Russia is a fairly complicated destination to visit, but according to those who’ve been, visiting majestic cities like St Petersburg is well worth it. Full of fascinating history and architectural gems, this city is a definite bucket list item. Previously, we shared travel planning details on how to visit St Petersburg without a group tour. Today, our guest contributor, Tatiana Claudy, provides even more do-it-yourself travel advice as she takes us on a self-guided tour in St Petersburg.
Saint Petersburg – “the window to Europe” – founded in 1703 by Emperor Peter the Great is an absolutely must-see tourist destination in Russia. Being a relatively young Russian city, it overwhelms visitors with its rich history, splendor of palaces, and grandeur of cathedrals. For my tour on this sunny autumn day, I had chosen a route in the historical center that includes several well-known sights. Regardless the length of your stay in Saint Petersburg, you can benefit from this self-guided tour that will take about four hours.
What to do in Saint Petersburg
Since the city’s historic center has not been designed to accommodate numerous cars, buses, and trolleybuses, traffic jams is a common occurrence here. Therefore, take advantage of the vast subway system, which is safe, comfortable, and attractive. To start my tour, I took the subway to the Nevsky Prospect station, went out, turned right, walked along the Griboedov Canal, then through the Mikhailovsky Garden to reach one of the most charming places in the city – the Summer Garden.
Stroll the Summer Garden
Created in the 18th century, the Summer Garden resembles the Versailles: there are pavilions, statues, fountains, and a pond with white swans. In summer, in one of its alleys you may hear a military brass band playing Russian music, other times you may be entertained by puppet artists and musicians. Since there is no entrance fee, this place is popular among the locals and the visitors alike.
I went straight to the Summer Palace – the city’s first royal residence built for Emperor Peter the Great and one of the city’s first stone buildings – but it was closed for reconstruction. Such a pity! But I still enjoyed my time there, strolling along the alleys while admiring sculptures and fountains. And I got a real treat – a puppet show! Even when you see the puppeteer, due to his skills, you still have the impression that puppets are alive when they dance and even wink at you!
If you need a snack, have a cup of coffee and pastry in the Summer Garden’s cafeteria.
Make a Wish and Throw a Coin
I left the Summer Garden, turned right, crossed the road across to the Mikhailovsky Castle, and then walked back to the First Engineer Bridge to have a look at the statue of Chizhik-Pyzhik (a siskin). This city’s smallest (11 cm or 4.77 inches) statue has been installed in 1994 and became extremely popular (it even has been stolen several times).
To see it, you have to bend over the bridge and look down since the statue is placed on the embankment’s ledge. You will easily find it because there are always people there, bending over and throwing coins. If your coin lands on the statue or at least on the ledge – your wish will be granted!
Visiting Mikhailovsky Castle
Next, I visited the Mikhailovsky Castle (the only castle in the city), the residence of Emperor Paul I (great-grandson of Peter the Great). I walked on the First Engineer Bridge and turned right to the castle’s entrance. In the yard, there is the monument of Emperor Paul I. This castle has been built for him, but he lived there only for 40 days because he has been killed here in the coup d’état. After this tragic event, the castle was transformed into the Engineering School and received another name – the Engineers’ Castle.
Several years long ago the castle has been restored as a royal residence and turned into a museum: there are gorgeous rooms with official portraits of the Russian royalties. Visitors can make photographs without a flash. As I walked through the rooms, admiring artifacts, I found one of the most impressive pictures that I have seen – “Parade at October, 1931, at Tsaritsyn Meadow in Saint Petersburg,” which includes numerous personages: Tsar Nicolas I, his wife and their son, 45 courtiers and 223 onlookers (not counting the troops!). The court artist Gregory Chernetsov spent four years to complete it, but Nicolas I disliked the painting and did not pay the artist . . .
When I left the castle, I walked forward to admire an equestrian statue of the city’s founder, Peter the Great. It is the first equestrian statue in Russia: Emperor, dressed like a Roman Cesar, is on his favorite horse Lisetta. I heard an urban legend: if you look at this statue exactly at 3 am during the White Nights period (mid-May till July), you can see it moving! (I should definitely come back here and check it out!).
Explore the Architectural Jewel of St. Petersburg
I crossed the road and strolled through the Mikhailovsky Garden back to the Griboedov Canal to visit one of the architectural marvels of Russia – the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. It was built on the place where Emperor Alexander II has been fatally wounded by Russian political nihilists. Thus, it is more known by another name – the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Designed in a medieval Russian architectural style, this building resembles Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow.
This is one of the most popular tourists’ attractions: there are always crowds of people admiring the spectacular façade of the church and its intricate gilded domes. Yet visitors have no idea what wonders are awaiting for them inside the church: columns decorated with semi precious stones and over 7,500 square meters of mosaics depicting Biblical personages. Photos without a flash are allowed. To avoid standing in line to the ticket window, you may book your tickets online.
Near the entrance, you may meet royalty impersonators that offer to take with your camera your photos in the company of a “tsar” or a “tsarina.” Beware: these photos are not free! (Usually they charge about $5 per photo).
Eating Blinis and Buying Books at the Singer House
I strolled along the Griboedov Canal toward my next stop – the Singer House (built for the Russian branch of the Singer Sewing Machine Company). This magnificent art nouveau building has under its roof the House of Books and the Singer Café where visitors can taste Russian blinis (a Russian kind of crêpe). Situated on the second floor, this café is a wonderful place to have lunch: not only you sit in a cozy room and enjoy Russian cuisine, but you also take pleasure in the view of the Nevsky Prospect and the Kazan Cathedral through enormous ceiling-to-floor windows. After long walks, you deserve refreshment in this relaxing atmosphere! The food is delicious, and the prices are not budget-breaking.
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After lunch, descending to the first floor, you can browse through tourists’ guides, calendars, post cards, and souvenirs. The assortment is plentiful, and the tourists’ literature is presented in all major European languages.
Last Stop on a Self-Guided St. Petersburg Tour: the Art Square
Now, after regaining my strength at the café, I continued my tour. I left the Singer House, crossed the Griboedov Canal, walked along the Nevsky Prospect toward the Mikhaylovskaya Street, and turned to the left to the Art Square. This name is significant because this square is surrounded by the Mikhailovsky Theater (an opera and ballet theater), the Theatre of Musical Comedy, and the Philharmonic.
In the center of the square there is a little park with the monument of Alexander Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet, who lived in Saint Petersburg and dedicated to this city inspiring poetry, “I love you, Peter’s great creation . . .” In summer, this park serves as a popular place for music festivals. But now, in October, this place was almost empty, except for teenagers playing with fallen golden leaves.
I walked by the Pushkin monument to my final destination – the Mikhailovsky Palace. Designed by Carlo Rossi, an Italian architect, for the grand duke Mikhail (a son of Paul I), this palace was a recognized masterpiece both in Russia and Europe. In its famous musical salon performed such celebrities as Liszt, Schuman, and Wagner. At the end of the 19th century, the palace has been turned into the first fine arts museum. Now it houses the Russian Museum, famous for its huge collection of Russian art.
Since it is impossible to view all of the museum’s 400,000 exhibits during one visit, I decided to see Ancient Russian icons (on the 2nd floor) and works of Russian impressionists and avant-garde artists (on the 3rd floor). This museum is not as overcrowded as the Hermitage Museum, and I enjoyed my time there, walking slowly from one painting to another, admiring artists’ skills and imagination.
My favorite work here was “The Last Day of Pompeii” by Karl Briullov. The artist succeeded in producing an impressive painting with precise details of the volcano eruption and the historic accuracy of the environment. The artist spent six years in Italy working on this masterpiece, but his labor was not in vain: it became one of the most famous European paintings of his time, being exhibited in Milan and Paris. A Russian poet Baratynsky wrote, “And ‘The Last Day of Pompeii’ became the first day for Russian Art.”
My self-guided tour of Saint Petersburg is now concluded: I visited two parks, one castle, one church, and one museum (say nothing of the House of Books). Sure, there are much more to see in the city’s historical center, including the entire Nevsky Prospect – an open air museum! I hope that you find my Saint Petersburg self-guided tour useful!