The Fontanka River, St. Petersburg

Fontanka new view

Photo by Vilve Roosioks from Pixabay 

Ways to Explore the Fontanka River:

  • Stroll: Start on Anichkov Bridge (Nevsky Prospekt) and head up towards the Neva on the paved embankments. In a mere 15 minutes, you'll see more palaces, castles and fountains than most see in a lifetime!
  • Sail: See St Petersburg's main sights with the river spray to keep you cool on a guided barge tour. Party like a Russian with a boatful of students and free-flowing vodka on a disco-boat. Experience the magic of the white nights on a private midnight yacht.
  • SUP: Rent a board and take to the waters to discover the Fonatanka at your own pace.
  • Scoot: The wide embankments of the Fontanka are ideal for scooting or skating. There's even a cycle lane for bikes which can be rented from nearby bike stations.

The Fontanka River during Imperial Russia

For more than two centuries, the river Fontanka has been second only to the Neva as the main waterway of St Petersburg. In Imperial times, it acted as the bulwark that encircled the palaces of the bourgeois safely in the central district: away from the pauperdom of the south and filthy docks of the north.

Promenading down the Fontanka, surrounded as it is to this day by palaces and drawbridges, it is hard to imagine that it was once nothing more than a boggy river. Yet even in Peter the Great’s time the river was an unruly beast: spanning over 200m in some places and frequently flooding the streets with mud. Quite a few years past after the establishment of St Petersburg before the river was finally tamed. Indeed, the river was only embanked during Tsarina Anna’s reign. Even then, it was but a primitive wooden embankment. Nonetheless, as with most things in St Petersburg, Fontanka’s current state is much indebted to the genius of Peter the Great.

Fontanka old view

Fontanka river at Anichkow bridge. Post card, before 1915. Author Unknown. Restoration Vitold Muratov 

Take the river’s rather grand name, Fontanka. Till 1719 the river was practically anonymous. Marked on maps as the nameless erik (canal), till Peter decided to build his summer palace on its banks the river lacked a proper title. Its new name, Fontanka, was the diminutive of the Russian word for fountain and alluded to the river's role in feeding the fountains of the Summer Palace’s gardens.

Did you know?  Almost all of the Summer garden’s fountains were decimated in a tremendous flood in 1777. Though the fountains themselves weren’t reinstated till 2011, the name of the river lived on.

It took another great ruler, this time Catherine the Great, for any other notable changes to be made to Fontanka. The wide embankments lined with polished granite blocks and drawbridges decked with stone towers— iconic images that can be found on almost any postcard of St Petersburg— were mostly built by the order of Catherine in the mid 18th century. Since then, little has changed.

Did you know? The mansions lining Fontanka were home to many Russian greats including the poets Gavrila Derzhavin and Anna Akhmatova, writer Ivan Turgenev and none other than Alexander Pushkin. The Pushkin family apartment is now a part of the Pushkin Loft hotel.

The Fontanka River Today

No longer straddling between the affluent city of the north and the suburban squalor in the south, the Fontanka now runs through the very heart of the city. The relatively shallow depth of Fontanks means it is no longer a commercially viable route. Nevertheless, dozens of barges still weave through its low-hanging drawbridges from late spring to autumn; ferrying tourists eager to enjoy unobstructed views of St Petersburg’s best sites.

In July, hoards of sport-fanatics take to the waters in fancy-dress for the annual Fontanka-SUP festival. While in winter, even more daring souls stroll down the frozen river in the dead of night. Needless to say, we don’t recommend that!

Did you know? In the last 150 years, the sole new addition to the river was so minuscule (weighing in at 5kg and 11cm in length) that you’d most certainly miss it were it not for the crowds surrounding it. Perched just a few feet above the waters of Fontanka, Chizhik-pizhik is undoubtedly one of the smallest and cutest statues in St Petersburg. The origins of this sweet little statue of a bird, however, aren’t altogether innocent. Many poems have been dedicated to the Fontanka, but none have persisted as long as this cheeky rhyme from the 19th century:

Chizhik-pizhik, where've you been?
Drank vodka on the Fontanka.
Took a shot, took another –
Got dizzy.


Photo by Express to Russia staff

Given that the uniform of the students of the nearby Imperial Law School was of the same yellow-green tint as the plumage of the European greenfinch, “chizhik”, and that these very students were often caught raising hell in the taverns on the Fontanka, the meaning of this rhyme isn’t exactly a mystery. What is mysterious, however, is how this minute statue made it back each of the three times it was stolen since its installation in 1994!

What can you see along the Fontanka River Today?

Fontanka SUP

Photo by Makalu from Pixabay 

Starting at its feeding point opposite the Peter and Paul fortress in the north of the city centre, down to the wharf where it empties into the Finnish Gulf; all 7.6km of the Fontanka are steeped in history and architectural splendour. Though, to be sure, practically every single building lining either side of the Fontanka is worthy of attention, the ones listed below are simply unmissable. Whether you stroll, sail or SUP down the river, keep an eye out and a camera ready for the following:

  • Summer Gardens and Palace of Peter the Great: Feast your eyes on the marble statues, fountains, mazes and palace encircled by the Neva and Fontanka.
  • The Museum of Defence and the Siege of Leningrad: Opened in 1946, this museum is not so much a display of history as a part of it. Indeed, the exhibitions were so startling that Stalin had the museum shuttered up after just five years. It was only reopened during perestroika.
  • Mikhailovsky Dvorets (Saint Michael’s Castle): Built by the paranoid Paul I, both the architecture and history of this castle are spine-shudderingly eerie. Now a branch of the eminent state Russian Museum, it’s still the castle’s bloody history, not the Royal portraits, that draws in the crowds.
  • The Bolshoi State Saint-Petersburg Circus: As Russia’s oldest standing circus, the Bolshoi is almost as famous as the other Bolshoi in Moscow. Within its magnificent arches, magic unfurls on stage, while the world’s oldest circus museum awaits backstage.
  • Sheremetev Palace: Three of St Petersburg’s most fascinating museums hide within the exceptionally grand Sheremetev household. On the ground floor of the main mansion, countless curious instruments make up the Museum of Music. Upstairs, the lives of Russia’s most prosperous noble family are relived in the exquisitely preserved rooms. While, in the south wing, the Soviet-era museum-apartment of Anna Akhmatova has become a temple to poetry.
  • Faberge Museum— The name says it all. The former palace of the Shuvalov family seems more like a jewelry box than a home. Words cannot do justice to the craftsmanship and sheer expense of the world’s largest collection of Faberge eggs.
  • Anichkov bridge— Carrying Nevsky Prospekt over Fontanka, Anichkov is not simply the city’s busiest bridge; its exceptional design makes it the most iconic too. Klundt's four, towering "horse tamers" flanking the bridge made such an impression that both Kings of Naples and Prussia clamored to get identical copies for themselves.
  • Beloselsky Belozersky Palace— Flamboyantly pink and guarded by mermen, it's little wonder that this palace was at the heart of 19th-century nightlife. Sadly, the wildly lavish balls are no longer, however, high-society still gather in this palace for evening concerts.
  • Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater— Established just before the October revolution, the Bolshoi was one of the last ornate theatres to be built in St Petersburg.
  • Yusupov Gardens and Palace— With sleek columns and a pastel yellow facade fringed by lush foliage, locals escape to the less famous of the Yusupov residences to sunbathe by the lily-pad ponds which metamorphize into skating rinks in winter.
  • Sennoy Market— Nicknamed "the underbelly of St Petersburg" this unruly fresh produce market was immortalized in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and provides visitors with a real taste of the city and, of course, its food!
  • Egyptian bridge— Perhaps the strangest site along the Fontanka River, this bridge is the perfect place to rest, take a photo and cross over to the other side of the river and make your way back (you can venture further down to the wharf but there isn't much else to see).

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