Explore the Dvor – St Petersburg’s most Instagrammable courtyards
St Petersburg is a city of courtyards. All buildings large or small, intricate or plain, in the city centre or on the outskirts, have one thing in common – the двор (pronounced ‘dvor’). This is a word that anyone visiting St Petersburg should know! Delve into the двор and you’ll experience St Petersburg off the beaten tourist track, and see the city as the local people know it. These courtyards lend a sense of secrecy to St Petersburg’s streets, providing shortcuts from place to place for those who know how to navigate these labyrinthine spaces.
The двор is a communal space shared by the houses’ residents throughout the centuries, a community within a community. It is a place for the babushkas to sit and chat with their friends (read: act as the local policemen!) It is an oasis of quiet on an otherwise busy street, a green place amongst the concrete houses. It is a safe spot for children to play off the main roads, and a haven for the local cats to converge.
But moreover, the двор is a place to decorate. For aspiring and established artists alike, its walls provide the perfect canvas to experiment on and create hidden gems tucked away throughout the city. There are hundreds of interesting дворы in St Petersburg, and in this article you’ll find a variety for all different interests – whether you’re keen on architecture, looking for a quiet place to sit, or want to discover brilliant artwork.
So, if you’re curious, read on!
For street art:
Двор искусств (The Courtyard of Arts)
Двор искусств is located just across the road from Liden and Denz. In a complex of two spacious courtyards you’ll find vibrant artwork created by local artists and students of the Stieglitz Art and Industry Academy. The pieces were commissioned by Roman Zaitsev, a resident of the building, and Oleg Shakirov, the building’s janitor. Murals in the main courtyard depict scenes from ‘Ruslan and Liudmila’, Pushkin’s fairytale in which knight Ruslan saves princess Liudmila from an evil wizard. Adorning the other walls of the second courtyard are artistic mosaic panels, and the centre of the courtyard is verdant with fruit bushes and draped in vines.
Where to find it: Ulitsa Zhukovskogo, 6
Итальянский двор (Italian Courtyard)
On Italianskaia Ulitsa you will find a двор which has been beautifully decorated with Italian-themed murals. To access it, call Check Point Cafe on the intercom. The inhabitants of the house personally invited artists to do this work despite the objections of the local administration. Today, you can see an enormous mural of the Colosseum, small sculptures, a mural of the Venetian canals, and other paintings adorning the buildings, which makes this courtyard feel like a tiny Italian square. You can relax in the neatly manicured garden and admire the paintings in this colourful and lovely hidden spot, and then treat yourself to tea and cake in the cosy cafe.
Where to find it: Italianskaia Ulitsa, 29.
For somewhere to relax:
Конюшенная площадь (Konushennaia Square)
Конюшенная площадь is a little different to the other courtyards. A large space open day and night, you are spoilt for choice with the array of bars and nightclubs dotted around the courtyard in the shadow of Church on Spilled Blood. Check out the interesting graffiti adorning the walls and grab a bite to eat from Hood Street Food, the first vegan burger shop in St Petersburg! Alternatively, venture to the eclectically decorated courtyard of nightclub «Танцплощадка» (Dancefloor) and play basketball or table tennis under the strings of fairy lights.
Where to find it: Bolshaia Konushennaia Ulitsa, 2
Сад Сан-Жермен (Saint Germain Garden)
A serene spot off busy Liteyniy Prospekt, this courtyard feels like a secret garden. Look out for the grand entrance in Renaissance style, with pillars and columns leading to the central courtyard. The garden within is verdant, with willow trees fringing the central fountain and a number of benches to relax on. Around the edges of the courtyard are grand 18th century buildings.
This place has an interesting cultural history. According to excursion guides, Anna Akhmatova and Fedor Shaliapin used to frequent the mansions surrounding the garden. Vladimir Rekshan, who owns the First National Rock Museum in Pushkinskaia 10, says that Soviet underground musicians who frequented the ‘Saigon’ cafe used to relax here, within their number Viktor Tsoi and Boris Grebenshchikov. If you’ve had a busy day shopping or wandering around Nevsky Prospekt, why not check out this garden?
Where to find it: Liteyniy Prospekt, 46
For innovative art installations:
Шахматный двор (Chess Courtyard)
A creation by local blacksmiths and artists, the Шахматный двор is popular with locals and tourists alike. In the leafy courtyard you’ll find a bright chessboard floor dotted with intricate metal chess characters the size of a person, as well as playground equipment depicting characters from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Pay attention to the surrounding buildings and you might spot some chess-themed window panels. To enter the courtyard, call the intercom of the Rimsky-Korsakov Museum.
Where to find it: Zagorodnyi Prospekt, 28
Двор Нельсона (Nelson’s Courtyard)
Nelson Iskandarian is an artist who resided in the basement of a house on Petrogradskaia. Unhappy with his dreary surroundings, Nelson decorated the house’s walls and transformed the junk he found lying around the local area into a surreal community sculpture garden. The colours of Nelson’s Yard couldn’t be more juxtaposed with their surrounding buildings of the courtyard. You’ll find crazy layering of vibrant graffiti and flower beds, quotes on the walls, painted Ladas, flying bicycles, huge stuffed toys, platforms and playgrounds for children (and adults!) to climb on. The courtyard is almost a recycling project, as it has been added to by local residents who contribute unwanted items. Nelson also runs the yard as a charity project, donating items to local families.
Where to find it: Polozova Ulitsa, 6 , Petrogradskaia Storona
Мозаичный двор (Mosaic Courtyard)
A true gem just steps away from the Fontanka and Summer Garden, Мозаичный двор was designed by artist Vladimir Lubenko (the ‘Petersburg Gaudi’) and his students from the Small Academy of Arts. They aimed to add something unusual to St Petersburg’s cityscape and allow visitors to ‘better feel the energy of the city’. The mosaic of coloured glass spans the whole way round the huge courtyard, adorning not just the walls but the pavements, benches and childrens’ playground. Explore the murals, animal sculptures, mosaics inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, large installations that you can walk around inside, even fountains – each sculpture within itself is a work of art. The courtyard is contributed to by artists from around Russia and many say that it is reminiscent of Gaudi’s style. You can go on excursions round the courtyard and in the warmer months are held small events and concerts there, and the courtyard is filled with flowers to make it even brighter.
Where to find it: Naberezhnaia Reki Fontanki, 4
For those interested in architectural novelties:
Угол Лермонтовского Проспекта 12 / Канала Грибоедова 126
(Corner of Lermontovskii Prospekt 12/Canal Griboedova 126
Sitting on the intersection of Lermontovskii Prospekt and Canal Griboedova is a grand house with a beautiful archway. Having driven past it many times on the bus to class, I never really thought much of it, until I realised that from inside the courtyard the huge archway perfectly frames Saint Isidorov’s Church which sits just across the river on the opposite side of the Mogilevskii Bridge.
Where to find it: Lermontovskii Prospekt, 12/Canal Griboedova, 126
Дом Бака (House of Julian Bak)
This imposing Art Nouveau building is an architectural marvel commissioned by businessman Julian Bak in 1905. Residents have endeavoured to preserve the original elements of the building and celebrate its history – its carved facade, stained glass, Art Nouveau decoration and marble staircases. But if you venture into the courtyard, you can discover the fascinating ‘bridges in the sky’ – architecture which is very unique for St Petersburg.
Where to find it: Kirochnaia Ulitsa, 24
I hope you get the chance to visit some of these fascinating courtyards. Check out our interactive map of St Petersburg to find even more. Courtyards are indicated by the green icons on the map, but there are plenty of other hidden places besides! До встречи, Rachel.