Saint Petersburg: Russia’s Cultural Capital

Following a couple of days in Moscow, our family boards a plane to Saint Petersburg while the rest of the group journey by train. It’s about an hour’s flight, and we arrive in our hotel in the town center just in time for breakfast. Our hotel is just beside the Saint Isaac Cathedral near the Historic Center district, and immediately, the rich cultural heritage of the city is evident in the elegant architecture of the buildings. Here, Russia feels more Western Europe.

We only have two days here, which is barely enough time to explore the Historic Center district and neighboring areas, so, like a cat dropped on the ground, I quickly get on my feet and start exploring.

The elegant Bolshaya Morskaya Street links the Palace Square with the main street of Nevsky Prospect. The Neoclassical design of the buildings along the street harks back to the opulence of the Russian aristocracy.
The Winter Palace Building was the official residence of Russian emperors until 1917. Today the building is part of the State Hermitage Museum.
The Church of the Savior in Spilled Blood’s distinctive design makes it one of the most recognizable sights in Saint Petersburg.
The Mikhailovsky Garden has walking paths redolent of Russian history.
Stalls by the riverside near the Church of the Savior in Spilled Blood sell matrioshkas and other souvenirs.

Saint Petersburg has also been called Petrograd and Leningrad in various points of its existence, reflecting Russia’s tumultuous history. The city was founded in 1701 by Peter the Great, and during its 300-year history, it became the home of the tsars and the cultural center of the Russian Empire. After the Bolshevik revolution, the city was re-christened into Petrograd, and then renamed as Leningrad in 1924 in honor of the revolutionary founder of the Russian Communist Party.

The epicenter of tourist attraction takes place in the Historic Center, the unofficial name for the area surrounding Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare and its heart. Numerous buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries are located here, with the most popular being the Hermitage Museum.

The Hermitage Museum is Saint Petersburg’s foremost attraction, the world’s second-largest museum featuring parts of a collection of over 3,000,000 pieces from Russia and other countries. The museum is housed in a complex of buildings including the Winter Palace, which served as the official residence of the tsars from 1732 until 1917. Works by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo are some of those that are in display.

A few minutes’ walk east is another iconic structure: the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. The church, built on a traditional Russian style, was constructed on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, hence its name. The interior is an elaborate display of mosaics.

A statue of poet Alexander Pushkin stands in front of the Russian Museum.
The Singer House is a historical and cultural icon of Saint Petersburg.
The neoclassical Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral was modeled after the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
The St. Isaac’s Cathedral was constructed as a church but now mainly functions as a Russian Orthodox museum.

Walking south along the canal across the church, I come across the Russian Museum, which, unlike the Hermitage, focuses more on Russian artworks and sculpture. Further south is the Singer House, a historical building with an official status as an object of Russian cultural heritage. The building was designed by architect Pavel Suzor for the Russian branch of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and was lated given to the Petrograd State Publishing House in 1919. It was renamed “The House of Books” in 1938, when it became the city’s largest bookstore.

At the other side of the road stands the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. It’s one of the largest cathedrals in St. Petersburg with an impressive neoclassical exterior and a richly decorated interior. The temple was built by Andrew Voronikhin under the commission of Paul I, who wanted a church similar to the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Yusupov Palace was once the house of the noble Yusupovs. It is also known as where Grigori Rasputin was murdered.
Cruising by boat along Saint Petersburg’s many canals is a quintessential tourist activity.

The next morning, we rent a van to make it easier to explore other parts of Saint Petersburg. Our first and main stop is the Peter and Paul Fortress across the Neva River from the Historic Center. Originally built as a fortress, the structure now forms the central part of the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History. Inside its walls is the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, notable for being the final resting place of the Russian tsars, including Nicholas II and his ill-fated family.

We also explore parts of Vasilievsky Island, which was originally planned to be the city center. That plan was abandoned when Peter the Great died, and in the center eventually shifted to the southern bank of the Neva. Nonetheless, several early 18th century buildings remain standing, and the island has since become the center of Saint Petersburg’s academic life.

The Hermitage’s Winter Palace Building provides a romantic backdrop to a riverside beach.
The Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral is the most popular structure inside the Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress served as the first citadel of Saint Petersburg.
The Museum of Political History of Russia is one of the handful of museums in the Petrogradsky District.
The preserved cruiser Aurora participated in the Battle of Tsushima (1905) and the October Revolution (1917). It is now moored in Saint Petersburg as a ship museum.
Traditional Russian dishes are served at a casual dining place.

With a tight schedule, we return after a few hours to the center. The rest of our group head straight to the train station for the trip back to Moscow, while our family returns to our hotel since our flight isn’t until a few hours later. I take this time to explore the Fontanka area of the Historic Center, located west of our hotel. Notable buildings include the Yusupov Palace (where the Russian mystic Rasputin was assassinated) and the Mariinsky Theatre (where ballet shows are regularly performed).

On our final hour before heading back to the airport, Yanyan, Joseph, and I go to the cafeteria of our hotel, where the outdoor dining area provides a nice view of the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. The cafe is still officially closed, but the friendly staff allows us to hang around to take pictures and sit at the outdoor patio. We take our time taking in the views, maximizing the last minutes of our very brief stay in this magnificent city.

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