St Petersburg – Claiming the Title of Europe’s Most Beautiful City

Europe's most beautiful city - St Petersburg

At one point in my life, I may have given the title of Europe’s most beautiful city to Venice or Paris, but I couldn’t possibly say that now I’ve been to St Petersburg.

Elegant yet statuesque, if St Petersburg were a woman she’d bring even Casanova down onto his knees.

I’m convinced, if it weren’t for the arduous task of getting a Russian Visa, we’d all be clamouring to get a closer look at her majestic beauty.

Though I can see why Putin might deter a few of you….

Steeped in mysticism, St Petersburg transports you to another world belonging to some of the most dramatic periods in European history. The sense of grandeur left behind from the Tsar Empire is omnipresent, for Catherine the Great was a woman of high extravagance. She made it one of her life’s missions to project St Petersburg as a sight of intense beauty, and it’s safe to say she succeeded alright.

But where there’s beauty belies brutal episodes in human history, including Hitler’s 29-month siege of Leningrad when about one-third of the city’s population of three million lost their lives. And not even did the royals possess immunity to the ill-fated actions of man, as in the case of Tzar Alexander Il, who was assassinated where the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood now lies.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg

Inside the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

Still, in the face of adversity, St Petersburg can, like any good woman, be characterised for her enduring strength.

A vision of golden spires and gilded domes, of pastel palaces and ethereal cathedrals, St Petersburg is far closer to a fantasy than the reality of any ordinary city. Filled with pleasures for those who court beauty and culture, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe and reverence as you walk down streets laden with dramatic sculptures and imposing buildings. The only place I’ve been before that possessed a similar sense of drama is Rome.

Kazan Cathedral, the Beautiful city of St Petersburg

Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg

Imposing buildings on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg

With strict geometric lines and perfectly planned architecture, it’s easy to find your way around this lady. Though if at any point you do lose your way, simply navigate yourself back to Nevsky Prospekt and you’ll soon find your orientation once again. Similar to its Baltic neighbour of Stockholm, you’ll discover a trail of picturesque bridges crossing over the grand Neva River.

For a quintessential romantic activity, why not make your way down one of the piers and hop on board a boat to revel in the city from the water?

Whether you travel here alone, with a friend or lover; it’s difficult to bypass the romanticism of St Petersburg. Quite often we call beauty a subjective matter, but I doubt I’d find anyone capable of refuting the physical allure of St Petersburg and really meaning what they say.

St Petersburg - Europe's most beautiful city

With all this attention on appearances, I should really draw attention to the important matter of what lies beneath the picture-perfect facade. The most captivating aspect of St Petersburg, in our image-obsessed day and age, is her combination of beauty and substance.

She’s got a thousand different layers, each alight with something new and surprising. Whether your interest lies in her literary legacy, ornate architecture, rich collection of art or turbulent history – there’s a trifle of things to discover. You’ll never get bored.

Hermitage Museum aka the Winter Palace in St Petersburg
Beautiful city of St Petersburg. This is Chesme Church.

What do you think is Europe’s most beautiful city?



A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.


'St Petersburg – Claiming the Title of Europe’s Most Beautiful City' have 18 comments

  1. January 27, 2016 @ 8:26 am Rob E

    Looks stunning, Shing. Another one on the list! Any feel for what extent the city’s palaces, churches, etc needed reconstructing post-War? Just wondering if what we’re looking at is, in fact, relatively new!

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  2. January 27, 2016 @ 10:51 am Rob

    Yeeeah! Certainly the most ornate city in Europe. I think it suffers a little from isolation – as you say, it’s difficult to get the visa and it doesn’t get as much coverage in the press, as, say, Venice or Istanbul. But, I’d probably agree – it is truly monumental. In answer to Rob above – when the Germans laid siege to Leningrad (as was), they never took the city centre itself. While there were occasional air raids (most of the bombardment was via land-based artillery), the city got off relatively light. Hence, most of the historic buildings were relatively undamaged. Catherine’s summer palace, though, at Tsarkye Selo (about 10km outside ‘Piter’), was occupied by the Germans and stripped. That needed renovating. The Spilled Blood was pretty much closed by Stalin before the war anyway in his purge against religion full stop, and that was renovated back to its original glory in the 60s-80s, but yeah, could have been a lot worse, all told.

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    • January 27, 2016 @ 10:12 pm Susanne

      Thats truth, when I visited Peterhof (Peter the Great’s summer palace – the beautiful garden with palaces and golden-looking fountains), there was a man in our group saying he had already visited the place back in the 80s and it was completely damaged by the Germans, windows shattered etc. and he was amazed how much better everything looked, Russians really did their job.

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    • January 28, 2016 @ 11:18 am Rob E

      @Susanne @Rob Thanks for the info and history lesson, guys! :-)

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      • February 10, 2016 @ 6:47 pm Shing Yoong

        Thanks for all the answers guys – and great question Rob!

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    • April 12, 2016 @ 1:59 pm Stan

      A bit of a correction, both the Grand Palace(main palace of whole complex of palaces in the lower park of Peterhof, and Catherine Palace in Pushkin were essentially totally destroyed. The palaces seen today took decades to rebuild based on drawings and architects notes and historical references. One wall was partially standing from the the Grand Palace, and was used as a platform for mobile artillery and tanks inside what was the palace. 1/3 of the housing in the western part of USSR was destroyed in the war and many towns ceased to exist because no one was left alive. The scale and viciousness of the war had no equal in history and those of western Europe and especially the US had no clue the level of brutality. 1,000,000 soldiers died trying to defend Leningrad at the outskirts and another 700,000 civilians died of the 3,000,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the siege. Approximately 1,000,000 escaped in the winter over the frozen lake to the east, mostly children. Of those 2,000,000 who stayed, a little over 1/3 died from starvation or bombardment. Not a family survived in tact, 26,000,000 died defending the invasion. That is why Russians take the threat of NATO movement to the east onto the borders so seriously, they lived invasion and it is burned into every living person’s psyche. They know war is coming from another invasion.
      Stalin was not a friend of St Petersburg, he was suspicious of the writers, scientists, artists and so before the war, in the 30s many of the intellectuals and artists were sent to labor camps in Siberia or just disappeared. So after the war, little money was provided for rebuilding. The people, independently, volunteered for labor teams to travel by train to Pushkin or Peterhof and started the decades long process of salvage and reconstruction. After Stalin’s death in 54, federal money came to St Petersburg so pace of the work increased. about 300 historic buildings and parks were rebuilt and the process continues today. Every few months a new palace or building of historic significance is opened again.
      As an American who has lived in St Petersburg 15 years, I find it fascinating, beautiful and cultured, and a heck of a lot of fun. I have far more personal freedom here now than in later years in the US, and it is easier to live a nice life here without being wealthy. No place of the 87 countries I have visited is art and culture so accessible to all people, not just for the wealthy. I think it one of the easiest places to meet friends, it is very social and well educated, in fact the most educated city on earth.

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  3. January 27, 2016 @ 10:09 pm Susanne

    St. Petersburg is my biggest crush. There is no other city in the world I’d dream so much about visiting again!

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    • February 12, 2016 @ 9:40 am Shing Yoong

      Haha I’ve a huge crush on Russia too!

      Reply

  4. January 28, 2016 @ 1:17 pm Katie Featherstone

    I love the way you compared the city to a strong woman. St Petersburg is certainly beautiful- I couldn’t believe the architecture either.

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    • February 12, 2016 @ 9:44 am Shing Yoong

      Ahh have you been to St Petersburg too Katie? The architecture is often hard to believe!

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  5. January 30, 2016 @ 11:22 pm Ted

    It certainly looks interesting and the art on the ceilings is amazing. The city looks quite large and there must be a lot of walking – keeps you fit tho’. Not sure I’d be allowed into Russia (an old Cold War thing), know I’d be jailed in North Korea without hesitation.

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    • February 12, 2016 @ 5:10 pm Shing Yoong

      “….Not sure I’d be allowed into Russia (an old Cold War thing), know I’d be jailed in North Korea without hesitation.” – I’m intrigued, please share your stories Ted!

      It’s an extremely interesting place, history peels from the walls Ted! A lot of the main attractions are within walking distance but you have to get a bus or train to some other attractions as well.

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    • April 11, 2016 @ 8:29 pm Stan

      Ted, no problem. The last cold war was between the US and USSR. Russia is much more open and in many ways having more personal freedom than the US or UK.

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  6. February 1, 2016 @ 9:58 am Victoria@ The British Berliner

    ‘Love the post Shing and now you make me all the more eager to visit Russia. I’m still sceptical about paying all that dough just for a visa as a British person, so I might just do the 72 hours no-need-for-a-visa- if-you’re on-a-cruise thing when I’m ready lol!
    As for the most beautiful city in Europe? You’re killing me Shing! There’s just so many! Rome, Paris, London, Heidelberg, Riga, Krakow, Prague, the list goes on….lol!

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    • February 16, 2016 @ 5:59 pm Shing Yoong

      The 72 hour free visa might be the way to go Victoria – it’s certainly less hassle! Whilst 72 hours isn’t enough to see everything you’ll still be able to see many of the highlights if you plan wisely!

      I’ve never been to Heidelberg (very curious now though) but yes to Rome, Paris, London, Krakow and Prague! I really need to visit Riga too…

      Reply

  7. February 15, 2016 @ 10:16 am kami

    I so hope to finally visit Russia this year, it’s been in my mind for way too long! And while I’ve been thinking mostly of Trans-Siberian railway I think I’d add St. Petersburg to my itinerary – it’s not really on the way but so stunning!!! I just love how you showed it!

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    • February 16, 2016 @ 6:01 pm Shing Yoong

      Argh I’ve been dreaming of the Trans-Siberian railway too Kami! You’ve travelled so much within Eastern Europe, it’s about time you visit Russia 😉

      Reply

  8. April 11, 2016 @ 8:17 pm Stan

    I stumbled onto this blog on travel and was interested in the comments. I visited St Petersburg the first time in 1976, and visited many times until the late 90s. Then, I made the decision, on my flight home to just north of San Francisco, to give all my possessions away and move away.I did, I gave everything away except 1 house, 1 car, and somethings in a storage unit and found myself on Nevsky Prospect with two suitcases, about $6000 in cash and no idea where to live, how to support myself or even know the language. That was 15 years ago.
    St Petersburg is unique, I could have moved to any of the 87 countries I have visited but none felt like home to me. My own culture had drifted far from me and I felt the region that my family had called home for 370 years was just not me anymore. St Petersburg has been inspiring, fascinating, harsh, elegant, but most of all has been fun. Making friends in such an outgoing social city was a snap. I just did things I was intrigued by, so was doing them surrounded by young people, mostly in their 20s and early 30s and was never accepted by my “real” peers as fully as the people here. First off, it can be a little intimidating in that it is the most educated city in the the most educated country in the world. I don’t even know anyone over 20 who does not have a university degree. Striking up a conversation with a 21 year old in a pub is an entirely different experience than anyplace I have been. They have broad educations they know a lot about the world and fit in just about anywhere they travel to.
    The one word that seems to sum up the city is “Art”. The people of all ages are immersed in the arts every day. Sure there are grand art galleries but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Dance, singing, visual arts, theater, 354 museums, and much more, and all ages participate, usually every day. Going to world class ballet for example and looking from from the $200 floor seat to the upper balconies and it is all kids, from 6-7 to 20, all free. A typical conversation by a couple 13 year olds might be trying to decide whether to go to a death-metal concert or a new staging for an obscure ballet or opera they just discovered in archives. To a westerner it seems strange to have such access to the art. Even in London and NYC where they brag about being Theater Capital of the World because they have never been here to St Petersburg. We have 330 drama theaters in walking distance from my apartment in the city center. Moscow has even more.
    It is fun, engaging, smart, balanced, exciting and beautiful and those just describe the people….OK, the Women.

    Regarding Visas, they are not so hard to get, just fill out the on-line form, and send that plus an invitation(an official document from a hotel or tour operator that is federally licensed, if anyone is having problems, contact me. In several of the businesses I started have been in incoming tourism, mostly intense 2 day cultural tours for cruise ship passengers so have all the federal licenses.) For Americans, their visa treaty allows for a 3 year multiple entry visa but most countries are limited to 3 months for a single visit on a business visa(which does not have to be for business, it just means a business invites you, up 1 year in duration but only 3 months in-country per 6 month period) or 30 days on a tourist visa. There is an alternative that requires no visa; book a ferry from Helsinki or Tallinn-Stockholm and arrive by ferry, for 72 hours visa free with no paperwork. That is very popular with people from the UK, Scandinavia and Northern Europe. If you have any questions about how to get by here really really cheap, or elsewise, let me know.
    Your photos are really good…can you describe how you took them….DLSR, post processing, lenses? I am somewhat of a photographer….it is hard not to be here.
    After 15 years, still in love with the city, every day it surprises and makes me happy to just walk around, regardless of weather

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