Walks With Folks

Top 5 things to See in Saint-Petersburg

Saint-Petersburg is known as the Russian cultural capital which means that it is full of beautiful and inspiring attractions! According to recommendations from our tour guides and tourists, the city "must see" list for a short visit looks like this:
  • St. Isaac Cathedral
    The main church of the Russian Empire with astounding mosaic and gem interior decorations
  • Peter and Paul Fortress
    The oldest part of the city, the citadel from which the story of Saint-Petersburg begins.
  • Catherine Palace
    Large imperial palace with dozens of gold rooms and one and only Amber room, the 8th wonder of the world.
  • The church on the Spilled Blood
    The most elaborate Russian style church, with 7000 square meters of mosaics and colorful onion domes.
  • The Hermitage
    Former residence of Russian Monarchs and a stunning art museum.

Saint Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaacs Cathedral is the fourth largest Cathedral Dome in the world. It took 40 years to build this magnificent place of worship that can accommodate over 12000 people and is decorated with gold and silver to startle anyone who enters.

Any grand structure has a story behind it and the story of St. Isaacs Cathedral starts at the time of Peter the Great. Actually, let us step back all the way to the 4th century of Vizantia, where one of the first Christian monks was baptized as Isaac. Isaac was persecuted by pagans, helped poor people, promoted Orthodox Christianity and after his death was canonized. As history would have it, Peter the Great was born on the feast day of St. Isaac and he wanted to have a church in Saint Petersburg dedicated to his patron saint. The church was constructed soon after the foundation of the city, it was small, made of wood and unfortunately dilapidated in several years. Thus in 1717 Peter the Great laid down the foundation of the second church of St Isaac and even got married there to his second wife Catherine the First. The new church was built very close to the Neva river and nature took its toll slowly causing cracks in the walls and floor of the church, so in the middle of the 18th century it was dismantled just like the first one.

The third church of St. Isaac was initiated by Catherine the Great, who admired Peter and his heritage. She wisely chose a different place for the construction of the Cathedral and pink marble as the main material. It was designed as a two story building with a tall bell tower, but at the time when Catherine died, only the first floor was completed. Next, Russian emperor Paul the First having a complicated relationship with his mother disliked all her projects, so he ended up using the pink marble to decorate his own palace instead of continuing the construction of the church.

Much later Paul's son - Alexander the First announced a competition to construct the forth version of St. Isaac's church. The winner was a French architect August Monferran, who ended up moving to Russia and stayed for 40 years working on the cathedral.

Construction started in 1818. As Saint Petersburg is located on marsh lands, the soil contains a high percentage of water, so, first of all, August Monferran set out to strengthen the ground on which the Cathedral was to be build. To achieve this he ordered to place more than 25 000 pine wooden trunks into the ground, filling the space between the trunks with chalk, as chalk absorbs moisture. As a result of these preparations the soil became strong enough to withhold a giant cathedral.

After Monferran and his team strengthened the soil while placing granite slabs on top of wooden trunks, their next step was to erect huge granite columns to surround the cathedral. The enormous pieces of granite where excavated not far from the Russian-Finnish border and were transferred to Saint-Petersburg by barges.

Now, after getting the columns to Saint-Petersburg, the next logical step was to erect them. The weight of one column was 114 tons, in the XIX century there were no special machines or cranes to raise the columns. Yet, August Monferran did not even use horses, instead he found a way to erect the columns using only human power. At the basement of the cathedral were constructed 3 rows of scaffoldings (for 3 rows of columns) 70 meters in hight. The workers placed a column, in between every row of scaffolding and tied the columns with numerous ropes.

One end of the rope was tied to the base of the column, while the other end was connected with special wooden rotator called capstone. The 126 workers started rotating the machines around its axes, and the column was pulled up. It took the men only 45 min to erect one column, extremely fast even by today's standards. The use of such technology was so interesting and unusual to see, that people from all over St.Petersburg came to watch. All in all the cathedral has 112 columns and it took about a year to erect all of them.

St. Isaac Cathedral was being constructed to be the main church of the Russian empire, so the government did not spare any money in decorating it. The interior of the Cathedral has 42 different kinds of semi-precious stones and 14 types of marble that decorate the walls and the altar. The stones were transported from Italy, France, Germany, Afghanistan, Turkey, and many other countries.

While on a tour of Saint-Petersburg don't miss the chance to go to the top of the Cathedral and see the 25 meter dome that is covered with a gilded brush sheets. Learn the story on how it was constructed: workers took the brush sheets, and a natural fluid compound of gold and mercury, and started a controlled fire underneath. Mercury evaporated, so left over was a thin layer of gold covering the sheets. The whole process took place on the ground and it was done 3 times. The main craftsmen who was responsible for the production process put his personal hallmark on the dome, which guaranteed 100 years of quality. In 1958 engineers checked the quality of the dome and it was in perfect condition, to this day there is no need to put new layers of gold.

Today St.Isaac Cathedral is a functioning Orthodox Church and also one of the most visited museums in Saint-Petersburg.

Every Wednesday is a day off, but any other day from 10 a.m. till 17.30 p.m. the doors are opened for visitors. From May till September there are additional working hours from 6 p.m. till 10.30 p.m.


Peter and Paul's Fortress

Peter and Paul's Fortress is the very first structure of Saint-Petersburg. It was founded even before Peter the Great decided to construct the city of Saint-Petersburg on the banks of the Neva river. In 1700 Russia began a war with Sweden to gain access to the Baltic Sea and so to protect the newly gained land a fortress was constructed. The place for the new fortress was strategically chosen - a small island at the delta of Neva river. Construction began in 1703 and soon Peter realized that this could be an ideal place for Russia's new capital. The city was named Saint-Petersburg in honor of Apostol Peter. And the first cathedral of the city was built right in the middle of the fortress, both the cathedral and fortress were named after Apostles Peter and Paul.

Luckily, the Swedish troops never came even close to the walls of the fortress and it has never actually participated in any military events. As Saint-Petersburg expanded, soldiers left the bastions and casemates were converted into a political prison. All the way up to the Russian Revolution it was one of the most secure prisons of solitary confinement. Anyone who showed dissatisfaction with the country's political course or regime were detained here. Ironically, one of the first prisoners of the fortress was the son of Peter the Great - Alexis, as he was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow his father. Some of the most famous prisoners of the fortress include Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, brother of Vladimir Lenin – Alekxandr Ulyanov, Leo Trotsky and many other notable revolutionaries were incarcerated here. As of today, the casemates have been converted to a museum and during your visit you can see the prisoners cells, inner yard of the former penitentiary and even take a look at samples of prisoner's uniforms.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral has also changed it's initial purpose. Although it still functions as an Orthodox Church, it has become a burial place for Russian emperors. The first Russian emperor to be buried here was Peter the Great, who proclaimed himself as am emperor and Russia as an Empire in 1721. All the rulers who governed before Peter were called just tsars and they are buried in Moscow. Soviet leaders are also buried in Moscow because after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the country's capital was returned to Moscow. However, for over 200 years Russian monarchs and their closest relatives were buried inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral instead of the cemetery. The last Russian tsar Nicholas II and his family whose remains were found only in the 1990's after the collapse of the Soviet Union are also buried here. The architect of the cathedral Dominico Tresini was a Catholic so the inside of the Cathedral is very different form a typical Russian Orthodox church. There are no icons on the walls, rather the interior is decorated with paintings and trophy banners, as this cathedral also served to commemorate the victory over Sweden. The giant altar is carved of Tilia tree and is covered with a layer of gold.

Locals like to go to the fortress for evening or morning strolls as the territory is similar to a large park. As the fortress is located in the center of the city there is a beautiful view of the Neva river, Winter Palace and the city center from the various bastions of the fortress. If you are lucky then during our Saint-Petersburg Driving Tour that includes a visit to the Peter and Paul fortress you will become part of an interesting tradition, – every day at exactly noon an old cannon at Narishkin tower fires an empty shot. This practice was introduced at the time of Peter the Great, to mark midday. In the beginning of the 18th century very few people had a clock, so to give everyone an idea of what time it is a daily shot was fired.

All in all, Peter and Paul fortress is like a city within a city, an 18th century gem, right in the heart of Saint-Petersburg and without a doubt a "Must See".

Working hours are 11 a.m. – 6 p.m, Wednesday is a day off for the cathedral and the prison, but territory of the fortress is open to visitors.

Catherine Palace (Tsar's Village)

The story of Tsar's Village or Catherine Palace started int the beginning of the 18th century when Peter the Great gifted a large piece of land not far from Saint-Petersburg to his wife Catherine the First. She consequently ordered a construction of a palace there, where eventually Peter and Catherine raised their children. Fast forward and when their daughter Elizabeth came to power she decided to construct another palace, much grander than the previous one. The architect was Francesco Rastrelli, a true master of baroque style who perfectly understood the likes and dislikes of Elizabeth, and her adoration of luxury, so all the rooms of her new home were decorated with gold:). Even the outside stucco moldings of the palace were covered with gold, to impress the visitors. The entrance to the building was made far from the main gate so that the newly arrived guests walked along the magnificent building for 300 meters before going inside..

The Grand Palace was passed down from one Russian ruler to the next becoming the official residence of Russian royalty until the end of the monarchy. After the 1917 October Revolution the name Tsars Village was changed to Children's Village as the Soviet government chose this area to construct many recreational grounds and camps for children. In 1937 USSR celebrated the 100th anniversary of death of the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who lived in Tsar's Village for a long time. To commemorate this event, the city's name was changed to Pushkin, and nowadays both names Pushkin and Tsar's Village are used almost interchangeably.

The main highlight of the Catherine Palace is probably the Amber room, or as many Russians and tourists call it - "eighth wonder of the world. The Amber room was a gift to Peter the Great from the Prussian emperor Frederick William I in 1716. The gift solidified the Russo-Prussian alliance against Sweden, even though Peter never decorated the room with amber panels and kept them in the Winter Palace. After his death the empress Elizabeth wanted the amber panels to be installed and she commissioned Rastrelli to design the amber room anew. During the Second World War, Tsar's Village was occupied by the Nazis and the Amber room was packaged and sent to Konigsberg (nowadays known as Kaliningrad). The plan was to eventually ship it to Berlin but in August of 1944 Konigsberg was heavily bombed and the Amber room disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to it, was it destroyed or hidden? After the War numerous attempts were taken to find it, including expeditions, excavations and various investigations. All of them gave no results. In 1978 the Soviet government decided to recreate the room in its original glory. The main difficulty they faced was the lack of skilled workers, as amber carving was considered a nearly lost form of art. Obviously, the price of such a project was astounding, so it was sponsored by the Russian State and German private companies. After 24 years, in 2003 the Russian President Vladimir Putin officially opened the room as a present for the 300th anniversary of Saint-Petersburg.

Working hours of the palace are 12 a.m. – 6 p.m., Tuesday is a day off.

Territory of Catherine's Park (where the palace is located) is open every day. As Catherine Palace is one of the highlights of Saint-Petersburg, individual visitors have to que for 2-3 hours to get inside. If you plan to go there on your own, make sure that you wear comfortable shoes and an outfit relevant to the weather. Guided tours give you a chance to save time waiting in line and have a knowledgeable guide tell you about the intricacies of the palace. To learn more about the a visit to Catherine Palace take our Private Tour of Catherine Palace and Park from Saint-Petersburg.


Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Church on the Spilled Blood is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world and its appearance is as amazing as its history. The church has such an unusual name because it was constructed on the site of the assassination of Russian emperor Alexander the Second. Alexander is known worldwide for numerous wars and reforms but his most important decision was the Emancipation Reform of 1861, which abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire. His reforms were not liked by everyone so, he faced numerous assassination attempts. Seven times the terrorist tried to kill the tsar, and finally succeeded on March 13th of 1881.

As Alexander II finished watching the ceremony of the changing of the guards he was on his way to the Winter Palace. Suddenly, a terrorist threw a bomb under the carriage of the emperor. Alexander survived, got out of the coach, but then another terrorist threw the second bomb at the Tsar's feet and that strike was fatal. The emperor lost his legs and died several hours later due to massive blood loss.

To commemorate this tragic event the new Emperor Alexander the Third ordered the construction of a church at the place of the assassination of his father. This idea was widely supported among the Russian public, so many people donated money for the project. The construction was going at a slow pace, and the cathedral was finally completed during the reign of Nicholas II (the gradsond of Alexander II) in 1907. The inside and outside of the cathedral is decorated with mosaics, semi-precious stones and ceramic tiles. The abundance of mosaics is especially impressive - 7000 square meters, including 308 mosaic icons and 80 mosaic ornaments.

Now, why was the church decorated with mosaics? The answer is actually quite trivial – an efficient heating system was not yet invented, so, due to humid and cold climate murals were very short-lived. Therefore, after long considerations the interior was decorated entirely with mosaics, despite the incredibly high price and the time-consuming painting process. For 9 years 32 highly-skilled artists decorated the inside of the Cathederal, then 4 more years from the outside. Even more expensive than the mosaics was the marble altar topped with three crosses made of rock crystals and the holy gates made of gold. After the Russian Revolution, the church was looted and the crosses with the gates disappeared. According to the plans of the city government the crosses are going to be reconstructed while the holy gates have already been recreated in 2012. One of the most notable places inside the church is a huge canopy carved of green jasper that marks the exact place where emperor Alexander the Second was assassinated. Under the canopy there is a preserved cobbled roadway that was covered with tsar's blood.

The construction of the Cathedral was finished just ten years before the Russian Revolution took place. Bolsheviks tried to get rid of everything connected with monarchy and religion, so the Spilled Blood Cathedral was closed for visitors. During the Second World War the church was used as a store house and later a morgue, due to enormous amount of dead civilians during the Siege of Leningrad. Constant dampness and humidity spoiled the precious colorful marble floor, the thousand square meters of mosaics and the majority of the cathedral's interior. After WW II the cathedral was almost in complete disarray, and it's restoration began only in 1979 with the first 6 years spent on just cleaning and drying the interior of the church. The mosaics were cleaned by hand, piece by piece, damaged marble was replaced and the canopy recreated. It took 25 years to restore the church, which is even longer than it took to build it. Currently it operates mainly as a museum, with sermons held only on major Christian holidays.

Working hours are 10.30 a.m. – 5.30 p.m. every day, except Wednesday. From May till September the church is open late all the way to 10.30 p.m.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage is the main museum of the Russian Federation. This museum is among the world's greatest museums along with the Louvre, Prado, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in London. The Hermitage collection has over 3 million exhibits, with the earliest dating back to 500 000 B.C. Every year approximately 10 million people visit the museum with about 40,000 people per day during the summer months. Due to its massive size and long lines it is highly recommended to take a Private tour of Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace.

Officially, the Hermitage complex consists of six buildings. The most famous and the most important is the Winter Palace – the former residence of Russian monarchs. In the first part of the 18th century empress Elizabeth commissioned Francesco Rastrelli, to construct a spacious palace on the banks of the Neva river. At the time of construction, the baroque style was very popular, so Rastrelli decorated the Palace with numerous stucco moldings, mirrors, statues and countless golden ornaments. Unfortunately, very few interiors can be seen now as there was a fire in 1837 destroying the majority of the decorations, afterwards most of the rooms were redesigned according to the fashion of the 19th century in a classical style.

By the time when the Winter Palace was finished, empress Elizabeth died, so the first monarch to live there was Peter the third – nephew of Elizabeth. Very soon his wife Catherine organized a conspiracy, assassinating Peter and becoming the ruler of Russia, and consequently the owner of the palace. She wanted the Russian Empire to become prosperous and powerful and part of that for her was investing in culture and art. In 1764 she purchased her first collection of paintings for her private museum located in a separate "Hermitage building". Should be noted, that it was quite widespread among European monarchs at that time to construct small pavilions for their art collections next to their official residences and Catherine did the same.

At first, only Elizabeth's inner circle could see her royal art collection. However, as the collection grew rapidly it became necessary to expand the museum. The new building known as the "Big Hermitage" was completed in the 1780s, and later renamed to Old Hermitage. The "Big Hermitage" was built to not only to house the museum but also as a residence for the royal heirs. Original décor of the rooms has been preserved to the present day and visitors of the museum can enjoy colorful parquet floors and royal furniture along with the paintings.

The Hermitage collections are arranged according to historical principle and illustrate the development of paintings and the arts through the ages. Old Hermitage is where you can see canvases of Italian artists, like Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Filipino Lippi and many others. The majority of these paintings were acquired at the time of Catherine, but all other emperors after her reign continued buying art. In the middle of the 19th century by the royal order decree the New Hermitage building was constructed. It was built specifically for paintings as a museum pavilion and later was opened for Russian aristocracy. After the revolution of 1917 all the royal buildings were nationalized and The Hermitage was opened for Russian people of any background.

General Staff building which is located at the Palace Square right next to the Winter Palace houses a famous collection of the French Impressionists. It is also a part of the Hermitage, but unlike all other buildings of the complex it requires a separate ticket as it has a different entrance. The building was renovated in 2011 and now its classical style façade sharply contrasts with very modern minimalistic interior. Many visitors notice that the new design allows the visitors to focus more on the art, rather than the interior decorations. The Hermitage collection of Impressionists is one of the grandest in the world – paintings by Degas, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh as well as Matisse and Picasso fill dozens of rooms on the fourth floor.

Working hours of the museum are 10.30 a.m. – 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 10.30 a.m. – 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday. Monday is a day off.
If your stay in Saint Petersburg is longer than a couple of days, make sure that you check out our additional list with not-so-obvious but still amazing sights!
  • Nevsky Prospekt
    The main street of Saint-Petersburg and UNESCO World Heritage site with old mansions of Russian aristocrats.
  • Faberge Museum
    The largest collection of precious Eastern eggs and Russian jewelry.
  • Yusupov Palace
    Favorite estate of the richest Russian family, associated with the murder of Grigory Rasputin.
  • Mariinsky Theatre
    One of the best opera and ballet theatres in the world, with amazing atmosphere and excellent performers
  • Russian Museum
    Has a collection of Russian art masterpieces, located in the splendid Mikhailovsky palace.
  • Rivers and Canals of Saint-Petersburg
    Take a bout tour around the city known as Venice of the North.
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