Dvortsovaya Ploshchad, Palace Square in English, is the premier outdoor gathering place in St. Petersburg.
As early as 1905, it was a site of upheaval. On Bloody Sunday palace guards opened fire on demonstrators. Only 12 years later, in October 1917, it was the staging area for the storming of the Winter Palace at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution. Though typically much less violent today, it continues to serve as the host for political demonstrations in Russia’s second largest city.
But it isn’t just a location for protesters. It contains some of the city’s most interesting architecture and monuments. Whether covered with winter snow, or reflecting St. Petersburg’s warm summer sunshine, it provides one of the city’s most outstanding views.
On the northern side is the famed (and infamous) Winter Palace completed in 1762. Commissioned during the reign of Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, Catherine was the first to occupy the palace. Long a home to Russia’s subsequent rulers, it served as the headquarters of the Kerensky government after Nicholas II was deposed.
On the opposite side, the Imperial Army General Staff building, gleaming in yellow and white, can be seen. Completed in 1829, part of the building forms a Triumphal Arch, a fine example of St. Petersburg’s great monuments. Above the arch is a 33ft/10m-high sculpture of a chariot drawn by six horses. Through the archway visitors can reach Nevsky Prospekt, the major shopping district.
To the east is the former Royal Guards building, to the west the Admiralty housing an outstanding garden. From this vantage point, visitors can see the huge dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the gilded spire of the Admiralty building, completed in 1823. It served as headquarters of the Russian Navy until 1917 and now houses a naval college.
In the center of this enormous open plaza is the 155ft/47m-high Alexander Column, a monument to the Tsar’s triumph over Napoleon in 1814. Erected in 1834, the granite column is topped by an angel holding a cross. Standing near it early in the day and looking around the large space, it’s easy to imagine oneself in the early 19th century. The view has changed very little, judging from paintings and photos.
Carriage rides are a popular option for those who want a view of the square as royalty might have seen it two centuries ago. For a modest 200 rubles, riders get a brief ride around the square. A 20-minute tour costs around 2,000 rubles. The latter is pricey at nearly $80. But the tour can accommodate up to six, so split six-ways it isn’t outrageous.
Inside the Winter Palace is the Hermitage and other collections that comprise one of the world’s premier art museums. The building itself could serve as a day-long excursion, filled as it is with crystalline chandeliers, gilded ceilings and marble columns.
Be sure to make ample time to see one of St. Petersburg’s most important sites, the Palace Square.