Last Updated on April 19, 2020 by Irena Domingo
If there is a square that you will inevitably visit if you travel to St. Petersburg it is Palace Square. In this square, the site of historical events of world importance, there is the Hermitage Museum, the General Staff Building and the Alexander Column. This architectural complex is currently one of the most visited in Russia by both national and international tourists. In this article I explain what to see and what to do in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square, one of the most beautiful squares in the world.
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0. Palace Square, the site of historical events
If the most important and central square in Moscow is Red Square, its equivalent in St. Petersburg is Palace Square, a meeting place for the city’s residents and the starting point of many sightseeing tours.
It is a pedestrian-only square with a huge esplanade of about 5.4 hectares and its architectural complex dates back to the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th.
Palace Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains important historical and cultural monuments: the Winter Palace (headquarters of the Hermitage Museum), the Guards Corps Headquarters, the General Staff Building with its impressive Triumphal Arch and the Alexander Column.
The square has been called Palace Square since 1766, as it is home to the Winter Palace, whose southern façade overlooks the square. Between 1918 and 1944 the square was renamed Uritsky Square in honor of Moisei Uritsky, one of the organizers of the attack on the Winter Palace in 1917. He was assassinated on August 30, 1918 at the entrance to the General Staff Building.
On this map you can see the location of the main buildings and monuments of this square and its surroundings, which I’ll tell you about next. The map also shows the restaurants I mention at the end of this article.
Many free tours of St. Petersburg begin in Palace Square next to the Alexander Column, for example the tour organized on the Civitatis platform.
1. The Winter Palace (1754-1762)
The oldest and most famous building in this square is the Winter Palace of the Czars (1754-1762) from which the square gets its name.
Before the construction of the Winter Palace, the space occupied by Palace Square was nothing special; it had old houses and was a rather rundown place, but with a privileged location overlooking the Neva River and Zayachy (Hare) Island with the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Construction of the Winter Palace, in the Elizabethan Baroque style, began in 1754 and was the work of Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, a Russian architect of Italian origin.
From 1762 to 1904 it was the official winter residence of the Russian czars. In 1904 Nicholas II moved his permanent residence to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin), 25 km southeast of St. Petersburg.
In addition, from July to November 1917 it served as a meeting place for the provisional Russian government after the abdication of the Czar during the 1917 Revolution.
The Palace consists of 3 floors, is square-shaped and has an interior patio. Its façades face the Neva River, the Admiralty Building and Palace Square where the main façade is located. It also has a garden that overlooks the Neva River and Palace Square.
In addition to the façade of the Winter Palace, it is also worth going to see from the outside the impressive Atlantes Portico of the New Hermitage Building next to the Winter Palace, but on Millionnaya Street.
The Winter Palace currently houses the Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s most famous, and has one of the largest art galleries and antiquities museum in the world. Also, the interiors and halls of this museum are really beautiful. It’s a must-see.
The entrance to the museum is located at No. 2 Palace Square and it is accessed through a large iron gate that leads into a large patio where you’ll find the ticket windows and also the automatic ticket machines.
- Tour duration: at least 3 hours.
- Cost: 800 rubles. I recommend buying the tickets at the automatic machines (they are in Russian and English), since there is usually no queue. They may also be purchased online on their official website, but at a higher price ($ 17.95): https://www.hermitageshop.org/tickets/
- Opening hours: If you want to have the whole day to take the tour, I recommend you do it on Wednesday or Friday, as on those days the museum has longer opening hours (from 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.). On the other days (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) the hours are shorter (from 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.). The museum is closed on Mondays (and also on January 1 and May 9). Admission is free on the third Thursday of each month.
- More information in this article: The Hermitage in St. Petersburg: What to see and how to buy tickets.
- If you prefer, there are also guided tours:
2. General Staff Building (1809-1829)
In front of the Winter Palace, on the other side of the square in the southern part, is the majestic St. Petersburg General Staff Building, which has a 580- meter long arched façade.
Built half a century after the Winter Palace, its style is neoclassical but it is seamlessly integrated with the square’s entire architectural complex.
This building has served as the headquarters of the General Staff, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Finance.
Currently, its west wing is the headquarters of the Western Military District, a military unit of the Russian armed forces in the northwest of the country, so it’s not open to the public.
For its part, the east wing has been part of the Hermitage Museum since 1993, and its modern and contemporary art collections are exhibited there in what is called the General Staff Building (6-8, Palace Square). The interior has been remodeled and it’s worth touring. Inside you can also buy tickets to the Hermitage (usually with a shorter queue than the Winter Palace) as the visit to the General Staff Building is included in the 800-ruble general admission ticket that also gives access to the Winter Palace.
But the most interesting thing about the General Staff Building that strikes you at first sight is the great triumphal arch dividing the structure, on top of which you can see, 36 meters high, a monument of a triumphal chariot drawn by six horses held by two soldiers, commemorating the victory over Napoleon.
If you go under the arch across Bolshaya Morskaya Street you will get to Nevsky Avenue, the city’s most famous street.
3. Alexander Column (1830-1834)
The Alexander Column is the monument located right in the center of Palace Square. It was designed by Auguste de Montferrand, a French neoclassical architect who worked mainly in Russia, and who is also the creator of St.Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. It is inspired by Trajan’s Column in Rome.
This column, which Montferrand designed for the late Czar Alexander I (1777-1825), stands 47.5 meters tall and is crowned by a large cross and an angel on a cylindrical pedestal. The angel is said to have the face of Czar Alexander who, with the help of the cold, defeated one of the best strategists in history.
The column weighs around 600 tons and is so well grounded that it does not need to be attached to its base.
The column was carved from a quarry in Virolahti, Finland, more than 190 kilometers from St. Petersburg, and then transported on a barge. Its biggest critics predicted that the column would collapse when separated from the rock. That did not happen.
Montferrand assembled more than 2,000 soldiers, officers and professionals to erect the column, and they raised it on August 30, 1832.
The official opening of the monument by Nicholas I took place on August 30, 1834.
The base of the column is framed by a laurel wreath and it has two-headed eagles in the upper corners, with 4 bronze bas-reliefs that allegorically glorify the victories of the Russian army.
4. Guard Corps Headquarters Building (1837-1843)
Completing the Palace Square on the eastern side is the Guards Corps Headquarters, designed in the neoclassical style and created by the architect A. P. Bryullov between 1837 and 1843.
This building is currently occupied by the headquarters of the 6th Red Banner Leningrad Army of Air and Air Defense Forces. It is not open to the public.
5. The Admiralty Building (1806-1823)
The west side of the square is an open space that connects with St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Building and with the Alexander Garden.
The Admiralty Building (1806-1823), designed in the Imperial style, was the headquarters of the School of Imperial Russian Admirals to support the Czar’s maritime ambitions. It is currently the headquarters of the Russian Navy created after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s not open to tourists.
The ship at the top of the building’s bell tower is one of the symbols of St. Petersburg.
6. Palace Square today
Today Palace Square is a meeting place for the residents of the city and also for tourists who visit it. Next to the garden of the Winter Palace there is a tourist information office.
In this square you’ll find people in costumes from the era of the czars. You can take a photo of yourself with them for a fee. You can also ride in vintage carriages with horses.
Since the 90’s this square has also been the venue of the city’s military parades, sporting events, such as the Mileage Pushkin (the oldest athletics race in Russia) or the White Nights Marathon, as well as music concerts by international artists, both opera (Plácido Domingo) and modern music (Madonna, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones, etc.). At Christmas the square is decorated with a huge Christmas tree.
7. Where to eat in Palace Square
If you visit the Hermitage, there is a cafeteria inside where they serve sandwiches and salads, which I only recommend if you are going to spend the whole day at the Hermitage because it is not possible to leave and come back in. In this cafeteria the food is not very varied and there is usually a crowd in the summer.
Near Palace Square you can find some good restaurants. If you’re looking for a good restaurant for traditional Russian food at a reasonable price (about 1,500 rubles), you have the Yat Restaurant (16, Moika River Embankment). If you’re looking for something more fancy, you have the Bellevue Brasserie, with French and Russian cuisine, located on the roof of the Kempinski Hotel, which has some fabulous views (22, Moyka River Embankment).
If, on the other hand, you are looking for something more affordable, at the beginning of Nevsky Avenue, at number 5, you have the Stolovaya No.1 Restaurant with Russian, Central European and Oriental cuisine. Cafeteria-style buffet. Frequented by Russians and tourists. You can eat well for between 300 and 800 euros. In any case, along the Avenue you have a host of restaurants and fast food chains, both Russian and American.
I hope this article has been useful to you for getting to know St. Petersburg’s Palace Square better. You can leave your comments below. Thank you very much for reading me.