Saint Petersburg, Russia

Of all the many places we visited in Russia, Saint Petersburg is the one we wish we had more time, and will hopefully return to again. Three days is just not enough; I doubt that three months would be enough – but we’d certainly be willing to try!


Below is a rough outline of our three days in Saint Petersburg. If a reader would like to visit a particular topic, they can click on the links in the outline below. Where some topics have their own articles those links will go to that page.

Smolny Cathedral at Smolny Convent (Воскресенский новодевичий Смольный монастырь)

Our first stop, fresh off the boat as it were, was the bright blue Smolny Cathedral, part of the Smolny Convent. It was originally built to house Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, when she was not allowed to succeed her father to the throne.

Smolny Cathedral

Keeping track of the Russian lineages during this trip was a major undertaking(!) but the visits to the places they lived or had built helped put it into perspective. This family tree graphic helps a bit. Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter I (the Great) who ruled from 1682 to 1725) and Catherine I (who ruled after Peter’s death until 1727). It appears there was a “detour” (as there usually is in royal succession) to a grandson (the only male heir in the line) Peter II. This Peter ruled from 1727 – 1730. The crown then went (or was seized?) by Anna, granddaughter of Ivan V who ruled before Peter the Great (Elizabeth’s father, remember?). Anna ruled for ten years, after which the throne passed to her grandnephew Ivan VI. Ivan VI ruled for a very short time (1740 – 1741) and then the story returns to Elizabeth. She had been gathering support and took power in a coup. She reigned for more than 20 years.

Bell in front of the Cathedral

The architect of the Cathedral was Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Rastrelli also created the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, the Grand Palace at Peternof, and several other Saint Petersburg landmarks. The Cathedral was build between 1748 and 1764.

This was advertised as a very quick stopover. There was a set of stairs up to the top of one of the cathedral towers. So, after stumbling through my poor Russian to figure out how much it cost, I ran up the stairs for a better look.

Inside the stairwell to the tower

The view from the top was pretty spectacular in all directions. It was a new city to explore, so I had no idea what I was looking at! I could see our bus waiting for us, and pretty soon could see our folks heading to the busses, so I sprinted-ish back down the stairs to be, as usual, the last one to board. The gallery of photos below shows views from the top toward the city we would soon discover!

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral (Исаа́киевский Собо́р) in Saint Petersburg

Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is a museum. It was built over a 40 year span from 1818 to 1858. It is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals on the worlds. It is the fourth tallest (just behind the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior that we visited in Moscow).

Saint Isaac's Cathedral Saint Petersburg

I truly wanted to climb up along the outside of the Cathedral and get acquainted with the statues up there; maybe ask them for stories about the Cathedral and the history of Saint Petersburg. Surely they’d seen a lot. But there was not enough time. We added that to the long list of activities for a future visit to Saint Petersburg.

The doors of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral are intricate. Each section has figures carved or sculpted into it by the sculptor Ivan Vitali (he also sculpted a fountain we saw outside the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow). The doors were patterned after the doors of the Florence Baptistry. On the outside:

And on the inside:

Inside there is a working model showing the technique that the architect, William Handyside, used to set the columns.

The photo below was taken looking through the Holy Doors into The Sanctuary.

And a closer view.

The photo below shows the dome ceiling. The bird that can be seen is a sculpted white dove representing the Holy Spirit.

Below is a view of Saint Isaac’s from the park across the street where there were art displays

The Hermitage (Госуда́рственный Эрмита́ж)

The Hermitage is the second largest museum in the world (after the Louvre). It would take many days (or weeks) to see it all. The collections are housed in several buildings – the Winter Palace, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Small Hermitage, the Hermitage Theater and the General Staff Building which is across the Palace Square. Some collections are also in the physically un-connected Menshikov Palace. The map below shows the connected buildings that make up the Hermitage Museum.

Map of the Hermitage Saint Petersburg

At last in the spring of 1761, a new majestic edifice was completed in the centre of Saint Petersburg. It proved to be a fine example of the Russian Baroque and Rastrelli’s [Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli] most perfect and beautiful creation. Elisabeth Petrovna, however, did not live to move into the newly build residence – she died on 25 December 1761. The first owner of the Winter Palace was Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter III, who moved to the new imperial residence immediately after a ceremony of its consecration on Easter in 1762. However, it was Catherine II, wife of Peter III, who was destined to become the palace’s true owner. She dethroned her husband in June 1762 as a result of a palace coup. This event marked the beginning of the most significant phase in the history of the official imperial residence directly connected with the creation of the Hermitage Museum.

The Hermitage, translated by Valery Fateyev, pages 11 – 16

The main staircase (the Jordan staircase) is the imposing entrance into the Winter Palace. Below is a video I took trying to show the size and scope. It was certainly built to intimidate and/or impress.

In the photo below my gorgeous wife is getting the red carpet treatment she deserves on the Jordan staircase.

The room below with the white marble columns is the Field Marshall’s Hall.

This austere white-marble hall had an ill repute – it was here that the fire, which destroyed the entire Winter Palace within thirty hours, began on 17 December 1837.

The Hermitage, translated by Valery Fateyev, page 20

Below is a picture of the Peter Hall (also called the Small Throne Room), obviously devoted to Peter the Great.

The room below with the gold columns is the Armorial Hall.

Below is a photo of one of the sculptures in the Armorial Hall.

The 1812 War Gallery, with Franz von Krüger’s painting of Alexander I on horseback at the end of the gallery, is dedicated to the victory of the Russian Army of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The photo below was taken looking toward the other end of the gallery. 332 portraits of participants in the War of 1812 are in the gallery, either war generals or those promoted to general right after the end of the war.

Below is a photo of the throne in the St. George Hall, also known, for good reason, as the Large Throne Room.

Below is a photo of the silver shrine of St. Alexander Nevsky, which sits in a room known as the Concert Hall.

Nevsky’s Silver tomb.

The Malachite Drawing-Room was formerly an apartment of Nicholas I’s wife, Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna,

The Malachite Room was decorated to the designs of A. Briullov in 1839. The columns, pilasters and mantelpieces are lined with malachite in the technique known as the “Russian Mosaics”. The room is associated with historic events: on the night of November 7, 1917, the last meeting of the counter-revolutionary government took place here. The ministers were arrested in the adjoining private dining room.

Taken from the display sign in the Malachite Room

After the Malachite Room our group did a mad dash that got us quite lost in the museum. We had an appointment in the Gold Room, which though quite spectacular did not allow pictures.

The Winter Palace has some fifty rooms filled with French artwork, much of it acquired during the time of Catherine the great. We emerged from the Gold Room up some stairs into one of those fifty, close to this amazing sculpture. I later discovered (reading a book) that this room is the Hall of French Rococo Art.

Cupid Menacing with his Finger by Etienne Maurice Falconet

The Hermitage possesses one of the best collections of eighteenth-century French easel sculpture. It includes several works by Etienne-Maurice Falconet. Almost all of his pieces in the Hermitage collections had been produced by Falconet in Paris and brought by himself to Russia. The French sculptor was invited by Catherine the Great to St. Petersburg for the creation of a monument to Peter the Great (this work became famous as the Bronze Horseman). Falconet’s works in the Hermitage give an idea of his widest creative scope – the sculptor began his artistic career during the refined Rococo age, imbibed the dramatic expressiveness of the Baroque and assimilated the perfect point of Classicism. Cupid Menacing with His Finger is one of the most popular statues of the Rococo period known in numerous replicas.

The Hermitage, translated by Valery Fateyev, pg. 173

We left the Winter Palace and entered the building known as the Small Hermitage.

The building of the Small Hermitage – the next edifice after the Winter Palace in the line of buildings running along the Palace Embankment – was created by the two gifted architects Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe (1729 – 1800) and Yury Velten (1730 – 1801). They realized Catherine’s wish to have one more, little palace next to the imperial residence. Such buildings which became fashionable in the early eighteenth century were usually put up amidst a calm garden or park and were intended for pastimes in the circle of choice guests. Such pavilions were usually called hermitages in the French manner, the word meaning an abode of a recluse or a retired place. Catherine the Great used her “Hermitage” in the centre of Saint Petersburg as a place where she could relax from the strict routine of ceremonial court life established in the Winter Palace

The Hermitage, translated by Valery Fateyev, pg. 49

The centerpiece of this section is The Peacock Clock. It is a complex piece of machinery, jewelry and time keeper that is amazingly still in working condition.

Below is the transcription of the sign that is adjacent to the Peacock Clock.

Attributed to the workshop of James Cox (? – 1791), English mechanic, clockmaker and jeweler. The piece was owned by the Prince Potemkin who bought it in disassembled 1791 Potemkin instructed the distinguished Russian mechanic Ivan Kulibin (1735 – 1818) to assemble the clock and put it in motion.

Kulibin, however, was able to set to work only by the end of the next year, by order of Catherine II. By then, Potemkin had died and the Empress bought the Peacock from his heirs together with the Taurida Palace, Potemkin’s former residence. In 1794 the clock was moved to the Taurida Palace where it was displayed until 1797. When Catherine, in her turn, passed away the clock was transferred to the Winter Palace, by her son and successor the Emperor Paul I.

Although unsigned, the peacock clock is traditionally believed to be the work of the most celebrated manufacturer of curiosities of this sort James Cox. Recent research of Cox’s work confirms this attribution.

The complicated mechanism of the clock with automata is of English manufacture. The movement of the clock itself is hidden inside the big mushroom in the center of the setting. In the opening of the mushroom cap two rotating horizontal clock dials are visible and on these can be seen the Roman figures for the hours and Arabic figures for the minutes. A dragonfly on top of the mushroom rotates with a one second interval thus playing the part of the seconds hand. The carillon (a train of bells) chimes at the hours and the quarters. Three additional coiled spring movements are connected with the clock mechanism, and when they are set in motion all the automata – the owl, the peacock and the cock – begins to move. The cage surrounded with little bells and containing the owl begins to rotate, the owl moves its head twitching its eyes as it opens and shuts them and raises its paw, and the little bells play a soft tune. Then the peacock steps in, it raises its head regally, opens its tail and slowly turns around, stands still for a moment, then quickly turns back and folds its tail. At last, the cock crows three or four times.

Having recently undergone a careful restoration, the piece is now in good order. The clock mechanism is working regularly while those of the automata are wound only four a month for better preservation

Taken from the display sign by the Peacock Clock, The Small Hermitage, Hermitage Museum

We ventured into the building known as the New Hermitage, where we saw most of the paintings and sculptures in the gallery of photos below.

The idea to build the New Hermitage, a museum that would gather within its walls the artistic treasures of the imperial family previously dispersed in the collections of the Small and Old Hermitage, in the Rauride and Anichkov Palaces, at Tsarskoye Selo [Catherine Palace, mentioned later in this article] and Peterhof and in other royal palaces, belonged to Nicholas I. It was on his orders that in 1842-1851 the area near the Winter Palace was used for the construction of a new museum that completed the architectural complex of the St. Petersburg imperial residence.

The Hermitage, translated by Valery Fateyev, pg. 75

Below is a photo of knights in the Knights Hall in the New Hermitage.

As stated before, one could spend a week in the Hermitage and not see all of the masterpieces. While we viewed the works of Rembrandt, El Greco and Michelangelo, we missed the two Da Vinci’s, the works by Titian and many others. Below is a gallery of some of the paintings we were able to see.

Below is another gallery of some of the many sculptures. Where I could find names and artists they are on the images.

The Kazan Cathedral (Каза́нский кафедра́льный собо́р)

The Kazan Cathedral is on Nevsky Prospekt very close to the hotel where we stayed. We drove past it in almost every bus ride, and one night we walked there, having dinner at a restaurant behind it. We had great views on the walks and on the balcony of the restaurant.

It was built between 1801 and 1811. Its shape was inspired by the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome.

There are two large statues in front of Kazan Cathedral, both of Field Marshalls of the Russian Army during the Napoleonic Invasion in 1812. The one on the left is Field Marshal Prince Kutozov of Smolensky. The one on the right is Field Marshall Barclay De Tolly, Minister of War. Kutozov is buried inside the Cathdral.

Yusupov Palace (Дворец Юсуповых на Мойке)

While the rest of the tour took a boat ride along Saint Petersburg’s many waterways, I took a taxi out to visit the World War II cemetery. I caught a taxi back in what I thought was plenty of time, but the taxi driver dropped me at this sign – in the back of the Yusupov Palace.

Luckily, I was able to make my way through the garden and through hand gestures and my very poor Russian (I said Спасибо a lot; saying thank you always helps!) I was able to meet up with the tour group. Unfortunately photos were not allowed without a pass.

Yusupov Palace is most famously the site of the murder of Grigori Rasputin. One of the lead conspirators was Prince Felix Yusupov. The Palace has an interesting display of a rendition of the events of that evening in December 1916, events which are still under some dispute. What is not disputed is that Yusupov and his co-conspirators believed Rasputin had too much influence on Emperor Nicholas and Empress Alexandra. Rasputin was shot multiple times (though he apparently staggered out of the Palace through the very courtyard I snuck through, and had to be shot again). His body was thrown into the Neva River; everything comes back to the Neva.

The other interesting room at the Yusupov Palace was the theater. There is a good photograph of it on Wikipedia.

The Catherine Palace

Our tour group took a long 15 mile bus ride south of Saint Petersburg to the well-gardened town of Pushkin. This is the location of the Catherine Palace, also called and formerly known as the Great Palace of Tsarskoe Selo (the town of Pushkin since 1937).

In the garden photo below, at the top right is the gate we entered to get into the courtyard surrounded by the blue-painted Catherine Palace.

Peter the Great presented the original structure on this location to his future wife Yekaterina Alexeyevna (or Catherine) in 1710. She set out to improve it. But the emergence of Catherine Palace as the main imperial residence happened with Catherine’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1709 – 1761). She inherited the estate from her mother. She instructed architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli to create a sort of Versailles. Rastrelli also worked on the Winter Palace, the Smolny Cathedral , Peterhof, the Stroganov Palace and more.

In the photo below, rising up in the background behind my gorgeous wife and the Catherine Palace, is the dome of the Church of the Resurrection. It was built in the 1750s.

The sculptures in the photo below are called Atlantes. They typically represent the Titan Atlas condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky for all eternity. These were made by a German sculptor Johann Franz Dunker. There are 48 on the first level and 88 on the second story. In the photo above you can see scaffolding around some of them for restoration.

Much of the palace was destroyed during the siege of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) during World War II. The restoration was amazingly well done – there are before and after photos scattered throughout the museum.

Upon entering, we passed through multiple large ornate rooms called “anterooms”.

In the eighteenth century the term “anteroom” was applied to all room located in the front of a major hall. The architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli created five anterooms. The fifth and fourth anterooms did not survive; in the 1780s the architect Charles Cameron created on their place the Lyon and Arabesque Halls.

From the book Tsarskoye Selo Palaces and Parks, page 24

The photo below is from the First Anteroom. These blue tiled stoves were in many of the rooms we visited.

These painted stoves were everywhere

Almost every room had amazing paintings on the ceilings. The one in the photo below is from the ceiling in the Third Anteroom. It is called Olympus.

And I mean – every room. The picture below is part of the ceiling in the First Anteroom.

We also visited the world renowned amber room (where no photos were allowed). It too had been reconstructed after the destruction of the war. The reconstructed room was impressive, with visitors only allowed in for a brief time. The original amber panels, taken by Nazi soldiers in 1942, disappeared in 1945.

Below is a gallery of photos of some of the rooms and sculptures throughout the Catherine Palace.

As mentioned, we went in through a gate on the front which was for tour groups. When we exited the Catherine Palace to view the gardens, this was the line we saw for individual visitors to enter. Like those we saw on our visit to Peterhof, according to our tour guide many of these folks would not get inside before the Palace closed.

Catherine Park, like all parks surrounding these palaces, is massive. It is made up of two parks – the Old Park and the English Park. There are sculptures and outer buildings and monuments scatter throughout both parks.

The map below gives you a feel for the size of the park. The grey structure in the upper right of the map is the Catherine Palace. Our tour left the back of the Palace and veered right. We headed toward the reddish building marked number seven, the Hermitage kitchen.

The back of the Catherine Palace from the gardens

The photo below looks out through the gardens toward the Hermitage building way in the back.

Looking out towards the gardens

Below is a photo of Lower Bathhouse – plus photo bombers Ian and Chris!

I have no idea who these two crazy kids are

The view in the photo below is just one of many tranquil spots that can be found in the gardens, away from the crowds at the Palace.

Below is another view of the Hermitage building as we made our exit by the Hermitage Kitchen. As mentioned many times, we could have spent many more hours if we’d had time exploring the gardens and the town of Pushkin as well.

Little palace in the gardens

Other Sights in Saint Petersburg

Our hotel in Saint Petersburg was just off Nevsky Prospect near the Russian Museum. We could see the Mikhailovsky Garden from the front of our hotel. The tour buses that took us to and fro frequently parked adjacent to this garden, so we became well acquainted with this statue. The garden sits in front of the Russian Museum, when can be seen behind the statue in the photo below.

A short walk away was The Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood (Церковь Спаса на Крови). This church was built in the late 1800s on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II (which happened in March 1881).

The Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood Saint Petersburg

Although we were in this area frequently, we were never here when the Church was open. We were here for quick bus stops, long enough to look at Russian dolls painted like Green Bay Packers (no purchase though, as they had painted number 12 with blond hair!!!). We also went by when I convinced my gorgeous wife into venturing to another craft beer place on the other side of this waterway – which sadly appears to have closed permanently just after we left.

I also ran by the Church on morning runs and was able to capture some photos without the crowds.

There are waterways (and bridges over these waterways) everywhere we went in Saint Petersburg. We, of course, entered via the Neva, the largest, on the cruise, but there are many others the cut the city. We were able to walk along some of the while waiting for others or dinner or … just waiting.

The last night we were there, my wife made a reservation in a Georgian and Uzbek cuisine restaurant we had passed by in the tour bus many times called Kazan-Mangal. It was obviously our first time eating this type of cuisine, and it was outstanding. I even got to add a Georgian beer to my list.

Ресторан КакSan-Mangal

With hindsight, we now know that we should have added several days to our stay in Saint Petersburg, like we did in Moscow.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: