St Petersburg - Romanovs, Rasputin and Revolution

by Shipscook

Enduring despotic rulers, revolutions, Nazi siege and the rise and fall of Communism, Russia's former capital has had more than its fair share of murder and mayhem and some good eating places too

In 1703 Peter the Great laid St Petersburg’s foundations on the River Neva's Zayachi Island. In the middle of territory just conquered from Sweden, the Italian architect Domenico Trezzini was commissioned to build the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul. So it’s hardly surprising that many of St Petersburg’s greatest landmarks are concentrated in the area bordering the river.


In keeping with Peter’s vision of a modern European city, the jewel of the fortress is the Baroque Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul (admission 200 Roubles). Also designed by Trezzini, it was here we discovered the tombs of the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia up to the 1917 Revolution. Nicholas II and his family, murdered by the revolutionaries in 1917, were re-interred here in 1998


As a prison, the fortress held the anarchist Michael Bakunin, Trotsky and Dostoevsky and today its mint is still making coins. Every day at noon the serenity of the Romanov’s resting place is shattered by the midday cannon, but in 1917 the battery  bombarded the Romanov’s Winter Palace on the opposite bank of the Neva.


The Winter Palace is one of five connected buildings that form the State Hermitage Museum (2 Palace Square admission 400 Roubles). Built for Tsarina Elisabeth I (1741 – 1762) it was designed by another Italian, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.


Legend has it that the revolutionaries who stormed the Winter Palace got lost inside. It’s easy to see how; it’s said that it takes eleven years to see the whole collection. Having only the morning we crammed in Nicholas II and Alexandra’s’ throne room, the room where the Bolsheviks arrested the government and galleries of fabulous art from Renaissance masters to like Leonardo to modernists like Picasso.


Mad Monks and Murder Most Foul


Close to the Hermitage, on the bank of the Moika River we found the Yasupov Palace (Naberezhnaya Reki Moyki 94,,  Admission 500 Roubles). This magnificent Baroque palace was home to the fabulously wealthy Yasupov family from 1820 to 1917. Their Moorish styled room is particularly splendid. While free audioguides are available for most of the palace you will need to join an organised tour (tel. +7 (812) 314-9883) to see where Felix Yasupov fed self-proclaimed holy man Grigory Rasputin cyanide laced cakes and then filled him full of lead. 


Violent death for the Romanovs was an occupational hazard, the Church of the Spilled Blood (Konyushennya ploshchad, admission 320 Roubles) marks where Tsar Alexander II was blown up by a revolutionary bomb in 1881. It’s a rare example of a traditional Russian onion domed church in this city of the Baroque and Neo-classical.


Nearby is the Neo-Classical St Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskaya ploshchad, Admission 320 Roubles). Designed by the French architect Auguste de Montferrand it was the largest cathedral in Russia. Post revolution it was a museum of atheism.


The walk to our hotel from the river, down Nevskiy Prospekt, was an architectural delight. Baroque and Empire Style buildings rubbed shoulders with Art Nouveau and the occasional bit of Soviet Brutalism. I particularly liked the Art Nouveau Singer Sewing Machine Showroom, with its decorative metal work


And so to Lunch


Stolle Pies (Konushenny Lane, was the place for lunch near the Neva. We dined on herby wild mushroom and salmon pies, both delicious. Expect to pay from 200 to 400 Roubles depending on the filling.  


More up market was The Idiot (82 Moika Embankment, tel +7 (812) 315 1675,, named after the Dostoevsky novel. This vegetarian restaurant regards fish as a plant, but no worries for me. I tucked into Herring in Stuba (a confection of hard boiled egg, herring, beetroot and potato) and a mushroom and potato Payarka both of which were very tasty. Around 1000 Roubles per person including drinks.


Closer to our hotel was Shinok (Zagorodny Prospekt 13, tel: +7 (812) 571 8262) a Ukrainian Restaurant, where the Borsht comes in freshly baked bread and the vodka hits the spot - it’s spiked with horseradish. A bit pricey, around 1300 Roubles with drinks, but there was a free folklore show.


More eccentric was Orient Express (Marata Street 21, tel: +7 (812) 314 5096,, a train themed restaurant serving dishes from Russia’s former central Asian territories. There’s even recorded steam engine noise in the loos! I recommend the Georgian Mantas - lamb dumplings with sour cream and sumac. Reckon on about 1000 Roubles with drinks.  


The cheapest restaurant that we tried was the Pancake House (Kololnaya Street tel. +7 (812) 315 5345). The duck with sauerkraut was amazing. About 750 Roubles with beers.

Where to stay

We stayed in the Dostoevsky Hotel (19, Vladimirsky Prospect) which is conveniently located close to Nevskiy Prospekt. The rooms are all on the top couple of floors as the hotel is built over a shopping mall, which has a convenient 24 hour supermarket. The breakfast was a bit grim though.


I'm a middle aged bloke, married with one daughter at university and a bunch of like minded middle aged pals. A former editor, copy writer and corporate PR manager, I'm now determined to grow old disgracefully getting around all of those places that I should have been to as a student, but never had enough cash for until today. I like art, culture, food and rock n roll. I have been around the globe, swam with dolphins, watched the Sun set and rise over Uluru, been caged with wolves, kissed by a super model and licked by a lion. Hear me roar!

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