Palace Square and Surrounds
The first stop of many tourists to St Petersburg, it’s hard to imagine a more arresting architectural
ensemble than that of Palace Square. The square is bounded by the incredible Winter Palace, the stunning General Staff Building and the incomparable Admiralty with the Alexander Column standing proudly in the center. The sheer vastness of the square and the beauty of the buildings is breath-taking.
It’s difficult to do justice to the sumptuous Winter Palace with a description. The exquisite green and white baroque building by Bartolomeo Rastrelli really has to be seen to be fully appreciated. The palace was commissioned by Elizabeth I, the daughter of Peter the Great, in 1754 and was completed in1762. By this time Elizabeth I was dead and Catherine
the Great became the first royal to live in the palace, where the dynasty dwelled until 1917. Taking up an entire block, the palace is startling by its size and stunning in its detail. The beautifully adorned facade, complete with classical columns and figurines lining the roof is a feast for the eyes. But the exterior cannot prepare you for the sheer opulence of what’s inside. The Winter Palace might now host one of the world’s greatest art collections, but you could wander dumbstruck through the building without looking at a single artwork. Teeming with chandeliers, gold, marble, and all that is ornate, each of the 1057 halls and rooms is something to behold. See the Museums Section for information on the Hermitage.
One of the many large creations of French architect Auguste Montferrand that spot the St Petersburg skyline,
the Alexander Column has captivated crowds since its construction was completed in1838. Towering over Palace Square at 47.5 meters in height, the column commemorates Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s army and is named after Tsar Alexander I who ruled during that arduous era. The face of the angel that stands atop the column is supposed to be modeled on the successful Tsar. The column itself was shaped from a single slab of red granite into a 3.5 meter wide cylinder weighing more than 600 tons.
With an unfortunate location opposite the Winter Palace it would be easy not to pay enough attention to the General Staff Building. But were it to stand anywhere else then Carlo Rossi’s stunning spectacle would undoubtedly be the center of attention. Built from 1820-27, the building is composed of two wings which are about 600 meters long in total. The two wings are separated by a giant archway, designed as a classical triumphal arch.
The best way to enter Palace Square in order to feel its full magnitude is through this arch. Above the archway is the building’s focal point, a magnificent 10 meter high sculpture of the triumphal chariot drawn by six horses. Meanwhile, other fantastic figures embellish the sides of the arch in contrast to the relatively unadorned remainder of the building. The eastern wing of the General Staff Building originally housed the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Finance Ministry and is now part of the Hermitage Museum. The western wing was for the General Staff of the Imperial Army. The General Staff Building is the perfect balance to the Winter Palace, helping to create an unforgettable ensemble on Palace Square.
Another of St Petersburg’s famous landmarks,
the modern-day Admiralty building was completed in 1823 by the design of Adrian Zakharov. However, the history of the Admiralty dates back to the very founding of St Petersburg in 1704. It was conceived primarily as a shipyard to enhance the brawn of the Baltic Fleet, but also served as a fortress: insurance against further foreign infiltration. This original Admiralty stood as a symbol of Russia’s power for 100 years before Zakharov was commissioned to revitalize it. Zakharov stuck mainly to the original design but made some significant additions both for the sake of efficacy and simply to add to the building’s grandeur. The Admiralty served as the headquarters of the Russian Navy until 1917 and is now a naval college. The famous golden spire atop the building is 60 meters high and can be spotted all over St Petersburg. Interestingly, three major roads including Nevsky Prospekt and Voznesensky/Izmailovsky Prospekt lead directly to the Admiralty and its golden spire is visible for the length of these extensive arteries.
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