially in the early years. The lime trees on the terrace at Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer residence, were specially imported from the Netherlands. The actual buildings are more reminiscent of Versailles: they were designed in the strictly symmetrical French style. Many of the country estates modelled their grounds on the English landscape style.

This glorious city did not build itself. Huge numbers of (forced) labourers, including many Swedish prisoners of war, perished from exhaustion and disease in the construction of St Petersburg. In all, around 100,000 people died in the eighteen years that it took to establish the city. Some called St Petersburg the city built on bones. Constructed in a sparsely populated area of the country, many people were ordered to move to the new city from other parts of Russia.

The Alexander Column in Palace Square, St. Petersburg was erected after the Russian victory over Napoleon's France. Funny thing this monument was designed by a French-born architect.

After Peter the Great’s death, it was his daughter, Empress Elizabeth I, whose enthusiasm encouraged the next surge in construction in St Petersburg. This time new styles predominated: mainly French, Italian and traditional Russian. The residential areas and buildings by Elizabeth’s architect Bartholomeo Rastrelli – who designed the Winter Palace, Smolny monastery and the summer residence at Tsarskoye Selo - set the tone for the city. Under Alexander I, Carlo Rossi provided a classical impulse with his Mikhailov Palace and Alexandrinski Theatre.

More than 100 kg of gold were used to decorate the façade of Catherine's Palace in Pushkin.

Between 1850 and 1915, St Petersburg expanded and modernised, with railway stations, department stores, factories and apartment complexes - many in Style Moderne, the Russian version of Art Nouveau. After the 1917 Revolution, Petrograd (1914-1924), later Leningrad (1924-1991) was no longer Russia’s capital. Government offices moved to Moscow and major architectural innovations passed the city by. During the Second World War many 18th- and 19th-century buildings were either damaged or destroyed. After the war, most were given new functions: Kazan Cathedral, for example, was ironically reallocated as a Museum of Atheism. The architectural impact of the Soviet period remained limited to an uninspiring series of housing blocks and other rectangular structures. Today’s new residential areas have a more typically Russian appearance: functional and monumental, yet here and there an upturned onion.

10 must-do things in Saint Petersburg

1. To take of boat trip along the canals and rivers of St. Petersburg and to watch magic drawbridges across the Neva.
2. To see the amazing Church of the Savior on Blood. It was built on the site of Alexander II's assassination and dedicated in his memory.
3. To take Russian naval cruise Aurora. It is a 1900 Russian protected cruiser, currently preserved as a museum ship in St. Petersburg.
4. To walk in a marvelous ensemble of palaces and parks of St. Petersburg – Peterhof, Pushkin, Pavlovsk and Gatchina.
5. To visit Petrovsky Stadium to see the "Zenit" football club - 2008 UEFA Cup winner.
6. To visit the memorial apartment of one of Russia's most renowned and prolific writers - Dostoevsky.
7. To enjoy possibly the greatest Russian opera by Modest Mussorgsky – “Khovanshchina” at the Mariinsky Theatre.
8. To walk in the former Finnish city of Viipuri (Vyborg) and to see its beautiful architecture where the Saimaa Canal enters the Gulf of Finland.
9. To see the collection of The State Hermitage and The State Russian Museum includes more than three million works of art and artifacts of the world culture.
10. To pick up the Colonnade of St. Isaac's Cathedral - the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city. It is one of most famous Saint Petersburg's sights.


Average temperature in St. Petersburg


"St. Petersburg in your pocket" guide

In your pocket St. Petersburg guide
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Brief facts
Year of Foundation: 1703
Population: 5 mln.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Capital of the Russian Empire (1721 - 1917)