With the World Cup this year, Russia has been in the spotlight. While politically, there’s a lot of talk about, when it comes to history and culture, it’s just about as good as it gets. An this year – 100 years ago – the tsar family was executed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. (Not that that’s good, but it’s a historical event most people know.)
St. Petersburg is the city of the tsars, of golden domes, of imperial palaces, but also the scene for some drastic and violent events. There’s is so much history in Saint Petersburg and the entire historic center is a UNESCO Site. I could write the longest post ever. But I won’t, because my sister tells me not everyone is interested in history as me… So I will just try give you a glimpse of what this city has to offer, that is worth the aggravation of getting a visa.
So how did I end up in St. Petersburg in 1996 – just me 15 years old along with a group of senior citizens. Well, my grandmother really wanted to go. She is from Finland – the part that is now Russian, and therefore has somewhat troubled relationship with Russia like the rest of my Finnish family. But it’s also a neighbour, so she wanted to go. And of course, I never say no to a free trip (or any other trip). (As you will hear about in upcoming posts, my Grandmother has paid family trips to Mallorca, Menorca, Malta and Turkey. Gotta love her.)
I’ve always been fascinated with Russia, and ever since I was that teenager: a big fan of Russian literature and in particular Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This trip made me come back a second time with my husband in 2004. If you haven’t been, I hope this will make you want to go. And now for some history…
THE CITY OF THE TSARS
St. Petersburg is very much its own. It was founded by tsar Peter the Great as a gateway to Europe and inspired by what he saw on his travels through Europe. This is the reason why it’s completely different from Moscow. That it’s built on a swamp and was an impossible project from the beginning is easily forgotten now as a traveller when you marvel at the endless pastel palaces and golden domes along the Neva River.
You”ll find Peter the Great himself in a statue called The Bronze Horseman (sounds kind of apocalyptical, but comes from a Pushkin poem) on Senate Square close to the river. The coolest thing though is the stone it stands on: it is the biggest stone humans have ever moved! As long as the statue stand the city will not be taken, and even though it was heavily bombed during WWII, the statue and the city survived.
So back to the tsar family and the 100-year anniversary. Allegedly the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution started with shot from the naval cruiser Aurora and ended with Lenin and communism in power. Tsar Nicholas II had failed to modernize the country and implement reforms. Finally, a 100 years ago the palace was stormed and the family captured and eventually killed, although that was not the initial plan (making the story even sadder). They were all shot in the basement of a small house in the woods, even though some of the soldiers refused to shoot the kids. Later on, the remains of the family were found in the forest, but some bones were missing giving rise to speculations that the princess Anastasia survived. But she didn’t. But the kitchen boy did survive, so Disney got it right there.
These events are just some of the thing that make the city and its palaces not only beautiful, but come alive.
MY SENIOR SIGHTS IN ST. PETERSBURG
When travelling with a senior group everything is organized. Meals in the hotel, a bus to take you anywhere to all the biggest sights and also convenient stop at souvenir shops. Hmm, not exactly my style… But the upside is they also take care of that bloody Russian visa, they make sure you can ask someone about all the weird things, and you can visit places that is not open for tourists.
Like a school! This was very organized, and I am pretty sure it wasn’t the worst school in the district, but more likely a high performing one to show off. It looked a lot like the school back home, but with a more formal relation to the teacher. It was so strange – us watching them and them watching us. But a school with art on the wall is off to a good start!
Afterwards we went to a souvenir shop especially chosen by our Russian tour guide. I did buy some souvenirs, but not from any of the souvenirs shops they sent us into. My grandmother and I found some old women on Nevsky Prospect selling stuff, and we bought some fine lacing, a Babushka doll and an old hip flask with the red hammer & sickle.
Also head for some of the flea markets for great souvenirs. Maybe you’ll find a lost Fabergé egg – or at least some army gear.
The Hermitage is #1. Not just in St. Petersburg, nor in Russia, but everywhere. Okay, maybe Louvre is also pretty spectacular, but then they share 1. place.
The museum is made by several buildings, the Winter Palace, the old Hermitage, the new, the theater, and more. It’s the second largest museum in the world, so forget seeing everything.
Find out if you’re interested in Impressionistic painting, golden interiors or modern Russian art and go for it. I would encourage the Russian and the interior, since you can find Van Gogh or Rembrandt elsewhere. If you are not into the best paintings in the world or the most exquisite antiquities and interiors, instead head for the state rooms of the tsar family and try to imagine living there and dancing away like in Disney’s Anastasia. Before the revolution of course…
Back then there weren’t quite as many travellers and neither in 2004, so I can’t tell you what to do with tickets, but I’m sure it’s like all the other top sights in the world. Tedious!
PETER AND PAUL FORTRESS
It kind a sounds like a fortress built by some Beatles imitators. But the fortress is the old fortifications of the city. It was built by Peter the Great in 1703 as to protect the city from the Swedes(!). Then it was a prison for the writer Fjodor Dostoevsky and the revolutionist Leon Trotsky among others.
Today the Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the fortress holds the tombs of all Russian tsars from Peter I to Alexander II(except for two) Also the remains of the killed Nicholas II and his family were interred here when their remains was found. Nicholas II’s mother Dagmar was from Denmark. Her tomb used to be at my work Roskilde Cathedral along with all the other Danish royalties, but under great ceremony, it was moved here a few years ago. That’s is also why the Danish Royal family has a lot of Russian jewellery.
During WWII the fortress suffered a lot of damage by bombing, but it has been restored and most of the site is now a museum. Everyday a cannon is fired because – well because. Just outside the walls of the fortress on the banks of the river is a stretch of sand, and you can see Russians winter sunbathing or winter bathing.
THE GOLDEN DOMES OF THE CHURCHES
Russia is primarily Russian Orthodox. You can distinguish the Orthodox churches from a mile by their often colourful and golden onion domes.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood or Cathedral of Resurrection is not only the most photographed but also has a super interesting history. This is probably the most iconic building in St. Petersburg. It is built on the place where was tsar Alexander II was assassinated. His family built it on the spot where Alexander was shot by a nihilist. Again, isn’t this just the most interesting history that these buildings tell…
And more golden domes: The Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Cathedral and the 4. largest in the world! Under communist rule religion was not a good thing (opium for the masses, you know) so the Cathedral turned into a museum, but from 2017 it belongs to the church again.
There are of course way many more churches including the large Kazan Cathedral. Our 1996 tour bus also stopped by the Nikolsky Cathedral in the neighbourhood of Kolomna. Probably wouldn’t have gone there myself.
You can find some really good pictures in this article on the 8 must see churches by takeusanywhere.
CEMETERIES & DEAD POET SOCIETY
Well, our hotel was right across Alexander Nevsky Monastery and its 4 cemeteries, and after visiting Peter Paul and the Romanovs, more tombs are just perfect. I like to visit the graves of historical figures. Cemeteries are sometimes a top sight like Père-Lachaise in Paris, and also here. Especially, if you like me looove Russian literature, so of course I had to visit the tomb of Fyodor Dostoeyvski.
Of course I’ve written a post about seeing St. Petersburg through the eyes of Dostoyevsky’s famous student Raskolnikov. So if you need help from a local to go deeper? Discover the ugly side of Saint Petersburg, Russia with the student Raskolnikov.
But you can also find all your favourite composers Tchaikovsky (“The Nutcracker”), Rimsky-Korsakov (“The Flight of the Bumblebee) and Mussorgsky (“Night on Bald Mountain“). So many creative people in Russia in the 18th century. In Volkovskoe cemetery you can find writers like Turgenjev, scientist Mendeleev and a memorial to the family of Lenin. Find your favourite Russian here.
This palace is named after Catherine the Great. It’s a little outside St. Petersburg in Tsarskoe Seloe. This is also one of the advantages of an organized tour, that you wont spend a lot of time figuring out how to go where. This was a summer residence and a different pastel colour.
Again, more bling. The exterior is decorated with over 100 kg of gold. In here is also located the famous Amber Room. An entire room with walls of amber. That’s just too much. When we visited in 1996, they were (only) 14 years in to the restoration (since the Nazis stole it), so I haven’t seen the finished work.
A NIGHT OUT
There are so many theatres. The Mariinksy theatre is world famous for it’s ballet and opera along with Bolshoi in Moscow), and this is where all the before mentioned composers had their premieres. Oh to be there… Of course my husband and I had to see a performnce – although you would think that this was a top senior choice… We went to a ballet in the beautiful Mariinsky, although a concert by Tchaikovsky would also be an excellent choice.
There’s are no Michelin restaurants or World’s Best, but I found 5 Russian dishes recommended by Michelin. One is of course borscht, which is better than it sounds, but not my favourite. That’s is definitely Blinis. With the senior tour, we ate terrible food at the terrible hotel.
But my husband and I manage to find some good stuff. We had blinis in a small place near Griboedov Canal, that doesn’t seem to be there any more. A pity, it was like a white cafeteria, and you could only get blinis. We lived on those small pancakes with caviar the entire time. washing it down with Russian sparkling wine of course. We also had stews and very good bread.
I didn’t fly to St. Petersburg, but took the bus all the way with the seniors. The bus was thoroughly searched, and we all had to get out at the border. But a Russian nearby was so good as to sell us his extra vodka and cigarettes from the back of his car while waiting… I still laugh about that..>
My husband and I took the train from Helsinki. That is… we missed the return train, so it was train one way and bus the other. The bus goes trough beautiful scenery of Finland.
Getting a visa to Russia is the most difficult thing ever. Even if you pay an agency you still have to wait forever, and if you type just 1 thing wrong forget it. Along with the seniors we stayed in awful old concrete block hotel. Very centrally located just across Nevsky Monastery, but it was terrible. A really bad old communist place without plug for the sink and a sad looking lady on each floor.It might have been the Akademya, which look like it, but just way more fancy (yes!) than in the 90s.
I can’t remember where my husband and I stayed, but it was hostel outside of town. No recommendations.
But all in all, I would like to go back again. Stay in a better hotel, but revisit the Hermitage and watching the sun illuminating those golden domes.Unfortunately my grandmother is now too old for travelling, but we still talk about all our trips. Hope you are just as lucky as me to have such a cool granny.
Is Russia on your bucket list?