Perhaps the most welcome element of travel for the seasoned globetrotter or city-hopper is that of surprise. In St. Petersburg, Russia, surprise is one of their specialties. Not just for the tourists who arrive, expecting a cold, gray Russia, only to find color and light at every turn, but also for its residents.
After decades of Soviet rule, war, and famine, during which the city’s countless museums, cathedrals, and castles were closed and covered in thick layers of dust, the blanket of darkness was lifted from the city, only to reveal buildings of the prettiest pastels conceivable.
An Architecture-Lover’s Dream Often referred to as the “Venice of the North”, St. Petersburg is a canal city. All along these 65 waterways and rivers—frozen in the winter, makeshift “beaches” in the summer—beautiful buildings stand guard. Painted in the colors one expects to find on small Caribbean islands, these architectural gems serve as a reminder that St. Petersburg is, and always has been, the cultural capital of Russia.
Take the Hermitage Museum, for instance. This former palace—huge, turquoise, gilded, and brilliantly baroque—has a beauty that offers much competition for the three million works of art inside. At the Mariinsky Theater, where Russia’s most renowned opera singers and ballet dancers have been performing since 1783, the golden walls and ornate private boxes (including the “Tsar’s Box”) are almost as impressive as the performances of Swan Lake and Madama Butterfly.
A tour of the city must include the Peter and Paul Cathedral on Hare Island (one of the city’s 42 islands), where the golden tombs of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great reside, and St. Nicholas Cathedral, the “Sailor’s Cathedral” whose exterior color, fittingly, is that of the sea, and whose interior is glistening and shimmering.
Continuing the city’s nod to all things seafaring, Basil Island, in the delta of the Neva River, is where two large Rostral columns, once beacons for ships coming into the port, stand tall above four marble statues of mythical gods, each representing the four major rivers in Russia.
Ten minutes away at Yusupov Palace, a buttery yellow building stretched along the Moika River, which should be nicknamed “home of the world’s most beautiful chandeliers,” jaw-dropping rooms include a magnificent red and gold theater, a tiled Moorish drawing room, and, most notably, a room recreating the conspiring of Rasputin’s murder, which took place there in 1916.
A 40 minute drive into the countryside of Pushkin reveals gently rolling hills, charming weekend homes and cottages, and a truly idyllic setting. Here, Catherine Palace, built in 1756, holds court, an azure, Rococo treasure trove that Catherine the Great referred to as resembling whipped cream.
With all of these masterpieces of architecture, it is the Church of the Spilt Blood that steals the show. When Alexander III wanted a church built in the exact location where his father, Alexander II, had been assassinated, Russia’s most prominent and renowned designers and architects competed for the job. They completed the traditionally-Russian building, with its candy-colored onion domes and intricate mosaics in 1903, creating both a shrine to the fallen Tsar and an icon for the city.
For a hotel fit for royalty (and architecture buffs), stay a night at the Grand Hotel Europe. All of Europe’s elite have slept in its guest rooms–last year, alone, three queens stayed there. This grand dame hotel was built to match the regality and imperial power of the city in 1824, is to St. Petersburg’s hotels what the Church of the Spilt Blood is to its cathedrals. As the first hotel in the city with electric lighting, it was commissioned by the Grand Duke and designed by famed Italian architect Carlo Rossi when the duke saw the need for a hotel that would be worthy of his city and the noble guests who were visiting it.
After years of Soviet rule, when the Baroque masterpiece fell into disrepair and was closed, it was bought by Orient-Express in 2005, and restored to its former glory. Today, guests can truly eat, sleep, and breathe Russian history, by staying in one of its unique historic suites—with names and themes including the Dostoevsky Suite, the Faberge Suite, and the Imperial Yacht Suite—ten lavish, antique-filled rooms that inspire awe from royalty and regular folk alike.
In the snow-filled nights of winter and the long, perpetually-daylit white nights of summer, hotel guests and fashionable locals gather in the hotel’s twinkling bar and Art Nouveau restaurant to drink cold vodka and indulge in fine caviar, paired by the country’s only vodka sommelier. On Friday’s Tchaikovsky nights, dancers from the Russian ballet perform for guests in the main restaurant for one of the most intimate and exquisite opportunities to experience Russian culture available anywhere in the world.
Outside the hotel’s history-filled walls, bars, lounges, and nightclubs are a showcase for the city’s young, hip, and beautiful. All along Konyushennaya Ploshchad, hot spots such as Tao and Soholounge serve sexy cocktails to equally sexy patrons looking to escape the cold or party all night when the sun doesn’t set come summer.
Like a gift for the traveler willing to venture beyond Europe’s more traditional destinations, the surprises that St. Petersburg offers are many. They come in the form of jaw-dropping architecture as colorful as Easter eggs, romantic canals that inspire meandering, and history and culture that beg to be discovered and explored.