Known to many as the ‘Venice of the North’, St Petersburg is a city built on islands. The favourite of Peter the Great, Vasilievsky Island is perhaps the most noble, filled with historic monuments and grand palaces where some of the country’s greatest museums and colleges now reside. From the Rostral Columns to The Russian Academy of Arts and Menshikov Palace, here are some of the best things to see and do on the island.
At the tip of the island, where the River Neva splits into two, stand two 18th century lighthouses called the Rostral Columns. Originally built to guide ships into the port, the distinctive monuments (which feature mythical figures representing Russia’s four major rivers) are beacons of the city’s maritime heritage. While the torches aren’t used on a daily basis, they’re lit up for public holidays and celebrations.
Behind the columns is the Old Stock Exchange, an elegant neoclassic building defined by its grand Doric columns. Built as a stock exchange, the impressive Greek structure now houses the Central Naval Museum. Look up to see Neptune, the God of the Sea, standing over the entrance.
Vasilievsky Island is a centre for education, led by the Twelve Colleges: a collection of 12 buildings that house the St Petersburg State University. Built in the Petrine era, the institution is the largest surviving structure of its time in St Petersburg, and is worth a visit for its impressive red and white façade, original ceiling murals and ancient sculptures.
The first national literary museum in Russian, The Institute of Russian Literature (also known as the Pushkin House after Russian writer Alexander Pushkin) takes book lovers on a literary journey through Russian world culture. Here, literary enthusiasts can browse manuscripts by many of the country’s greatest writers and discover many rare and limited edition books.
The Russian Academy of Arts is one of the most precious cultural institutions in the country. It’s a prime place for visitors to discover Russian fine art by illustrious talents such as Mikhail Vrubel and Konstantin Korovin. The striking building is also home to St. Petersburg State Academic Institute of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, where many of the country’s greatest artists have studied.
Created by Peter the Great, Kunstkamera is one of the most famous anthropology and ethnography museums in the world. It showcases an incredibly rich ethnographic collection exploring the cultures of Russian people, as well as those from Africa, North America, Japan, China, and beyond. A tour is a fascinating experience for people of all cultures.
One of the most intriguing contemporary art spaces in St Petersburg is Erarta, a private museum with over 2,000 contemporary works by more than 250 Russian artists, spanning the fields of painting, sculpture and photography. Alongside the permanent collection are temporary exhibits which are changed every three months. Pick up prints of your favourite works in the museum shop.
Menshikov Palace (also called Palace of Peter II) was built in the 1720s by Alexander Menshikov for his foster son, Peter Alexeevich, the son of Peter I and the future Tsar of Russia. Now owned by the State Hermitage Museum, it houses a fascinating collection of Russian art and cultural artefacts.
The Cathedral of St Andrew is a beautiful pink and white church, named after the Apostle Andrew. It’s considered a masterpiece of late Baroque architecture and, after being damaged by war, has been restored to its former glory. Inside visitors can find several historic artworks, including an 18th century painting of St Andrew.
From the spit of the island, known as the Stelka, visitors can enjoy some of the best views of the city. Take a stroll and discover the historic sea facing monuments and building of Vasilievsky Island on one side and the mainland of St Petersburg on the other. The small but charming garden that lies between the Rostral Columns is a romantic viewpoint where you may even witness a proposal or two.