From Peter the Great’s log cabin on the banks of the Neva to the ship that started a revolution, Philip Parker traces the formidable heritage of Russia’s imperial capital.
1. St Isaac’s Cathedral Colonnade
The massive gold dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral dominates St Petersburg’s low skyline and regularly appears on postcards and souvenirs. The city’s largest church, St Isaac’s took French architect Auguste de Montferrand 40 years to complete. While the cavernous interior, designed to accommodate 14,000 worshippers, is certainly impressive, with 14 types of marble alone lining the walls, alongside jasper, malachite and yards of gold leaf, the highlight for most visitors is the colonnade.
If you relish a challenge, climb the 262 steps, and you will be rewarded with some of the best views of the historic centre of St Petersburg, as well as a chance to make a closer inspection of the cathedral’s spectacular rooftop statuary. Look north past the Admiralty and the Winter Palace, and across the Neva River to the gleaming spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Open Thurs-Tues 11am-7pm. Closed Wednesday. Visit eng.cathedral.ru.
2. The Bronze Horseman
St Petersburg’s most famous monument and the inspiration for one of Alexander Pushkin’s greatest works, this equestrian statue of Peter the Great is only 100 metres from St Isaac’s, next to the Neva River embankment. Commissioned by Catherine the Great, the statue thus commemorates the two “enlightened despots” who did the most to mould the imperial capital. Designed by Étienne-Maurice Falconet, the Bronze Horseman took over a decade to complete and created an immediate sensation. Both its scale – its pedestal, known as the “Thunder Stone”, is purportedly the biggest ever moved by man, weighing over 1,500 tons – and the dramatic pose of rider and horse, as if rearing up at a cliff edge, give an impression of raw, brutal power. As such, it is a fitting tribute to the immense and often tragic struggle initiated by Peter to build a modern metropolis in the harsh climate of northern Russia.
3. Hermitage State Rooms
For many visitors, the State Hermitage Museum is the principal reason for coming to St Petersburg, and it can easily take four hours just to scratch the surface of this vast and diverse collection. Part of the attraction, however, is the Winter Palace itself. As the official residence of the Romanov tsars for over two centuries, it witnessed the rise and fall of the Russian Empire, and the breathtaking interiors of the State Rooms are both a testament to its might and more than a slight hint as to what brought about its violent downfall.
Highlights include the vast Armorial Hall, with its golden columns and stucco warriors, the charming Malachite Room, and the almost oppressive opulence of the Gold Drawing Room and Boudoir, where hardly an inch of ceiling or wall is left ungilded. Entry is 350 rubles (£8). Open daily 10.30am-6pm (until 5pm Sunday), closed Monday. Book tickets online to avoid big queues in summer. Visit
hermitagemuseum.org for more details.
Directly across the Neva from the Winter Palace, the Kunstkamera – officially the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography – provides a fascinating contrast to the pomp and grandeur of the Hermitage. Considered the first public museum in Russia, it was founded in the early 18th century to house the great man’s extensive collection of curios, artefacts and scientific
Possessed of a relentlessly enquiring mind, Peter’s genuine concern for scientific and technological advancements was combined with a childlike fascination for freaks and grotesqueries. So alongside botanical and entomological drawings from Holland, and stuffed sea creatures and reptiles from Ceylon and Indonesia, his collection in the Kunstkamera is probably most famous for its stomach-churning display of deformed human foetuses in jars. Other exhibits in this hodgepodge of a museum include well-presented displays on African tribal cultures and a section devoted to the great polymath Mikhail Lomonosov. Entry is 200 rubles (£4). Open daily 11am-6pm. Closed Monday and the last Tuesday of every month. Visit kunstkamera.ru.
5. Peter’s Cabin
The walk from the Kunstkamera to Peter’s Cabin, the very first house in St Petersburg, takes you along the banks of the River Neva past the Rostral Columns, the Old Stock Exchange, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the city’s magnificent mosque.
This small three-room cabin was knocked up in 1703 for Peter the Great to supervise the building of the Fortress, and the fun to be had here comes from trying to imagine St Petersburg as it was three centuries ago – a barren swamp on the shores of the Gulf of Finland – and the sheer force of will it must have required to establish a city here. The cabin is encased in a red-brick pavilion and contains a small collection of the great tsar’s personal effects, including his frock coat, pipe, and the rowing boat he made himself. Located at Petrovskaya Naberezhnaya 6. Open 10am-6pm. Closed Tuesday and the last Monday of every month.
6. Cruiser Aurora
Just around the corner from Peter’s Cabin is moored one of the most notorious ships in history, the Cruiser Aurora, which now operates as a museum and a monument to the Bolshevik Revolution.
Launched in 1900, the Aurora saw active service in the Russo-Japanese War and in the Baltic during the First World War. Docked in Petrograd for refitting in 1916, the Aurora’s crew were caught up in the February Revolution and elected a new captain with Bolshevik sympathies.
On October 25, 1917, at 9.40pm, the Aurora fired a blank shot which heralded the storming of the Winter Palace and the beginning of the October Revolution. Within six months, the new government had moved the capital back from Petrograd to Moscow, effectively heralding the end of the remarkable project Peter the Great had begun two centuries before, and sentencing the city on the Neva to life as a museum of past glories and extraordinary events. Entry is free. Open 10.30am-4pm. Closed Mon and Fri. Visit aurora.org.ru.