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St Petersburg, Venice of the North

St. Petersburg - Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
St Petersburg, Venice of the North

St. Petersburg is a fascinating mixture of old-style Russia and Gilded Age Europe.

Tsar Peter decided to move to the capital and founded a city in 1703 devoted to culture and science. Along the banks of the River Neva, he started an effort that continued for two hundred years.

For generations, artists and engineers from Italy, France, Germany, and elsewhere were imported to work on projects. Using local labor they built bridges, palaces, churches, and the city streets themselves. Many of their efforts are still in existence.

Among the earliest structures were several bridges, some of which survive in modified form from the time of St. Petersburg’s founding. Everything from the six-foot-wide Bank Bridge with its lovely iron griffins to the aptly-named Blue Bridge over 300 feet wide is counted among the city’s 500 spans.

Many of those bridges were built to span the numerous canals that thread through this ‘City of 101 Islands’, as it is sometimes called. Along with them and the Neva River, the Gulf of Finland, and further out visitors can take a great boat ride. Choices range from a speed boat ride out to Peterhof and its famed fountains, to a two-week cruise to Finland, Moscow, and other locales.

Within the city, there are several outstanding cathedrals that are equal to many in Europe. St. Isaac’s is a large, domed, gold-encrusted church held up by some of the largest red granite columns in the world. Under construction for over 40 years, there are mosaics surrounding the green malachite and blue lapis lazuli columns that are artistic wonders. Large enough to hold 14,000, it is well worth a visit.

The Alexander Nevsky Monastery is another religious-themed site that will reward those of any viewpoint who choose to see it. Founded in 1710, it underwent modifications through most of the 18th century. Today it houses five of the original 16 churches and the grounds have several noteworthy cemeteries.

But the secular pleasures are also well-represented in St. Petersburg. There are hundreds of great shops and fine restaurants along Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main shopping avenue. Easily a worthy competitor of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue or New York’s Fifth Avenue, it provides the Bolshoi Gostiny Dvor department store along with a huge array of other choices.

Be sure to stop into Yeliseev’s grocery store and get a view of what food shopping could be like. Built in 1902 it offers gilded ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and stained glass windows that are more often found in a palace than a food store.

While you’re thinking of food, visit one of St. Petersburg’s many outdoor markets, or stop into a cafe such as the Mocco Club for a sandwich. For upscale dining, check out the Olympia and do a little gambling at the casino after your four-star meal.

But don’t miss out on St. Petersburg’s art treasures, among the finest in the world. The Hermitage is housed in the Winter Palace and several other buildings and provides one of the largest collections of fine art anywhere. Michelangelo, Raphael, and every other notable artist of the past 500 years are represented among the three million objects there.

But even the free sights in St. Petersburg are an artistic experience. Apart from the many elegant and utilitarian bridges, there are the Tauride Gardens, the Letny Sad (Summer Garden), and many other outstanding parks. Visiting the monuments around Palace Square – such as Alexander Column, the Bronze Horseman, or Triumphal Arch – and elsewhere in the city could occupy anyone for weeks.

Come find out why St. Petersburg deserves membership in the exclusive club of the world’s great cities. See why its many sights put it easily in the same class as Paris, London, or New York.

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