St. Petersburg: Europe’s most beautiful city

There is something about St. Petersburg or City of the Tsars that gets under your skin. I chose to visit St. Petersburg first, followed by Moscow. St. Petersburg lingered; it’s colours and incredible light stayed with me. The cold white nights, the unrivalled treasure trove of art and culture, the bridges and cruises, everything. Built on a swamp, the imperial capital is today a dazzling metropolis whose sheer grandeur never fails to amaze.

Whether you’re crossing one of the 342 bridges in the city, cruising the elegant canals or watching the bridges over the mighty Neva river rise at night to allow ships to pass through, you’re never far from water in St. Petersburg, which has earned the city unsurprising comparisons to Venice. 

St. Petersburg is an almost unrivalled treasure trove of art and culture. You can spend days in Hermitage, seeing everything from Egyptian mummies to Picassos, while the Russian museum, spread over four sumptuous palaces, is perhaps the best collection of Russian art in the world. Add to this world-class ballet and opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, classical concerts at the Shostakovich Philharmonia and a few of big-name music festivals over summer, and you won’t be struck for cultural nourishment.

The city’s white nights are legendary: those long summer days when the sun barely dips below the horizon. Revelry begins in May, when the spring finally comes to the city and parks are filled with flowering trees, and peaks in mid-June, when the sky doesn’t get dark, festivals pack out concert halls and the entire city seems to be partying over the brief but glorious summer. But don’t worry – even when the skies are grey and the ground covered in snow, St. Petersburg’s rich culture still dazzles and delights.

Now let’s take a look at St. Petersburg’s top 10:

1) White Nights 

The ultimate St. Petersburg experience is during mid-June when the sun slumps lazily towards the horizon, but never fully sets, meaning that the magical nights are a wonderful whitish-grey.

I enjoyed them in May end, these white nights were the best part for me. You can get confused with the time and lose track of it easily. I enjoyed walking late night, it helped that my hotel was very near to river. So all of it was divine.

2) The Hermitage 

Perhaps the World’s greatest museum, this iconic establishment’s vast collection is quite simply mind-boggling, with Egyptian mummies, more Rembrandts than the Louvre, and a collection of early-20th-century art that is unrivalled by almost any other in the world.

If you’re a history student or have a keen interest in the same, this museum’s heaven for you. I loved the Egyptian mummies and the halls full of paintings. This museum is very big and requires half a day. There’s a cafe and a bookstore/souvenir shop as well. I loved both of them.

3) St. Isaac’s View 

No other view point of the historic centre beats the one from the stunning gold dome of St. Isaac’s cathedral, which rises majestically over the uniformly sized Italianate palaces and mansions around the Admiralty. Well worth the upward climb  of 262 steps, a paranoma of the city opens up to you – with fantastic views over the river, the Winter palace and the Bronze Horseman.

The cathedral’s interior is also well worth seeing. I personally enjoyed and admired the view for almost half an hour and the interior for a long time.

4) Russian Museum

Even though the Hermitage is unrivalled as St. Petersburg’s most impressive museum, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting this lesser-known treasure trove of Russian art, spread out over four stunning palaces in the centre of the city. 

I recommend that you visit the main building, Mikhailovsky Palace, which presents a fascinating collection of Russian art from medieval icons to 20th-century avant-garde masterpieces. I enjoyed this museum as well. It covers a lot of area and is half the price.

5) Church on the Spilled Blood

The spellbinding Church on the Spilled Blood never fails to impress visitors. The church was built to commemorate the death of Tsar Alexander 2, who, in an event that gave church it’s unusual name, was attacked here by a terrorist group and later died of injuries in 1881. Despite its grizzly heritage, the glittering, multi-coloured onion domes and intricate interior mosaics are quite simply stunning, and have to be seen to be believed.

This church is a really good place to spend the other half of your day- the one with the evening. I’ve visited many European countries as well, including Italy & Vatican City. But I never saw the amount of faith towards their religion in those countries. Here, I saw most of the people, whether it’s an old man/lady or  young boys/girls wearing crucifixes and visiting as well as taking part in the mass and regular prayers. You can buy a Russian Orthodox Crucifix and  Madonna’s (Mother of Christ, Mary) postcards from the Church’s souvenir shop. You also find Russian Orthodox priests dressed in Black in the evening while conducting prayers. I had a small talk with one of them asking him about the Russian Orthodox culture. You can also catch up with one of them if you’re interested in history and religion.

6) Tsarskoe Selo

Arguably the most beautiful of the tsarist palace areas that surround St. Petersburg, Tsarskoe Selo (the Tsar’s village) is an idyllic place for a day trip. Arrive in good time to see the lavish interiors of the Catharine palace including the famous Amber room, enjoy the gorgeous formal gardens.

Unfortunately, I had only four days in St. Petersburg. I could only see half of this palace. There are some good restaurants nearby this palace. I ate a great vegetarian meal and sipped the famous Russian Vodka. There are tasty Russian chocolates with some amount of Rum mixed in them. Trust, it makes the chocolate tastier. There are many alcoholic chocolates as well. You can easily buy them from Cafe’s and Restaurant’s.

7) Mariinsky Ballet

What could be more Russian than seeing a ballet at the city’s famous Mariinsky Theatre? Formerly known as the Kirov, where soviet stars such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov danced, today the Mariinsky is one of the premier ballet troupes in the world. Tickets to see shows here are always sought-after, so book online before you travel to ensure you don’t miss out during your stay. Even if ballet isn’t your thing, the historic building is a captivating sight in it’s own right, as is the next-door New Mariinsky Theatre, Russia’s first new ballet house since the revolution.

I’m a dancer, therefore this was on my list. Even if you’re not a dancer, this whole thing- dance and the music is very relaxing. I was lucky as my hotel’s receptionist booked the tickets for me a day before. It was so good and relaxing that  right now while writing this, I want to watch it again. It’s one of the best forms of Dance. It’s music is way too classical. And the dance is marvellous.

8) Peter & Paul Fortress

The city’s first major building is on little Zayachy Island, where Peter the Great first broke ground for St. Petersburg. It’s immediately recognizable from it’s extraordinary golden spire, visible all over the city center at an incredible (for its 18th century origins) 122m high. A visit to this large complex is a must for history buffs: you’ll see the tombs of the Romanovs, visit an excellent history museum and even be able to relax on a surprisingly decent beach with stellar Hermitage views.

My hotel was close to this palace, so, I visited this palace on the evening of the day I arrived. It’s incredibly beautiful. Its souvenir shop has communist sign brooches. I bought one. I suggest you wait for it’s church to ring bells. It’s really beautiful and relaxing.

9) Cruise the Canals

St. Petersburg is, quite simply, a city that is best appreciated from the water. Despite Peter’s efforts to make the population use boats as the main means of transport, boat transport never quite caught on in the ‘Venice of the North’.

I personally loved the cruises the most. It costs around 150-350 Roubles, depending on what kind of boat you board in. I suggest you have a seat on the open side of the boat and enjoy the cruise. It’s really cold when the boat’s moving. But, trust me, it’s worth everything. You get to enjoy the cool breeze, the monuments, everything. I remember the moments when I was standing and enjoying the cruise, and then the bridge comes close, so I had to lower myself a bit. And then waving hands – hello to the people on the sides and bridges with the kids in the cruise.

10) Taking a Banya

For real cultural immersion, head to one of St. Petersburg’s Bani (stream baths) and get the detox of a lifetime. In between basking in the infernal wet head of the banya, having your toxins removed through a sound birch-twig whipping and then plunging into ice cold water, this is a great place to relax and chat with locals for whom the weekly banya is a semi-sacred rite.

Luckily my hotel had one. It was so relaxing. After travelling the whole day, all tired, this gave me heavenly feels. And I got to meet many other travellers as well as locals.

This one’s my click ^ while taking the cruise. It’s a beautiful city, and one of the most photogenic destination. 

Food/Drinking & Nightlife/Entertainment/Shopping, it depends on your taste & style. I’m vegetarian, so I always have a lot of problems. But I always find good vegetarian restaurants. For Shopping, you can always find malls or shopping complexes while travelling on foot. In these cultural & historical cities, I mostly buy souvenir’s and books. Language is a problem in Russia, you need to be clear with the routes and mode of transport you’ll use. Weather is always very cold and rainy. It can rain anytime. I suggest you carry an umbrella or maybe when it rains, just go to a shop or a cafe on the sides. You’ll see a lot of cafes in Russia. Sometimes you’ll see the whole streets full with cafés. Overall, the experience is just remarkable. I hope you guys find this helpful or maybe it reminds you of your visit here. 

~Sanjana Singh

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