A City With Many Influences
To appreciate St. Petersburg, it helps to familiarize yourself with the variety of cultural influences that have impacted the city over the centuries.
Soviet Architecture – As with anywhere in Russia, you’ll see vestiges of the communist era, when the name of the city was changed to Leningrad (it was changed back to its original name in 1991). One of the most prominent symbols of this period are the many statues of Vladimir Lenin around the city. One of the most famous of these is at Finland Station.
German Settlement on Vasilevsky Island – Germans played a large role in the early days of St. Petersburg, with numerous people emigrating from Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the largest settlements was on Vasilevsky Island where you can visit the Zoology Museum and the Academy of Sciences.
French in St. Petersburg – French culture also had a huge impact on the city’s culture. As novelists such as Tolstoy chronicled, Russian aristocrats often spoke French as a second language. While the French influence has declined considerably since the Imperial Era, there are still remnants of French Culture in St. Petersburg in the arts and architecture of the city. For example, there’s a substantial collection of French art at the Hermitage Museum.
The confluence of cultural influences has produced a city that’s at once Russian and European. The unique ambiance and mixture of old and new make it an unmatchable place to explore the arts, literature, and history.
Explore the Metro
One of the best ways to experience St. Petersburg is to travel by metro. The St. Petersburg Metro is one of the most beautiful in the world. Each station is like a room in a museum, with a variety of architectural styles, ornate decorations, and extensive historical information. In a city as large as St. Petersburg, the Metro is often an efficient way to get around. It’s also a prime example of the city’s artistic style.
Take a Literary Tour
Many of the great Russian novels of the 19th century, such as Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, are set in this great city. There are, of course, many more recent books set here as well. One of the best ways to get yourself in the right frame of mind for your journey is to read (or reread) some great books set in the city.
Volkovskoe Cemetery -This famous cemetery has a special section reserved for famous writers and other celebrities.
Literature Museum in the Pushkin House – This museum is devoted primarily to the writer Alexander Pushkin but also has artifacts and exhibits dedicated to other Russian authors.
Nabokov Museum – This museum is located at the birthplace of modern Russian author Vladimir Nabokov.
More literary destinations – You can also do your self-guided tour and follow in the footsteps of your favorite Russian literary characters or visit the sites of authors’ homes. For inspiration, Russia Beyond publishes a map of 10 Key Places from St. Petersburg’s Literary Map.
Museums and Historic Buildings
Here are a few of the great museums not to miss when in St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage Museum – Created by Catherine the Great in 1764, this is one of the iconic attractions of St. Petersburg. In addition to having a great art collection, it also houses the Winter Palace, where the Tsars of Russia lived. It is one of the world’s oldest, largest and most comprehensive museums, where you’ll find exhibits covering art from classical to modern times.
State Russian Museum – This is another very large museum that is dedicated to Russian art. It includes several buildings including the Mikhailovsky Palace, the Marble Palace, the Stroganov Palace, and the Benois Wing. Some of the most crowded exhibits are those dedicated to popular Russian artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich.
Peterhof Palace and Gardens – Peterhof Palace is about half an hour out of the city but it is a day trip well worth taking. The summer palace of Peter the Great, this impressive structure was inspired by Versailles in France. The grounds contain numerous beautiful gardens, paths, sculptures, and fountains. There are also great views of the Baltic Sea. You should have at least a few hours to stroll the gardens at a leisurely pace.
Mariinsky Theater – This is the place to come for a traditional St. Petersburg experience of theater, ballet, or opera. Open in 1860, many of Russia’s top plays and concerts have been performed here. The building itself is a work of art on both the inside and outside with its neoclassical design and huge stage and auditorium. It’s best to buy your tickets as far in advance as possible (you can order them online) as performances are often sold out.
Fabergé Museum – This is one of the world’s greatest museums devoted to decorative arts. It’s located in the beautiful Shuvalov Palace, which is itself a work of art. Among many other holdings, the museum has the world’s largest collection of Fabergé eggs. This is a great place to get a feel for the wealth and opulence of 19th century St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg has some of the world’s most beautiful churches. While the Russian Orthodox Church was an offshoot of the Greek Byzantine Church, the architectural styles of St. Petersburg churches are quite distinct from those you’d find in Orthodox churches in Greece or Turkey, with a variety of influences.
Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood – One of Russia’s most ornate churches, but not one of the oldest, having been built in the early 20th century on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The church was closed during the Soviet era and converted into a museum. Aside from the remarkable architecture, you can spend hours appreciating the incredible mosaics.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – The largest Orthodox cathedral in the world, Saint Isaac’s is officially a museum rather than a church. However, services are still held here on major holidays. The church is beautifully decorated with paintings, an ornate stained glass window portraying Resurrected Christ, and mosaic icons. You can get spectacular views of the city if you climb to the top.
Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul – St. Petersburg’s oldest cathedral, consecrated in 1704, shortly after the founding of the city. The architecture of the church reflects the eclectic influences apparent throughout St. Petersburg. The overall style is Baroque, with elements borrowed from Dutch Protestant churches. One of the highlights of any visit to the cathedral is the Bell Tower. If you climb to the top, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the city. The fortress walls are also quite impressive.
Experience the Vibrant Culture of St. Petersburg
We’ve covered some of the ways to experience the unique and diverse culture of St. Petersburg. Few cities have aesthetic values built into so much of everyday life, from the buildings and squares to the Metro. You can spend many days or weeks exploring this large and multifaceted city. While you can visit St. Petersburg as part of a wider tour of Russia, make sure you leave yourself enough time to take in some of its unrivaled charms.