Destination Wednesday: St. Petersburg, A Magical City Of Palaces

St. Petersburg --Catherine PalaceBy Sharyn Alden

“I love it!”

I heard those words over and over as visitors marveled at St. Petersburg, with its wedding-cake-frosted neo-Baroque buildings in mints, pinks and other whimsical colors.

Let’s set our compass coordinates. This is St. Petersburg, Russia, the breathtaking city on the Baltic Sea, not St. Petersburg, Florida, the similarly pastel-hued city on the Gulf of Mexico.

One of St. Petersburg's most famous churches is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (and no, that name is not a typo).
One of St. Petersburg’s most famous churches is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (and no, that name is not a typo). (All photos Sharyn Alden.)

Golfers, domestic types and sun-worshippers may prefer the Florida version, but seasoned travelers almost always opt for Russia, where Peter the Great’s “Window on the West” was built in 1703. Ever since, St. Petersburg has rivaled Venice as one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

The colorful buildings look especially beautiful from the water, which is everywhere. St. Pete is reminiscent of Stockholm; both cities are spread over many islands, and are linked in every direction by suspension bridges, marvels in their own right.

St. Petersburg’s history is characterized by intrigue and the remnants of past wealth and luxury, and neither Russia’s current economic woes nor its communist past have dimmed the city’s gilt and splendor.

Consider the city’s fabled Winter Palace. This expansive landmark (located by water, naturally) shows a gorgeous marble-and-gold face to the world, while nestled under its roof are 117 staircases, 1,786 doors, 945 windows, and 1,057 rooms, including the spectacular Malachite Room (all green marble), the Golden Drawing Room, St. George Hall, and Raphael’s Loggia. Be thankful you don’t have to dust the place.

The Winter Palace contains a splendid fine-arts museum featuring items from ancient Egypt to the early 20th century, a result of Catherine the Great’s passion for art. In fact, the empress collected so much art during her reign that it spilled over into an adjacent building, the Hermitage.

Quite the spillover. Today the Hermitage is one of the world’s great museums, with more than 4 million objects in its collection of art and antiquities; the saying goes that if you visited each exhibit for one minute, it would take you eight years to get through.

A lavish chandelier in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.
A lavish chandelier in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.

What stopped me at the Hermitage, besides its enormity and vast art collection, was an unexpected glimpse into what seemed like complacency around the priceless pieces.

It was a lovely day, and in some galleries the windows were wide open, with no screens in sight. I noticed a staff member removing a sizable painting from a wall without wearing protective gloves. You don’t see that at the Met.

Every city has its epicenter, where its history began and/or its leaders are buried. For St. Petersburg, it’s the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, the traditional burial place of Russian emperors and family members. The cathedral’s 32 tombs hold the remains of 16 czars beginning with Peter the Great and including the Romanovs (Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children), all shot during the Russian Revolution. From the cathedral it’s a short walk to the Peter and Paul Fortress, built in 1703 and considered the place where the city’s history begins.

While meandering through the city, I noticed multiple brides posing for pictures by several landmarks. It was Thursday, so I asked our guide, Svetlana, if that’s the most popular wedding day. “No, not really,” she said. “We have four marriage palaces open on weekends. But they’re so popular, they’re booked far in advance. That’s why you’ll see wedding displays every day of the week.”

Gold dripping from the walls of one of St. Petersburg's glorious palaces.
Gold dripping from the walls of one of St. Petersburg’s glorious palaces.

Later that day I attended a ballet. It’s apparent that ballet reigns supreme in St. Petersburg; it’s where Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake debuted in its contemporary form in January 1895, and it was this version that the State Opera and Ballet Company performed the day I was there. While the ballet was long – three hours – it was truly magical.

The revised Swan Lake premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre, three blocks from where Tchaikovsky is buried. The mint-green building, with its 175-year old curtain, rests in the heart of Theatre Square. Across the street is St. Peter’s Conservatory, built in 1783, where members of various ballet companies hone their craft.

“It can take a lifetime to cross the street,” said Olga, a young ballerina talking about transitioning from student to professional performer at the Mariinsky.

One of things you learn quickly in St. Petersburg and environs is that the czars had a lot of palaces, and multiple palaces for multiple seasons. All told there are more than 60 palaces in and around St. Petersburg, including “Catherine’s Palace,” or Tsarskoye Selo, a summer palace an hour’s drive from St. Petersburg in the city of Pushkin.

The famous Jordan Staircase at the Peterhof preserve.
The famous Jordan Staircase at the Peterhof preserve.

On the way to the palace we passed “privatized” farms on the way where Svetlana said she picked carrots in college, but there was no mistaking the palace. The exterior is robin’s-egg blue and dipped in gold, and very much unlike anything else in Pushkin.

Inside the palace, the showstopper is the Amber Room (where, yes, everything is amber-colored), which was purportedly taken down piece-by-piece and hidden during World War II and then painstakingly restored for years afterward. It reopened in 2003.

Another summer residence, Peterhof Palace, was an 18th-century park that today still sports hundreds of fountains and waterfalls, and splendid gardens in the classical European style.

The road to the UNESCO World Heritage Site winds through meadows and woods of tall birch, and around remains of other palatial buildings destroyed in World War II and awaiting a reconstruction that may or may not come. Inside Peterhof, black-and-white photos show the lavish palace (sometimes called “the Versailles of Russia”) after it was ruined in World War II and documents its ongoing restoration.

“It’s fun to see how the czars lived when they were on vacation,” said Mary Abner, a first-time visitor from Maine. In general, when the czars were on vacation, they lived in style.

An exterior view of Peterhof.
An exterior view of the Peterhof gardens.

Of St. Petersburg’s many palaces, Yusopov has some of the most alluring stories to tell.

Once Prince Nikolai Yusopov’s private home on the Moika River, the palace is one of a handful of private estates in St. Petersburg with its original furnishings and décor. It includes an ornate basement theater, a bathroom that emulates a Turkish bath, a library with 55,000 books, a ballroom that holds 1,000 people, and a secret door.

The basement draws the largest crowds, however. Here, Yusopov and two co-conspirators wooed Rasputin (the mystic and close friend of the czar’s family) to his death in 1916. They considered the eccentric Rasputin a threat to the Russian throne.

Wax figures depict the somber scene before Rasputin was poisoned and shot. “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the song playing on that dark night, still spins on a gramophone in the background.

It’s just another reminder that St. Petersburg is full of frozen stories not yet forgotten.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.

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