Once the capital of imperial Russia, you can still see traces of St Petersburg’s gilded history within the city’s architecture – particularly in its orthodox churches and cathedrals. Subjected to the twin destructive forces of war and revolution, many churches in St Petersburg have been destroyed over the years – the Bolsheviks, in particular, weren’t so keen on these emblems of religious freedom and Tsarist clout. However, the buildings that remain, from the monolithic St Isaac’s Cathedral to the attractive Chesme Church, offer evocative snapshots across almost two hundred years of Russian history. Plan your journey back in time with our guide to the most beautiful churches the city has to offer.
Of all the churches in St Petersburg, it’s the iconic St Isaac’s Cathedral that remains the enduring symbol of the one-time imperial capital – and not just because its distinctive golden cupola is visible from miles away. Austere and monumental on the outside, its neoclassical granite columns and intimidating facade give way to an interior that is startling in its lack of restraint: ornate mosaics, columns of malachite and lapis lazuli, and a stunning depiction of Christ in the stained glass alter window are among the extravagant detailing, not that you have to look too closely to notice them.
So named because it was built on the site of Alexander II’s assassination, the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood is a conspicuous example of the Russian Revival style of architecture. Completed in 1907, it was ransacked and severely damaged just a decade later during the Russian Revolution. However, it’s now been fully restored and, impressively, its interior is even more striking than its colourful, onion-domed exterior, with biblical stories rendered in dramatic swathes of marble and gilt.
Buffeted within the fortified confines of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul stands at a vertiginous 123 metres high. An example of the Petrine Baroque style of architecture, its gold spire is one of the city’s most visible – and oldest – landmarks. The profound sense of history continues inside the cathedral, with the tombs of the Romanov rulers rendered in marble and semi-precious stones.
What’s not to love about a candy-pink neo-gothic church? Built between 1774 and 1780, it’s a monument to the Russian victory at the naval Battle of Chesma, and is built on the spot where Catherine the Great received the news. Somewhat incongruously, this small orthodox church was repurposed as a work camp under soviet rule. It returned to its original role in 1991, and remains a functioning church today.
An outstanding example of the baroque style, the blue and gold St Nicholas Naval Cathedral certainly stands out amidst its picturesque surroundings. Built in the mid-18thcentury, it was designated a naval cathedral in 1762 and as such the interior walls are adorned with images depicting Russian naval history as well as memorial plaques dedicated to the casualties of various conflicts. The cathedral itself is actually made up of two churches, the upper church and the lower church, and there’s also a similarly ornate, freestanding bell tower with golden spire nearby.
Built between 1761 and 1769, Vladimirskaya Church is one of the oldest churches in St Petersburg. Blending neoclassical features with a strong sense of the baroque – you can’t miss the five, onion-shaped domes – the two-tiered building is a somewhat intimidating presence on the Vladimirsky Prospekt. While the baroque iconostasis (wall of icons) housed on the second floor feeds into its sense of the monumental; the rumour that it was an underwear factory during the soviet era perhaps lessens the effect.
Murder, intrigue, crime and punishment… St Petersburg has it all. Those fascinated by the more ghoulish side of history will love these significant spots from fiction, and real life.