Situated on the Gulf of Finland and spread over numerous islands in the Neva Delta, St Petersburg is a city of arched bridges, winding canals, wide boulevards, elegant palaces, impressive squares and ornate churches, and as such is often referred to as the 'Venice of the North'. It has an elegance also reminiscent of cities like Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, but is at the same time too uniquely Russian to be European, and beguiles with a charm all its own.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, it is the country's most beloved and beautiful city. It became the capital of Tsarist Russia, and the greatest artists, sculptors and architects worked together to create the city's elegant look. Rich palaces and government buildings line the streets, along with majestic cathedrals and elaborate churches, including the golden spires of St Peter and Paul's Cathedral, the magnificent gleaming dome and grand colonnaded façade of St Isaac's, and the colourful multi-domed Church of the Resurrection.
Although the Russian capital moved to Moscow after the Revolution, St Petersburg remains the principal artistic and cultural centre of the country. St Petersburg is the birthplace of Russian ballet and performances by the Kirov Ballet, which rivals the Bolshoi ballet in Moscow, are shown in the historic Mariinsky Theatre. The magnificent green and white Winter Palace forms part of the Hermitage Museum, one of the world's greatest art galleries, and the city's foremost attraction.
With its romantic waterways and decorative Tsarist architecture, St Petersburg is also the perfect setting for the famous 'White Nights', and the summer months of June and July are crowded with visitors who come to experience the dreamy twilight that takes the place of night.
The magnificent green, white and gold Winter Palace is superbly situated on the banks of the Neva River. At 656 foot-long (200m), the Russian Baroque building is the biggest and most lavishly decorated palace in the city. It was the official residence of the tsars, and Catherine the Great later added the Small and Large Hermitages onto the palace as a sanctuary for herself and her private art collection. The Hermitage Museum comprises a stately complex of buildings strung along the embankment, with the Winter Palace at its heart. The Hermitage Museum is one of the world's greatest art museums, with a collection that has grown from the paintings of Catherine the Great in 1764 to a collection of more than three million pieces. This vast collection is housed within the sumptuous splendour of one of the most luxurious palaces in the world. The three floors cover a full range of world art from ancient times, to Russian works and 20th-century European examples, as well as a fabulous collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, set against the rich interior of white marble staircases, golden ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and elaborate mosaics.
Palace Square is the main square of St Petersburg and one of the world's most magnificent plazas. It contains the picturesque Baroque buildings of the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum on one side and the Classical yellow and white former General Staff buildings of the Russian army on the other. The focal point of the square is the Alexander Column, a tall monolith of red granite topped by the statue of an angel and a cross, dedicated to Russian military victory in the Napoleonic wars. Palace Square has been the site of numerous political protests, most notably the demonstrations of Bloody Sunday in 1905 that started the first Russian Revolution. Today the square, with its beautiful views of the Admiralty's golden spire and the dome of St Isaac's Cathedral across the vast stone paving, is filled with markets, outdoor cafes and the sound of horse-drawn carriages.
Almost three miles (5km) long, Nevsky Prospekt is one of the best-known streets in Russia and is the main thoroughfare of St Petersburg. The Nevsky Prospekt starts at the Admiralty building whose gilded spire is a famous city landmark, passes the Moscow Railway Station and the Alexandr Nevsky Monastery, where some of the country's most celebrated artists are buried. Nevsky Prospekt has been the hub of St Petersburg for centuries and cuts through the most important segment of the city. Intersected by rivers and canals, the most beautiful part of the avenue surrounds the Griboyedov Canal. Here the impressive colonnade of the grand Kazan Cathedral catches the eye, curving around a small grassy square opposite the breathtaking, multi-coloured onion domes of the 'Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood' - which is officially called the Resurrection of Christ Church. Modelled on St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and adorned with exquisite mosaic panels, the church is one of St Petersburg's most striking landmarks. It was built on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881.
As well as many churches, the street boasts St Petersburg's finest shops and restaurants, old manors and impressive buildings, and a beautiful mixture of architectural styles from the different periods of its history. If you walk down only one road in St Petersburg make it the Nevsky Prospekt.
The golden dome of St Isaac's Cathedral dominates the skyline of St Petersburg, with the colonnade around the cupola offering superb panoramic views over the city. It was commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to be a magnificent imperial cathedral, and the ensuing masterpiece was of grandiose proportions, taking more than 40 years to build. It was decorated in the most extravagant manner. The Russian Classic exterior encloses a splendid interior adorned with red granite columns, exquisite mosaics, painted ceilings, sculptures, frescoes, and a beautiful stained-glass window, incorporating many different kinds of stone and marble work into the massive structure. The cathedral can accommodate 14,000 worshippers, but today services are held here only on special occasions. It is worth noting that no photography or filming is allowed in either the Cathedral or the Colonnade.
Situated across the river from The Hermitage Museum, and on a small island on the Neva Delta, the Peter and Paul Fortress is the oldest surviving building in St Petersburg. Planned by Peter the Great as a defence against possible attacks from the Swedes, the fortress never served its original purpose as the Swedish were defeated before its completion, and the six bastions at its corners were turned into high security political prison cells. The notorious dungeons held many famous people, including Alexei (the son of Peter the Great), Trotsky, and Gorky, and is now a museum. Other buildings in the fortress house the City History Museum and the Mint. The midday gun is fired every day from the roof, echoing around the city from across the water. Also enclosed within the imposing walls is the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, its distinctive golden needle-like spire visible throughout the city. The first church in the city to be built from stone, it has a richly decorated interior containing the tombs of every Russian Emperor since Peter the Great.
The Pavlovsk Palace lies about 19 miles (31km) outside St Petersburg, and is one of the smaller and more restrained of the palaces located in and around St Petersburg. It was built in 1780 by Catherine II's son, Paul (the future Emperor Paul I) and was designed by the Scottish architect Charles Cameron and his assistant, Vincenzo Brenna, and included landscaped gardens in the British style. The palace was turned into a museum after Russia's 1917 revolution, but was almost entirely destroyed during World War II. Following the war, the palace's old furnishings and artwork were tracked down and the palace was beautifully restored. Today the palace is once again a museum open to the public, displaying rooms furnished and decorated exactly as they were when occupied by the Russian royalty. The extensive grounds are beautifully kept and are available to visitors for strolling and picnicking. Visitors can reach the palace by train from St Petersburg, a short journey that showcases a little of the lovely Russian countryside.
Tsarskoe Selo ('Tsar's Village') is a former Romanov summer residence located about 15 miles (25km) outside of St Petersburg. The estate was originally a gift from Peter the Great to his wife Catherine I, and over the course of many years it was developed by different emperors and empresses. The Baroque Catherine Palace and the neoclassical Alexander Palace are the main buildings on the estate. The Catherine Palace has been kept in much better condition than the Alexander Palace, although both palaces are well worth a visit. The Catherine Palace houses the famous Amber Room, which is panelled entirely with pieces of amber and filled with amber artwork. The palaces' grounds are extensive and contain many surprising small buildings added purely for visual effect, notably the so-called Chinese Village in the Alexander Palace's gardens. The Cameron Gallery, a small building designed by the Scottish architect James Cameron in the 1780's, houses widely varied temporary exhibitions.
Tsarskoe Selo is an easy train-ride from St Petersburg's Vitebsk train station followed by a short bus ride to the palace gates, all of which should take no more than 30 minutes if there is no traffic. It is an extremely popular spot in the summer months and queues as well as traffic can get very bad, so it's a good idea to arrive early.
St Petersburg's climate is mild, though unpredictable. Winters are cold (November to March), with freezing winds and snowfall, and temperatures that average between 16°F (-9°C) and 26°F (-3°C). Temperatures sometimes drop lower in January and February, which are the coldest months. June to August is usually the warmest time of year, though temperatures are still relatively low and average in the mid-60s Fahrenheit (about 20°C) at most. Summer tends to be the most popular time to travel to St Petersburg.
Locals in St Petersburg make good use of their public transport, which is extensive if not efficient and reliable. There are multiple tramlines, close to 200 bus routes and numerous trolley buses, but no night service is available after midnight. All these are overcrowded, irregular and often break down. Bus, tram and trolley bus tickets can be bought from kiosks or the drivers and are validated on boarding.
Tram and trolley stops are marked with a 'T' sign hanging from the overhead wires. A popular form of local transport, more efficient than the buses, are passenger vans called marshrutka which follow the same routes as buses and trams, and stop on request. St Petersburg's metro has five lines and 67 stations and is extremely efficient and easy to use, even though signs are not in English. Tokens and multi-journey cards can be obtained at booths on the stations and are valid for as long as you are inside the system.
Taxis are clearly marked and can be hailed in the street or by telephone. Passengers should check that the meter is working or negotiate before departing. Most private car drivers in the city will act as a taxi and offer you a ride, but be sure to settle the price before accepting. Self-driving is difficult due to the thick traffic and bad road surfaces and the fact that road signs are in Cyrillic. Far easier is hiring a car with a driver, the preferred option offered by the main car rental companies.
St Petersburg is filled with a wealth of beautiful buildings and churches, many of them along one of Russia's most famous streets, Nevsky Prospekt. Nevsky Prospekt is a wide and sweeping boulevard running through the centre of the city all along the Neva River. The Admiralty, the Alexandr Nevsky Monastery where many famous Russians are buried, the wide Griboeva Canal, Kazan Cathedral, and the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood are all located along Nevsky Prospekt. While based on the more famous St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, many consider the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood to be the more interesting example of Russian folk-inspired architecture.
St Petersburg's most famous attraction is probably the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum, located on Palace Square. This massive green, white and gold Russian Baroque palace houses one of the world's greatest museum collections, ranging from ancient Russian historical artefacts to modern European art, with the sumptuously decorated rooms an exhibition in themselves. The museum is far too big to explore in one visit, so it's a good idea to choose a section when visiting.
The Peter and Paul Fortress houses old jails and dungeons open to tourists, as well as several historical museums, the country's Mint, and the Cathedral of St Paul and St Peter where every Russian emperor since Peter the Great is buried. St Isaac's is another famous church worth visiting, both for its impressive Russian Classic architecture and the climb to the top of the church's dome for panoramic views of the city.
Travellers planning a lot of sightseeing in St Petersburg should consider purchasing the Petersburg Card which allows free entry to certain attractions and lots of other discounts and specials.