I’ve known I wanted to go to St. Petersburg since I was young. Disney’s ‘Anastasia’ was one of my favourites and from then on I was hooked. Beautiful palaces, grand parties and a pretty dark history… What’s not to love?!
Back in April 2014, mum and I decided to spend 4 days in St. Petersburg.
Firstly, we like an escorted tour so we booked with a company called ‘IntoRussia‘, based in St. Petersburg itself. It was a small group tour – us and another family of 4 – visiting the historical highlights of the city and the main palaces and museums associated with the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the Romanovs.
This was solely our arrival day. The airport transfers, hotel and all of our admissions were arranged by IntoRussia. Our guide met us at the airport and we transferred to the The Ambassador Hotel in the city centre on Rimsky-Korsakov Avenue.
The hotel itself was beautiful with a marble staircase to the Lobby Bar & panoramic views from the ‘Vernisage’ Restaurant out over the city & St. Isaacs Cathedral.
The morning guided tour took us round the highlights of St. Petersburg, followed by a visit to the Peter & Paul Fortress to learn a bit more about its history.
As part of the tour we got acquainted with some of the city’s most well-known buildings – St. Isaac’s cathedral being one of them. Originally opened as a cathedral in 1858, it became a museum in 1931 by order of the Soviet government, however it does still hold the occasional church service.
The Yusupov Palace, also known as the Moika Palace (as it’s on the Moika river) was also on our agenda. As the name suggests, this was once the main residence of the Yusupov family.
The Palace itself now hosts diplomatic & government meetings and conferences with foreign heads of state and public officials being noted in the Guest Book. Over the past 250 years the purpose of the Palace has changed several times.
The history of the Yusupov Palace dates back to Peter the Great, having taken almost 200 years to build the estate. Between 1830-1919, five generations of Yusupovs owned the Palace and its estate until it was handed over to educational authorities in 1925. The Palace now houses the ‘Palace of Culture for Educators’ and was converted into an exhibition offering educational tours and programs.
The Palace today is one of the few surviving mansions of St. Petersburg aristocracy with authentic State Rooms, Art Gallery and Home Theatre on display, as well as the family’s luxury living quarters. The decorated interiors have been restored and preserved to take the mansion back to its former glory to display to the public.
The Palace is also well known for being where Rasputin was assassinated in 1916 in the apartment of Felix Yusupov.
Grigory Rasputin was a Siberian peasant, ‘holy-man’ and family friend of Czar Nicholas II. Yusupov thought him to be dangerous and influential to the Imperial family and sought to try to salvage the Russian monarchy by taking Rasputin out of the picture. The apartment is open to the public and is, understandably, a popular exhibit.
Next up on the itinerary was the Peter & Paul Fortress, also known as the Petropavlovsk Fortress. This is the core of the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg.
Built to protect Russia’s new capital, it’s now a popular tourist attraction and houses the Cathedral of the Saint Apostles Peter & Paul with its needle-like spire, along with numerous museums and galleries.
The Peter & Paul Cathedral is the oldest Russian Orthodox church in the city and, amongst others, holds the tombs of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and their families.
The remains of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their 5 children (including Anastasia) are here too, entombed in The Chapel of Saint Catherine the Martyr in 1998 after their execution by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The Chapel is separate from the Cathedral and is usually roped off to the public.
The interior of the chapel is filled with paintings, ceiling frescoes, gilded pillars and a gold altar, making it all the more impressive.
Today’s guided tour took us to the beautiful Hermitage Museum, also known as the Winter Palace.
A highlight of St. Petersburg, there’s no much history here that you really do need a good few hours to be able to take it all in and appreciate it.
The Palace was an imperial residence for 150 years up until the November Revolution of 1917 and has been a museum ever since. The exhibitions on display within the Hermitage include sculptures, decorative art and collections of painting as well as chambers & grand halls. All of the interior decoration has been restored and preserved to replicate the original as closely as possible and the results are incredible.
Built in 1754, designs were approved by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, however due to the eight years it took to complete, it was still in progress at the end of her reign and through the short rule of Peter III. It was completed in 1762, in time for the return of Catherine II to St. Petersburg after her Moscow coronation and she took up residence of the Winter Palace.
There are permanent exhibition rooms and galleries throughout dedicated to armouries, works of art and culture from Ancient Greece, Rome, Italy & Japan, the Hellenistic era and painting from Spain & Holland, however the cumulative collection of the State Hermitage is over 3 million painting, artefacts and relics from various stages of history.
Due to the pandemic, the Hermitage is not currently open to the public, however virtual tours are available online and are equally as impressive as being there in person! The tours walk your through the exhibits and the various buildings making up the State Hermitage as if you were there, starting out at Jordan’s Staircase, going through Pavilion Hall and through into the Galleries – they’re definitely worth a watch, both to experience it if you haven’t been before and re-live it if you have.
Our last full day!
Todays itinerary had us on an out of town excursion to nearby Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo), about 17 miles outside St. Petersburg. Here we would be visiting Catherine’s Palace (Ekaterinburg), also known as the Summer Palace or the Pushkin Palace.
On our way back to St. Petersburg, we would also be stopping at the Peterhof Palace.
Until 1910, the Palace was known as ‘The Grand Tsarskoselsky’ Palace.
The exhibition within covers over 300 years worth of history, from the building of the palace to the recreation of 32 of the 58 halls destroyed during WWII.
Work continued on the palace between 1717-1878 with various different architects being involved, giving each hall and room a different style depending on the period and designer.
Many notable rooms within Catherine’s Palace include the famous Amber Room which, before it was lost was considered to be the ‘Eight Wonder of the World’.
The Amber Room dates back to 1701 when it was created for the Prussian King Frederick I and gifted to Peter the Great in 1716. After expansions and renovations, it contained over 6 tonnes of amber, covering around 590 sq ft.
The Amber Room survived the Revolution in 1917 but after being looted by the Nazis during World War II (along with over half a million pieces of artwork from all over Europe), it was returned to Germany to be displayed, however in the final months of the war, it disappeared. The current location of the Amber Room remains a mystery though many people have claimed to have either found it or to know where it is and has an estimated modern day value of between £120-240 million.
In 1979, the Soviet government ordered for a replica Amber Room to be constructed. At a total cost of £8.4 million, partially funded by Germany, the Amber Room was completed and installed in Catherine’s Palace in 2003 after 24 years of work.
As well as the Amber Room, Catherine’s Palace is well-known for its Grand Ballroom (also known as the Great Hall). Located on the second floor, the Ballroom takes up the entire width of the Palace. At almost 56ft wide and 154ft long, it is designer Rastrelli’s centrepiece room!
Featured in Disney’s ‘Anastasia’ & more recently in the BBC adaption of Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’, the ballroom is well known for its grandeur – parquet flooring, ceiling frescoes and its’ incredible golden & white décor.
The building of the Peterhof Palace began in 1714 and had originally started out as a modest country Palace, however after Peter the Great visited France, the project was expanded and newly designed to reflect the Palace of Versailles with its park, fountains and domes. Many of Peter the Great’s own designs and drawing are now on display for public viewing. Various buildings come together to give the Great Palace ensemble.
When Peter the Great died in 1725, work on the palace stopped and the Palace was almost abandoned until 1740 when his daughter, Elizabeth, took up the throne.
She commissioned Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who designed Catherine’s Palace in the city to build something worthy of royalty. The original designs were retained in the new build but the final result, completed in 1756, is nothing short of breath-taking.
An additional floor was added to the building and the interior decorated to visually increase the space. A lot of this was down to the simple use of mirrors which gave the impression of expanse.
Various architects and designers were used in the construction and decoration of the Palace and its’ interiors. Each architect was able to seamlessly blend each of the previous styles with their own, so as a whole, it reflects the preferences and personal tastes of many of the Russian monarchs who reigned after Peter the Great.
During World War II, the park and Palace were badly damaged and much of the interior had to be completely reconstructed.
In 1990, the Peterhof Palace was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2008 became known as one of the seven wonders of Russia.