Touring the St. Petersburg Underground Metro on a Baltic Cruise Aboard Viking Jupiter
Touring the St. Petersburg Underground Metro on a Baltic Cruise Aboard Viking Jupiter

Touring the St. Petersburg Underground Metro on a Baltic Cruise Aboard Viking Jupiter

With just two days in St. Petersburg on a Viking Cruises Viking Homelands Cruise in the Baltics I had some tough choices about what to see!

I could have easily spent weeks exploring the city’s rich Soviet history, fine art and architecture, music, opera, and ballet. Ultimately, I chose to take one full day for a “behind closed doors” tour of the Hermitage Museums and to explore the St. Petersburg Metro for the second day. 

The Metro system in St. Petersburg turned out to be one of the highlights of my cruise, and it is a “hidden” treasure of the city that might not immediately come to mind for a traveler. But it really is a sight to behold. In fact, our guide described each station as a unique “theme park” about the culture and history of Russia.

The Metro is one of the deepest systems in the world with some of the longest escalators extending to a whopping 130 meters deep into the earth.

With the purchase of a single 45-ruble token (around 90 Canadian cents), I entered one subterranean world after another. The Metro was first contemplated in the 1940’s when the city was still called Leningrad, however it was not until the 1950’s when the Leningradsky Metropolitan was constructed and eventually opened on November 15, 1955. 

These “Palaces of the People”, as they were called by the Soviets, were designed to be unique subterranean palaces providing a permanent public display of Russian history and art.

With 69 stations on five lines, I saw as much as I could in the time I had for a single 45-ruble metro ticket. Highlights included riding on the oldest line, the Kirovskiy-Vyborgskaya Red Line and ascending – by far – the longest escalator I’ve ever been on.

There are 7 stations on the M1 Kirovskiy-Vyborgskaya Red Line, and each was more jaw dropping than the next. Whereas our subways systems in North America are purely functional, with the odd splash of public art, in St. Petersburg each was a masterpiece of art, architecture and storytelling about Russia. 

The system was intuitive and relatively easy to navigate. Signage was in Russian and English, and you can get a system map. I entered at Avtovo Station on the Red Line, and stopped at the Kirovskiy Zavod, Devyatkino, Narvaskaya, and the Technologicheskiy Institut Stations. 

The headways (time between trains) were very close on the Red Line and the station dwell times (length of time the train stops in each station) were very short, with only 30 seconds at each stop. If we missed a train, the next one was arriving within just a minute or two! I was warned that once the train doors began to close, they would not stop even if something got caught in them. Not surprisingly, with this policy, nobody rushed to jump on a train while the doors were closing, like I’ve so often seen in Toronto, New York, and so many other cities.

We travelled downtown on the Red Line to where it connects to the newer, more basic, 1960’s-era Blue Line, and transferred for a short ride to exit the Metro at the Nevskiy Prospekt Station on Sadovaya Street. This station is along the Neva River and is one of the deepest stations in the system with the longest escalators I’ve ever been on from the platform to the street. The escalators move very quickly so we held the hand rails tightly and stood on the right side to let the fast-moving passengers run by us on the left. Our exit was the Griboyedova channel quay where we walked along the colorful and crowded streets for hours.

These are a few of the stations on the Kirovskiy-Vyborgskaya Line that I found most interesting: 

Avtovo (ABTOBO) Station 

My favorite station by far. We entered the system through an above ground neoclassical yellow-colored pavilion with bold majestic columns, that reminded me of the Pantheon in Greece. The station entrance stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding stark grey apartment blocks, construction, and traffic chaos. 

Unlike most other stations, Avtovo is a shallow-level station (just 12 meters deep) and it was a short walk to the platform. The platform resembled an art gallery more than a subway station! It was jaw-dropping with highly polished and pristine white marble floors and walls.  Columns lined the platform and 16 of them were covered in sparkling patterned glass. Ornate chandeliers, a patterned ceiling, and distinctive wall plaques all along the brightly lit platform led us to a magnificent colorful mosaic on the end wall, commemorating the Leningrad Blockade of 1941-1944 and features a woman holding a child. 

 Kirovsky Zavod Station 

Quite different from Avtovo Station, Kirovsky Zavod Station looks and feels sparse but its history tells quite a different kind of story: Kirovsky Zavod was designed as a tribute to workers in the large local metal and machinery factory of the same name. The large rectangular columns displaying Soviet icons, along with the bold light fixtures contributed to this station having a distinctively Soviet appearance. There was even a well-lit bust of Vladimir Lenin displayed at the end of the platform.

Narvskaya Station

I found the neo-classical Narvskaya Station very interesting with its arched ceiling and the flat light fixtures that followed the arch. Our guide informed us that when the construction of the station started it was named Ploshchad Stachek, but before it opened the name changed to Stalinskaya, in honor of Joseph Stalin, however in 1953, ahead of the station opening, Joseph Stalin died and station was renamed again to Narvskaya after the Narva Triumphal Gate built to celebrate the Russian victory over Napoleon and is located near the station. 

The walls were finished in elegant white marble with inlaid bronze inserts with a hammer and sickle design. There was also a rust-colored strip running the entire length of the platform with a soviet star and leaf motif. The floors were dark tiles in the center with a patterned design in the passages leading to the trains. I was fascinated by the column corner sculpture groupings showing ordinary soviet citizens in various work and living situations.

When I have the opportunity to return to St. Petersburg, Russia I plan to explore more of the Metro system and stop in the dozens of neighborhoods I missed on this short visit.  

Where else can you feel the pulse of the city and see so much art, architecture and Soviet history for only 45 rubles than in these “Palaces of the People”?