St. Petersburg has had three names in less than 100 years, changes that mirror the shifting political winds of Mother Russia. The names of its places and people are a roll call of Russian history of the 19th and 20th centuries: the Winter Palace, the czars, Dostoyevsky, the Catherine Palace, Tchaikovsky, Lenin.
As the former official—some still say cultural—capital, St. Petersburg is the most westernized of Russia's cities. Its grand architecture echoes the great cities of Europe, and there are seemingly endless museums full of staggering quantities of treasure. St. Petersburg sprawls along the banks of the Neva River and was once known as the Venice of the North for the many canals there. For visitors who want to understand what came before, and what is happening now in Russia, St. Petersburg is essential.
St. Petersburg is as far north as Seward, Alaska, and is more populous than any city at that latitude. It experiences White Nights during the summer when the north pole is tilted closest to the sun, meaning that St. Petersburg only has a few hours of darkness a day in the summer months.
The city sits on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, an inlet of the Baltic Sea. The many fingers of the Neva River run through the city's heart, cutting St. Petersburg into about 60 islands. Nevsky Prospekt, Russia's most famous street, divides the city's main landmass in half from east to west and is lined with hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants.
Just across the Neva from mainland St. Petersburg are Vasilievsky Island and another island colloquially called the "Petrograd Side" of the city (where Peter the Great originally founded St. Petersburg). Both islands contain interesting sightseeing attractions and are easily accessible by bridges.
St. Petersburg was founded by progressive-minded Czar Peter the Great in 1703 near the site of a captured Swedish fortress. But the founding of St. Petersburg wasn't easy. More than 300,000 prisoners of war and conscripts died leveling hills, draining marshes and building ornate baroque palaces. Peter made the new city the capital of Russia and insisted that nobles from Moscow relocate there.
The city entered a building boom under czarinas Elizabeth and Catherine the Second (the Great) and Czar Alexander I, giving St. Petersburg many of its most famous buildings. It was during this period, 1741-1825, that the city became one of the most grandiose capitals in all of Europe.
Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs and his industrialization policy brought huge numbers of people into St. Petersburg during the late 1800s. However, poor conditions for the lower classes contributed to widespread discontent. When troops fired upon a peaceful demonstration of workers in Palace Square—a day later known as Bloody Sunday—the 1905 Revolution was under way. Czar Nicholas II finally appeased the working class with the signing of the October Manifesto, which gave birth to the first-ever Parliament in Russia—the State Duma.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, St. Petersburg changed its name to the more Russian Petrograd. In 1917, the city was again the hub of revolution. A combination of wartime grievances and social unrest led to the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. Petrograd gave up the seat of government to Moscow in its wake. After the death of Russia's first socialist leader, Vladimir Lenin, in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad.
During World War II, German forces laid siege to Leningrad in September 1941. The city was completely blockaded for nearly three years, and more than a million people died, many of starvation. The city was rebuilt after the war and gradually regained its position as the cultural capital of Russia. The city restored its name to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s and retains that designation to this day.
Vladimir Putin, who was elected president of Russia in 2000 and has lived in St. Petersburg most of his life, has worked to boost the city's profile. He was re-elected in 2018 for another six-year term.
Putin has largely been credited with leading Russia into a period of stability and economic progress following the hyperinflation of the crisis-ridden 1990s. Under Putin's leadership, the city has hosted numerous international summits and has refurbished an extravagant palace into one of his presidential residences.
A large number of palaces, historic buildings and embankments were reconstructed (most of them only from the outside) in honor of the city's 300th anniversary in 2003. More and more restaurants and services have opened, too, and a few new museums have appeared in the city as St. Petersburg has become more tourist-friendly.
The city's skyline is forever changed with the construction of Lakhta Center on the outskirts of town. The scientific, educational and recreational complex includes the tallest building in Russia and second-tallest in Europe.
For visual and decorative arts, it's hard to beat the famous 1,367-sq-ft/127-sq-m Hermitage Museum, which ranks among the world's finest. Allow at least a half-day just to look at the room decorations, but days and days if you really want to see the museum's incredible art. The bulk of the collection is housed in the Winter Palace, the former home of the czars and one of the focal points of the 1917 revolution. Afterward, stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main street for shopping and restaurants, and visit St. Isaac's Cathedral—there is a wonderful view of the city from its tower.
For another interesting route, turn off Nevsky Prospekt (don't forget to have a look at Kazan Cathedral) down Kanal Griboyedova and visit the ornate Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. If the weather is warm, visit one of the many outdoor cafes nearby or browse through the large souvenir stands around the church. Also in the area are the Russian Museum, Mikhailovsky Castle and Mikhailovsky Park, which is nice for a stroll.
Across the Neva River from the Hermitage, near the Palace Bridge, is the Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the first buildings constructed in the city. It has been home to many unwilling guests, including Dostoyevsky. Peter the Great imprisoned one of his sons, Czarevich Alexei, in its dungeons, and Catherine the Great "buried her enemies alive" there by exiling them to the fortress for life. All the czars from Peter the Great to the last Romanovs are interred in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral there.
But the best part of sightseeing in St. Petersburg may well be a trip out of the city. In the so-called "palace suburbs"—most of them within a 45-minute drive of Nevsky Prospekt—visitors get a glimpse of Russia's imperial past. In the former czarist estates at Peterhof, Gatchina, Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Tselo (Pushkin) and Pavlovsk, you'll find green, rolling parks with cleverly made lakes and canals, as well as exquisitely decorated palaces. Don't miss an outstanding Catherine Palace landmark—a re-created Amber Room.
Be aware that the government has decreed that all transactions are to be carried out in rubles. Also, be aware that foreigners must often pay several times more than Russians do for admission to museums and other attractions. Given in this guide are the prices for foreigners.
Also note that throughout the year, local arts organizations host various cultural events. Tourists should check any of the city's English-language publications for more information.
Although there's far more nightlife in St. Petersburg than ever before, foreigners who speak no Russian should probably think twice before going out alone to casinos and bars. Lone foreigners drinking at night might find themselves marked for a mugging. Go with a friend and enjoy yourself.
Many of the city's bars and so-called art cafes close between 11 pm and midnight. The majority of nightclubs are open until 6 am, making them a lively refuge for people who find themselves on the wrong side of the river after the bridges have been raised. (St. Petersburg's many drawbridges open nightly mid-April to mid-November. Specific times vary, but to be safe, assume the bridges won't be available 1:30-5 am.)
Don't trust police who offer help—they're notoriously known for robbing drunken foreigners. While in bars or nightclubs, keep an eye on all your personal belongings.
Leningrad was never a fine-dining destination, but St. Petersburg is becoming one in its democratic resurgence. Almost overnight, hundreds of new restaurants sprung up. Russian cuisine, too, is enjoying a domestic renaissance. The cuisines of neighboring Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are spicier than Russian cooking and well worth trying.
Fast-food restaurants, both international and local, are plentiful throughout St. Petersburg, especially in the city center and along Moskovsky Prospekt. Russian fast food generally takes the form of pancakes (blini) with sweet or savory fillings. Try the delicious, fresh blini from one of the Teremok stands—marked with a T—just off Nevsky Prospekt.
As more and more Russians are living life on the go, coffee- and teahouses have become popular places to meet friends and business associates or to just take a load off. Chains Idealnaya Chashka (An Ideal Cup), Shokoladnitsa and Starbucks are located at various spots in the downtown area; a basic coffee will cost about 250 rubles. There are also a number of more interesting coffeehouses in the city.
Beware of buying food and drink from street vendors and from the kiosks around metro stations, as the quality and hygiene standards are both questionable—there have been many reports of people becoming seriously ill. Also avoid the restaurant at the Moscow train station unless you are absolutely famished (the staff is notorious for overcharging tourists).
When eating out, be aware that many restaurants do not have everything that's listed on the menu. Servers also may try to slip you an extra salad, drink or plate of bread. Don't be shy about sending it back. And keep in mind that mistakes in figuring the tab—innocent or otherwise—are not infrequent. Don't be afraid to question any discrepancies you notice. The smoke level in restaurants can be a problem—Russians frequently smoke between courses, and a smoke-free section is not always available. Also, don't be surprised if loud Russian pop-music plays in the background—ask to have it turned down.
Reservations are a good idea at most restaurants. Peak times tend to be 6-7 pm (particularly Monday-Thursday) and 10-11 pm. Credit cards are widely accepted—particularly Visa and MasterCard, but rarely American Express. But do double-check before you order: Even restaurants displaying credit-card signs may refuse your card, sometimes because of a temporary technical problem. You never know for certain what a restaurant's policy is going to be, so take along plenty of rubles. Though all but the most inexpensive restaurants still list their prices in U.S. dollars, you must pay in rubles.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 700 rubles; $$ = 700 rubles-1,500 rubles; $$$ = 1,501 rubles-2,000 rubles; $$$$ = more than 2,000 rubles.
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