Saint-Petersburg’s Rivers and Canals – What to do in Northern Venice?
Did you know that St. Petersburg is often called the Russian or Northern Venice? The city is covered by a network of rivers and canals which play a key role in its life. It is actually impossible to imagine the former Russian capital without water. The number of all the rivers, inflows, and canals within the city amount to about a hundred, and the total length of the water arteries is approximately 300 kilometers.
How it all started
In the very beginning of 18th century, Tsar Peter came to the estuary of the Neva river in order to build there his new capital: a large port on the shores of the Baltic, a place of transshipment of goods from all over Russia, from riverboats to the sea to further trade with European countries.
The place he has chosen was very rich in all kinds of streams and rivers, and the terrain was low-lying and swampy. It was necessary to carry out irrigation, that is, to dig canals that would take the water away.
Initially, the rivers and canals were conceived as one of the means of transportation in the city. Numerous vessels ran along the city’s waterways to transport goods and passengers.
There were once much more canals in St.-Petersburg than today. As time passed by, a lot of canals were filled up, the rivers got straightened, and some of the rivers were even diverted into underground pipes so that they would not come out to the surface.
According to the plan of Domenico Trezzini, Vasilyevsky Island was not only built with avenues but also canals designed for water transport. It turned out, however, to be extremely inconvenient for people to move from one place to another on boats and skiffs, and the canals got filled up very soon. On the top of the former canals, streets were laid and are now called “lines” on Vasilyevsky Island.
Ligovsky Avenue was a canal until the end of the 19th century. It was dug up under Peter the Great to deliver drinking water to the city and to the fountains of the Summer Garden. But the flood of 1777 greatly spoiled the fountains, and water pipes started being used instead of the canal. Starting from 1891, Ligovsky Canal began to turn slowly into Ligovsky Avenue.
Nowadays, canals and rivers are no longer being filled up, on the contrary, they are given a fresher look. The old embankments are being restored, and where there were none before, new ones are being built. Several hundred different excursion motor boats run daily along rivers and canals showing everyone how beautiful Saint-Petersburg is from the water.
Saint-Petersburg’s diversity of the waterways
The main waterway of the city is the Neva River which originates in Lake Ladoga and flows into the Gulf of Finland. Within the city, its width reaches 600 meters and its depth 24 m. The total length of Neva is 74 kilometers.
Before flowing into the Gulf of Finland, the Neva forks into many branches, including: Malaya Neva, Moika, Fontanka, Griboyedov Canal, Kronversky and Kryukov Canals, Obvodnoy Canal, Black River, Malaya and Bolshaya Okhta, Malaya, Medium and Bolshaya Nevki, and other rivers and canals. All these numerous large and small rivers and canals formed many islands on which St. Petersburg was built.
One of the Neva branches – Fontanka – bends around the whole center of the city. Previously, the Fontanka River was known as the Nameless Erik; Erik being a river originating from and flowing into the same reservoir.
The current name of the river comes from the fact that this water area was once connected to a complex system of fountains in the Summer Garden. Fontanka played an important role: in the 18th century, the western border of the city passed along the river, the estates of the elite, including the Summer Palace of Peter the Great, stretched along the river. Now the magnificent embankments of the Fontanka River abound in various buildings by which one can track the course of historical construction of the city.
The Moika, comparing to the Neva, is a very small river. Its total length barely reaches 5 km, the depth is just over 3 m, and the width is several tens of meters. In the second half of the 18th century, however, the Moika was a major water artery along which cargo ships moved. And its water was so clean that it could be used for other purposes than barely technical. The Moika was one of the main attractions of the city, and its embankments – a very prestigious place to build a townhouse.
There are a bit less than 20 bridges that connect the two sides of the river, some of them are painted. This is the only river in Petersburg featuring colored bridges. The banks of the river are decorated with magnificent palaces: the Stroganov Palace and the Yusupov Palace of Count Razumovsky for example.
The history of the river is closely connected to the life of Alexander Pushkin. In the house number 12, which belonged to the family of the Decembrist Volkonsky, the poet lived for several months before his last duel. Today it houses the museum-apartment of Pushkin.
The Obvodny Canal is the longest, its length amounts to 8 km, and the width varies from 20 to 40 meters. Before, the Obvodny Canal constituted the southern border of St. Petersburg. It was originally built in order to protect the city from flooding. Since the construction was spontaneous, the Obvodny Canal never performed its main mission, but many wonderful architectural structures were built on its sides during its existence.
In the middle of the 18th century, a large number of industrial enterprises and profitable houses were located on the banks of the Obvodny Canal. The massive accumulation of industrial areas became the cause of the pollution of the canal waters. Today, the shipping role of the Obvodny has been lost, its depth now barely reaches 3 meters, and it is rather perceived as historical value. More than 20 bridges have been built over the Obvodny canal, including 2 railway bridges.
The length of the Griboyedov Canal is about 5 kilometers. More than 20 bridges were built over it.
The two bridges on the Griboyedov Canal are special. The Lion and Bank bridges were originally hanging bridges. On the first one, the powerful cables of the bridge are held by stone lions, while the second features griffins.
The name of the second bridge, Bank, was not a coincidence. First, it led to the former Associative Petersburg Bank. Secondly, the griffins are considered the patrons of accumulation and wealth. On the banks of the canal you can see such historical buildings as the Kazan Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on the Blood, the building of the Benoit Russian Museum.
Floods in Saint-Petersburg
During the floods, which have happened often in St. Petersburg’s history, the water rose very quickly in all the Neva branches. Most often it happened in Autumn, the water level rose by several meters. For 300 years, the city experienced about 70 such floods.
The two most noticeable floods occurred within a century, between the 1820s and 1920s. The first of them was even described by Pushkin in his work “The Bronze Horseman”. At that time, the water in the Neva rose ominously more than 4 meters and flooded almost the entire city center. In the last century, the water did not reach such high levels, but there was such strong wind that the central streets of St. Petersburg were again under water. Neva floods are believed to be caused by a strong surge of wind in the Gulf of Finland which provokes long waves blocking the flow of the Neva.
Saint-Petersburg River and Canal Tours
Saint-Petersburg River and Canal Tours is a very popular attraction for tourists. Such an excursion allows you to have a good time and witness a lot of unforgettable moments, to admire the picturesque views of Saint-Petersburg, to take vivid pictures, and last but not least, to visit many of the city’s memorable places and learn the history of buildings and streets. Excursions are usually conducted on motor ships with panoramic windows and open decks.
An experienced guide will not only tell you about the water of Saint-Petersburg but also entice you with stories about the city’s architecture and all the touristic attractions encountered along the way.
Here are some tours that might interest you when you visit Saint-Petersburg:
We could talk hours about the rivers and canals of St. Petersburg, because each canal, even the smallest one, has its own story. Instead, come and visit Saint-Petersburg, see all these views and hear all these stories in person – we promise, you will not regret!
In the meantime, enjoy a bit more views of Saint-Petersburg rivers: