The soaring spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral marks the spot where the city’s first building lies – a fortress that was never used for defensive purposes but boasts a fascinating history as a prison, burial site and military base.
Historians believe that the star-shaped Peter and Paul Fortress would never have fulfilled its defensive duties had it ever functioned as a fortress. Fortunately, the construction of the building was completed after the Swedish invasion which it was intended to deflect. The fortress was re-purposed to house the headquarters and torture chambers of the Tsarist era’s fearsome secret police. In Trubetskoy Bastion, cells were created to incarcerate political prisoners and held numerous high-profile prisoners from Peter the Great’s disgraced son to writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral was built on the fortress grounds shortly afterwards, in an architectural style vastly different from the Orthodox churches of its time. At its construction, it was the tallest building in St Petersburg, an honour now held by the Leader Tower. The cathedral was used as the burial site of most of Russia’s Romanov tsars from Peter the Great onwards and their elaborate graves and ornate sarcophagi can still be viewed today. A mint was also added to the eclectic collection of buildings and still produces coins, notes and official medals to this day.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the fortress acted, for a brief period, as the scientific base for a rocket technology laboratory before it was converted into a museum. Today, it is administered by the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg and no longer retains any of its former functions.
Peter and Paul Fortress occupies the whole of Zayachy Island which lies off mainland St Petersburg along the banks of the Neva River.
There are a number of buildings of interest within the fortress, the most notable being the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Here, visitors can explore the fantastically adorned interior and view the sarcophagi of Peter the Great and his family as well as those of other Russian tsars.
Trubetskoy Bastion now serves as a prison museum and members of the public can examine the old cells where its famous inmates were held. Plaques outside each cell detail its former inhabitants.
For those interested in the history of the Soviet Union’s role in the Space Race, the Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology has a number of space suits, space relics and historic rocket engines on display.
A bronze statue of Peter the Great lies within the fortress grounds and was unveiled in 1993 to public outcry. Lay your eyes upon the monument and you’ll understand why – the sculptor took artistic liberties with Peter’s proportions and the statue features an unusually small head and large body which sparked heavy criticism.
If the weather is clear, stroll along the Nevskaya Panorama Roof Walk, a wooden pathway that runs along the fortress wall and offers, as its name suggests, panoramic views of the Neva River and St Petersburg.
The closest station to the fortress is Gorkovskaya Station, located just a short walk away. Admission to the fortress grounds is free, although some attractions located within can only be accessed at a fee. The Nevskaya Panorama Roof Walk is open from 10am – 8pm daily. From May – October, visitors can also access the spire of the cathedral at a fee. A cannon ceremony is held at noon every day, a ritual that dates back to Peter the Great’s rule when it signified the start and end of the working day.
Look out for the stone statue of a hare as you cross Ioannovsky Bridge on your way to the fortress. Built to commemorate the St Petersburg floods of the 18th and 19th centuries, legend states that a hare jumped onto Peter the Great’s boat in an attempt to escape rising floodwaters. Do as the locals do and toss a coin at the hare for good luck.