Where is St. Petersburg?
St. Petersburg is located in the west of Russia. It is located at the head of the Gulf of Finland which is basically part of the Baltic sea. It is easily accessible as it is a major city in Europe. There are about 5 million inhabitants. If you want to travel from Moscow, the high-speed train only takes 4 hours.
Why is it such a special place?
First, St. Petersburg is gorgeous. I must say that the architecture in this city is beautiful. You see churches everywhere (massive ones). Second, this city is built on canals, very similar to Amsterdam. In St. Petersburg, there are 44 mini-islands, and 432 bridges. Therefore, you can take the river cruise and go along the Neva river to explore the entire city via water. Especially during summer times and white nights, you can take a 1 a.m. river cruise and travel along the city under bright lights. In 2017, the complete white night is on June 21st.
My friends in Russia mentioned to me that climate change has drastically affected the weather in St. Petersburg. In the past, summer weathers can reach as high as 25 Celsius. Unfortunately, climate change has cooled down the summer weathers in St. Petersburg, and now the highest temperatures can only hover around 20 Celsius.
What currency can be used?
In Russia, the currency is mainly ruble. However, USD can sometimes be used.
Places try not to miss
There are a ton of places that you should see at St. Petersburg - too many to count (though I should say Moscow probably has slightly more attraction sites).
1. Catherine Palace
Catherine Palace is the summer palace of the Tsar. It is one of the four main palaces in Europe, the other three being Buckingham Palace in London, Palace du Versailles in Versailles, and Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Catherine Palace is located 30 km south of St. Petersburg. Interestingly, the winter palace is actually located in the city centre. The reason is because the winter in St. Petersburg is really brutal, as you can imagine. For the Tsars to manage any crisis that happens in the city, they really can’t afford to be hindered by the weather. However, as summer time is quite pleasant, they decided to build the palace far away from the city centre (sounds like a cottage to me).
Don’t be mistaken that Catherine Palace was named after Catherine the Great. It was actually named after Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great.
The architecture style is Rococo, modern classic. The whole exterior colour is blue and white. While you visit the inside, you must wear a shoe cover to protect the floor. Mind you, there will be many tourists.
The main attraction of this palace is the state room, which has an enormous ceiling. Designed by Rastrelli, this room is filled with gold-gilded artifacts. In the past, several high profile prominent individuals have used this room for private events, including Elton John.
Since there are many rooms in the palace, it could get tricky to navigate the halls and it is possible for one to get lost. Interestingly, in order to differentiate the hallways between the road to the state room, versus the road to the bedroom, the designers intelligently placed two different marble baby statues on the opposite sides of the hallway. One baby statue was sleeping and the other was waking up. The one that is waking up means that you are walking towards the state room; the one that is sleeping means that you are walking to your own bedroom. Clever eh?
Another important room that you must see is the Amber room. This room has 200,000,000 pounds worth of amber. This room was considered an “Eighth Wonder of the World”. You are actually not allowed to take any pictures in that room. This room was a gift given by the Prussian King Frederick William I, as a gesture to solidify the Russo-Prussian alliance against Sweden. The Prussians claimed that amber provides relaxation and great for meditation. Unfortunately, during the world war, a lot of the ambers were looted.
This room is still undergoing renovation. Each amber stone is unique and natural. The restorationist will not cut an amber in order to fit the wall. Each stone uniquely and naturally fits with another stone. You can imagine how long it will take for the restoration process to complete.
2. Hermitage Museum
Hermitage Museum is one of the top museums in the world; often referred as the top 4 museums in the world, alongside the Louvre in France, the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Interestingly, Hermitage was constructed as a result of excess shopping. Unlike other museums, most of the artifacts displayed in the Hermitage were purchased by Catherine the Great. Originally, the artifacts were part of Catherine’s winter palace, but as she realized that she was a shopaholic, she had to build a new wing, which was an extension on the east of the Winter Palace. Later on, this new wing became known as the Hermitage. Nowadays, the palace and the museum are one and the same. There are about 3 million artifacts in the Hermitage.
Before I talk about the Hermitage, let me introduce you the original building, the winter palace. The winter palace is located in the city centre. As mentioned above, the location is important because winter makes it harder for the Tsar to travel across the city. Winter palace is much bigger than the summer palace because the usage is longer (as winter is very long in St. Petersburg).
In the war triumph room, Alexander I is the main picture of the hall and it is because Alexander I is the Tsar that defeated Napolean. There are many portraits in that room that showcase the heroes in that war. Unfortunately, some pictures are blank and that is because the heroes either died in the war or had their faces destroyed. A particular important portrait was the portrait of Prince Mikhail Ilarionovich. He was the Russian Field Marshal, who was the one that suggested the scorched-earth strategy that ultimately led to the defeat of Napolean.
At the Hermitage, there are a few important must-see artifacts.
The first one is a golden peacock clock, which was given to Catherine the Great by her admirer. Catherine really liked the clock and displayed the clock in the Pavilion Hall. Only the mushrooms at the bottom tells the time using Roman numerals. The clock will be in operation only at 7 pm of every Wednesday of the week. The owl will turn its neck and the peacock will gracefully turn its neck and spread its golden feathers.
The second important artifact, or a set of artifacts, are two paintings painted by Leonardo Da Vinci - The Litta Madonna and The Benois Madonna. Before Da Vinci’s time, paintings that featured religious figures were often depicted as dark and depressed. God and saints were clearly defined with the halos on their heads and often do not smile. The renaissance era of Da Vinci made a breakthrough, along with other painters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt etc. At the renaissance era, these prominent painters were able to paint saints and God that were more human-like and no longer depict them with an obvious halo.
The third important display was The Raphael Loggias. This is a replica of the gallery in the Papal Palace in the Vatican City. The paintings displayed scenes from the biblical stories. There are about 52 pictures that depict the stories from the Genesis till the Last Supper.
The last but not least important display was the art produced by the Dutch painter Rembrandt. The first picture I want to highlight is a picture called Danaë . This picture depicted a story of the Greek mythology. It showed a little girl, Danaë, who wanted love but was locked in her own bedroom because her father, King Acirsius, was told that his future grandson would kill him (this future grandson would turn out to be Perseus).
However, Zeus, being the almighty, was still able to impregnate her. You could see the little belly bump on Danaë’s body, which signifies that she was in fact pregnant. Interestingly, when this picture was painted, the model was actually Rembrandt’s wife because at the time, his wife was pregnant. Unfortunately, there was an incident 30 years ago when a mentally-ill individual splashed sulfuric acid to the painting and cut the canvas twice with his knife. Obviously, the individual was arrested and charged, but it took 12 years for this painting to be fully repaired.
The second picture painted by Rembrandt was completed within two years of his death in 1669. Due to his arrogance and pride, he lived beyond his means and almost had to declare bankruptcy. At the time, he painted The Return of the Prodigal Son which shows the prodigal son kneeling down and asking for forgiveness. Rembrandt was clearly touched by the parable in the Bible.
Interestingly, if you pay close attention, the son also carries a sword. For a person who wasted all of his inheritance and fallen into poverty, it is not normal for him to carry a sword. Analysts explained that this picture was a direct reflection of Rembrandt’s life, where the display of the sword served as a reminder that Rembrandt was proud that he was once rich, and this signifies his glory days.
3. Peter Palace
The real name is Peterhof Palace. Built in 1714, this is basically the summer palace for Peter the Great. It has been dubbed as the Russian’s Palace du Versailles. This is essentially a replica which I can attest to, because Peter visited Palace du Versailles on the invitation from Louis IV. Though, he personally designed the garden in case Louis IV recognizes the similarity (so it is slightly different).
The garden is basically separated by the north and south garden. The sculptures include Greek and biblical figures. The most impressive thing about the garden is the centre Grand Cascade, which can shoot water that reach as high as 20 metres. The height of the cascade was considered a technological innovation because it didn’t use water pumps, rather it was using the pressure that flows from higher elevation land to lower grounds.
Again, be mindful of the sheer number of tourists. You also cannot take any pictures inside the palace.
One of the more interesting rooms inside is the Chesma Hall. When Catherine the Great defeated the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War in 1770s, she didn’t bring the painters with her. After the victory, she asked a German artist named Jacob Hackert to paint the great victory.
The painter’s first depiction of the battles scenes was criticized by Catherine for not showing the realistic effect of exploding ships. For a long while, the painter couldn’t quite accurately capture the event of the war. After several revisions, Catherine came up with a “great” idea. She decided to call up 20 battleships on the habour of Livorno and then blew them all up in front of the painter. She had her soldiers acted all out, by pretending to fight, swim, scream etc., to show what a true naval battle is. With such an expensive re-enactment, the painter was able to paint the events of the war. These paintings were displayed in the Chesma Hall at Peter Palace.
Catherine also admired the Chinese culture. There was an East and West Chinese Cabinet room to exhibit objects imported from the East. However, to Russians back then, China remained a mystery. Although they heard stories about the Chinese, they didn’t quite understand the culture. They heard that dragon is a symbol of China, so they had dragon paintings in one of the rooms, except they drew wings on the dragons (much like Game of Thrones style). Mind you, Chinese dragons have no wings. Another interesting depiction is the phoenix. Catherine understood that phoenix is also a symbol of China. However, not knowing what a phoenix really is, they displayed a rooster instead.
4. Church of the Saviour on Blood
This interesting church is one of the icons of St. Petersburg. Built between 1883 and 1907, this church was built by Alexander III in memory of his father Alexander II. Alexander II abolished serfdom (basically slavery) and became one of the pro-liberalism Tsars in Russian history. Unfortunately, there was a movement in Russia to overthrow Russia’s autocracy and have attempted to assassinate the Tsar many times. Alexander II eventually was assassinated 7 times in his life, last one being successful. Unfortunately, he was killed by a bomb at the end. The explosion also killed his wife as well.
This church costs the empire a lot of money (4.6 million rubles to be exact). So much money that they didn’t have enough money to properly build the interior. After 24 years of construction, this church was finally built in 1907. During the early Soviet Union days, this church was used as a storage space to hold potatoes, earning the nickname Saviour on Potatoes.
5. St. Issac Cathedral
This church is the largest church in St. Petersburg. It took 40 years to build, and the construction was finally completed in 1958. The designer is French and this church was basically his proud masterpiece. The engineering to build this church was a feat. However, after one month of completion, the designer died. The French designer wished to be buried inside the church (to be one with his masterpiece). Unfortunately, the church denied his burial at the site because the designer was not of Orthodox faith. This church is so big that it can fit 15,000 people.
I’d like to tell you four interesting and random facts about St. Petersburg in general.
Fact 1: St. Petersburg was not named after Peter the Great. In fact, it was named after Saint Peter. Interesting eh?
Fact 2: St. Petersburg used to be a swamp. Building a city on top of a swamp is not an easy thing. If you visit St. Petersburg, you will realize that all buildings are three to four stories high. The reason is because the city does not want any buildings to be either taller or shorter. By having all buildings the same height, the buildings are essentially connected. From an engineering point of view, the linkage between the buildings is very tight that it can stabilize the softness of the land, that way, the buildings will not sink.
Fact 3: As mentioned, all buildings are three to four stories high. Interestingly, the top window is always smaller than the other windows below. In Russian culture, they believe that the first few floors are the most important floors. The top floor is not considered to be valued as much. As such, the idea is that the top floor window should not be bigger than the other floor windows because the top floor window should not “steal the thunder”.
Fact 4: In Russia, if you tap your neck, this means that you either want to drink, about to drink, or already drunk.
The origin of this tradition dated back to the days of Peter the Great. There is an important church in St. Petersburg’s at the Peter and Paul Fortress - the one that buries all 13 Tsars. The church has a very tall stick that basically makes the church the tallest structure in the city. One day, a thunder striked the tip of the stick and broke the cross. Peter the Great wanted the tower fixed and the cross reinstalled. Unfortunately, the stick is actually quite high and no one dared climbing that tall structure.
One day, a drunk and talented carpenter decided to hop on the stick and actually fixed the cross. In this case, he rendered a great service to Peter the Great, who was so grateful that he gave the man a certificate that allowed him to drink any alcohol free for life. Comically, the carpenter lost his certificate and asked Peter the Great for a copy again. The carpenter then lost again and repeated the process numerous times. Eventually, Peter the Great got fed up and decided to have his seal tattooed directly on the carpenter’s neck. From then on, the tradition is born. You tap your neck, it’s drinking time!