Highlights of Russia | St Petersburg

St Petersburg is the second largest among the Russian cities, after Moscow, and is famous for its important role in Russian history and its cultural and architectural landmarks. The historic centre of St Petersburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed on the list in 1990.

8 Jan 20 · 4 mins read

Highlights of Russia | St Petersburg

St Petersburg was Russia’s capital from 1712 to 1918, its reign as imperial capital ending with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (October Revolution) that toppled the tsarist regime. The succeeding Soviet government then moved the seat of power back to the old capital, Moscow, which remained as the capital city in post-Soviet Russia. St Petersburg is often compared with Moscow. Moscow is said to be “traditionally” Russian, with buildings designed by Russian architects, while St Petersburg, built by a tsar keen to Westernise his empire, has absorbed influences from Western Europe.

History of St Petersburg

St Petersburg is located on the Neva River, at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The area fell under the control of Novgorod (“new town”), a medieval East Slavic principality, around the 9th century. In 1478, Novgorod was annexed by to the Grand Duchy of Moscow (Muscovy), and was ruled by the princes of Moscow until Novgorod fell to Sweden in 1617.

From about 1560 to 1658, Sweden dominated Northern Europe, creating an empire centred in the Baltic Sea and capturing territory in Germany, Norway, and Denmark. In 1697, Charles XII, only aged 14, ascended Sweden’s throne, and an anti-Swedish coalition led by Russia’s Peter I (the Great) found it the perfect opportunity to challenge Sweden’s domination and declare war.

The Great Northern War lasted 21 years and ended with the incorporation of the region into the Russian Empire. But even before the official end of the war, Peter the Great had already laid the foundation stones in 1703 for a fortress (Peter-Paul Fortress) on the Baltic Sea. Around this fortress, Peter ordered that a new city be built to serve as his “window on Europe.” He named this city Sankt-Peterburg, or St Petersburg.

In 1712, it became the new capital of the Russian Empire, nine years before the official end of the war with Sweden. Victory was followed by a flurry of developments, the city built on the backs of peasant labour and prisoners of war. The Russian court hired European architects, beginning with Swiss-Italian Domenico Trezzini, whose aesthetics influenced the look of the city.

The city would go through two major name changes. In 1914, following the outbreak of World War I, it was renamed Petrograd–“Peter’s City”–to remove the German words in its original name. After the fall of the Russian monarchy and a few days after the death of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, it was renamed Leningrad. The city name reverted back to “St Petersburg” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

St Petersburg Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
View of St Petersburg’s Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Must-Visit Places in St Petersburg

Today St Petersburg is the second largest among the Russian cities, after Moscow, and is famous for its important role in Russian history and its cultural and architectural landmarks. The historic centre of St Petersburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed on the list in 1990.

Travellers flock to the city located just a few degrees south of the Arctic to see the grand collection of paintings in its art galleries, its art nouveau buildings, the Bronze Horseman, which is a famous equestrian statue of the city’s founder, Peter the Great, and the tsar’s response to France’s Palace of Versailles, the Grand Palace of Peterhof.

View of the Peterhof Grand Palace - Russia
View of the Peterhof Grand Palace in St Petersburg, Russia

Nevsky Prospekt is St Petersburg’s central artery, and a great place to begin your St Petersburg experience. It takes its name from Alexander Nevsky Lavra (a lavra is a monastery consisting of cells for hermits) which was founded to commemorate Prince (and later Saint) Alexander Nevsky for defeating the Swedes. Being the main thoroughfare of the city, palaces, shops, cafes, and cathedrals sprouted along Nevsky Prospekt, and walking its entire length (4 kilometres from Admiralty to the monastery) can be a magical experience.

Kazan Cathedral bushes of blossoming lilacs
Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, lit by the morning summer sun, with blossoming lilacs

Just off Nevsky Prospekt is the Hermitage, one of the largest art galleries in the world, and housed in what was once the Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian tsars from 1732 to 1917. The art gallery grew from the imperial collection of the monarchs, thanks especially to Catherine the Great, who purchased many Renaissance paintings in the 18th century.

View of the Winter Palace St Petersburg Russia
View of the Winter Palace/Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia

A different way to experience the city would be a boat cruise down the Neva River–but of course one can only do this during the summer.

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