It’s impossible to see everything there is to behold in the magical St Petersburg, the cultural city of Russia. Nevertheless, I’m hoping this ’48 Hours in St Petersburg’ is a start if you are planning to visit this dreamy city that looks like it has come straight out of an ancient book of fairy tales.
I have always dreamt of going to Russia, but this year it finally came true and I had the trip of a lifetime visit to this deeply fascinating, colourful and enigmatic country. I’ve already shared many of these moments on my travel Instagram, but now that I have reignited this little place online it’s going to be even more special to look back at these incredible memories.
I booked through Cox and Kings as they had a huge array of fascinating Russian Itineraries. A perfect place to start is their Discover Russia page outlining all the various options. We decided to opt for one of the private Russian tours, and to explore Russia with a Volga Dream cruise. From the moment I stepped aboard this luxury boutique ship, I was totally swept up in Russian culture, language, history and breathtaking sights that would enthrall me for the next 12 days. And now over the next few posts I can take you with me to explore my Volga Dream in Russia. First stop: St Petersburg.
Nothing can prepare you for the sheer magnificence of St. Petersburg. What started as an unbelievably ambitious project by Peter the Great just over 300 years ago to create an imperial capital out of marshland is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Try and imagine Versaille in Amsterdam and you begin to appreciate the grandeur of its buildings built on 44 islands.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Best to start as we did at the beginning and go to Peter and Paul Fortress. The main building within the fortress is St Peter and Paul Cathedral. In its glorious gold and green interior you will find the tombs of the Tsars from Peter the Great onwards. A very poignant side chapel houses the remains of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II and some of his family. They were all assassinated in 1918 and careful forensic investigations in 1998 were able to identify them.
This is the oldest church in St. Petersburg, and also the second-tallest building in the city (after the television tower). It is intimately linked to both the history of the city and to the Romanov dynasty, as it is home to the graves of nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great. This was actually my first day in St Petersburg and I honestly thought the trip had peaked visiting this spot alone!
Although never used for its original military purpose the fortress was used as a political prison and torture chamber for many famous political prisoners.
Inside, you can see the early 18th-century cathedral with a stunning, lavish Baroque interior. My little heart was so overwhelmed at the opulent interior of the cathedral that was just breathtaking. But it also marked a departure from the classical architecture found in Orthodox Russian churches with its large vaults, ceiling paintings, chandeliers and marble Corinthian columns finished with gilded trimming. This was my first proper day in St Petersburg but looking back on my trip I can truly appreciate how unique this design is in Russian churches.
One name everyone associated with Russia is that of Faberge and The Fabergé Museum housed in the neo-classical Shuvalov Palace is home to over 4,000 artefacts. Faberge eggs are considered to be among the great symbols of Russia and its rich history and the amazing and legendary works of Carl Faberge are famous worldwide.
The very first Faberge egg (also known as Imperial Easter Egg) was created on a special order from Russian Emperor Alexander III in 1885. The Emperor wanted to give a unique and special present to his wife, Maria Feodorovna for Easter. And so the jeweller Carl Faberge created the very first egg, which also contained a secret: the imperial crown and a ruby pendant, inside of a gold hen. Maria Feodorovna was delighted by the gift with the hidden jewelled surprises and this gift was the starting point for the annual imperial tradition that continued for 32 years until 1917: every year Alexander presented a new Faberge Egg with a unique design to his wife.
His son, Emperor Nikolai II, continued this tradition and annually presented one egg to his mother, Maria Feodorovna, and one to his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.
If time is short, head to see the 9 Imperial Easter Eggs made for the Tsars. It’s impossible to pick a favourite but on my list would be the rosebud egg as I bought a replica of it in the gift shop. A perfect holiday souvenir you won’t find anywhere else!
The Hermitage Museum
As someone who adores art history, you can imagine how much I’d been looking forward to our next visit The Hermitage, the winter palace of Catherine the Great that consists of five interconnected buildings, the largest of which is the Winter Palace that gloriously picturesque turquoise above.
It’s honestly hard to put into words just how magnificent this gallery is and I wandered around in a pure state of enchantment at every single element to this grand, beautiful place full of treasures that are more than the eyes and mind can take in at once. Even if you’re not an art history fan, I challenge anyone not to gasp in awe when you enter the enormous Palace Square and see what is one of the world’s greatest if not the greatest art museum.
Its 3 million exhibits (only a tiny fraction of which are on display at any one time) include treasures from every century in history and every corner of the world. Think of any great artist and you’re sure to find your favourite be it Rembrandt or Picasso. The problem is it would take you years to see it all so you’ll just have to follow my example and head for the highlights. And because it is considered to be one of the greatest collections of art in the world and that I believe is just as impressive to the untrained eye and a dream-come-true for art enthusiasts like myself.
What really makes this place special is the breathtaking splendour of its interior decoration. Every room and staircase is a jewel of architectural delight. But what really makes this museum special is that it is housed in the former Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars so the building alone is steeped in history and stories.
The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Romanov Tsars from 1762 until the revolution in 1917 and it alone contains over 1,000 rooms, 1,900 windows, 1,700 doors and 100 staircases. There’s no way I can possibly begin to explain how beautiful it was inside or how much it meant to explore. I just feel so, so lucky I finally got to experience this museum like I’ve wanted to ever since I was a little girl. In fact looking back on these still brings happy tears to my eyes. In order to do justice to my experience, I’m going to create a
As you travel around St Petersburg you can’t miss Nevsky Prospekt which is the main thoroughfare, a lively street with shops and restaurants like anywhere else in Europe.
Whilst taking a stroll along Nevsky Prospekt you cannot fail to notice the impressive Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. Kazan Cathedral was constructed between 1801 and 1811 by the architect Andrei Voronikhin. It was built to an enormous scale and boasts an impressive stone colonnade, encircling a small garden and central fountain. It starts from the golden spire of the Admiralty and was modelled on St Peter’s in Rome.
State Russian Museum
‘It is better to have dreamed a thousand dreams that never were than never to have dreamed at all.’ ~ Alexander Pushkin.
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a Russian poet, playwright, and novelist of the Romantic era who is considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. He truly is a national treasure of Russia and here in the U.K. where you can find most people can quote Shakespeare, the same can be said of Pushkin in Russia, but if not more here.
There are several statues of Russia’s greatest poet in St. Petersburg but the finest of them is probably that which stands in front of the State Russian Museum on Ploshchad Iskusstv. The monument was created by sculptor Mikhail Anikushin and erected in 1957 to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg (the city was actually founded in 1703 but the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 delayed celebrations by a full four years).
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Just a few streets away is the iconic The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It’s called that because this was the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered. Thus, the Church Of The Spilled Blood, is also known as ‘The Church of the Resurrection’ that was built in memory of Alexander II who was assassinated in 1881 and the church stands in the very place where a bomb was thrown into his carriage by a young man who opposed the Tsar’s reforms.
It’s amazing outside and even more so inside as there’s not a single picture, but the walls are entirely covered in mosaics. I’m afraid I don’t have the iconic photo of the breathtaking Church Of The Spilled Blood from the outside because the majority was covered in scaffolding for renovation work, so above is a selection of close-ups of the opulent, stunning architecture.
Its peculiar multicoloured exterior makes it stand out from St. Petersburg’s typically strict architectural proportions and colour combinations and it truly stood out amongst the pastel tones I had already been seeing. With its 5 onion
One of the most impressive elements of the church is the extravagant shrine constructed on the spot where Alexander II was fatally wounded, which has maintained a special place within the church’s interior. It was constructed to Parland’s design and completed in July 1907. Rising up the shrine, small rectangular columns unite the carved stone awning and the decorated mosaic icons with images of the patron saint of the Romanov family.
The church also has an outstanding and varied collection of mosaic icons. Several icons were completed in the traditions of academic painting, modernist style and Byzantine icon painting. Does it, or does it not take your breath away?
Just north of Nevsky Prospect is a neighbourhood called Smolny where President Putin grew up. That’s not the reason however to visit it! I recommend it because of the stunning blue and white Smoly Cathedral, one of the most amazing in Russia.
The breathtakingly pretty blue and white Smolny Cathedral was originally intended to be the central church of a monastery, built to house the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth after she was disallowed to take the throne and opted instead to become a nun. However, as soon as her Imperial predecessor was overthrown during a coup, carried out by the royal guards, Elizabeth decided to forget the whole idea of a stern monastic life and happily accepted the offer of the Russian throne. And when she did become Empress it was said that Elizabeth never wore the same ball gown twice so probably a good change of career!
The buildings were created by Italian architect Rastrelli, who also created the Winter Palace (otherwise known as the Hermitage art museum), the Grand Catherine Palace in Pushkin, the Grand Palace in Peterhof and many other major St. Petersburg landmarks I’ll post about soon.
The cathedral is the centre of the convent, built by Rastrelli between 1748 and 1764. When Elizabeth stepped down from the throne the funding that had supported the constructed of the convent rapidly ran out and Rastrelli was unable to build the huge bell-tower he had planned or finish the interior of the cathedral. The building was only finished in 1835 with the addition of a neo-classical interior to suit the
Today Smolny Cathedral is used primarily as a concert hall and the surrounding convent houses various offices and government institutions
Nightime River Cruise
To get the very most out of your 48 hours I’d highly recommend a River Cruise to admire some of the 300 bridges! Built on the water and surrounded by a multitude of rivers and canals, not to mention the Gulf of Finland right on the doorstep (seen in Peterhof), St Petersburg is also called the “Venice of the North” as Goethe once dubbed it.
Additionally, because of its geographical position, St Petersburg is famous for its white nights so when I was there in June it didn’t go dark until about 3 am so it was just wonderful for taking photos in the evening!
I’ve attached a video above of a video from my time in St Petersburg, featuring the Kryukov Canal with the magnificent St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral just appearing beautifully out of nowhere. Such was the charm of this unforgettable city.
If you have more than 48 hours….
About 16 miles south is Catherine Palace so allow half a day to see even the highlights.
Originally given to Catherine I who was Peter the Great’s wife it was her daughter Empress Elizabeth who spent a fortune on it and named it in her honour. Among the magnificent staterooms is the Grand Hall lined with enormous mirrors but the jewel in the palace is the Amber Room, which as the name suggests is floor to ceiling decorated in amber. Sadly hugely damaged in the War it’s now been restored to its former glory. By the way don’t forget to leave some time to stroll through the beautiful gardens.
One of the most popular attractions is Peterhof, about a 40-minute drive from the city, often called “Russian Versailles”. Although Versaille did inspire Peter the Great to build this extraordinary Palace personally I rate this UNESCO site much higher. I spent about 3 hours there and just did the park which is famous for its technological achievements in that the 144 fountains operate without pumps but rely on the pressure created from elevation differences. The Grand Cascade has 37 gilded statues, 64 fountains and 142 water jets with an artificial grotto at the centre- a photographer’s paradise! And the children were happy too as they tried to dodge the joke fountains, not realising a man was operating them remotely and there was no escape from getting a drenching!
And there ends
How many of you have also been to St Petersburg or Russia? I’ll be following this post with my whole adventures travelling down the Volga River with Volga Dream. Also, please do let me know if you like this ’48 Hours in…’ type of posts to document my travels!