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Monday, March 4, 2024

The perfection of St. Petersburg

How Russia’s northern capital tops the bucket list

If you’ve ever read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” you’ll be familiar with its rather famous opening line, which goes something like this: “On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.” 

S. Place and K. bridge are real locations in St. Petersburg, and their existence helps solidify the city as a place built using culture as its centerpiece and people as its backbone. St. Petersburg inspired many of the great Russian writers and poets, and that inspiration hasn’t been lost even in the 21st century.

It doesn’t hurt that St. Petersburg hosts more palaces than you can count, close to 300 museums, dozens of canals and waterways with bridges spanning their banks and a thriving street-music scene that inspires pedestrians to ditch their headphones as they cross places as varied as, yes, S. Place and K. bridge.

When searching for inspiration, the city’s natural spaces cannot be beaten. The blue hem of ponds and small canals in Tavrichesky Park and the tide of green in the Botanical Gardens serve the soul well against the cityscape.

During the winter months, slap on a pair of skates at the ice rink at New Holland Island, named for its resemblance to Amsterdam’s canal and shipbuilding architecture.

This city is a history geek’s paradise. History of the violent kind, or of the majestic, can be found in droves. Visit the Yusupov Palace for an exhibition on Rasputin’s murder. Enter the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a luminous cathedral built on the spot of Alexander II’s assassination.

Peter and Paul Fortress plays sentinel over the Neva River and was founded as the city’s first bulwark against the threat of a Swedish invasion in the early 18th century. Inside stands the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place for many tsars and tsarinas and home to the tallest Orthodox bell tower in the world — visible for miles around the center of St. Petersburg.   

But in case history favoring the armed and armored isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other places that celebrate the cultural heritage of Russia itself. Watch a Tchaikovsky ballet at Mikhailovsky or Mariinsky theaters or order pelmeni with tea at one of St. Petersburg’s hip cafes.

If the cultural vibrancy of St. Petersburg hasn’t left you wanting more, perhaps a visit to the Hermitage will kick things back into proper order. This museum-within-a-palace is the second-largest in the world, housing 3 million works, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Rembrandt and ancient Egypt.

Take a walk down Nevsky Prospekt, the most famous street in Russia. You may indeed find any manner of souvenir or restaurant down this 5-kilometer artery through the heart of the city’s historic center. Magnificent views span the Kazansky Cathedral and its environs. A perfect selection of bars and clubs await on the side streets beyond, and there’s enough of an eclectic mix of tourists and specialty shops to remain occupied through snow, rain and the occasional blip of sunlight.  

Beneath the grandeur of St. Petersburg is a humbler side that balances its colonnades and finery with the people moving between them. When the weather is nice (usually mid-to-upper 40s and above with a half-cloudy sky) street musicians line the pavement, playing rock music or traditional trumpet tunes. The sounds of artists haggle their wares, elderly ladies singing advertisements into microphones and children laughing in courtyard playgrounds simply add to the city’s splendor.

As with any urbanized area, St. Petersburg has its down moments, but the blend of cultural expertise and general revelry make this one of the world’s premier cities. Russia sometimes gets a bad rap from American tourists. Don’t listen. If you can manage the visa process, sign up for a trip. Russia’s northern capital awaits, and it will never disappoint.



Written by: Nick Irvin — ntirvin@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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