St Petersburg off the beaten track

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St Petersburg off the beaten track

No visitor to St Petersburg should miss its world-famous historic and cultural highlights, such as the Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortress and Mariinsky Theatre. But Russia’s imperial capital is full of much less celebrated attractions worth searching out. From the city’s rooftops to its hidden bars, here is a selection of places that many locals won’t know about.

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The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood rises above St Petersburg’s rooftops © Eteri Okrochelidze / Shutterstock

The roofs of St Petersburg

A phenomenon that’s taken off in St Petersburg in recent years, ‘roofing’ is very popular among those looking for extreme thrills, but almost all tours are still illegal. There is only one official tour provider that offers government-approved rooftop tours – Panoramic Roofs. A specially equipped roof on Ligovsky Prospekt is open to anyone who wants to see the city from above in a safe environment (including protective gear and safety briefing) and learn about the origins of this danger-loving subculture. This is how it goes: you meet with the guide who has a special key to enter the building, then go upstairs and clamber out on the roof space through a wooden dormer. The roofer should explain where to walk and which of the tangle of head-high wires and chimney bricks are safe to hold. While the experience is definitely not for those afraid of heights, the views over St Petersburg are not easy to forget.

The Pharmacy of Dr Poehl and Sons hides numerous urban legends © Ksenia Elzes / Lonely Planet

Pharmacy of Dr Poehl and Sons

Founded in 1760, the Pharmacy of Dr Poehl and Sons is the oldest still-operating pharmacy in St Petersburg, located in the heart of Vasilyevsky Island. In the 19th century it was the most famous pharmacy in Russia because it supplied the imperial court with medicines. This place is worth a visit not only because of the pharmacy itself but also to check out the red-brick Griffins’ tower in the yard of the building. The tower is 11m high, has no windows or doors and almost every brick of the tower is numbered. It’s these numbers that led to numerous urban legends. The most interesting story is connected with the pharmacy’s owner Wilhelm Poehl, who was both a royal pharmacist and an alchemist. According to the legend, in his free time he used the tower to incubate magic griffins. Because the griffins were invisible and could only be seen reflected in windows at midnight, the numbers on bricks put together a magic code and those who managed to decrypt the code would solve the universal mysteries. Go and give it a try!

The Nikonov Revenue House is a great example of the Russian Revival architectural style © Ksenia Elzes / Lonely Planet

Nikonov Revenue House

The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is, of course, the most famous Russian Revival-style building in St Petersburg, but there’s another great example of this fantastical architecture. The owner of the Nikonov Revenue House was Nikolay Nikonov, a leading architect of the Russian Revival who designed many notable religious buildings across Russia in the 19th century. In 1899, Nikonov bought a two-story house on Kolokolnaya street and rebuilt it adding three more stories. The architect also designed the facade which is decorated with colourful, floral majolica ornamentation on the windows, balconies and columns. Among St Petersburg locals the building is known as the ‘fairytale house’ and it indeed looks like one. Nowadays there’s a nice small hotel in this building, perfect for those who want to stay in the centre yet away from the city buzz.

The St Petersburg Angel in Izmaylovsky Garden is one of the city's sweetest statues © Ksenia Elzes / Lonely Planet

St Petersburg Angel

There are almost 6000 monuments in St Petersburg but not all of them make it to the pages of guidebooks and travel magazines. While the Bronze Horseman may be one of the most famous statues in the world, the St Petersburg Angel in Izmaylovsky Garden is definitely one of the sweetest. It is an old man sitting on a garden bench with a book. The ‘angel’ is the work of St Petersburg artist Roman Shustrov, who dedicated it to the older generations of St Petersburgers who lived through the WWII Siege of Leningrad and Soviet-era repressions.

Orthodox Bar

If you happen to be on the famous Rubinshteyna street, you should definitely try to find this little gem. Located in the courtyard of house number 2, this one-of-a-kind small bar offers cocktails you have never tried before. The drinks include only unique, traditional Russian ingredients, such as polugar (bread wine), chacha (Georgian pomace brandy), khrenovukha (vodka made from horseradish), samogon(Russian moonshine) and many more. The cocktail menu has five sections, each named after one of the greatest Russian artists: Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Alexander Blok and Ivan Shishkin.

The Datsan Gunzechoinei is one of the northernmost Buddhist temples in the world © Ksenia Elzes / Lonely Planet

Datsan Gunzechoinei

You might not expect to find a Buddhist temple in a city like St Petersburg, but located right next to the lovely Yelagin Island, the peaceful and quiet Datsan Gunzechoinei is one of the northernmost datsans (temples) in the world, with a fascinating history. Although the Russian Orthodox Church was against its construction, Tsar Nicholas II approved the plan of the Dalai Lama’s envoy to Russia and the temple was constructed between 1909 and 1915. During the communist rule the datsan was used as a military radio station and later served as a laboratory for the Zoological Institute, but it was returned to the city’s Buddhist community in 1990. Check out the stained-glass windows designed by Nicholas Roerich and the garden around the temple with a small cafe that serves authentic Buryat and Nepalese food.

 

Museum of Bread

The St Petersburg Museum of Bread is the only attraction of its kind in Russia. Despite the fact that this is a state museum, it remains little known among locals and tourists alike. The museum showcases the history of grain farming in Russia, the bakers’ craft (with the focus on the 19th-century St Petersburg, which was famous for its professional bakers and skilled flour confectioners), the bread trade and various other subjects. One of the most thought-provoking sections is the exhibition dedicated to the difficulties endured during the WWII Siege of Leningrad. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine that during the siege the only food St Petersburg citizens got for a day was a small 125gr piece of rustic bread… and nothing more. This has became a powerful symbol of all the suffering during the darkest period in the city’s history.


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10 Top Tourist Attractions in Russia

The largest country in the world, Russia offers a broad array of travel experiences, from treks up the slopes of glacier-capped mountains to strolls along the shoreline of Earth’s oldest lake. Historical sites and cultural activities in the country’s great cities abound as well. Whether you’re exploring the grounds of Moscow’s Kremlin or wandering through the steppes of Mongolia, a visit to Russia is an adventure not soon forgotten. These top tourists attractions in Russia can inspire a great Russian itinerary for a memorable trip.

10. Trans-Siberian Railway

Trans-Siberian Railway

 

Part of the longest railway system in the world, the classic Trans-Siberian railway runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, a city near Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. Begun in 1891 by Tsar Alexander III and completed by his son, Tsar Nicholas II, in 1916, the line is known as the route of the tsars. Most travelers use the train as overnight accommodation from one destination to the next. The train features first-, second- and third-class sleepers, some with private bathrooms and showers.

9. Mount Elbrus

Mount Elbrus

 

Mount Elbrus is located in the Caucasus Mountain Range in Southern Russia. At 5,642 meters (18,510 ft), Elbrus is included as one of the Seven Summits, the highest summits on each of the planet’s seven continents, attracting both experienced and novice mountain climbers. While the mountain was formed from a volcano, it is considered dormant, with no recorded eruptions. A cable car system can take visitors as high as 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), facilitating ascents to the summit.

8. Valley of Geysers

Valley of Geysers

 

Situated on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, the Valley of Geysers is the second largest geyser field in the world. The Valley of Geysers was discovered in 1941 by local scientist Tatyana Ustinova. Since then it became a popular tourist attraction in Kamchatka and attracts a lot of interest from scientists and tourists.

7. Kizhi Island

Kizhi Island

 

Located in Karelia, a region in Northwestern Russia that borders Finland and the White Sea, Kizhi Island is best known for its incredible open-air museum. Karelians have lived in the region since the 13th century, torn between the cultures of the East and the West. The museum’s collection features the 120-foot high Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior, a structure made famous by its 22 domes. Other tourist attractions includes dozens of wooden houses, windmills, chapels and barns. The peasant culture is represented with craft demonstrations and folk ensembles.

6. St Sophia Cathedral, Novgorod 

St Sophia Cathedral, Novgorod

 

Located in Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city, Saint Sophia Cathedral is situated within the grounds of the city’s Kremlin. Standing 125 feet high and adorned with five spectacular domes, the cathedral is the oldest church building in Russia. Saint Sophia Cathedral features an array of ancient religious artifacts, including The Mother of God of the Sign, an icon that legend says saved Novgorod from attack in 1169. The cathedral’s three famous ornately carved gates also date back to the 12th century.

5. Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal

 

Many travelers on the Trans-Siberian railway make plans to stop at Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest lake on Earth. Lake Baikal holds around 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Located in Siberia, the 25-million-year-old lake is surrounded by mountain ranges. The lake is considered one of the clearest lakes in the world. Known as the Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal is home to several resorts, making the area a popular vacation destination.

4. Suzdal

Suzdal

 

Once the capital of several Russian principalities, Suzdal is the jewel of Russia’s “Golden Ring,” ancient cities that the country has preserved as living museums of Russia’s cultural past. Those who wish to experience the best of Russia’s historic architecture, full of onion-dome topped kremlins, cathedrals and monasteries, will find it in Suzdal. Dating back to 1024, the entire city is like a large open-air museum that transports visitors back in time.

3. Moscow Kremlin

Moscow Kremlin

 

The Kremlin is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Moscow. Home to the nation’s top governmental offices, the walled enclosure also houses four cathedrals built in the 15th and 16th century as well as several notable museums. The 250-acre grounds include the Armoury, filled with royal treasures of the past, and the Diamond Fund Exhibition, a collection of jewelry that includes a 190-carat diamond given to Catherine the Great.

2. Hermitage Museum 

Hermitage Museum

 

Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia is a massive museum of art and culture showing the highlights of a collection of over 3 million items spanning the globe. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors.

1. Saint Basil’s Cathedral 

#1 of Tourist Attractions In Russia

 

Built between 1554 and 1561 and situated in the heart of Moscow, St. Basil’s Cathedral has been among the top tourist attractions in Russia. It is not the building’s interior artifacts that attract visitors, but rather the cathedral’s distinctive architecture. Designed to resemble the shape of a bonfire in full flame, the architecture is not only unique to the period in which it was built but to any subsequent period. There is no other structure on earth quite like St. Basil’s Cathedral.

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