Russia's second largest city is set around a pretty network of waterways and grand palaces – there are plenty of reasons to visit St Petersburg. 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 St Petersburg 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.
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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. It is worth bearing in mind the location of these different landmarks when choosing where to stay in St Petersburg.
What to do in St Petersburg
St Petersburg's population is spread across islands and peninsulas delineated by the River Neva and its tributaries. Cruises along the river can be a romantic introduction to the city. The metro covers most parts of the city of interest to visitors, but the historic centre is best explored on foot – easily done with a decent map, given the abundance of landmarks.
St Petersburg's major islands and "mainland" districts are juxtaposed in the magnificent panorama of the Neva Basin. On the south bank of the Neva, the golden dome of St Isaac's Cathedral and the needle-spire of the Admiralty loom above the area within the Fontanka, whose vibrant main axis, Nevskiy prospekt, runs past a slew of sights culminating in the Winter Palace. The seductive vistas along the Moyka and Griboedov waterways entice you to wander off in search of the Mariinsky ballet, the spot where Rasputin was murdered, or the setting for Crime and Punishment.
Two museums here are musts for any visit to St Petersburg. The Hermitage boasts superlative collections of Rembrandt, Spanish masters, French impressionists and Post-Impressionists; treasures from Siberia, Central Asia, India, Persia and China – plus the sumptuous state rooms of the Winter Palace, which forms part of the complex. You can skip the queue on a two-hour tour. If homegrown art is lacking there, that's because it's in the Russian Museum, which runs the gamut from folk art and icons to Futurism and Socialist Realism. Near to both, the Church of the Saviour on the Blood is a standing rebuke to foreign architecture and revolutionary ideas, built on the spot where Alexander II was fatally injured by a nihilist's bomb; its onion domes evoke St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, and its interior is entirely covered in gilded mosaics. If you're in the mood for some quirkier fun, head to the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines.
Opposite the Admiralty, on the spit or Strelka of Vasilevskiy Island, the Rostral Columns and Naval Museum proclaim a maritime heritage bequeathed by Peter the Great. Nearby is the Kunstkammer of anatomical curios founded by Peter as Russia's first museum. Farther along the embankment stand the Academy of Arts and the palace of Prince Menshikov.
Completing the panorama is the Peter and Paul Fortress, its bastions surrounding a soaring cathedral where the Romanov monarchs are buried, and a Prison Museum attesting to the dark side of its history. Beyond its moat, the city's zoo and mosque mark the onset of the residential Petrograd Side, with its Art Nouveau buildings and flat-museums. The Kirov Islands are the city's summer playground, with boating lakes, the Zenit Stadium and Yelagin Palace to explore.
Back on the "mainland", the area beyond Fontanka is designated Liteyniy, Smolniy and Vladimirskaya, after the three localities that define its character. Its finest sights are the Smolniy Cathedral, near the Institute from where the Bolsheviks orchestrated the October Revolution, and the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in whose cemeteries many of the city's most famous personages are buried. However, don't neglect the atmospheric Vladimirskaya district, where Dostoyevsky's apartment and the Pushkinskaya 10 artists' colony are located, along with an assortment of odd museums.
Further out, the industrial Southern suburbs are dignified by grandiose Soviet architecture such as the House of Soviets and the Victory Monument, and Tsarist triumphal arches that were re-erected in the euphoria of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany. Aside from these, there's the lovely Art Nouveau Vitebsk Station, an Outdoor Railway Museum and an atmospheric cemetery, the Literatorskie mostki.
The Vyborg Side of the Neva is similarly industrial but noteworthy in other ways. Anyone interested in the city's revolutionary past should visit Finland Station, where the first ever Lenin statue still stands, and the cruiser Aurora, preserved as a relic of 1917, is moored. Kresty Prison and the Piskarov Cemetery are sombre reminders of the victims of Stalin's purges and the hundreds of thousands who died during the Blockade. Only the Buddhist temple strikes a lighter note.
Just outside the city, the Imperial palaces are among Russia's premier attractions, particularly Peterhof with its magnificent fountains, and the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo with its fabled Amber Room. A guided tour of the latter allows visitors to skip the queue. Though both deserve a full day each, it's possible to combine Catherine Palace with another palace, Pavlovsk, a tour that can be arranged for you. Another stunner is Yusupov Palace.
The island naval base of Kronstadt is alive with naval history. While the Gulf coast has several beach resorts that come alive in summer, the real draw for the city dwellers are the forests, lakes and weekend dachas (cottages) of the Karelian Isthmus. This region once belonged to Finland and was previously contested by Russia and Sweden, as is evident at Vyborg, near the Finnish border.
On Lake Ladoga, the prison-fortress of Shlisselburg is a poignant reminder of those who suffered there in Tsarist times and its resistance to the Nazi Blockade, while the Valaam archipelago attests to the centuries-old monastic tradition in Russia's northern lakes, whose isolation gave rise to the amazing wooden churches of Kizhi island in Lake Onega.
Ladoga is linked to the great inland waterways of Russia, which once enriched Novgorod. Its medieval Kremlin, parish churches and outlying monasteries merit a full day's exploration, while local hotels are cheap enough to make an overnight excursion from St Petersburg quite feasible.
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