The City of St. Petersburg: "Venice of the North"

The origin of St. Petersburg, the former Leningrad, dates back to the initiative of Tsar Peter the Great to open an outlet for trade with the West. The first stone was laid in 1703 and the result was the most European city in Russia and a fascinating display of sumptuous baroque and neoclassical palaces between the wide canals of the Neva River.

The Neva River and St. Isaac's Cathedral in the background

Peter the Great, enamored of European culture, was the first Russian tsar to travel abroad. After a trip to Prussia, England, and Austria, where he studied the most advanced arts and techniques of his time, he returned with the firm intention of reforming and modernizing his empire, which was very closed in on itself. It was impossible for him to build a harmonious and cosmopolitan complex in Moscow, rooted in Byzantine and national architecture. So he decided to build a new city, totally removed from the geographical center of his vast domains, to reflect the new spirit. 

Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725)

Thousands of Russian soldiers, forced laborers, Swedish and Ottoman prisoners of war, and Finnish and Estonian officials built the greatest urban creation of the 17th century. The city, which became the capital in 1712, has been the scene of historical events of world importance.

In 1914 it changed its name to Petrograd. It was the birthplace of the October Revolution, which gave power to the Soviets and overthrew Russian tsarism. It was renamed Leningrad in 1924 in memory of Ivan Ilyich Lenin, the first president of the now-defunct Soviet Union. Peter the Great (1689-1725) definitively broke the ties with the tradition that had prevailed in Russia for centuries. Thus, St. Petersburg became the stage for the best urban planners and architects of his time, such as Trezzini and Mattarnouvi, who combined Italian Renaissance and Dutch Baroque with exemplary mastery. 

Church of The Savior on Spilled Blood

The sumptuousness and luxury of Rococo, so dear to the tsarinas who succeeded Peter I, found with Bartolomeo Rastrelli and his disciples the perfect expression in many residences, palaces, and gardens. A third period, pure classicism, supported by the authoritarian Catherine II the Great (1762-1796) took shape in the Little Hermitage (1775) or in the Hermitage Theater (1787), by La Mothe and others. The last period was the imperial classicism, used for the reconstruction of Russia after the Napoleonic invasion, a style in which Carlo Rossi, Voronikhine or Thomon were its best architects.

Catherine Palace in Pushkin, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg

On the banks of the Neva river.

The city concentrates around four points its best palaces and monuments: these are, Nevsky-Prospekt and Sadovaja Street. The most prominent building on the right bank of the river is the Peter and Paul Fortress. Begun in 1703, it is the oldest nucleus of the city. It housed the famous state prison for political prisoners until 1917. The cathedral inside was the burial place of the czars since Peter the Great. Its pointed tower, designed by Trezzini in 1733, is emblematic of the city and visible from any point. 

Nevsky Prospekt, the most famous avenue in St. Petersburg

The Little House of Peter the Great is a small wooden building from which the tsar supervised the works of "his" city. It owes its importance not only to the fact that it is the first house in St. Petersburg but also to the fact that it faithfully represents a long-gone architecture. 

In the dock is anchored the battleship Aurora, from which was fired the cannon shot that served as a signal for the assault on the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917. With this attack began the October Revolution, which saw the rise to power of the Communist Party. On Vasily Island, the old stock exchange, built by Thomon in 1810 in classical style, now houses the Navy Museum. Directly opposite, on Strelka Square, stand two tall rostral columns (1806) that served as lighthouses. Today in the former customs house of the port is installed the Institute of Russian Literature of the Academy of Sciences, also called Pushkin's house, which preserves a superb collection of manuscripts of the great geniuses of Russian literature. 

The emblematic Winter Palace (Hermitage) where the Soviet Revolution broke out

Where the ministries of Peter I once stood, the University of St. Petersburg now stands on the so-called University Quay, facing the Hermitage. The museum of anthropology and ethnology occupies the former Tsar's art chamber, built by Mattarnuovi and Zemcov in 1734. After passing the Academy of Fine Arts, very characteristic with its Egyptian sphinxes -the work of La Mothe and Kokorinov in 1788- rises St. Andrew's Cathedral, built in 1786. A little further on are the Naval Academy, the former Menshikov Palace, a branch of the Hermitage, and the Mining Institute, in the form of a Greek temple, built by Voronikhine in 1808.

Joyful and Splendorous.

On the opposite bank is the Decembrists' Square, with the famous equestrian monument of Peter the Great, by Falconet in 1776. The name of the square is due to the fact that a peasant uprising was suppressed there in December 1825. The double building of the Senate and the Holy Synod, by Rossi in 1834, closes the square on one side. The Basilica of St. Isaac, built according to the plans of Auguste de Montferrand in 1858 and famous for its museum and for the splendid view from its high dome, was built by half a thousand officials. Next to it rises the Admiralty Tower, 72 meters high and one of the symbols of St. Petersburg, the work of Zacharov (1823). 

Aerial view of the Palace Square. At the right, the Building of the General Staff;
at the left, the Winter Palace. 

Behind it is the Palace Square, in the center of which stands the triumphal column in memory of the victory over Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The former building of the General Staff, semicircular in shape, closes the square to the southeast. On its northern facade rises, imposing and majestic, the Winter Palace, the masterpiece of Russian Baroque, which houses the world-famous collection of the Hermitage. Designed by the prolific architect Rastrelli in 1752, it has three floors and a mile of façade. In the glittering corridors once walked by the tsars, today almost 4 million people a year admire its works of art. The museum houses more than 8,000 paintings by great masters such as Leonardo, Raphael, Rubens or Titian and nearly 3 million different pieces including sculptures, furniture, silver and porcelain objects, carved stones, etc. 

Peter and Paul Fortress - First building ever built in St. Petersburg

Monumental Avenues.

The other great artery of the city is almost perpendicular to the previous one and starts behind the Admiralty. It is the Nevsky-Prospekt (Nevsky Avenue), with almost 60 m wide and 5 km long. On its sidewalks and in its vicinity is the largest concentration of magnificent palaces in the city. Its beginning, the junction of Gogol and Herzen streets, is considered the center of St. Petersburg. The first notable monuments on the avenue, walking in an easterly direction, are the Dutch church (Jacquot, 1837) and the Stróganov palace, by the aforementioned Rastrelli, from 1754. 

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan is another of the most emblematic buildings of the city. A hemicycle with colonnades precedes the main body, covered by a high central dome. It was built by Voronikhine in 1811. In 1932 it became the Museum of Religion and Atheism. Rather more modern is the Church of the Savior (1907), also called the Church of the Spilled Blood, which was built by Parland in memory of Alexander II, who was the victim of an assassination attempt on this very spot. 

Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, St. Petersburg

In front of the old Town Hall, a small street leads to the Arts Square, where there are some theaters and the Museum of Ethnology. Wall to wall is the State Russian Museum, installed in the former palace of Michajl, built in 1825 according to the plans of Rossi, who also designed the entire square. Inside is an exceptional collection of icons and paintings from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Returning to Nevsky, the Comedy Theater and the Saltikov-Scedrin Library, also built by Rossi in 1832 in the Empire style and containing more than 23 million books and valuable manuscripts, soon come into view. On Ostrovsky Square stands the monument to Catherine II, the Pioneers' Palace -formerly the Anickov Palace (Rastrelli, 1750)- and the Pushkin Theater (Rossi, 1832), named in honor of the great writer, "the sun of Russian poetry."

"Venice of the North."

After crossing the Anickov Bridge over the Fontanka, with its famous statues of horse tamers, the Nevsky-Prospekt proceeds to the railway station at the Aleksandr Nevsky Convent, commissioned by Peter the Great as the main temple of the new city. Beyond rises the modern city, practically built after the Second World War, which meant for the then Leningrad a terrible siege and half a million dead. 

In the opposite direction, to the north of the Nevsky-Prospekt and close to the Neva, is Sadovaja Street. At its source is the Field of Mars, with the monument to the Heroes of the Revolution, the Summer Palace, and the Summer Garden. This summer residence and the park, the oldest in St. Petersburg, were a personal wish of Peter the Great. A hundred statues of Italian masters flank its avenues, ponds, groves, and grottoes. A few meters from the park is the Engineering Palace, commissioned by Paul I (son of Catherine II), whose front has a beautiful statue depicting the figure of Peter I. 

Summer Palace and Garden of Peter the Great

St. Petersburg extends its influence several kilometers to the outskirts. Thus, magnificent palatial residences were built, in which magnificence and audacity go hand in hand: Petrodvoriets -with its fabulous parks, palaces, famous fountains, and pavilions-, Lomossonov -the fantastic residence of Catherine II-, Pavlovsk and its splendid boulevards, etc. 

Grandeur and beauty go hand in hand in this city aptly called "the Venice of the North" because of its 101 islands and the numerous canals and bridges that cross it. Joyful and splendorous, St. Petersburg is not only the second-largest city in Russia but undoubtedly the most charming, poetic, and solemn in its magnificence on the border with the Arctic. 

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