St Petersburg Top 10

If you're expecting a simple list of 10 sites you can tear around during a long weekend in St Petersburg and report back to your friends that you've "been there, done that", then you're going to have to look somewhere else. We did start to make a shortlist, but unfortunately it just kept getting longer and longer. All lists are arbitrary and subjective anyway, and just because millions of people flock to the Hermitage each year does not mean it's going to be your cup or tea (although we definitely recommend a visit!) But with limited time available, inevitably choices have to be made. So we've compiled a large number of places to visit in the expectation that you won't visit all of them, but will be better informed to make the choices that suit you best. 

Part of the joy of travelling lies in telling stories about the places you've visited to family and friends back home. But how much better the stories are if you've discovered the places yourself, or have unique experiences that aren't included on any guided excursion. So use the following page as a guide, but don't follow it slavishly. Keep your wits about you and prepare to be flexible. Follow that mysterious sign leading into a courtyard, check out that event you saw on a poster, take time to soak up the atmosphere in a park and chat to your neighbour on the bench - and your experiences will likely be much more memorable for being unique.

Museums

Art & History

No visit to St Petersburg is complete without spending time at the Hermitage, located in the Winter Palace on Palace Square, running along the southern bank of the Neva river. How much time you allocate to the visit is up to you - the extent of the collection is such that they say you could spend a whole year inside and still not see everything. And that doesn't even include the many thousands of exhibits in semi-permanent storage....We would recommend NOT trying to do everything on a single visit. Try to visit a couple of times, once early on in your stay and then later towards the end, when you'll have a better idea of what you may want to see. The other giant of the St Petersburg museum scene is the Russian Museum, which has several buildings. Try to ensure you allocate plenty of time to visit not only the main building but at least one of the other buildings which house the collection. Located next door to the Russian Museum on Arts Square, a visit to the Ethnographical Museum is sure to fascinate with artefacts and items from some of the many different peoples populating the former Russian empire. If you like the Ethnographical Museum, you should probably also visit Russia's first museum, the Kunstkamera, on Vasilievsky ostrov, founded by Peter the Great on the basis of the weird and wonderful souvenirs he picked up on his travels through Europe. A visit to the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic is a reminder that Russia has long been a Polar Great Power, and intends to continue as such for the foreseeable future. The Stieglitz Museum is worth a visit for its magnificent interiors as much as its collection of applied arts and crafts. 

Military

St Petersburg is the historical and current home of Russia's navy, and those interested in naval history should visit the Naval Museum, located in the old Stock Exchange building on the tip of Vasilievsky ostrov known as Strelka. The exhibition includes many small replica boats including the craft that Peter the Great himself is supposed to have learned to sail on. Other military museums which are worth visiting include the Artillery Museum, at Aleksandrovskiy park, and the Suvorov Museum dedicated to Russia's great 18th century general. 

Literary

As a great literary and artistic city, St Petersburg is not short of museums highlighting the lives and works of some of its greatest artist inhabitants. Start out at the Russian Literature Institute Museum, known as Pushkin House, located on the Makarova naberezhnaya on Vasilievskiy ostrov (not far from the Naval Museum), for an overview of Russia's literary history, then make sure to visit the house-museums of some of the city's greatest writers, including Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Blok, Nabokov, Akhmatova and Brodsky. Other apartments with famous artistic former residents have been turned into museums, including those of Rimsky-Korsakov and the great Russian tenor, Fyodor Shalyapin. 

Historical

St Petersburg's political history is also well represented by museums of Political History (which includes some information in English and covers St Petersburg's political history from Tsarist times through Revolutions, War, and Repression, right through to the present day and contemporary political figures such as President Putin), and the Museum of the History of the Political Police, located in the building which for many years housed Tsarist and then Communist special intelligence services. The Museum of the Blockade is a fascinating and at times harrowing presentation of these dreadful years, but which also shows how in spite of everything life went on. 

Kids

If you manage to get round all these and still have enthusiasm to visit some museums, take the kids to the museums of Dolls and Toys, sure to make the little dears shake their heads at the absence of PS2s or anything resembling a Gameboy. Finally, for those with a specialist interest in such things, the Museums of Print and Bread are little visited but could make for an interesting anecdote once home.

Contemporary Arts

Suddenly, almost by stealth so as not to alert Big Brother in Moscow, St Petersburg has started to develop a vibrant and exciting contemporary art scene which is well worth investigating while you're in town. Throughout its history the city has often entertained radical and subversive artistic scenes, notably in the years immediately preceding the Revolution when St Petersburg was one of the center's of European avant-garde in plastic and dramatic arts and architecture, and in the evolution of Soviet Rock in the 1970s and 1980s. Locals of a certain age still talk fondly of a basement club called Saigon (on the corner of Nevsky prospekt and Liteyny prospekt, where the Radisson Royal hotel is today) which attracted all sorts of bohemians, artists, writers, rockers, and others from the creative intelligentsia of the time, under the benign but ever-watchful eye of the KGB. The longest established of the contemporary art galleries in the city must be the Union of Artists which celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2012 and whose exhibition hall is located on Bolshaya Morskaya, just off St Isaac's Square. Not quite as old, but equally well established is Pushkinskaya 10, an arts center formed in 1989 in the dying days of the Soviet Union by a a group of independent artists and musicians. They created a non-profit art organization called the Free Culture Society, and regularly organize exhibitions, installations, concerts, literary events in the same building and former squat the founders took over over 20 years ago.

One of the more ambitious projects in the city is Novaya Gollandiya, an island in a rather run-down industrial area just to the west of the city center. The former warehouses and factories are being turned into an exciting contemporary arts venue along the lines of Winzavod in Moscow. No surprise to learn then that they share a common director in Dasha Zhukova, wife of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. 

A couple of more recent non-governmental organizations are also active in the city promoting contemporary arts. The Pro Arte Foundation is located in the Peter and Paul Fortress and organizes a wide variety of educational programs and events, and provides grant funding to local artists and cultural institutions. It is supported by high-profile tycoon and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov. The Rizzordi Art Foundation is working hard to bring a museum of modern art to the city, and supports local and Russia-wide artists with regular exhibitions in its loft on Kurlyandskaya street. Another loft worth visiting is Loft Proekt Etazhi, located over several floors in a large building just along from Galeriya shopping mall. It also has a great cafe by the way, definitely worth checking out. 

Finally, Vasilievsky ostrov also offers two exciting venues for contemporary art. Erarta is both a museum and gallery, finds and promotes local and Russian artists and includes fun installations and an active calendar of events. And while on the island, make time to visit Novey muzey, or New museum, based around a collection of underground art made by Aslan Chekhoev over 20 years. 

Theatres & concert halls

The Three Greats

Everyone has heard about the splendours of the Mariinsky Theatre, named in honour of Empress Maria Alexandrovna (wife of Tsar Aleksandr II), and spiritual home of Russian ballet and opera. Many of the most famous Russian ballets and operas premiered here, and in the last 20 years Valery Gergiev as lead conductor has reinvigorated the theater and its productions. It almost doesn't matter what you come to see, but do try to get tickets while you're in town. The Mariinsky was only one of the three great theaters of imperial St Petersburg. The Aleksandrinsky, named in honour of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas I, is located on Nevsky prospekt and is one of the oldest national theaters in Europe. Chekhov's Seagull bombed when it premiered here in 1896, although fortunately Chekhov did not proceed with his threat to give up writing. The Mikhailovsky theater, located on Arts Square, was opened in 1833 on the square then known as Mikhailovsky, on the name day of Tsar Nicholas I's brother Grand Duke Mikhail. Like its sister theaters, it has recently been extensively renovated and restored to its former glory by its new general director, local tycoon Vladimir Kekhman. 

Philarmonia

Also on Arts' Square is the Philarmonia, over 200 years old, which has witnessed performances and world premieres by many of Russia and the world's greatest composers such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Mussorgsky, Glazunov, Schumann, Mahler and Wagner. Today it is known as the Shostakovich Philarmonia in honour of St Petersburg's very own classical great who also performed and premiered many of his greatest works here. It was in this very building in a city still very much under siege on August 9 1941 that the city staged its first performance of Shostakovitch's 7th (Leningrad) symphony.

Others

The city can boast plenty of lesser-known theaters and concert halls too. The Winter Palace includes the Ermitazh theater dating back to 1783, a chamber theater which provides an intimate setting where concerts and operas are held regularly. One of the companies that often performs here is the St Petersburg Opera, home to many world-class soloists, an outstanding orchestra and extensive reportoire of Russian and western classics. Its own home theater is the Baron von Dervis mansion on Galernaya ulitsa, another intimate stage within an exquisite building of significant architectural heritage. The Capella, on the Moika embankment, for many years provided the choral and instrumental musicians at the imperial court. Due to its imperial connections It was outlawed entirely during the Soviet period, but since then the Capella has worked carefully to rebuild its reputation. For those who enjoy their musical performances on the lighter side, the Musical Comedy Theater on Italianskaya ulitsa, just off Arts' Square, stages regular performances of operatta and contemporary musicals. 

Jazz

if you have any interest in jazz, which developed its own unique Soviet sound, then you should take a visit to the Jazz Filarmonia, located on Zagorodniy prospekt. The theater is notable as much for the once ubiquitous old-style dance-hall/jazz club layout of its main hall as for the quality of the performers, both local and foreign, who perform here. There are also a couple of smaller private bars for jazz lovers which have regular live performances.

Kids

The kids are sure to be enchanted by a performance at the Marionettes Theater on Nevsky prospekt, which has been operating continuously since 1918 and currently performing Gulliver's Travels. Another winner with younger visitors is a trip to the Circus, which proudly continues a long tradition of performances in its building on the Fontanka dating back to the 1870s.

Events

Although the city's main tourist season are the summer months from May to September, and in particular the White Nights cultural festival in June, in fact you'd be hard pressed to find a time of year when there isn't some festival or event taking place around the city.

Winter

Russians are always on the look-out for a reason to celebrate, and the winter holidays are the best example of this. Spanning the western and eastern traditions allows an international city such as St Petersburg to celebrate both sets of holidays, but there is also the tradition of marking holidays according to the old style (Julian) and new style (Gregorian) calendars, a difference of 13 days, especially as the Orthodox church continues to follow the former. This results in a large number of days for celebration. Formally, the winter holiday season runs from December 31 until the second week of January. New Year's Eve is traditionally the main focus of these events, and this starts the official 10 days of holidays. However many foreigners will be celebrating western Christmas on 24-25 December and so the party season tends to kick off sometime around mid-December. The streets are festooned with lights, yolki (or traditional fir trees) are placed outside Gostinny dvor and Palace Square and in other prominent locations, and clubs, hotels and restaurants get into the holiday spirit with special menus and events. Orthodox Christmas falls on 6-7 January and is second only to Easter in importance in the liturgical calendar. A few days later, on 13-14 January, many people celebrate 'Old New Year' as the final book-end to the holiday season.

A more spiritual occasion is the feast of the baptism, or kreschenie, which is celebrated on 19 January. On this day tens of thousands of citizens wash away their sins of the past year by taking an icy dip in a local pond or river. Traditionally taking place at night, you will find several places around the city where the event is conducted during the day with the formal approval of the city authorities, with an initial blessing by a priest, makeshift changing facilities, and emergency services on stand-by. Look out for long queues snaking their way around the outside of churches, as believers stock up on holy water for the coming year. The middle of February sees the start of Lent (or Post), but immediately before this is the festival season of Maslenitsa, which is marked by traditional village dancing and singing and plenty of pancakes! 23 February is a public holiday, Defenders of the Fatherland Day, which has unofficially become a kind of Mens' Day to balance out the 8 March International Women's Day public holiday. Next up is Easter, not a formal public holiday but marked by church services and bells ringing out across the city.

Spring

The first 10 days in May have also become a major holiday season. 1 May marks International Labour Day, a legacy of the Soviet past and then on 9 May comes Victory Day which marks the victory of Soviet troops over Nazi fascism in the Great Fatherland War. The Soviet Union lost over 25 million citizens and no family was unaffected. As a result it is not surprising that this is one of the biggest events in the year, with military parades, informal and formal ceremonies of thanks to veterans, and a very festive atmosphere across the country. For a few days before and after, many people wear the black and orange colours of the Order of St George (a traditional award for military valour), cars are marked with  "НА БЕРЛИН" ("To Berlin") and other 1940s slogans, and elderly veterans don their medals and uniforms and are greeted and thanked by younger generations with bunches of flowers. Even the most cynical westerner cannot fail to be moved by the warmth and sincerity of the younger generations towards their elders in what is a very real display of affection and gratitude.  

Summer

With the onset of fine weather and long summer nights, St Petersburg's already active cultural and festive life comes out onto the streets. On 27 May the city marks City Day (when Peter the Great founded the city) by closing Nevskiy prospekt to traffic and allowing a festive parade to take over. 12 June is a public holiday, marking Independence Day, and concerts and firework displays are held around the city. The White Nights festival, which attracts classical music, dance and theater stars from across Russia and the world and has been organized for many years by the ubiquitous Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky Theatre and London Symphony Orchestra, is the main focus. However events are held by museums and arts organizations across the city, and buskers and other street performers line the pedestrian streets and parks. The highlight of the festival must be Aliye parusy, or Scarlet Sails. Millions of people come out to watch this spectacular event, when a sailing ship with scarlet sails proceeds down the Neva in the early hours of the morning, accompanied by fireworks and light shows, and with the music of Tchaikovsky and other Russian greats blasting out from all sides. The last Sunday in July is Navy Day, an especially important day for St Petersburg, and the following weekend is Parachutists Day. Both occasions see crowds of veterans getting together with their old service buddies and drinking vast amounts of beer and vodka, so be aware that by later in the day the streets are usually not such a pretty sight! But great for photographers!

Autumn

The autumn season is probably the least active from the point of few of major events. Apart from the November public holiday on the 4th marking Unity Day (although for most citizens still indisputably tied with the October Revolution), this is a time of year to enjoy the start of the theatrical and concert seasons, take stock, and prepare for late December, when the cycle starts all over again!

Churches & cathedrals

Some of the most culturally significant and architecturally memorable sites in St Petersburg are the religious buildings in the center of the city, many of which have been recently restored to former glories and through which the history of the city can be traced. Along Nevsky prospekt you can find the churches of several of the early communities which made Petersburg their home - Lutheran churches for the German and Swedish communities, Catholic for the Poles, Armenian orthodox for that community. Also on Nevsky prospekt you wil find the vast colonnade of Kazan Cathedral, named after the Our Lady of Kazan icon which used to hang here and during Soviet times converted into a museum of religion and atheism. At the far end of Nevskiy prospekt is the Aleksandr Nevskiy monastery, well worth a visit to form an understanding of monastic life, and also for the nearby cemetery where many of Russia's great 19th and 20th century musicians and artists are buried. Other historical center churches which should be visited include the Church of the Spilled Blood, marking the spot on which Tsar Aleksandr II was assassinate; St Isaac's Cathedral with its skyline-defining golden dome; and the St Peter and Paul Fortress where the city was founded and many of theTsars and their family are buried. If you have the opportunity, don't miss St Andrew's, St Nicholas', and Smolny too, all of which are functioning churches so be prepared to be dressed modestly and behave respectfully. Finally, the Jewish and Moslem communities are also represented by late 19th century / early 20th century buildings which continue to operate as religious centers of their respective communities, and demonstrate what a multi-cultural city St Petersburg has always been.

Parks

Like many northern cities with fleeting summers, St Petersburg really comes alive during the months from May to September. Cafes, bars and restaurants open pavement terraces which provide perfect people-watching spots and a chance to rest the visitor's weary legs in the warmth of the northern sun. Parks and gardens suddenly fill with groups of friends playing football, students pretending to study, babushkas walking their grandchildren, old men chatting or reading the paper, and workers stopping off in their lunch-break for a quick respite from the boss. Most parks have a cafe or two and some provide other activities too such as play area for the kids, bike hire, and at weekends and holidays, music and dancing. There is something wistful, almost Chekhovian about a stroll through a Russian park which should not be missed. For visitors too, a walk through a park can provide some respite from the tourist hordes. Even outside the summer, a visit to a park can be truly relaxing. In midwinter many have ice skates for hire, and those without the time to head out of the city bring their skis.

St Petersburg's parks consist of formal gardens, city parks, and larger out of town estates. The largest and oldest park in the center is the Letny sad, or Summer Garden, which is bordered on three sides by water (the Neva, Fontanka, and Lebyazhya or Swan canal). The park was planned by Peter the Great, contains his Summer palace, and boasts a large number of outdoor statues. It has been closed for several years for refurbishment but is expected to be open again during 2012. Alongside the Letny sad is the Marsovo polye, or Field of Mars where imperial troops lined up to do drill and be inspected. In the center is a monument to those who died for the Communist cause during the 1917 revolution, and in the 1950s Russia's first eternal flame was added here. Both Letny sad and Marsovo polye are formal parks which are great for walking, talking and relaxing, but more active or boystrous leisure activities are not encouraged. If you're looking for a city park where you can kick a football around or perhaps bring a picnic, then head to the Tavrichesky park and enjoy a coffee or beer overlooking the small lake. Another Peter the Great creation is the Botanical Gardens, a leading botanical research institute on the aptly named Aptekarskiy ostrov (Apothecary's Island), on Petrogradskaya. All greenhouses were detroyed during the Blockade but were restored soon after. Even if plants aren't your thing, it's a pleasant experience to spend an hour or two walking around the paths and greenhouses. 

For a true Russian park experience, take the metro (Krestovskiy ostrov or Staraya derevnya on the purple line) or an Akvabus if the weather's good to the Outlying Islands, pay the small fee (on weekends and holidays - otherwise entry is free) and enjoy walking round the S. M Kirov Central Park of Culture and Leisure on Yelagin island, St Petersburg's equivalent to Moscow's Gorky Park. There are cafes pumping out cheesy Russian pop, skate and ski hire in winter, roller-skate hire in the summer, lakes, shady paths, a mini-zoo, and various seasonal activities for children. The park was attached to the Yelagin palace, dating from the 1780s and built by the eponymous Yelagin, a rich socialite in the court of Empress Ekaterina II. The palace is open to the public.

Palaces & estates

Inside the city

An Imperial capital is nothing without palaces, whether those of the Imperial family itself or the inevitable crowd of cousins, courtiers, and courtesans which eventually appear. St Petersburg is certainly no exception to this, and arguably retains the most impressive collection of palaces of all the great imperial capitals of Europe. Many were designed by Italian architects brought to the city especially for the task, and were the site of significant events in Russia's cultural and political history, such as assassinations of tsars and great performances by cultural legends. Several were gifts of a grateful Empress Catherine the Great to her lovers (Marble Palace, Taurida Palace, Gatchina). Walking around them even today we gasp in awe at the immeasurable wealth and staggering luxury enjoyed by the families that built and lived in these buildings. While recognizing the enormous disparities of wealth and social conditions between the inhabitants of the palaces and the vast majority of the population was not sustainable, we must be grateful that the Soviet authorities were able to preserve this huge artistic legacy for humanity. Today, following twenty years of renewed investment, many have been restored to their original glory and are home to museum collections. 

The earliest palaces to have survived more or less intact are those built by Peter and his contemporaries, although often descendants and subsequent inhabitants changed and added to them over the years. The modesty of Peter's Summer Palace stands in contrast to the magnificent estate at Peterhof, although much of what we see here today would have looked very different in Peter's day. Peter's great friend and colleague Aleksandr Menshikov built himself a palace on Vasilievsky ostrov running along the north bank of the Neva, one of the first stone buildings in the city. The palace has changed little and contains a museum dedicated to the first half of the 18th century.  Another Menshikov palace can be found at Oranienbaum, a gift from Peter designed by Rinaldi and used variously as a naval hospital and home to Grand Duke Peter (later Peter III), deposed by his wife Catherine. 

Granddaddy of them all is the magnificent Winter Palace, the Tsars' home when in town during the winter season. Built in the 1750s by Rastrelli, who was to design and build so many of St Petersburg's architectural marvels, it was originally painted blood red, but now its cool blue-green of its magnificent facades on Palace Square and along the Neva embankment have become the embodiment of St Petersburg. It is only fitting that the larger part of the great Hermitage Museum is now housed in the palace. The sumptuous magnificence of the state rooms is an appropriate backdrop to some of the world's greatest artistic masterpieces.  

Several of the other must-see palaces are also home to affilates of either the Hermitage or Russian Museums. The Russian Museum main building is the Mikhailovsky Palace on Arts' Square. It was the home of Grand Duke Mikhailovsky who gave his name to the palace and the neighbouring theater. Not to be confused with the Mikhailovsky (or Engineers) Castle, also a branch of the Russian Museum, which housed a School of Military Engineering for many years (attended by many illustrious names in Russian history, including Dostoevsky) and is reportedly haunted by the ghost of the unlucky Tsar Paul, assassinated here in 1801. The Marble Palace, a gift from Catherine the Great to her lover Count Orlof, was finished in 1785 and now houses the Russian Museum's Ludwig collection of modern art. 

Other imperial palaces in the city include the Beloselskiy-Belozerskiy Palace (or Sergiev, as Grand Duke Sergey lived here) which dates from the early 19th century, hosts concerts (the best way to enjoy its splendours) and houses a museum devoted to democracy in Russia named after Anatoliy Sobchak, St Petersburg's first democratically-elected mayor. In late February 2012 part of the roof caught fire, but damage was fortunately limited and concerts are still being held there. The Tauride, with a famous park and gardens of the same name, was a gift from Catherine to her lover and statesmen Prince Grigoriy Potemkin. Catherine lived there for a short while after his death, and then General Suvorov (who famously never lost a battle), but for many years the palace was the home of the Horse Guards regiment, then the seat of Russia's first Duma from 1905, before the local Soviet, or workers' counsel moved in. Today it houses the Comonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet multilateral organization.

Other great palaces within the city are associated not directly with the Imperial family, but with the merchants and traders who became wealthy on a scale almost unprecedented in history and were able to rival the royals with the scale and extent of their buildings and interiors. The Sheremetev Palace, also known as the Fontanny dom, dates from the 1750s and today houses a charming museum of musical instruments. One of the wings at the back of the building was where Anna Akhmatova lived and worked for many years in a rather claustrophobic arrangement with her lover and his wife and family. It houses the Anna Akhmatova museum which provides a fascinating if very poignant introduction to the great poet, her life and the turbulent times in which she lived. The Stroganov Palace, another branch of the Russian Museum, is one of the grandest buildings on Nevsky prospekt, built in the 1740s by one of the city's richest families by one of the city and Russia's greatest architects (Rastrelli). It suffered significant shell damage during the Siege but has now been restored. Finally, the Yusupov Palace lies on the Moika to the west of Nevskiy prospekt and is quite simply stunning. The building includes features such as a marble staircase to rival that of the Winter Palace, an oak pannelled dining room, and a bijou theater where the likes of Liszt, Shalyapin and Anna Palova all performed. Most worthy of notoriety, the palace was the site of Rasputin's murder in a basement room in December 1916. Some rather cheesy waxwork figures mark the spot today, but don't be put off from paying the extra fee to visit the room. 

Out of town

The out of town palaces all have an imperial association, and many of them have been changed and added to over the years. The Yelagin Palace is located in the park of the same name, and was built by Rossi in the early 19th century. Tsarina Maria Fedorovna, the widow of the unfortunate Paul, was gifted the palace by their son Tsar Alexander I. The palace at Gatchina was a gift from Catherine to her lover Count Orlov, although he never lived there. Tsar Alexander III and his consort Maria Fedorovna (sister of Great Britain's Queen Alexandra) liked to stay here. Pavlovsk's Palladio-inspired palace was built in 1780s and owned by Grand Dukes rather than Tsars. It suffered possibly the greatest damage of all the palaces at the hands of the occupying Nazi forces, although all the interiors and contents were removed in time and the palace has been fully restored in all its glory. At Tsarskoe Selo, in addition to the Lycee where Pushkin and many of the scions of the 18th century aristocracy were educated, can be found two neighboring palaces, the Catherine and Aleksandr. The Catherine palace, built in the 1750s by Rastrelli, is most famous for the lost Amber rooms, and the Aleksandr palace, a gift from Catherine II to her grandson Aleksandr I, but later the birthplace and subsequent home of the last Tsar Nicholas II.

Landmarks

There are many things to see in St Petersburg which don't necessarily lend themseves to easy classification. A walk down Nevsky prospekt is one of them. When Gogol said "There is nothing better than Nevsky prospekt - at least in St Petersburg" he was being somewhat wry. A combination of London's Oxford Street, New York's Fifth Avenue and Paris' Champs-Elysees rolled into one, there is something wonderful about strolling down this main thoroughfare, regularly intersected with canals, and noting how the street and its inhabitants seem to change depending on the season, light, and time of day. In fact as many of the city's major museums, palaces, theaters and churches lie on or just off the street, you will be hard-pressed to avoid it. Stop in at Dom knigi and enjoy coffee and a pastry in the second floor cafe with its wonderful views onto the street and Kazan Cathedral. Check out the recently re-opened Eliseevsky food store, refurbished in all its pre-revolutionary Style Moderne wonder. But make sure too you take time to look up at  some of the fantastic architecture.

Head towards the river Neva, and you will come to the Admiralty building with its distinctive spire. A little further to the west and you will come to Decembrists' Square, so named for the aborted revolution that was brutally quashed here in 1825 by Tsar Nicholas I. Lying at the heart of the square today is the famous Falconet statue and symbol of St Petersburg, the Bronze Horseman. Linger here to watch the wedding parties come and go, find a bench and read the Pushkin poem which inspired the statue. Heading over the river and onto Petrogradskaya, a stroll along the Petrovskaya naberezhnaya will eventually bring you to the Battleship Avrora, launched in 1900 and a veteran of the naval war with Japan in 1905, but more famous as the source of the shot which triggered the storming of the Winter Palace and October Revolution, in October 1917. Further west still, Finland Station near Ploschad Lenina in Vyborgskaya saw the arrival from exile of Vladimir Lenin in April 1917, commemmorated in a statue which stands there to this day.

For landmarks marking more recent history, a visit to the Piskarevskoe cemetery will make for a somber and sobering visit. Here are buried some half a million victims of the Siege of Leningrad in over 180 mass graves. There are few places which pack as heavy an emotional punch as a Soviet war cemetery, and this is one of the largest. Also if you have time and are interested in Stalin-era Soviet architecture, try to visit Park Pobedy (Victory Park) and Moskovskaya ploschad (Moscow Square), in Pobeda south of the city center for some great photos and another Lenin statue.  Finally a trip on the metro will also give you an insight into Soviet-era design and architecture. Although not quite as sumptuous as many of the Moscow stations, there are still plenty of design gems to be found. Photography in the metro is something of a touchy subject these days, so be discreet or be prepared to ask nicely and smile sweetly while doing so. 

Excursions

There are a great many opportunities to take interesting tours and excursions within the city. Apart from a boat trip around the canals and rivers of the historic centre which provides a different perspective on the city and its many beautiful palaces, buildings, and monuments, there are plenty of other ways to see the city. A range of walking tours are provided by local companies in several languages, and these are a great way to interact with local people and ask some of those questions which have been bugging you. There are a couple of companies renting out bikes, and as long as you keep your wits about you this can be a wonderful way to cover a lot of distance and see parts of the city you might not see otherwise. More daring still, many of the buildings in the historic centre have access (albeit limited) to their roofs. In the winter you'll often see workmen clearing snow and ice, and in the summer groups of young people enjoying a beer and a smoke up there. Needless to say, there is a certain amount of physical safety risk involved, there are questions over the legality of access, and standing on top of a 5-storey building looking down onto the street below with only a rickety barrier between you and oblivion is not everyone's idea of fun. But for a completely different perspective giving a bird's eye view of the city and some fantastic photo opportunities, it's hard to beat. 

No visit to St Petersburg is complete without taking at least one of town excursion. Technically speaking, the palaces and estates at Strelna, Peterhof, and Oranienbaum to the west of the center, Tsarskoye Selo, Gatchina and Pavlovsk to the south of the center, and the island of Kronstadt, are all located within the St Petersburg city administration limits. They definitely qualify as 'out-of-town' trips however as the density of people and buildings grows less and less the further out you get, and you start to get a feel for small-town provincial life outside the metropolis. 

Stll further afield, if you're in St Petersburg for an extended stay or simply fancy something a little different, there are plenty of options for a day-trip or overnight stay. Vyborg is a Hanseatic city that for much of its history was part of Finland. It has a completely different atmosphere and feel to it, more akin to Scandinavia than Russia, reflecting its border location. Novgorod (or Velikiy Novgorod, the Great, to distinguish it from Nizhniy Novgorod to the east of Moscow) is considered by many to be the birthplace of Russia and the heart of Old Rus, or mediaeval Russian culture. As such it is a fascinating contrast to classical St Petersburg, and a day or two spent exploring its Unesco World Heritage Site Kremlin (which rivals those of Moscow and Kazan) and some of the many ancient churches and monasteries in the town and nearby is time well-spent. If nature and the great outdoors is what you're looking for, then head north-west out of the city and into Karelia. A thinly-popuated land of ancient forests, lakes and rivers, Lake Onega lies on the far side of Lake Ladoga and provides access north to the White Sea. Karelia's capital is Petrozavodsk, a pleasant regional city from where tours can be taken to local sites of interest such as the wooden churches located on Kizhi, an island on the lake and another Unesco World Heritage Site. 

Finally, Moscow, Tallinn and Helsinki are all easily reached within a few hours train ride or drive from St Petersburg. But by then you'll probably have run out of holiday allowance!

Restaurants

It's a cliche, but St Petersburg really does offer a huge variety of different restaurants to suit every taste and budget, whether basement proletarian-style canteens (stolovayas) popularized during the Soviet period, uber-hip celebrity-endorsed eateries in swanky spaces with great views over the city, street comfort food in the form of local doughnuts and pastries of all descriptions, and ethnic food from some of the Russia's ethnic groups and 'near abroad' neighbours. Before you come, read about some of the local restaurateurs revolutionising the city's restaurant scene, such as Ginza Project. Look out for restaurants offering menus copied from Imperial days which include recipes all but untouched for decades, and discover how much more there is to Russian cuisine than borsch and beef stroganoff. And take the chance to try some new cuisines you haven't tried before - Russian of course, but also Caucasian and Central Asian and add a whole new batch of exotic culinary terms to your volcabulary - manty, khachapuri, lobio, adjapsandal. And this being a maritime city the influence of fish and seafood is never far away, whether during the spring-time koryushka festival, from high-end fishmongers, on board floating restaurants, or even at catch-your-own countryside inns.