Whether traversing the bustling Nevskii Prospekt, admiring the grand residential architecture on Vasilievskii Island, or taking in the awe inspiring Palace Square, visitors will find each of St. Petersburg's neighborhoods steeped in culture and history.
This is the touristic, commercial and cultural heart of the city where visitors are guaranteed to spend a large chunk of their time. Nevskii itself is buzzing at all hours, but traffic (both human and vehicular) can be escaped by venturing to the peaceful
This large chunk of land lies to the northwest of the center, dividing the river Neva into the Greater and Lesser Nevas. Although the island is now primarily a sleepy residential district, it played a major role in the city's early history.
Peter the Great originally intended Vasilevskii to be the city's center and therefore encouraged newly-arrived nobles and merchants to set themselves up there. His plans were never realized—problems with the construction of a canal network and the logistical nightmare of locating a city center on a sometimes inaccessible island encouraged the rise of Nevksii Prospekt as the alternative hub of the city. Nonetheless, testimony to the former importance of the island lies in the cluster of museums and buildings on the eastern side—the pre-revolutionary stock exchange building (now home to a Naval Museum) still stands here, along with Peter's macabre
Beyond this there isn't a lot to see or do on Vasilievskii, although if you want a look at some awe-inspiring Soviet architecture you could do a lot worse than the vast residential building stretching westwards from Primorskaia metro. Also nearby is the hulking mass of the Swedish-built
The Petrograd Side & the Kirov Islands
When Peter the Great first concocted his grand plan for a capital city on the Gulf of Finland, construction began on the
The area to the north of the fortress is known as the Petrograd side. After the construction of
The islands—Krestovskii, Kamennyi and Yelagin—are favorite winding-down spots for Petersburgers tired of the hectic city life to the south. Lurking at the western end of Krestovskii Island is the huge Kirov Stadium.
South & West of Nevskii
The area south and west of Nevskii (again, the area of land enclosed by the Neva, Nevskii and this time the southern stretch of the Fontanka canal) is also home to many tourist delights which are obviously less concentrated here than in the heart of the city. The tone of the area can change fairly dramatically: Sennaia Ploshchad is about 15 minutes by foot from the imperial St. Isaac's Square, but in comparison to the soaring grandeur of
Beyond the Fontanka
This incorporates a huge area, including the eastern end of Nevskii as well as the Liteinyi, Vladimirskaia and Smolnyi regions.
Beyond the Fontanka, Nevskii itself becomes more solidly commercial, although a glance above shop level reveals an impressive mish-mash of architectural styles. The modern, luxury
Vladimirskaia—to the south—is a bustling hub of activity, its main thoroughfares being important shopping areas. The area is also dotted with museums such as the
To the north,
The Country Estates
The city itself isn't exactly lacking in extravagant monuments from the Imperial age, but if you want a glimpse of just how extravagant Russia's pre-Communist rulers really were, you'll need to jump on a suburban train and visit at least one of the Tsarist country residences. Though nearly all the palaces were sacked by the Germans during their World War II invasion, the palaces have been well-restored to their former glory.
For sheer bombastic opulence, visit
Just a decade ago eating out in town was a fairly joyless experience unless you had unlimited funds. But how things have changed. Whether it's a blin on the go, Indonesian with style, takeaway pizza or a five-course haute cuisine candlelit dinner you seek, you'll find it here.
Alexandr of Novgorod defeated the Swedes near the mouth of the Neva in 1240 - earning the title Nevsky (of the Neva). Sweden took control of the region in the 17th century and it was Peter the Great's desire to crush this rival and make Russia a European power that led to the founding of St Petersburg. At the start of the Great Northern War (1700-21) he captured the Swedish outposts on the Neva, and in 1703 he founded the Peter & Paul Fortress on the Neva a few kilometres in from the sea. After Peter trounced the Swedes at Poltava in 1709 the city he named (in Dutch style) Sankt Pieter Burkh really began to grow. Canals were dug to drain the marshy south bank and in 1712 he made the place his capital, forcing administrators, nobles and merchants to move here and build new homes. Peasants were drafted in for forced labour, many dying for their pains. Architects and artisans were brought from all over Europe. By Peter's death in 1725, his city had a huge population and 90% of Russia's foreign trade passed through it.
Peter's immediate successors moved the capital back to Moscow but Empress Anna Ivanovna (1730-40) returned to St Petersburg. Between 1741 and 1825 under Empress Elizabeth, Catherine the Great and Alexander I it became a cosmopolitan city with a royal court of famed splendour. These monarchs commissioned great series of palaces, government buildings and churches, which turned it into one of Europe's grandest capitals.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and industrialisation, which peaked in the 1890s, brought a flood of poor workers into the city, leading to overcrowding, poor sanitation, epidemics and festering discontent.
St Petersburg became a hotbed of strikes and political violence and was the hub of the 1905 revolution, sparked by Bloody Sunday - 9 January 1905 - when a strikers' march to petition the tsar in the Winter Palace was fired on by troops. By 1914, when in a wave of patriotism at the start of WWI the city's name was changed to the Russian-style Petrograd, it housed two million people.
Petrograd was again the cradle of revolution in 1917. It was here that workers' protests turned into a general strike and troops mutinied, forcing the end of the monarchy in March. The Petrograd Soviet, a socialist focus for workers' and soldiers' demands, started meeting in the city's Tauride Palace alongside the country's reformist Provisional Government. It was to Petrograd that Lenin travelled in April to organise the Bolshevik Party. The actual revolution came after Bolsheviks occupied key positions in Petrograd on 24 October. The new government operated from here until March 1918, when it moved to Moscow, fearing a German attack on Petrograd.
The city was renamed Leningrad after Lenin's death in 1924. It was a hub of Stalin's 1930s industrialisation programme and by 1939 had three million people and 11% of Soviet industrial output. But Stalin feared it as a rival power base and the 1934 assassination of local communist chief Sergey Kirov was the start of his 1930s Communist Party purge.
When the Germans attacked the USSR in June 1941 it took them only two-and-a-half months to reach Leningrad. As it was the birthplace of Bolshevism, Hitler hated the place and swore to wipe it from the face of the earth. His troops besieged it from September 1941 until late January 1944. Many people had been evacuated; nonetheless, between 500,000 and a million died from shelling, starvation and disease. By comparison the US and UK suffered about 700,000 dead between them in all of WWII.
After the war, Leningrad was reconstructed and reborn, though it took until 1960 for its population to exceed pre-WWII levels. In 1991 the Soviet Union was officially proclaimed 'dead' and residents of Leningrad voted to rename the city St Petersburg. Foreign investment gave the city a boost and, corny as it may sound, St Petersburg did re-establish itself as Russia's window on the West. But it wasn't all plain sailing: although the people were freer and the shops were stocked, many didn't have the money to enjoy the new prosperity and the crime rate soared.
Happily, in the new millennium these problems are starting to be left behind. Vladimir Putin's election to the presidency in March 2000 has upped the city's profile (he's spent most of his life in St Petersburg and is very fond of the city), and its infrastructure and architectural treasures are getting a thorough seeing to. Not since the paint first dried on Rastrelli's buildings in the late 18th century has St Petersburg looked so good. Twenty years of massive investment after 70 years of neglect under the Soviets has certainly paid off , and its facades are bursts of beautifully painted pastels and primes once again. But glimpse inside the buildings and you'll see there's a lot of work yet to be done: overall the city remains poor, despite a burgeoning middle class, and many challenges - economic and political - lie ahead.