Impressions of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg which was founded by Peter the great was capital of the Russian Empire for almost two hundred years

The beautiful ceilings of the Hermitage
Inside the Hermitage

My first surprise when I started to read more about St. Petersburg was how recently it was founded. When Peter the great, chose the estuary of the river Neva  in 1703  for his capital there was only a small settlement with a few Swedish traders and soldiers.

Peter the Great

Peter the great is an interesting historical figure. A very intelligent man with little formal education he was very adept at practical skills. Before he became czar he travelled widely and even worked for a time in a dock yard in the Netherlands.  Peter must have looked a remarkable figure at 6ft 7in tall. He became convinced that Russia needed its own navy in order to compete with other European countries. He chose the estuary of the river Neva on the Baltic sea for his new dock yards. I think he must have needed a very strong  character to persuade people to move to what was little more than a swamp with freezing winters. Many of the early workers were conscripted peasants or Swedish Prisoners of war but European aristocrats, merchants and intellectuals came to settle in his new city.

The river Neva in St. Petersburg
The river Neva

In a few years he  established a thriving town with palaces, gardens and churches. He was inspired by the architecture he had seen in Paris, Vienna, London and Venice and managed to persuade many leading architects to work for him.  Curiously at first he did not build any bridges as he wanted everyone to learn how to sail or row. St. Petersburg is sometimes called the Venice of the North because of the number of canals.

Later history

St. Petersburg remained the capital of Russia until 1914. After the Russian revolution it was renamed Leningrad but Moscow became the new capital. ( In 1991 the population voted to return to the old name in a referendum). During the second world war Leningrad was besieged by the Germans and perhaps a million people died of disease or starvation but the city did not surrender. Helen Dunmore: one of my favourite historical fiction writers told the story in “the siege” which I recommend if you don’t mind the grim subject.


We  were lucky enough to spend two days in the city. There was a big contrast with the other cities we  visited on our cruise. In Helsinki and Copenhagen we saw lots of bicycles and electric scooters for hire. In Leningrad we saw hardly any. I saw many older women dressed in the traditional black and as we drove through the suburbs we saw many of the drab grey soviet era apartment blocks.

We had not obtained Russian visas so had to stay with a guided tour. This was the first place where I had my passport stamped since a visit to America a few years ago. We chose to do a slow walking tour of the Hermitage and a sightseeing coach tour.

The gold roof of St. Isaac's cathedral #St. Petersburg
St. Isaac cathedral

St. Isaac cathedral is now a museum. It was probably named in honour of Peter the Great who was born on St. Isaac’s day.

The church of the Saviour of the spilled blood ~St. Petersburg. It is currently covered in scaffolding
Church of the Saviour of the spilled blood

The beautiful Orthodox church of the Saviour of the spilled blood was built by the Imperial family on the site where czar Alexander 11 was assassinated with a hand grenade.

The Hermitage

Autumn trees outside the Hermitage. St. Petersburg
The exterior of the Hermitage

The Hermitage which was founded by Catherine the Great is the second largest art museum in the world. The sumptuous interior is lavishly gilded and it has an impressive collection of French impressionist paintings.

The red throne room of the Hermitage #St. Petersburg
Part of the sumptuous interior of the Hermitage

Although we could not wander round the designer shops on the main shopping street Nevsky Prospect, we were able to visit the souvenir shops on the quay side. They were full of Russian dolls, vodka, furs, jewellery and models of Faberge eggs. I even spotted a Putin calendar with the president improbably cuddling a puppy on the front cover.

I want to thank Bill for providing most of the photos for this post. As usual I love to read all your comments.

Author: Anne Fraser

Hi, I am Anne, I am a retired nurse from Bristol in South West England. I am married with five grown up children, four boys and a girl , a grandson and a cat. I like History, travel and reading. I hope to connect with other people with similar interests.

15 thoughts on “Impressions of St. Petersburg”

  1. Such fascinating history I would love to visit this city one day. Peter the great sounds like a remarkable man. I never realised he was so tall!

  2. We visited just after the end of the Soviet Union. It was grim, despite the beauty of the Hermitage etc, and I was glad to get home. John went back for a conference a few years ago and reported that it was a changed city, so maybe I will return someday. Re the Siege of Leningrad, the Mitchell Library in Glasgow holds the Leningrad Album. The women of Monklands, near Glasgow, created an album in solidarity with the women of Leningrad and it was smuggled into the city. Amazingly, despite the siege conditions, another album was smuggled out in reply. I have seen it and it is beautiful.

  3. This looks amazing! I really really want to go to Russia. The culture there is so different even though it is so close to home. St Petersburg and Moscow is on my bucket list for sure.

  4. I was so interested in the history your shared in this post that I forgot to say thanks for linking up at the GATHERING OF FRIENDS LINK PARTY 9

  5. What a great tour! I have longed to visit St Petersburg since I was a child and learned of the Revolution and the Romanov family assasination. The photos are beautiful.

  6. Such impressive, regal places to explore and fascinating architecture. It always amazes me to think such structures were made so long ago but are so detailed and magnificent. Lovely photos too! 😊
    Caz xx

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