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St. Petersburg, Russia

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Did You Know … ?

  • In 1849, novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was led to a public square for execution, but the tsar reprieved him (and others).
  • St. Petersburg encompasses 42 islands in the Neva River delta.
  • The Nazi’s World War II siege of St. Petersburg lasted the better part of 29 months.
  • St. Petersburg has had three names, been Russia’s capital twice and been the scene of three revolutions.
  • The Hermitage is the largest museum in Russia.

White Nights

St. Petersburg is the most European of Russia’s cities, both in appearance and attitude. It also is one of a few Russian locales with an updated infrastructure for tourism — and that is for very good reason. This city, which was Russia’s imperial capital for about 200 years, is so filled with historic churches, monasteries, palaces and museums that most prospective visitors to Russia regard it as a must-see destination. Indeed, the vast collection of such attractions, plus royal palaces in the suburbs, can be overwhelming; there is so much to take in.

The city also is noted for its geography. It sits on islands and on the banks of the Neva, at the Neva River delta in northwestern Russia. St. Petersburg has so many waterways and bridges it is called the Venice of the North.

And north, it certain is. It is located at the end of the Gulf of Finland, an extension of the Baltic Sea, and is so far north that, for about three weeks in the summer, the sun never really disappears at night. The counterpart is a similar number of dark days in December.

Today, its rivers, their tributaries and numerous canals provide a dramatic setting for a city that has its modern side but very much treasures its history. It did not look so promising (it was a swamp) when Peter the Great settled on this site in 1703 for a port city that would give his empire access to the sea. He also wanted a city that looked toward the West and that would become a capital as grand as any in western Europe. His vision translates into today’s plethora of compelling sightseeing attractions.

Beyond the history, St. Petersburg has a varied nightlife — upscale restaurants, funky eateries, jazz clubs, loud bands and more — and cultural exhibits and events that can be as traditional or as forward leaning as any visitor may want.

Crime is a problem in Russian cities. Tourists are advised to exercise caution appropriate to any urban area, especially when using all types of public transportation, plus in markets, tourist attractions, restaurants and bars.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Climb the 400-foot Bell Tower at the Peter and Paul Fortress for a fantastic panoramic view of St. Petersburg. Not incidentally, you can inspect its bell-ringing mechanism, too. Or, climb to the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the views.
  • Stay in an apartment rather than a hotel.
  • Go bar hopping — while remaining alert to surroundings, of course. St. Petersburg is well supplied with watering holes that also have live, and sometimes loud, entertainment. Look for them in basements, defunct bomb shelters, converted warehouses or stuffed into rundown classical-style buildings.
  • Find your jazz in a traditional entertainment hall (Jazz Philharmonic Hall) or in a jazz club.
  • For a little exercise (aside from walking and climbing towers), go to Krestovsky Island to the north, site of a park where you can rent bicycles and in-line skates.
  • Visit the Museum of Erotica, open since 2004 and located in a venereal disease clinic. The top attraction is a pickled object described as Rasputin’s penis.

Things to do for Centrics

  • If you liked the multidomed, multicolored St. Basil’s in Moscow, you’ll want to see the similar Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, site of the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
  • See St. Petersburg sites associated with the Russian Revolution. One is the Aurora, now a museum. The ship’s crew fired a blank round on Oct. 25, 1917, marking the start of the revolution. Another stop on this itinerary is Finland Station, where Lenin arrived in 1917 after 17 years in exile.
  • Attend the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly called the Kirov).
  • Follow novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. He lived in many places including three apartments on Kaznacheyskaya, but his final address is open to the public as the Dostoevsky Museum. (Also, Semyonovsky Square was the scene of his traumatizing mock execution when he was charged with revolutionary activity.)
  • There is a lot of water in and around this city. Take a hydrofoil to Peterhof (Petrodvorets). Also, take a tour of the city by boat. Around midsummer, you can do this at night and enjoy the endless “twilighting.”
  • In a city of museums, consider this fascinating option (fascinating if you like bread). The Museum of Bread focuses on the role of bread in history. It includes a model bakery showing how bread was made for the poor in the 19th century. Another exhibit deals with bread and the lack of it during the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1944.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Admire the fountains and other dramatic features at Peterhof (Petrodvorets) in a city suburb, but be awed by the Russians’ determination to preserve their heritage. This 18th century palace complex required major reconstruction after Nazi destruction during World War II.
  • See a performance of the St. Petersburg Circus. Circuses are a much bigger deal in Russia than in the West. So are puppet shows. Take the kids to a puppet show. Some are for adults, too.
  • Book your stay in the restored Astoria Hotel, which dates from 1912.
  • Spend a little or a lot of time at the state’s Hermitage Museum. Besides seeing part of a vast art collection, you can see former royal apartments of the Russian tsars. Save a sliver of time for the delicious new Faberge Museum, too.
  • Visit in June or early July in order to benefit from the famed White Nights, days that are so long the sun won’t leave you in the dark.
  • Attend a program of Russian folk dancing and music. That would be a fine complement for a visit to the fascinating Russian Museum of Ethnography, which states it aims to appropriately represent every ethnic group (more than 150) in the country.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the St. Petersburg Committee on Tourism Development at www.visit-petersburg.ru