Top sights in St Petersburg in February
St Petersburg is a great starting point for the Trans-Mongolia Express
I’ve finally started my Trans-Mongolia train journey from St Petersburg to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. I’m taking two weeks to travel across Russia, starting with two days in historic St Petersburg. Then I’m staying in Mongolia for two weeks to travel around and check out a Bactrian Camel Festival and a Golden Eagle Festival, before flying home via Kazakhstan. And for some bizarre reason, I’ve chosen to do this in the winter!
Planning my Trans-Mongolia train journey independently wasn’t difficult at all. Although it did take a lot more planning and research than most of my backpacking trips. I travel every year for up to five months and usually I just book a flight and the first night’s accommodation, then worry about everything else when I get there!
Have a look at my previous blog posts here for Planning a Trans-Mongolia Train Journey Independently and Eight Decisions to Make Before a Trans-Siberia Train Adventure.
Two days visit to St Petersburg in February – planning a sightseeing itinerary
St Petersburg is a great introduction to Russia. It was founded in 1703 when Peter the Great decided he wanted a northern capital after winning land from the Swedish. The city was the capital of Russia for two hundred years. Built on a muddy swamp, peasants and soldiers were forced to work in brutal conditions, creating Peter’s dream city. Later it became known as a cosmopolitan haven, closely copying stylish European cities like Paris and Rome, with its awe-inspiring churches and beautiful palaces.
I was very worried about how cold it might be and as my usual sightseeing in cities consist of mammoth eight hour walking tours, I wasn’t sure this would be feasible in a St Petersburg winter. Added to this was the fact that my travelling companion on this trip is my 75 year old mum!
Day One – exploring Nevsky Prospect and the Hermitage
Our hotel was located at the eastern end of Nevsky Prospect. This is the main thoroughfare of the city, full of historical buildings and ending at the Hermitage, once home to Catherine the Great and other members of the ruling Romanov family.
We decided to walk the length of the avenue, calling at some of the cathedrals and churches along the way, and finding out exactly how cold a February day in St Petersburg really is. After a late lunch we’d then hit the Hermitage, open until 9pm on Wednesdays.
Walking Tour of Nevsky Prospect
Google maps suggested it was 45 minutes walk to the Hermitage, so with detours and stops I reckoned about 2 hours.
Having landed at 5am on a WizzAir flight from Luton, we got a few hours sleep before heading out at midday. It was warmer outside than London had been but I still was glad to have my warm woolly hat, neck warmer and gloves.
Nevsky Prospect dates from the founding of St Petersburg in 1703 and was planned by Tsar Peter I to be the start of a road to Moscow. From the Admiralty and the Hermitage in the west to Alexander Nevsky Lavra Monastery in the east, the full length of the avenue is 5km. Halfway along, right next to where we were staying is Moscow Railway station – convenient for us as Moscow was to be our first destination on our Trans-Mongolia train adventure across Russia.
Walking along Nevsky Prospect is a delight, with its wide pavements and attractive shop window displays. The buildings are amazing – very imposing with decorative architectural features and many featuring a basement shop or cafe, accessible by external steps.
We crossed Anichkov Bridge, best known for its four bronze statues of horse tamers by sculptor Peter Klodt. Then we passed Gostiny Dvor, a massive shopping centre housed in a historic building and one of the oldest shopping arcades in the world. Work here started in 1757 and it houses over 150 stores.
Opposite Gostiny Dvor, across the avenue is a pretty blue and white Armenian church, one of the earliest in Russia.
Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
At the next intersection, we had our first sight of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, an iconic St Petersburg landmark. It was built for Alexander II, assassinated on this spot in 1881 by a bomb thrown into his carriage. Very progressively for the time, he was in favour of emancipating serfs (peasants forced into indentured servitude) but I guess not everyone agreed with his views.
The multicoloured church is absolutely stunning, with its five richly decorated onion domes and reflected in the frozen canal it was picture perfect. Even my mum decided it was worth getting her ancient camera out of her bag for.
Singer Cafe inside the Dom Knigi building
The ‘House of Books’ is a six-storey Art Nouveau building, built for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. It’s topped with a striking glass dome, with a globe perched precariously on top. It’s been a book store since 1917, after the Singer company moved out, and there’s a touristy cafe on the first floor.
We decided to stop here for a coffee as the views across Nevsky Prospect to Kazan cathedral are worth the inflated prices. We also enjoyed browsing the souvenirs on the ground floor and bought some postcards too.
This cathedral was built to resemble St Peters Basilica in Rome and was an important cathedral until 1917, when it was closed after the Russian Revolution. It became a museum until 1991 when it began religious ceremonies again.
In Orthodox Christianity, icons are used to focus the mind during prayer and are usually paintings depicting a holy being or object. At the altar a long queue had formed, each person waiting their turn to pray in front of and then kiss the sacred gold framed Our Lady of Kazan icon.
We detoured along Griboedov canal to have a look at Bank Bridge, one of only three suspended chain bridges (for pedestrians only) in the city. Considering there’s more than 342 bridges in St Petersburg, that makes this one quite special. The golden griffins at each corner add to its uniqueness.
The Admiralty and St Isaacs cathedral
Last stop on our Nevsky Prospect walking tour was a look at St Isaacs cathedral. It’s one of the largest in the world, rising to 101.5 metres and the main dome is plated with pure gold. Unfortunately it was closed on Wednesdays so we didn’t go inside. The colonnade or viewing platform was open but the day was starting to cloud over so we decided to press on.
Lunch at a traditional Russian canteen
We discovered canteens in Tallinn, Estonia last year and then found them again in Ukraine. They’re popular with locals and often open 24 hours. It’s an easy way for tourists to try different foods as you just collect a tray and cutlery, then follow the queue along pointing at what you want.
There’s a salad section, then cooked vegetables then meat or fish. Everything is priced separately and there’s a juice and hot drinks section just before the cash desk.
The State Hermitage Museum
And finally it was time to visit the Hermitage. This immense art and sculpture collection is housed in several buildings around Palace Square. The actual Hermitage is just one building, but links through to four more including the Winter Palace along the Neva river embankment. Across the square there are even more buildings, that can be visited.
Catherine the Great started the Hermitage art collection in 1764 and it grew so rapidly that soon additional wings and galleries were commissioned. The Imperial family lived in the Winter Palace which was the centre of St Petersburg life, with ceremonies, balls and grand receptions. After 1917, the palace and the collections were seized and became a museum. More art works were added from other Royal residences around Russia.
There’s an array of tickets to choose from, clearly explained on the Hermitage website. We chose the standard 800 ruble ticket to see the Main Museum Complex. 800 rubles is about £9.50 and we found that this was an average entry price for the main tourist attractions across Russia.
You could easily spend the whole day from opening to close inside the galleries and still not see everything. Apparently if you stood in front of each exhibit for a minute you wouldn’t emerge for ten years! We allocated four hours, which was plenty for us but art lovers would probably prefer longer.
We spent the whole time on the second floor, roaming the ‘palace interiors’ section which was examples of original decorated rooms, then headed to the Italian section to see the only Michaelangelo in the gallery (Crouching Boy) and the painted loggias which are an almost exact replica of those in the Vatican.
We also had an unexpected bonus – every Wednesday at 8pm a golden peacock clock is wound up by a member of staff. Various animals rotate and a cockerel crows, then the peacock rotates and opens its tail feathers. It drew a large crowd all with their phones out to record it and it was slightly more impressive than it sounds.
By 9pm the galleries were becoming deserted and we among the last few to collect our coats and leave. Time for a slice of cherry pie and a coffee before tackling the metro back to the hotel!
Part Two to follow – Day Two of a St Petersburg sightseeing itinerary – the Peter and Paul Fortress complex and dinner at a Georgian restaurant