Under construction for 40 years, from 1818-1858, St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg forms one of the distinctive elements of Russia’s second-largest city. One of the largest and most ornate churches in the world, it is also a tourist mecca. From the platform on the exterior of its gilded dome, visitors can see the entire city arrayed at their feet.
To get to that platform, visitors enter the cathedral through a portico supported by solid red granite columns that weigh 80 tons. The interior is equally massive and impressive. Festooned with mosaics, there are eight green malachite and two blue lapis lazuli columns. But the stone is only a magnificent background for an even greater display.
Large enough to house 14,000 visitors, it is the third-largest domed cathedral on the planet. Commissioned by Alexander I to celebrate his victory over Napoleon, after years of struggle, he hired a French architect for its design.
Devoting his entire career to its construction, Auguste Ricard de Montferrand had over 25,000 planks laid by 11,000 serfs to start the foundation. Over 220 pounds of gold were melted to cover its dome. Though suffering damage from shelling during the German invasion in WWII as visitors can still see to this day, the cathedral is intact.
The result is a space covered with frescoes that would be the envy of any art museum.
Exterior sights are equally impressive, not least of which is the Isaakievskaya Ploshchad (St. Isaac’s Square) completed in 1859. It houses a large statue of Tsar Nicholas I with the images of his wife and children on the base. Depicting Nicholas mounted on a horse atop a high pedestal, it was designed by the cathedral’s architect, who died shortly afterward.
Nearby is an impressive pair of marble statues of the mythological twins’ Castor and Pollux. The sculptures decorate the Konnogvardeisky Manege, which once served as the barracks of the Imperial Horse Guards and now houses art exhibits.
But be sure to save some strength to mount the over 500 steps to reach the 300-foot/100m high observation platform. Viewing St. Petersburg at dusk is one of the great pleasures of travel. Here is a city that was founded to display cultural riches. Where better to do so than from one of the foremost examples of the ‘Paris of Northern Europe’.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral is easy to reach via the Metro (St. Petersburg’s subway system). Exit at Nevsky Prospekt station. The church is located at Isaakievskaya Plochad on the western end of Nevsky Prospekt.