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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the inside, the walls and ceilings are completely covered in intricately detailed colorful mosaics. They mainly depict biblical scenes and figures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another gem is the “Malachite” room named for its green columns and fireplace made of malachite, a green copper mineral.
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.
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.
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.
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.