IMG_8823.jpg

Hello

This is Alan, the author of the blog “Trails to Culture”. Follow me on the trails to discover the heritage and cultures of the world in style!

An imperial week-end in Saint-Petersburg (Russia)

An imperial week-end in Saint-Petersburg (Russia)

Welcome to the least and most Russian city at the same time. Saint Petersburg is fascinating and full of contradictions. This gem was created in 1703 from the iron will of Tsar Peter the Great. Inspired by his journey in Western Europe, he wanted a new capital that would break with Russian traditions. A city built with canals and a naval shipyard inspired by Amsterdam. A city with outstanding cathedrals and palaces modeled by European architects in the Baroque and Neoclassical styles. Finally, a city with a German name in his honor, Sankt-Petersburg. We visited the city during a week-end in November.

The Peter-and-Paul Fortress and the tombstones of the Tsars

The Peter-and-Paul fortress stands in the location of the very first building of the city. It was first a simple church made of wood surrounded by military tents in the middle of inhospitable marshlands.

In the early 1700, Tsar Peter the Great started to build a new capital city. Moscow was too backward for him and he wanted a more sophisticated city. He had in mind the architecture and style he saw during his trips in Western Europe.

He picked this location in the north west of Russia because it was strategically positioned against Sweden at the mouth of the Neva river on the shore of the Baltic sea.

The Peter & Paul fortress on the bank of the Neva river

The Peter & Paul fortress on the bank of the Neva river

The Tsar named a Swiss architect to materialize his vision, Domenico Trezzini. Actually the Swissman was the real founder of the original city. He actually imagined the first urban planning of the city and the location of the canals on the opposite shore.

He also first rebuilt the church of the fortress in brick and topped it with a giant golden spire. Today, this spire can be seen from miles around.

To visit it from the city center, we had to cross 2 bridges over the Neva river to reach the island of Petrogradsky.

The Peter & Paul Cathedral host the tombstones of Tsars

The Peter & Paul Cathedral host the tombstones of Tsars

The outside look of the cathedral of the Peter-and-Paul fortress is quite modest but the inside is richly ornamented.

Most importantly, it has a historical meaning that justifies a visit for history fans. The church contains the tombstones of Russian Tsars including Peter the Great but also Nikolai II and his entire family.

Nikolai II was the last Tsar of Russia who abdicated in 1917 during the first World War. The Soviets took over power and created the USSR a few years later.

The tombstone of Peter the Great, the founder of the city

The tombstone of Peter the Great, the founder of the city

Going to the Petrogradsky Island is also the perfect occasion to admire the panorama on the historical center on the other side of the Neva.

The view on the Winter Palace, the onions domes of the Church of the Savior and Saint-Isaac cathedral is definitely memorable.

View on Saint Petersburg and the Neva from Petrogradsky Island

View on Saint Petersburg and the Neva from Petrogradsky Island

The Cathedral “Our Lady of Kazan”

The cathedral of Our-Lady-of-Kazan is one of the most impressive religious buildings of the city with Saint-Isaac cathedral and the Church of the Savior on Spill Blood.

We went there on our first night. It is centrally located along the main artery of the city, the Nevski Prospekt. From the street, the visitor first sees a half-rounded colonnade in front of the cathedral which is topped by an impressive blue dome.

The colonnade in front of Kazan Cathedral and its giant dome

The colonnade in front of Kazan Cathedral and its giant dome

The construction started in 1801 following the will of the Tsar at that time to have a cathedral resembling Saint-Peter cathedral in the Vatican (Italy).

Orthodox authorities first disapproved the idea of copying a Catholic building, but the construction went on. This cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most revered icon in Russia.

Inside the cathedral inspired by Saint-Peter in the Vatican (Rome)

Inside the cathedral inspired by Saint-Peter in the Vatican (Rome)

When we entered inside the huge building, we noticed local women waiting in line in front of an altar containing a depiction of the iconic Lady of Kazan.

One after the other, these women kneel down and pray the icon for a moment. I read that even Stalin came all the way from Moscow to pray the icon when the USSR faced the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1941.

Women waiting in line to pray the icon of the Lady of Kazan

Women waiting in line to pray the icon of the Lady of Kazan

The cathedral also hosts the remains of the most iconic Russian army leader of all times, field-marshal Mikhaïl Kutuzov.

Kutuzov was the commander of the Russian army that protected the mother-land from the invasion of the Napoleon Great Army in 1812. It is said that Kutuzov prayed to Our Lady of Kazan to seek help in order to defeat the mighty French army.

The Kazan cathedral later became a symbol of this Patriotic war and Kutuzov was buried there. Today, you can still see his tombstone inside the cathedral. His statue stands outside the cathedral in front of the avenue Nevski Prospekt.

Statue of Field-marshal Kutuzov, a hero buried in the cathedral

Statue of Field-marshal Kutuzov, a hero buried in the cathedral

If you have the chance, it is also highly interesting to attend an Orthodox mass. Compared to a Christian mass, there is no bench to seat and people stay standing.

In the Orthodox Church, there is no instrument such as organs. We also noticed that the priest burned incense in a metal vessel that hangs on three chains and that has a cover to regulate the burning of charcoal. The fume going-up in the sky symbolizes prayers reaching God in heaven.

A ballet at the imperial Mariinsky Theatre

A ballet at the Mariinsky Theater is a unique experience both for the location, the atmosphere and the artistic performance. We never attended a ballet before, but this experience definitely ranks in our top traveling moments. Ballet may sound boring to outsiders, but it is not at all.

Attending a ballet in Saint-Petersburg is an experience

Attending a ballet in Saint-Petersburg is an experience

A ballet at Mariinsky perfectly represents the Russian spirit and the refinement of Saint-Petersburg. The ballet we picked was the “Nutcracker” from Russian author Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Actually the first ever representation of “The Nutcracker” was given in this very same theater back in 1892. Tchaikovsky is also the author of the world-famous “Swan-lake”.

The Mariinsky Theatre will transport you back in the imperial time and make you discover the rich ballet heritage of Russia. When our taxi dropped us in front of the building on a cold Sunday evening of November, we realized that ballet is a major cultural event for the local “high-society.”

Locals came in their best Sunday outfit and would sip a drink in the side alleys of the hall waiting for the ring to announce the start of the ballet.

The green building was built in 1860 in neoclassical style by an Italian architect and then restored by a French architect after a devastating fire. It was named Mariinsky in honor of the wife of the Tsar at that time. When we reached our balcony seats, we could admire the main hall, a wonderful place full of crystal chandeliers and gilding.

Gilding on the balconies inside the Mariinsky Theater

Gilding on the balconies inside the Mariinsky Theater

Then, the ballet was amazing and entertaining with all these costumes, dances and music. The ballet troop of the Mariinsky is famous and produced some of the best performers worldwide. The Nutcracker lasted around 2 hours and was cut by intermissions, a good occasion to have a glass of wine and a salmon canape in the cafeterias of the side alleys.

Performers receive the applause of the attendance at the end

Performers receive the applause of the attendance at the end

For tickets, we recommend booking in advance on the official theater website. We secured balcony seats for 48$ a piece with good plunging view on the scene.

The theater was located only 5 minutes away by taxi from our Sofitel hotel as well as from Saint-Isaac cathedral and the Winter Palace. To note, there is now a second modern performance hall, but we strongly advise to pick a ballet in the traditional hall.

Church of the Savior-on-Spilled-Blood 

This church is maybe one of the most iconic landmark of Saint Petersburg. Built next to a narrow canal, it is named “Savior on the Spilled Blood” because it was erected on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. This church can actually be considered as a memorial for the Tsar more than a religious place.

Picturesque view of the church next to the Griboedov canal

Picturesque view of the church next to the Griboedov canal

From the outside the building captures the imagination with its colorful onions domes.

Its architecture is also quite different from the neoclassical and baroque dominant styles of Saint-Petersburg. The architecture belongs to the “Romantic Nationalism” movement, which is inspired by medieval Russian churches.

Same view from the Griboedov canal at night

Same view from the Griboedov canal at night

If you go visit Moscow, the Saint-Basil church on the Red Square looks similar. Among the famous landmarks of the city, this church is the only one with an authentic Russian traditional style from which Tsar Peter the Great wanted to break away from.

The colorful onion bulbs remind of medieval architecture

The colorful onion bulbs remind of medieval architecture

View on the onions bulbs from the Field-of-Mars park

View on the onions bulbs from the Field-of-Mars park

From the inside, the walls and ceilings are completely covered in intricately detailed colorful mosaics. They mainly depict biblical scenes and figures.

Colorful interior of the church

Colorful interior of the church

The church does not hosts religious services and actually never had since the foundation. Indeed, it was built as a memorial for the Tsar who got killed here. A portion of the curb where he passed away has been preserved within the church compound.

Staying at the elegant So-Sofitel hotel

If you dream of a stylish hotel located at walking distance from all the main historical sites, the SO Sofitel is the perfect address. The hotel has been designed by a famous Italian architect and is maybe the most trendy address in town.

The lobby of the SO Sofitel hotel makes you feel welcomed

The lobby of the SO Sofitel hotel makes you feel welcomed

It is located in the middle of a “golden triangle” including Saint-Isaac cathedral, the Winter Palace with the Hermitage museum, and the Admiralty.

The Admiralty is the former headquarters of the Russian Imperial Navy. Let’s remember that Peter the Great wanted to build a fleet as strong as the one he saw in Amsterdam, making naval activities a central piece of his new city.

All these landmarks are reachable in less than 5 minutes walking from the hotel. Despite the central location, the hotel is located in a calm street with little traffic. In theory, you can actually visit most of the city by foot from there and do not need any taxi or public transportation.

Artistic arrangement in the cozy lobby of SO-Sofitel

Artistic arrangement in the cozy lobby of SO-Sofitel

We booked a room on the 8th floor (room category “SO Urban”) with panoramic windows offering a view on the city-scape including the Winter Palace.

The room was spacious and elegantly furnished with dominant white tones enlightened by touches of purple and yellow in the materials.

Room on the top floor of the hotel with a view on the Admiralty

Room on the top floor of the hotel with a view on the Admiralty

We loved the breakfast buffet and the restaurant on the ground floor. As it was November, we could not enjoy the outdoor rooftop bar that offers an amazing view on the golden dome of Saint Isaac Cathedral; the largest Orthodox church in the world.This rooftop should be very enjoyable in the warm months.

Finally there is a small swimming pool with sauna as well as a Spa in the underground floor. What we found amazing is the relatively affordable price for such a 5-star hotel in a perfect location (under 200$ per night).

The Hermitage museum and Winter Palace

The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world. It is a cultural gem of Saint-Petersburg that would require months to completely visit.

It is a large complex made of 5 buildings on the shore of the Neva river including the Winter Palace, the former imperial residence of the Tsars until the early 20th century.

The Winter Palace, home of Russian Tsars for centuries

The Winter Palace, home of Russian Tsars for centuries

Unless you stay one month in the city, it is impossible to visit the whole museum during a normal vacation stay. Between the Imperial apartments, the paintings from Dutch master Rembrandt and the Egyptian antiquities, there are so many things that it can become overwhelming for visitors.

This is why we suggest to pick one “angle” to visit the Hermitage. We wanted to discover the Winter Palace and the imperial apartments to imagine how the Russian Tsars and their families lived back then.

In addition, the Winter Palace was the theater of the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. It is therefore highly emotional to walk through the same place where Communism really started as a political power in the world.

To start the visit, we first crossed the gigantic palace square and accessed the inner courtyard of the Winter Palace via the main iron-gate with its two golden eagles on top, the symbol of Imperial Russia. To note, the palace had many reconstructions and the current version dates from the mid-18th century from Italian architect Rastrelli.

We advise to book tickets online if you come during high season. Surprisingly, Russian nationals pay less for admission that foreigners. There are now two automatic vending machines in the courtyard if you want to skip the waiting line. For us, November was still low season and there was no queue.

Among the highlights of the Winter Palace, we recommend first to admire the fabulous Jordan staircase leading to the floor of the Imperial apartments.

The Jordan staircase in the Winter Palace

The Jordan staircase in the Winter Palace

Another gem is the “Malachite” room named for its green columns and fireplace made of malachite, a green copper mineral.

The Malachite Room and its green columns made of malachite

The Malachite Room and its green columns made of malachite

Next to the Malachite room, there is a small dining room. On the night of the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, the members of the Russian transitional government had diner there while Bolsheviks troops stormed the palace.

When invaders entered the room, they arrested the officials and stopped a tiny clock in the middle of the table. Until recently, the clock was still indicating this precise historical hour.

Imagining Bolsheviks storming up this staircase in October 1917

Imagining Bolsheviks storming up this staircase in October 1917

Finally, we really liked the hall of the imperial throne (Saint George Hall) with a wooden parquet made of 16 types of valuable wood as well as the Gothic wooden library of Tsar Nikolai II.

Saint-Isaac: the largest Orthodox church in the world

Saint-Isaac Cathedral is the largest Orthodox church in the world and the fourth largest church in the world. It took 40 years from 1818 to 1858 to complete this imposing monument imagined by French architect Auguste de Monferrand.

The construction was an occasion to try new revolutionary building technologies. First, the builders had to dig-in thousand of wood trunks deep inside the marshy soil in order to stabilize the ground.

Saint-Isaac is the fourth largest church in the world

Saint-Isaac is the fourth largest church in the world

The ground plan follows a Russia-Byzantine formula of a Greek cross plan with a central dome plated with pure gold. Inside, it is an explosion of granite, gold, marble and columns made of green malachite and blue azulite, which are rare minerals.

Columns in malachite (green) and azulite (blue) minerals

Columns in malachite (green) and azulite (blue) minerals

We climbed on the top of the central dome to catch the nice view of the town. Alternatively, you can admire Saint Isaac from the nearby roof-top bar of the SO-Sofitel hotel or from Mansarda, a posh rooftop restaurant nearby.

The central dome of Saint-Isaac is plated with pure gold

The central dome of Saint-Isaac is plated with pure gold

We hope that this article will help you plan your perfect imperial gate-away in Saint Petersburg and understand its history and culture.

Our tips for addresses

Hotel SO Sofitel

Restaurants: Tbilisso (Georgian cuisine)


Discovering Xi’an besides the terracotta army

Discovering Xi’an besides the terracotta army

A complete guide for a first trip in Uzbekistan

A complete guide for a first trip in Uzbekistan