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St. Petersburg, Home of the Tsars

Jonathan van Bilsen



February 5, 2023

St. Petersburg, Home of the Tsars

I am often asked what my favourite city is, which is a difficult choice, but St. Petersburg, in north western Russia, has to be near the top of my list.

Cruise ships travelling the Baltic Sea, usually dock in this former capital of Russia. I made my way to the capital of the Tsars, on an overnight train from Moscow.

Riding the Russian rails was an interesting experience. I was handed a broomstick when I boarded and was told to secure it against my cabin door when I retired. This was to prevent anyone from accidentally entering. It was quite funny, as absolutely nothing happened, and it being an overnight trek, I slept most of the way.

I stayed at the beautiful Astoria Hotel, located in the centre of the city, next to Saint Isaac's Cathedral and the statue of Nicholas the first.

Saint Isaac's Cathedral, one of the world's largest, was built in the early 1800s, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas the first. The entire building weighs 300,000, tons and is supported by thousands of wooden piles, driven into the marshy ground. The massive cathedral currently functions as a museum, with occasional church services.

Most cities have main streets, known worldwide for shopping or sightseeing. Los Angeles has Rodeo Drive, Edinburgh has Princess Street, New York has Fifth Avenue and Toronto has Yonge Street. St. Petersburg is no different, and the main street is Nevsky Prospect, which is very vibrant. At its end lies the Admiralty, the former headquarters of the Imperial Russian Navy, and the current centre of today’s Russian Navy.

Peter the Great wanted to bring Russia out of the middle ages, and aligned himself with Europe. He founded the Russian Navy in 1711, and employed 10,000 men to build the first battleships.

Continuing along Nevsky Prospect, I arrived at the General Staff building of the Russian army. Built in 1819, it consists of two wings. It was originally part of the Winter Palace, which served as the official residence of the Russian Emperor from 1732 to 1917. The palace and its precincts now house the Hermitage Museum.

The palace was always off-limits to the common people, however the royal family decided to open it for everyone to admire and appreciate the beautiful art found within. This had a negative effect, as people soon realized the opulence that existed while they were starving.

In 1905, the Bloody Sunday massacre occurred when demonstrators marched toward the Winter Palace. By this time, the Imperial Family had chosen to live in a more secure and secluded palace elsewhere.

Following the February Revolution of 1917, the palace operated for a short time as the seat of the Russian Provisional Government. Later that same year, a detachment of Red Guard soldiers and sailors, stormed the palace. This action became a defining moment in the birth of the Soviet state. 

Without doubt, one of the finest museums in the world is the Hermitage, A series of six buildings, its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items. I wandered around in awe staring at the works of da Vinci, Van Gogh and Rubens. It is said if you spend three minutes at each exhibit, it will take you just over a year to see the entire collection. 

Saint Petersburg is known as the Venice of Russia, because of its network of canals and rivers. Bridges such as the Egyptian Bridge connect numerous Islands. Walking through the canal area makes one appreciate how much St Petersburg is like the rest of Europe.

St. Petersburg, established in the early 1700s, was known as Leningrad during communist times. It Is by far the most European city in Russia, and boasts more than 900 palaces, all constructed during Peter the Great’s reign, in his effort to bring Russia out of medieval times into a European style culture.

Continuing my trek, I visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which was built in the typical Russian architectural style of the 1700s. It is located on Art Square in the centre of St Petersburg and is a Russian Orthodox Church, which currently functions as a museum and church at the same time. 

Just outside of St. Petersburg, stands the beautiful Imperial Palace built by Tsarina Elizabeth, in 1752 and named in honour of her mother, Catherine the first. During its heyday, the gold leaf exterior of the palace was replaced every two years, at a tremendous cost.

No trip to St. Petersburg is complete without a visit to Peterhof Palace, the summer estate of the Tsars. Built in 1714, the palace was fashioned after the Palace of Versailles, in Paris.

Peter the Great employed over 5,000 labourers who worked for nine years constructing this beautiful estate. As in other Russian palaces, no expense was spared in the construction of Peterhof.

The main fountains, or grand cascade as they became known, is a sequence of 37 bronze sculptures, 64 fountains and 132 water jets, using only the force of gravity to propel the water. The fountains flow into the Gulf of Finland at the base of the gardens.

Peter the Great, in his mischievous way, built a special fountain, which would only spray water when certain stones were stepped on. 

I found four days to be the right amount of time to spend in St. Petersburg, although another few weeks would have been perfect. If you have a chance, make sure this beautiful city is part of your travel plans.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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