St Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург), Petrograd, Leningrad and St Petersburg again – the city’s succession of names mirrors Russia’s turbulent history. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as a “window in the West”, three hundred years later St Petersburg, a self-assured and future-focused city, still retains more of a Western European feel than Moscow. A sophisticated capital of the tsarist Empire, the cradle of the Communist Revolution of 1917, and a symbol of Russian stoicism due to the city’s heroic endurance of a three-year Nazi siege during World War II, present-day St Petersburg has eased into modernity without sacrificing any of its old-world magnificence and charm, its shopping malls and nightclubs sitting alongside its opulent palaces. The city is easy to navigate and the pace of life is relaxed. The best time to visit is during the midsummer White Nights (mid-June to mid-July), when darkness never falls. From May to October all bridges across the Neva are raised from 1am to 5am – a beautiful sight, best seen from a boat.
St Petersburg’s centre lies on the south bank of the River Neva, with the curving River Fontanka marking its southern boundary. The area within the Fontanka is riven by a series of avenues fanning out from the golden spire of the Admiralty, on the Neva’s south bank. Many of the city’s top sights are located on and around Nevsky Prospekt, the backbone and heart of the city for the last three centuries, stretching from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery to Palace Square. Across the Neva is Vasilevskiy Island, with the Strelka at its eastern tip, and the Petrograd Side, home to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Beyond the River Fontanka lies Smolniy, where the Bolsheviks fomented revolution in 1917.