Russia's royal city, St Petersburg, is all about art, over-the-top opulence, baroque palaces, and a high-minded culture.

The Metro

A subterranean art gallery filled with chandeliers, marble, mosaics, and statues depicting Soviet Union farmworkers, Saint Petersburg’s metro is the world’s deepest and busiest underground. Opened in 1955, stations, such as the 279 feet deep Admiralteyskaya, doubled as bomb shelters during the Cold War, hence the big blast doors and air filters.

You can traverse five subway lines, 67 stations, and 3 000 trains for just 45 Rubles.

Near the Narvskaya station, the Narva Triumphal Gate (built 1814) celebrates Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Newsky Prospect on the Moskovsko-Petrogradskaya line is to St Petersburg what the Champs Elysees is to Paris – the pulsing main artery lined with 18th-century homes and neoclassical monuments. 

Art Galleries

More than 2,800 works take up five floors of the Erarta Museum of Modern Art on Vasilyevsky Island, Russia’s largest private gallery.

Captivating contemporary pieces offer a glimpse into the hearts of the people, but it’s The Hermitage – Europe’s greatest art collection in four palaces stretching a mile along the Neva banks – that tourists come from far and wide to explore. Guides say it would take at least eight years to see all of the 4-million exhibits here.

A hymn to sky-lit atriums, ceiling frescoes, chandeliers, statues, antiques, and priceless treasures with key works by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Titian, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso, The Hermitage began as the Romanovs’ private collection in the 18th century. The 1777 peacock clock is another marvel. Adorned with three golden mechanical birds that still sing, it belonged to Catherine the Great’s secret husband, Prince Grigory Potemkin.

Book a private tour into the Treasure Room to see Siberian artefacts, Scythian gold from seven centuries BC, and Nicolas I’s saddle-cloth encrusted with 160 000 diamonds. 

Palaces

Peter Carl Faberge’s exquisite bejewelled eggs at the eponymous museum within the Shuvalov Palace along the Fontanka River will elicit appreciative gasps but nowhere is royal extravagance more in evidence than at Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, and Peterhof Palace in (er,) Peterhof. Today’s yacht-owning oligarchs look like cut-rate cheapskates in comparison.

Situated next to the Lyceum, alma mater of Alexander Pushkin immortalized in bronze, Catherine’s Palace is the town’s main attraction. Naming her summer residence after her mother Catherine I, Empress Elizabeth used 221 pounds of gold on the Rococo roof alone. Domes and crosses twinkle like tsars over pavilions, ponds, manicured lawns, and elaborate baroque facades. Hawk-eyed babushkas dish out shoe covers to protect the decorative floor and grand marble staircase you ascend to a heavenly hall with a high fresco-covered ceiling. Sunlight sparkling on gilt-framed mirrors amplifies the brilliance of the golden carvings and reclining cupids.

Lapis lazuli, jasper, and malachite line room after room. Most spectacular is Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s Amber Chamber created in 1770. German troops purloined the priceless panels in 1941 and the original amber was never seen again. Between 1982 and 2003, the Amber Room was recreated at a cost of $12 million. This time around, icy glares seem to preclude a second theft.

Photographs, too, are forbidden and watching a barking babushka berate an errant foreigner for flashing his selfie-stick provided a frisson of Schadenfreude.

The Grand Cascade at Peterhof Palace – an hour’s drive from Petersburg – comprises three thundering waterfalls, 67 fountains, and 37 golden statues including a huge rendering of Samson killing a lion to represent Russia’s defeat of Sweden in the Great North War. Amid the statues, ornamental ponds, and trees of the palatial gardens are trick fountains. You can imagine Peter The Great – a practical joker, by all accounts – chortling at the unexpected drenching of his noble guests. Now giggling children trigger the fountains with glee.

Landmarks

The dome of St Isaac’s Basilica and the 400-foot golden spire of Peter & Paul Fortress and Cathedral, housing the marble coffins of the Romanovs ‒ including Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and children, butchered by Bolsheviks in 1918 ‒ dominate the city skyline. All have fascinating tales behind their construction. In 1837, St Isaac’s French architect, Auguste Montferrand, plummeted 333 feet from the dome scaffolding. Workers caught him just before he hit the ground, no doubt renewing his religious faith.

When lightning struck the Peter & Paul Cathedral in 1756, a peasant volunteered to touch up the gold leaf on the vertigo-inducing spire. Peter the Great rewarded his courage with a neck tattoo entitling him to imbibe freely in any city tavern. The man died from alcohol poisoning five years later.

With its five bejewelled onion domes, the Cathedral of the Savior on Spilled Blood, marks the spot where an assassin opposed to Alexander II’s social reforms flung a bomb into his carriage in 1881. The interior offers stunning mosaic-covered walls.

Culture

St Petersburg’s top three theatres for ballet and opera are the Mariinsky, the Mikhailovsky, and the more intimate Hermitage that features Swan Lake performances all year round within its gilded interiors.

While the GaleriaShopping mall in Ligovsky Ave offers five levels of designer clothing, branded footwear, and accessories, you’ll find the best handpainted Russian dolls and quality souvenirs at Matreshka Tanushka, next to a food market in Kuznechny Lane.

Amid a dazzling array of 9765 restaurants, a delicious ‘dining blind’ experience seasoned with human intimacy can be had at Dans Le Noir? Food for thought as you allow your sense of smell, taste and touch to change your perception.

With 521 hotels you’re spoilt for accommodation choice. The Four Seasons Hotel Lion Palace across from St Isaac’s will treat you like Royalty, and the Grand Emerald Hotel does good breakfasts if the stuffed bear in the dining room doesn’t bother you.

There’s so much to see in this gorgeous city. Just go! 

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