The beating heart of St Petersburg, the roughly 3 mile (4.5 km) long Nevsky Prospekt has been the centre of the city’s social life since the eighteenth century. Carved out of thick woodland in 1718, St Petersburg’s main street takes its name from Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century prince who defeated invading Swedish and German armies. You could easily spend an entire day sightseeing on and around Nevsky Prospekt, which includes Kazan Cathedral, a grand edifice inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The cathedral was used as a museum of religion and atheism by the Communist authorities, before being restored after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Be sure to watch out for the city’s only statue of Catherine the Great, which is on the left side of the street as you walk away from the train station. Other nearby attractions include the psychedelic onion domes of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, which was built as a memorial to Tsar Alexander II on the site of his 1881 assassination, and the Hermitage Museum, with its vast collection of art from around the world, including works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
This landmark street is packed with restaurants, cafés and bars. In the summer, it’s a great place to grab an ice cream and engage in a spot of people watching. In the winter months, hunker down in a cosy eatery with a warming soup. And if that’s not enough choice for you, turn off Nevsky Prospekt and take a stroll down Rubinstein Street (Ulitsa Rubinshteina), home to over 40 cafés, bars and restaurants.
This famous and picturesque retail complex containing a food hall was constructed at the start of the twentieth century for two wealthy Russian merchants – the Eliseyev brothers. Housed in a striking Art Nouveau building with stained glass windows, gilded stucco ceilings and sparkling chandeliers, Eliseyev’s unusual design provoked a storm of criticism when it was first opened, with one local poet calling it a “monstrosity”. The shop was under state control throughout the Soviet era, when it was renamed Delicatessen Number One (most people continued to refer to it as Eliseyev’s). The store has all manner of delicacies for sale, from chocolate to caviar, Turkish Delight to smoked salmon. Food is elevated here to a near art form, and even if you don’t intend to buy anything, it’s still a feast for the eyes. Reopened in 2012 after many years of restoration work that left in place much of the building’s original furnishings, the store now also boasts a comfortable café, where you can relax with tea or coffee and choose from a large selection of cakes.
Referred to as House of Books, Singer House is a St Petersburg landmark, located in an eye-catching, seven-storey Art Nouveau building opposite the Kazan Cathedral. Constructed by the Singer Manufacturing Company in the early twentieth century, the initial plan was to build a New York-style skyscraper, but a ban on the construction of buildings higher than the nearby Winter Palace put paid to that. Topped with a glass tower that is crowned by a glass globe sculpture, the store has some 150,000 books in stock within its cavernous halls, which are framed by massive panoramic windows.
Although the majority of the books are in Russian, there is also a large collection of English-language literature, including translations of all the classic Russian novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Look out for the recently reissued Soviet classic cookbook, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. The shop sometimes hosts lectures by local authors, and on the second floor, the cosy Café Singer is a great place to get some refreshments and ponder St Petersburg’s rich literary history. The building also houses the headquarters of the VK social network, Russia’s answer to Facebook. VK’s owner, Pavel Durov, once made headlines when he threw paper planes made out of 5,000 ruble (around £50) notes out of the office windows.
One of the world’s first shopping arcades when it was opened in the late eighteenth century, the neoclassical Gostiny Dvor stretches for 1 km at the intersection of Sadovaya Street and Nevsky Prospekt. Tsarist-era traders sold wool, fur, linen, silver and gold here. One of the few places where Soviet citizens could purchase household items during the years of shortages, it was severely damaged by Nazi shelling during World War II. Gold bars stashed here by merchants in the nineteenth century were found under the building during post-war repairs. Worth a visit as much for its architectural delights as its shopping opportunities, Gostiny Dvor is a good place to pick up cosmetics, souvenirs and caviar. It also offers watches, clothes and children’s toys. Although the interior of this landmark building has been refurbished in recent years to transform it into a modern shopping experience, the sense of history is still tangible. Coffee bars on the premises make this a good place to take a break if you’re sightseeing on Nevsky Prospekt. Its name translates as “guest court” or “merchants yard”, and similar trading structures were built across Russia in the early nineteenth century, including in Moscow.
As you explore St Petersburg’s culinary delights, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the hundreds of thousands who died here – many from starvation – when the city was besieged for almost 900 days during WWII. A plaque erected during the bombardment of the city at Nevsky Prospekt 14 reads: “Citizens! This side of the street is more dangerous during an artillery bombardment.” The siege was without doubt the city’s darkest hour. Amid one of the coldest winters on record, life in the Soviet capital of culture, then known as Leningrad, was transformed into a living hell.
Despite the everyday horrors of the siege, a historic and morale-boosting performance of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was performed on 9 August 1942, at the city’s Philharmonic Hall, just off Nevsky Prospekt. The siege was finally broken on January 27, 1944. The anniversary of the liberation of the city is marked every year with concerts and other events.