This month’s ‘Departures’ provides you with information on ‘better’ things to do in Saint Petersburg– it’s our guide to everything and everywhere the discerning traveller needs to know: From the best bars and the best restaurants in Saint Petersburg, to the best hotels and the city’s most impressive buildings.
The architecture is one of the main draws of Saint Petersburg. Unlike improvised Moscow, this planned city, plotted around the river Neva and its central canals, has an overarching harmony. Of course that’s not to say that Moscow doesn’t have some damn fine buildings of its own, but it doesn’t compare to the architectural gems on display here – from Baroque to Medieval-Russian and from Art Nouveau to neo-gothic Stalinist style monoliths.
“This planned city, plotted around the river Neva and its central canals, has an overarching harmony”
The Hermitage, Kazan Cathedral and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood are perhaps the most famous buildings in the city but there are many others that are equally worth your time, constructed from the era of Peter the Great to the present day.
Best Buildings in Saint Petersburg #1: Au Pont Rouge
The department store – the first multi-storey shop in Russia – is the most striking example of the Art Nouveau style in Saint Petersburg, with a reconstructed spire that points up from the Moika embankment.
The construction of the building dates back to the turn of the 20th century and the store was once frequented by the Imperial family. During the Soviet period it was a factory but it is now firmly back in the luxury goods trade, with offerings from Russian and foreign designers spread over six floors.
Best Buildings in Saint Petersburg #2: The General Staff Building
The General Staff Building, opposite the Winter Palace, will probably be one of your first points of call in Saint Petersburg. Built in the early 19th century, the giant facade of the structure dominates the Palace Square, dwarfing even the largest crowd that will gather in this tourist spot. In the centre of the building there’s a triumphal arch, which celebrates Russia’s victory over the invading Napoleonic army in 1812.
The staff building once housed various Russian ministries but is now a museum – with a collection of paintings and sculptures from the Hermitage – following a reconstruction project that was finished in 2014.
Best Buildings in Saint Petersburg #3: Anna Akhmatova Museum / Fountain House
The Sheremetev Palace on the Fontanka embankment – also known as the Fountain House – is one of the oldest palaces in the city. It now houses the Museum of Music, as well as a museum to the Soviet-era poet Anna Akhmatova in its south wing.
Both the building and the Akhmatova space, which contains the apartment where the poet lived with the scholar Nikolai Punin, are worth a visit. The garden is a calm spot in the city, with a mural depicting the poet as well as lines from her work written on the walls. There’s also a surprising well-tuned piano outside that’s ready to be played by passersby in summer.
Best Buildings in Saint Petersburg #4: New Holland
New Holland island’s naval history goes back to the time of Peter the Great, but until recently the central space was run down and largely out of use. In 2010 a massive reconstruction project got underway – funded by the oligarch Roman Abramovich and overseen by his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova, the team behind the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow.
Now the island boasts a lush green park with a pleasant outdoor bar in the summer, while The Bottle House – a former naval prison, so named because of its round shape – houses cafés and street food shops in its brick walls.
Best Buildings in Saint Petersburg #5: Monplaisir
If you’re in Saint Petersburg for more than a day, you’ll want to head to one of the imperial residences outside the centre, namely Peterhof or Tsarskoe Selo, the country pads of Peter the Great and the last of the Romanovs respectively. If you’re going to the former, known as the Russian Versailles, make sure to take in Monplaisir Palace.
The one-story building, designed by Peter himself, is by the banks of the Gulf of Finland so it’s the first thing you’ll come across if you arrive at the complex by boat. Despite being situated by Russia’s northern capital, it has a colonial, almost tropical feel and the interior is equally dreamy.
Theo Merz is a British journalist based in Moscow. Keep up with him on Twitter.