St. Petersburg is an ancient and graceful city of elegant, palace lined boulevards, bridges arching over canals and huge squares like great courtyards before beautiful churches. It's the city of a man with an eye for the aesthetic, Peter the Great. Frequently referred to as the 'Venice of the North', this is as European a city as Russia could produce.
Some of St. Petersburg's rich treasures are on show in museums, some are the buildings themselves, but some of them have been hidden away since the Revolution, but there's more than enough on public display to keep visitors gawping for a week or two. This trip tries to pack as much as possible into four days.
The Red Arrow gets in at, interestingly named, Moscow station, at the top of the Nevsky Prospekt, which then runs along for another five kilometres to the Admiralty, past a number of the city's main attractions, as well as good places to shop and eat. The Church of our Saviour of Spilled Blood is one of the first attractions strollers arrive at. The blood in question belongs to Alexander II – he was grenade-ed – and the church is now a museum for mosaics mimicking some of the great Russian artworks.
St. Petersburg is a pedestrian friendly city, but if it looks too far on the map you can always take a ride on the canal. In the afternoon make your way to the Yusupov Palace, for your first taste of St. Petersburg opulence. This grand, pale yellow palace is where Rasputin was murdered and is now a museum to that grizzly event, and definitely worth wandering through for its horrible history: Prince Yusupov had to poison, shoot, bludgeon and throw Rasputin in the river before he was finally rid of him.
After that story it's a good idea to cleanse yourself at St. Isaac's Cathedral, staid from the outside, inside the jewel encrusted golden decorations around the icons aren't out of step with the rest of the grandeur four days in St. Petersburg will expose you to.
If you only see one thing in St. Petersburg it should be The Hermitage and it could very well happen by accident that it's the only thing you have time to see. This museum fills six buildings – the main one used to be baroque, 1,057 roomed wonder, the Winter Palace - and houses over three million items, starting with Catherine the Great's collection of paintings and ending with personal items belonging to the tzars. The art works, objet d'art and aretfacts include a replica of Raphael's loggia from the Vatican, a tsarina's 48 piece gold diamond encrusted toilette set, a pair of 7,000 year old Scythian gold earrings collected by Peter the Great and a great peacock clock which spreads its tail magnificently when it chimes. Picasso, Faberge, Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Michelangelo are also represented in this amazing collection - which doesn't open until 10:30 - but you should get to by 10. See it on one of the first days in case you're passionately compelled to go back.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral is within the Peter and Paul Fortress and is where many Russian rulers are interred in their final grand resting places, including Peter the Great. It's a good place to come after the Hermitage begins to close its doors, far too early, starting from 4:45.
The he first few days were just a warm up for the real magnificence of Russian Royalty. Alexander Palace is the ultimate expression of Grandmotherly love and was future Tzar Alexander's lap of luxury from age sixteen, before being the last home of the Imperial family. Pavlovsk Palace looks like the grandest of Italian villas on the outside and inside is decorated with Roman sculptures, Egyptian detailing and a impressively painted ceilings like those of the French court. But the Summer Garden is overlooked by the grandest of them all – the place where more is more: Catherine Palace, a blue, white and gold monument to the vast wealth of the Russian Tzars. Everything is designed for greatest possible grand effect, using over 100kgs worth of gold in the statues and roofs alone. This structure most grand came from the imagination of not Catherine the Great, but Catherine I who obviously had a thing for floral silk and big mirrors in golden frames.
Peterhof is the Russian Versailles, outside it's all water features – it famously has 250 fountains - perfect lawns, and classical pillars and statues – some covered in gold leaf - and inside it's indescribably opulent. Take the hydrofoil there are arrive like the tzars did, then stroll the grounds enjoying the views of the Baltic before making a decision about whether you think Peter had anything to add to Catherine's attempt to over dress a palace most perfectly.
Before some kind of grandeur induced blindness sets in visit the Pushkin Museum, in the humble flat where the great poet, author and scholar lived, the museum is still filled with an extensive collection of his, rather simple by comparison, personal effects. Then spend the afternoon appreciating the austere, socialist side of Russian culture by visiting some of St. Petersburg's other famous sons, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky in the Tivkin Cemetery within the Alexander Nevsky Monastery complex of Russian Orthodox Churches.
For a final hurrah to St. Petersburg's love of beautiful things, spend your final night at the Mariinsky Theatre appreciating the living lineage of this passionate affair with the aesthetic of wealth. Book a table for chicken kiev, caviar and vodka afterwards, naturally.
The best time to visit St. Petersburg is during the White Nights Festival - a highlight of an already packed artistic calendar when the long, light nights of summer ring with the sound of revelling and entertainment.
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