Central Squares and The Hermitage

The best way to experience St. Petersburg as the capital of the Russian Empire is to walk through the city centre, visitng all the main squares. The best times for these walks are in the early morning and late evening, when the streets are not packed and you can really take in the beauty of the city.

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The Senate Square opens out onto the Neva River. In the centre of the square is the Bronze Horseman. It is surrounded by a garden parterre that merges into the Alexander Garden. The monument to the city founder Peter the Great, christened The Bronze Horseman by poet Alexander Pushkin, is one of St. Petersburg’s main symbols.

The French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet who was recommended to Catherine the Great by Diderot and Voltaire worked on the monument from 1768 to 1778. The great horse, reared up by the powerful hand of Peter on the precipice of the granite rock found around St. Petersburg and delivered to the square with great difficulty, is an allegory of the upheaval created by the first Russian emperor in Russia’s history. The snake under the horse’s hooves symbolises opponents of Peter’s reforms. The pedestal has a Latin inscription that reads “Petro Primo Catharina Secunda MDCCLXXXII” meaning “To Peter the First from Catherine the Second in summer of 1782”.

The western part of the Senate Square is occupied by a grandiose ensemble completed by Carlo Rossi in 1834. These are the buildings of the Russian Empire’s two most important government institutions - the Senate and the Holy Synod. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Senate, which was founded by Peter I in 1711, was Russia’s highest appellate court. The Holy Synod headed by the attorney general was a state institution that governed the church as if it was a government office.

The Konnogvardeysky/Horse Guard Boulevard goes from the Senate Square towards the Manege, which was used for horse riding during the winter months. In front of the Manege are marble sculptures from Italy depicting the Dioscuri twins who were famous in Greek mythology as tamers of wild horses. The statues were made by Paolo Triscorni. Today, the Manege is home to the Central Exhibition Hall that mostly exhibits the works of local artists.
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A massive building that takes up the whole block between the Voznesensky and Admiralteysky avenues and St. Isaac’s Square is the War Ministry of Imperial Russia as of 1802. Prior to that this was a tenement house of the duke Alexander Lobanov-Rostovsky. High steps to the entrance are guarded by two stone lions, one of which was used by Evgeny, the hero of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, to wait out the flood.
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The Alexander Garden is one of St. Petersburg’s finest places, teeming with locals at any time of the year. The garden is decorated with fountains and busts of Russia’s classical authors such Gogol, Zhukovsky and Lermontov, as well as the composer Glinka. There is also a monument to the geographer Nikolay Przhevalsky who is pictured with a packed camel resting at his feet.
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The monument to Emperor Nicholas I at St. Isaac’s Square was erected in 1859 by sculptor Peter Klodt based on the design by Auguste de Montferrand. Nicholas is portrayed on a horse and this 6-metre high monument is the world’s only mounted monument with just two points of bearing.

Further to the south is the city’s widest (97 metres/300 ft) Blue Bridge, often called ‘square bridge’, across the Moika River. On the left side of the bridge a water-measuring post is cut into the Moika Embankment and crowned with Neptune’s trident. The post has signs marking the levels of the Neva in the days of the big city floods.
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At the southern end of St. Isaac’s Square stands the Mariinsky Palace. It was named in honour of Nicholas the First’s daughter, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna. The Emperor ordered its construction as a gift for his daughter’s wedding to Duke Maximilian de Beauharnais, the grandson of Napoleon I's first wife, the Empress Josephine, by her prior marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais. The palace was completed in 1844 by the court architect Andrei Stackenschneider who was inspired by the Florentine Renaissance palazzos. Today, the Mariinsky Palace hosts the city’s Legislative Assembly.
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On November 5, 1704 Peter the Great laid the foundation of the Admiralty fortress and shipyard on the southern bank of the Neva River. The grand building (the total length of Admiralty walls is 1,200 metres/3,700 ft, while the length of the main facade wall is 406 metres/1,258 ft) personifies the idea of Russia as a maritime power. The Admiralty tower with its weather-vane in the shape of a small sailing ship is one of the city’s most easily recognisable symbols.
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In the centre of the Palace Square is the Alexander Column. It was also designed by Auguste de Montferrand. For two years, hundreds of stonemasons worked on the granite monolith that was brought from Vyborg. When the Column was completed on August 30, 1834, there was a formal parade and Nicholas I attended the opening ceremony. On top of the semi-sphere that crowns the column there is a figure of an angel with a cross. The angel was made to resemble Emperor Alexander I.
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Carl Rossi completed construction of the majestic General Staff Building in 1829. Right across from the grand passage to the Winter Palace is the Triumphal Arch crowned by the chariot of goddess Nike. The right wing of the General Staff Building, the one closer to Nevsky Prospect, housed the War Ministry and the General Staff. The left wing was the provenance of the Finance and Foreign ministries. Today, the left wing houses an excellent collection of Impressionist painters from the Hermitage funds. At the eastern side of the square is the building of the Guard Corps Headquarters.

Ticket offices: Tue, Thu, Sat, Sun 10:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., Wed, Fri 10:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.
First Thursday of every month, December 7 - free admission.
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Moving through the Capella’s courtyards, we enter the Konyushennaya Square. On the northern side of the square are the Imperial Stables, on the southern - the building of the State Horse Breeding Office that was responsible for all of the Russian Empire’s horses and supplied the cavalry units. On February 16, 1837, the small church of the Stable Services located in the stables building was used for the funeral of the poet Alexander Pushkin who was killed in a duel.
The Pevchesky/Singers’ Bridge is part of the Palace Square going across the Moika River. The river makes a bend right at this spot and there are wonderful views from the bridge looking to both sides. The bridge was named in honour of the Saint Petersburg Court Chapel (Capella), where the choir singers were trained. The wide courtyard that opens up to the Moika begins an enfilade of courtyards that stretches out to Bolshaya Konyushennaya ulitsa. This is also where the Capella’s concert hall is located - and it is one of the city’s finest. Next to the Capella is the Winter Canal that connects the Moika to the Neva River.
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Next to the cathedral is the entrance to the Mikhailovsky Garden. It is separated from the Griboyedov Canal by a wrought iron lattice depicting grape vines and flowers. The lattice appeared at the same time as the cathedral and was also designed by Alfred Parland. Passing through the beautiful garden we come out onto Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa and to the residence of Paul I - Saint Michael’s Castle. The castle has two grand facades - one looking out at the Klenovaya/Maple Alley with an entrance to the inner courtyard and the other facing the Summer Garden with a large balcony terrace.
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Walking along the Klenovaya/Maple Alley you’ll come up to the statue of Peter the Great made by the elder Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The bas-reliefs on two sides of the monument depict Peter’s two principal victories: on land (the Battle of Poltava) and at sea (the Battle of Gangut).
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Locals rarely take a full tour of the main collection of the Russian Museum exhibited at the Mikhailovsky Palace. As a rule, people walk through the whole collection to see everything that has happened in Russian art between the 12th and the 20th centuries, twice: once as children and once as parents of children. But the Benois Building — a palace wing that opens to the Griboyedov Canal Embankment — is a completely different affair as it hosts many wonderful temporary exhibitions.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to walk through the entire Mikhailovsky Palace. The Russian Museum has an excellent icon collection, from the 12th-century masterpiece Angel with Golden Hair to the much later icons of the 18th century, far removed from the Greek canon. While it took European painters hundreds of years to move from flat paintings to three-dimensional ones, a process that led to the discovery of the laws of perspective and the intricacies of light-and-shade, Russian artists made a giant leap straight from flat icons and puffy painted portraits of the early 17th century. Symbolically, the museum collection is presented in such a way that the visitor only has to step over the threshold that separates the Middle Ages from Modern Times and come face to face with the portrait of artist Andrei Matveev and his wife. This 1729 painting is remarkable in that it’s the first self-portrait in the history of Russian art and it’s also the first representation of an amorous experience.

The farther, the deeper. Russian artists went to Italy, Italians came to work in Russia and this cultural exchange produced a real burst of creativity in a very short period of time. The collection of 18th-century art is brilliant proof of this. In addition to paintings and sculpture, Mikhailovsky Palace has a wonderful collection of Empire-style furniture. Walking through the suites of rooms towards the 20th century, you will see the works of serf artists and Peredvizhniki painters; monumental works of Karl Bryullov, Vasily Surikov and Mikhail Vrubel; smaller and more personal paintings by Boris Kustodiev, Valentin Serov and Robert Falk; works by Alexander Golovin and Nathan Altman, Vasily Kandinsky and Pavel Filonov. There is also the agitprop porcelain of the 1920s and the art of the first Soviet five-year plan.

In the Marble Palace, a branch of the Russian Museum, you will find the collection of early-20th century art that was gifted to the museum by philanthropist Peter Ludwig as well as the works of our contemporaries. The Stroganov Palace hosts the collection of decorative art and a waxwork exhibition, while the most interesting exhibition of St. Michael’s Castle tells the story of Emperor Paul I, his life and tragic death.

Ticket offices: Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Mon 10 a.m. - 7:30 p.m., Thu 1 p.m. - 8:30 p.m..

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The story of Russia’s most important museum, and one of the world’s greatest collections, began in the 18th century, when Empress Catherine the Great found Rubens’ Descent From the Cross at one of the Winter Palace’s storerooms and was so impressed that she began her own collection. At first it included only paintings, but quickly expanded to sculpture, furniture, tapestries, drawings and everything else. Today, the museum with more than a million items occupies the Winter Palace and the adjacent buildings of the Palace Embankment.

The Hermitage is spread across the palace, not just the great halls, but also the private quarters, corridors, passages, former kitchens, cloak rooms, servant and guard rooms that just a hundred years ago were occupied by the members of the royal family, members of their court and servants. It’s very easy to get lost among the endless hallways and suites and it’s impossible to see the whole collection in just a day or two; the best thing to do is to mark a few goals and spend your time at the museum accordingly.

The Hermitage Museum website has a “Plan your visit” option. For example, you can take a quick look at the rooms with the earliest cultural artefacts of Eurasia on the first floor of the museum, and then move on to the Scythians with their animal-style ornaments and — the most important point of the itinerary — the world’s oldest surviving carpet that was found in the Pazyryksky burial mound. Another option is to spend half a day with the treasuries of the Egyptian collection. It’s great fun to walk among the Roman and Greek busts searching for likenesses with your friends. You can spend hours studying flowers and animals in the Rafael Room, or you can join the crowd in the Da Vinci Room and work your way up to Madonna Lita and Madonna Benois. Back in the time the Bolsheviks sold off the best of the collection’s Titian works, but there’s plenty of Rembrandt. The master’s later works, such as The Return of the Prodigal Son or The Portrait of Old Man in Red; the still-lifes of Snyders; the wooden sculptures of the German Renaissance; Goya; Velázquez; Gainsborough; Florentine mosaics; the 1812 gallery; the Peacock Clock and Middle Age armour; coins and vases; rooms upon rooms upon rooms…

If all this gets your head spinning, take a good long look at Neva and the Peter and Paul Fortress and head for the exit, studying the inlaid flooring and Morelli door handles as you go.

First Thursday of every month, December 7 - free admission

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Constructed by Rastrelli (Italian architect whose career was spent strictly in Russia), it is the main residence of the Russian Emperors. From Elizabeth of Russia to Nicholas II, this was the seat of power of the Russian Empire. Now the palace is part of Russia’s principal museum – The State Hermitage.

Ticket offices: Tue, Thu, Sat-Sun 10:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., Wed, Fri 10:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.

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Emperor Paul moved to Saint Michael’s Castle on November 1, 1800. The wall plaster had yet to dry and the huge halls were filled with fog. On the night of March 1, 1801, a group of Guard Corps officers unhappy with the Emperor and his reforms wandered through the foggy rooms to his bedchamber where they strangled and trampled Paul to death.

In 1819, Saint Michael’s Castle was given over to the army’s Main Engineering School and from then on the building was known as the Engineers’ Castle. The most famous graduate of this school was the writer Fedor Dostoyevsky who, it should be noted, never put the knowledge and skills acquired here to any use.

Today the castle is home to a branch of the Russian Museum. The bridge to the only entrance to the castle has been restored. There’s even a monument to Emperor Paul in the inner courtyard.

Ticket offices: Mon, Wed, Fri-Wed 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Thu 1 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
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The first St. Isaac’s Church was very simple, basically a log-house decorated with a spire made by the Dutch master Harman van Boles who also made the spire of Peter and Paul Cathedral. St. Isaac’s Church was one of St. Petersburg’s main temples, and Peter the Great married his second wife Catherine here. When the church fell into disrepair, it was decided that a new one, this time made from stone and closer to Neva, should be built. That decision was fateful as the river flooded often and eroded the soil, so that the church sunk and was dismantled. 

Construction of the third St. Isaac’s Cathedral began in the time of Catherine the Great and was completed by Paul I. In his desire to act in defiance of his mother Paul went too far, personally interfering with construction and the result was ridiculous. Paul’s son, Alexander I, decided to rebuild the cathedral and the design competition was won by the young Frenchman August de Montferrand. He spent the next 40 years building the cathedral and died shortly after finishing his work. The magnificent decoration of the cathedral — the sculptures, the bas-reliefs, mosaics, frescos and stained glass — made a great impression on the residents. 

Today, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is primarily a museum and church services take place rarely on extraordinary occasions. The main tourist attraction is the colonnade, which during the White Nights season is open all night, until sunrise.

Ticket office: 10:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

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The Church of the Saviour on Blood, otherwise known as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, was built on the spot where on March 1, 1881 the People’s Will revolutionary Ignaty Grinevitsky mortally wounded Emperor Alexander II. The new Emperor Alexander III personally selected the designs suggested by the architects and chose the project presented by Baltic German architect Alfred Parland and Orthodox Abbot Ignaty. They wanted the church to be stylised to look like the old churches of Kostroma and Yaroslavl, with time-consuming finishings; the 7,000 square metre (75,300 sq ft) mosaic alone, designed by Russian artists Viktor Vasnetsov and Mikhail Nesterov, took more than ten years to complete. 

In the years of the Leningrad Siege, the building was used as a morgue, and later as a warehouse of theatre stage sets and a vegetable storeroom. In 1961, the workers accidentally found an entire German landmine weighing 150 kilograms (330 pounds) in the church’s central cupola. In 1970, the Soviet leadership decided to turn the Church of the Saviour on Blood into a museum and so began the many years of restoration. In 2004, the Metropolitan bishop of St. Petersburg held a liturgical service here; the church, however, remains a museum.