Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, St Petersburg was the sophisticated capital of the Russian Empire for over two hundred years. Wanting to both modernize and Westernize Russia, Peter the Great built the city as ‘a window to the West’, bringing in architects and engineers from Europe to construct its fairytale-like Neoclassical buildings. The city’s canals, lined with sugared almond coloured buildings and opulent palaces, have a distinctly European feel, although sprinkled here and there are colourful onion-domed churches that serve as a reminder of the city’s eastern roots.
Widely considered to be Russia’s cultural capital, St Petersburg has a decidedly calmer feel than frenetic Moscow, offering a more relaxed pace of life. To make the most of the city’s cultural scene, visit during the White Nights from late May to early July, when the sun never sets and the city buzzes with open-air events, from concerts to festivals.
Vasilyevsky Island and the Neva River, St. Petersburg © Shutterstock
Top things to do in St Petersburg
Built on 42 islands in the Neva River delta, St Petersburg was designed to be viewed from the water. Boats and pleasure cruisers chug along the city’s 70 rivers and canals that are linked by 342 bridges (Goethe aptly named St Petersburg ‘the Venice of the North’). One of the best ways to experience the city is to drift along the water on a river or canal cruise, admiring its grand mansions and opulent palaces. Between May and October, the drawbridges across the Neva are raised at night, a wonderful sight that is best enjoyed from a boat.
No trip to St Petersburg would be complete without a visit to the State Hermitage Museum. Catherine the Great began her private art collection in the 18th century, with Nicholas I subsequently adding to the galleries and eventually opening them to the public in 1852. The incredibly vast collection is spread out over five buildings, the most striking of which is the Winter Palace, the city’s elaborate green building that served as the royal palace until the Russian Revolution of 1917. With over three million works, there’s plenty to see; this is the world’s second-largest museum, so it’s wise to plan your visit ahead of time.
For a bird’s eye view of St Petersburg, climb to the rooftop walkway of St Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the symbols of the city. Don’t miss the vast interiors embellished with impressive mosaics, paintings and stained glass windows.
Saint Isaac Cathedral across Moyka river, St Petersburg © Roman Evgenev / Shutterstock
For a taster of St Petersburg life, head to bustling New Holland Island. Created by Peter the Great as a site for shipbuilding, the island hosts all manner of fun outdoor activities, from musical performances to theatre shows. With its expansive green areas, it’s a great spot to relax in summer, while in winter you can whiz around the ice skating rink.
Russians are extremely fond of classical music, and there’s no better place to experience the country’s musical scene than at one of St Petersburg’s many theatrical venues. The city’s illustrious Mariinsky Theatre is the most obvious place to start, although if you’re after a more unusual experience sign up for one of the Classics in the Dark concerts at the city’s Planetarium. Pieces by Vivaldi, Bach, and Borodin – to name a few – are accompanied by stunning astronomical projections and cosmic imagery, from macro photography to shooting stars and nebulas, making for a particularly meditative and all-immersive audio-visual experience.
Alternatively, check out Roof Music Fest, a festival with a diverse range of line-ups from pop singers and jazz vocalists to rock bands. Concerts take place at rooftop venues around the city, giving you the unique opportunity to soak up the atmosphere as you take in gorgeous city views.
What about Russian vodka?
Vodka inevitably springs to mind when thinking about Russia, yet few readily associate it with St Petersburg. Premium brand Russian Standard is created with pure glacial water from nearby Lake Ladoga, distilled and bottled on the outskirts of the city. If you’re keen to get a taster of all things vodka, head to the itsy-bitsy Vodka Museum, which traces the history of the nation’s favourite drink, from traditional fermentation in the XIV century using birch, honey and kvass (a fermented drink made from rye bread) to the times of 20th century Russian scientist Mendeleev who described the ideal ratio of alcohol and water.
Vodka craving satisfied, head to bustling Rubinstein Street, lined with scores of trendy cafes, bars and restaurants catering to a mixed crowd.
Sunrise on Lake Ladoga, Karelia, Russia © Pavel Vaschenkov / Shutterstock
Where to stay
Bordering the Neva River, the Tsentralny District (City Centre) covers most of the historical centre, taking in major sights and scores of restaurants and bars. Sliced by Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main artery, it has very good metro and bus connections, although the area can get very busy, especially in summer. Tucked away to the west, although still very central, is Admiralteysky, a pleasant district with pretty squares that are sprinkled here and there with laidback cafes and restaurants.
If you’re looking for somewhere quieter, head north to the Vasileostrovsky District, connected to the mainland by bridge. As the site of the Saint Petersburg State University, it’s a popular student area with a good deal of attractions, including the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art and the Kuntskamera, founded by Peter the Great to promote scientific research, housing gruesome displays preserved in vinegar or vodka (think deformed animals, foetuses and body parts).
Church of the Savior of Blood from Teatralny Bridge, St. Petersburg © Shutterstock
Top Image: Winter Palace, house of the Hermitage Museum, iconic landmark in St. Petersburg, Russia © Shutterstock
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