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
The statue of the Bronze Horseman depicts a strident Peter the Great atop a rearing horse. His finger is thrust forward, pointing out the city's glorious history. St Petersburg's beginnings are inseparable from the historically and physically huge figure of Tsar Peter. Ambitious, optimistic and uncompromising, he conceived this northern capital while still at war with Charles II of Sweden. St Petersburg was to be both a "window to Europe" and a progressive antidote to the conservative and backward Holy Russia (symbolized by the city of Moscow) which Peter hated so intensely. For a while, Peter lived rough (by Tsarist standards) in a log cabin known as Peter's Cabin in order to personally oversee the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress—the city's first major building.
Building a city in such harsh physical conditions proved difficult: countless prisoners-of-war carved the city out of marshland in unimaginably torrid conditions. Thousands perished as a result.
When Peter finally defeated the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, a future for St Petersburg was secured. By 1712, construction was well underway and the Imperial family and much of the government had transferred to this strange new city, still afflicted by the threat of flood and the danger of marauding wolves.
Peter died in 1725, having given Russia an ambitious new capital and, incidentally, a radically redesigned Russian state. In Petersburg itself we can thank Peter for tourist attractions like the country palace of Peterhof, the Summer Gardens and the Kunstkammer museum.
After numerous fairly ineffective rulers, the next great figure in St Petersburg's history was Catherine the Great, who was second only to Peter the Great in the shaping of modern St Petersburg. A voracious reader and enthusiastic scholar, she conducted extensive correspondence with Voltaire and hosted many scholars from western Europe, including the philosopher Diderot. Smolnyi Cathedral was largely her doing, and the Hermitage—now one of the world's greatest museums—was comprised of Catherine's own art collection in the Winter Palace.
By the 19th Century the Empire was increasingly subject to both internal and external pressures. Nicholas I took over the reigns after the failed Decembrist uprising and promptly set out on a reign characterized by harsh repression and extreme political conservatism. The flip-side of this political conservatism was the growth of a dissident intelligentsia (the word itself is of Russian origin) who began whispering of revolution. The great Russian writer Dostoevskii was a member of the Petrashevskii circle of St Petersburg dissidents, a crime for which he was later sent into Siberian exile.
Despite the relative liberalism of Alexander II's rule (which included the emancipation of the serfs) the forces of revolution continued to gain steam. A political demonstration was held before the Kazan Cathedral in 1876. In 1881, the Tsar was assassinated by the revolutionary terrorist group the "People's Will," and the Saviour on Spilled Blood Cathedral was erected in his memory.
Towards the end of the 20th Century, Russia finally embarked upon a period of significant industrialisation but the conservative Tsar Alexander III (1881-94) was even less inclined than his predecessor to political change. This was a potentially explosive situation, especially as Russia's intelligentsia had already begun soaking up Marxist theories on the revolutionary potential of the emergent working class. On St Petersburg's Vasilievskii Island, the workers' slums and the potentially radical student population (which was located in close proximity) was a volatile combination.
Alexander III died in 1894 and power was duly passed to his son Nicholas II. In 1905, a minor revolution of sorts took place. St Petersburg played host to the bloody and entirely unnecessary slaughter which took place on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, when government forces fired on what was by all accounts a peaceful protest in front of the Winter Palace. This action sparked a wave of mutinies, strikes and uprisings which were threatening enough to force Nicholas II to create a pseudo-democratic parliament (the Duma) and provide the people with a guarantee of basic civil rights. This largely placated the country's stormy mood until the start of the First World War.
World War I proved utterly disastrous for Russia – incompetent leadership and huge casualties proved troubling to a population already suffering wartime hardships. This discontent only fueled revolutionary fires and by March 1917, Nicholas' position was untenable. He abdicated, and after his brother Mikhail wisely refused to take over, Nicholas and his family were shipped off to the town of Ekaterinburg beyond the Urals where the Romanov dynasty was consigned to the past. By the end of the year, the precarious new bourgeois state had collapsed and was replaced by a communist regime that would last over 70 years. During the tumultuous events of the October revolution, Lenin and his cohorts used the Smolnyi Institute as an administrative base.
The years leading up to the World War II were marked by major upheaval and mass repression under Stalin. As the capital city, the newly-named Leningrad bore the brunt of Party purges. The city's great 20th-century poet Anna Akhmatova lost numerous friends and family and was herself condemned as "half-nun, half-whore" but she survived until 1966.
During World War II the city suffered more than any other in the world. For three years the Germans besieged Leningrad, starving up to one million of its population to death. Although today the number of blokadniks (survivors of the blockade) is dwindling rapidly, the siege is still firmly embedded in the city's collective consciousness. A Victory Monument stands in the middle of Moskovskii Prospekt and elsewhere there is a Blockade Museum as well as the Piskarevskoe Cemetery, a solemn place where many of the dead were buried in mass graves.
After the destruction caused by the war, Leningrad had to go through a period of extensive reconstruction. Some buildings—like St Isaac's Cathedral—still bear scars of wartime bombardment.
Russia experienced something of a political and cultural thaw after the death of Stalin in 1953, but that was quickly followed by a period of stagnation under the complacent Brezhnev. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the USSR was in dire need of renovation and Gorbachev sought to achieve this through the twin motors of glasnost (openness in public discourse) and perestroika (economic reconstruction). However, by the end of the 1980s the entire system was looking untenable and by 1990 things were beginning to come apart. By June 1991 Leningrad had been renamed St Petersburg in defiance of Gorbachev's wishes.
When Gorbachev was sidelined by a conservative coup, hundreds of thousands of people massed on Palace Square as they awaited the result of events in Moscow. In the end, the coup broke down and with it any future for the Soviet Union. The post-Communist era had begun.
Modern St Petersburg has undergone a radical transformation and differs greatly from what it looked like at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union. The central thoroughfare Nevskii Prospekt is a cluster of new entertainment venues, expensive restaurants and upscale shops. However, beneath the glittering new look lies both brand new poverty and St Petersburg's eternally thriving cultural life.
Several of these self-guided tours begin at the romantic heart of the city—Palace Square. It's a majestic setting, lying between the magnificence of the Winter Palace and the pale yellow sweep of the General Staff building. Not more than five minutes away lies the thriving commercial street Nevskii Prospekt, while beyond the Winter Palace lies a panoramic vista across the Neva river.
Nevskii Prospekt is St Petersburg's main street, stretching for more than four kilometers (two miles) from the Admiralty across the arc formed by the Neva within the city. It is St Petersburg's busiest thoroughfare, with a history almost as old as the city itself. After the foundation of St Petersburg in 1703, shipyard carts carried all manner of materials along the Novgorod road t? the shipyards at the Neva. The original thoroughfares were not intended for heavy traffic and so a decision was eventually made t? carve out a main road through four kilometers (two miles) of marsh, meadow and forest, enabling easy movement from the Novgorod road t? the Admiralty on the Neva. By the mid-18th Century this thoroughfare had already become the city's main street and commercial center, and many cathedrals, palaces, mansions and public buildings were erected along it. From the Palace Square you can slip on to Nevskii Prospekt along the Moika canal. Look out for the newly renovated Kapella building just over the canal off the square and the popular ex-pat hangout City Bar tucked away in the same courtyard. Having reached Nevskii Prospekt, you can see the 18th-century Stroganov Palace (1753-1754) on the opposite side of the street. This is an elaborate but rather jaded creation of the Italian architect Rastrelli. A little further up the road (again on the south side) stands Kazan Cathedral, designed and erected in 1801-1811 by the architect Andrei Voronikhin. The cathedral with its semi-circular Corinthian colonnade comprised of 96 13-meter (42-foot) high columns is the dominant feature in one of the most elegant areas of the city. Opposite Kazan Cathedral stands the city's major book store Dom Knigi, a building with a polished granite façade, crowned with a globe atop a glass tower. Built in 1907, before the Revolution this building belonged to the Singer Sewing-Machine Company. Stretching away from Kazan Cathedral on the other side of the street is Kanal Griboedova, at the visible end of which stands the Saviour on Spilled Blood Cathedral and Museum, an elaborate and colorful domed building erected on the site where Alexander II was assassinated by members of the revolutionary terrorist organization ""People's Will"" on March 1, 1881. Kanal Griboedova also plays host to a number of cafés and restaurants—try out Laima Bistro for some Russian fast food.
Once you have swept around the back of the Saviour on Spilled Blood Cathedral, take your first left along Inzhenernaia Ulitsa and you'll reach Arts Square. Designed by architect Carlo Rossi, it's an elegant area surrounded by a cornucopia of cultural attractions—three museums and three theaters, including the famous Russian Museum, the Apartment-museum of the poet Blok, the Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet House and the St Petersburg Philharmonia. Each owner of a plot of land on the square had the right to build a house of his own choice, but only on the condition that the façade overlooking the street or the square conformed to Rossi's standard project. In 1957, a statue of Pushkin was erected in the center of the square's public garden. From here you can nip back onto Nevskii Prospekt via Mikhailovskaia Ulitsa, with the prestigious (and expensive) Grand Hotel Europe appearing on your right-hand side. At this point you emerge onto the bustling heart of Nevskii. Across the road stands the vast shopping complex that is Gostinyi Dvor, a two-storied colonnaded quadrangle built by architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe from 1761 to 1785. Opposite Gostinyi Dvor is another of the largest and most famous department stores in the city: Passazh (meaning ""passage"" or ""arcade""). Walking along the southern side of the street (you can cross via several underground passages at this point), continue along Nevskii and on the right you'll come across Ostrovskii Square, in the center of which stands a Monument to Catherine The Great built in 1973. She is shown in an ermine robe, holding a scepter, and surrounded by her associates at the foot of the high granite pedestal. Further along Nevskii, past the Anichkov Palace and colonnaded Kabinet building of Alexander I, you'll come to the elegant Anichkov Bridge spanning a broad sweep of the Fontanka canal. If you fancy stopping for a bite to eat, there's two options nearby. The restaurant/bar Propaganda lies just off Nevskii to the north along the far side of the Fontanka.
St Isaac's Cathedral
Crossing the busy main road from the Palace Square takes you to the park in front of the Admiralty. Initially a major shipyard and as such one of the city's most important locations in Peter's time, the Admiralty was reconstructed between 1806-1823 by Zacharov as a development of the earlier building by Korobov. It had been remodeled between 1727-1738 but retains the original layout. Its weather vane—topped by an elegant spire in the form of a ship—is one of the city's principal landmarks. The building today houses a Naval College and naval administrative offices. Continuing through the gardens in front of the Admiralty and veering right beyond the end of the building, you'll eventually see the most famous statue in Russia, that of the Bronze Horseman, sitting on a granite obelisk weighing 600 tons, designed by Falconet and erected in 1782 on the orders of Catherine the Great. This statue is the symbol of Peter the Great. This is the first stop for newlyweds posing for photos after taking their vows—the statue is believed to bestow good luck on any marriage. Away from the Neva behind the Bronze Horseman stands the gargantuan form of St Isaac's Cathedral, the third highest cathedral in the world. It was completed in 1858 after 40 years of construction. The granite and marble building is cruciform and the great golden dome is one of the earliest examples of the use of iron as a structural material. For a delicious meal in this area, head to Rossi's for delicious Italian or to Kafe Lagidze specializing in Georgian cuisine.
On the other side of the cathedral lies St Isaac's Square, in the center of which stands an impressive Monument to Nicholas I. Also here is the luxurious Astoria hotel, where Hitler had planned to hold celebrations after taking the city. On the opposite side of the square to the cathedral stands the Marinskii Palace, a building given as a somewhat generous birthday present from Nicholas I to his daughter. Joining the Moika here, you can continue along its south side, where things get a little quieter. Look out for the Kafe Idiot, a popular haunt for tourists and new arrivals to the city and a good place to stop off for a decent (vegetarian) lunch. Another dining option is Chopsticks.
Peter's Walking Tours (+7 812 943 1229/http://www.peterswalk.com/)
Historical Center Walking Tours (+7 812 970-6802/http://www.oksanas.net/tours.htm)
White Nights Bike Tour (+7 812 943 1229/http://www.peterswalk.com/)
Siege of Leningrad battlefield bus tour (+8 904 630 44 03/http://www.inyourpocket.com/russia/st_petersburg/what_to_see/Tours_around_St.
The state of accommodation in St Petersburg reflects the post-Soviet history of the city. After the fall of Communism, big money was spent on only a handful of hotels to bring them up to scratch. Other hotels have not been lucky enough to be injected with Western cash. While most are more than adequate in their level of service, some of the cheaper options are mired with problems, mainly ill-kept rooms and indifferent staff. Careful selection is a must when choosing your hotel.
Undisputedly at the top-end of the scale stand three hotels – the Grand Hotel Europe, the Astoria and the Nevskij Palace. Of these three, only the last is completely new. Both the Grand Hotel and the Astoria were premier Soviet hotels with a long history behind them, re-modernized and renovated with Western dollars to accommodate the post-Soviet influx of corporate travelers and discerning tourists. They are all situated in or around the city center.
The Grand Hotel Europe is about as central as you can get, standing just off the main stretch of Nevskii Prospekt and right beside Arts Square. It's normally the first choice of visiting celebrities and top-end officials, attracting an occasional bustle of media and security outside. Inside, the styling is Art Nouveau, the ambience is elegant and the service is excellent.
The Astoria is one of the Grand Hotel's close competitors. Standing in the shadow of the gargantuan St Isaac's Cathedral, it is in the center but sufficiently far removed from the buzz of Nevskii Prospekt to give it a definite air of exclusivity. The Nevskij Palace is a thoroughly modern hotel sitting on the strictly commercial section of Nevskii Prospekt. It offers very modern services including excellent conferencing facilities.
The Oktiabrskaia is the most central of the mid-range hotels, located just off Nevskii's Ploshchad' Vosstaniia. It is however a little shabby and unaccommodating. A better option up the road is the Moskva, a vast Soviet effort situated near the Alexander Nevskii Monastery and a good choice for foreigner visitors due to its uncomplicated access to the city center (the metro station is right next door). Their wide experience with foreign guests dates from Soviet times and visitors should feel comfortable here.
The cream of the crop when it comes to backpackers lodging is undoubtedly the St Petersburg International Hostel. Not far from the center, it's got rooms of three to six beds, and the prices are quite reasonable. The staff are helpful, efficient and English-speaking, while the rooms are immaculately kept. The travel service affiliated with the hotel, Sinbad, will help you plan your future movements to Moscow and beyond.
On Vasilievskii Island to the northwest of the city center, the king of hotels is undoubtedly the Pribaltiiskaia, a giant Swedish-Soviet effort from the 1970s located a fair distance from the city center but affording an excellent panorama (if you get a western-facing room) over the Gulf of Finland. Like the Moskva, they are more than used to foreign clientèle here.
The Petrograd Side & the Kirov Islands
The rooms here tend to be cheaper to compensate for its awkward location. Further to the east but still well south of the city center you'll find the Mir, which is located close to Victory Park and many interesting cafes. The Hotel Leningradskiy Dvorets Molodezhi (LDM) used to target a young crowd, but now hosts a more universal group of travelers. There are four bars to choose from and an exquisite restaurant.
South & West of Nevskii
There are plenty of great hotels to choose from that lie outside the city center. The Matisov Domik for example, is a small family-run affair lying west of the Mariinskii Theatre. There are many public transportation options nearby. The Pulkovskaia is a tentatively refurbished Soviet contribution that is distinguished by its location next to the thoroughly impressive Victory Monument.
Also, there's the Holiday Hostel. It's not far from the Finland Station on the north side of the Neva and as such is perhaps slightly remote, especially in summer when you'll have to contend with the bridge-opening timetable. Still, rooms are cheap and in good condition.