The Venice of the North, Russia’s former capital
With its 200 museums, 50 theatres, rich history and dramatic riverside skyline, it is no surprise to learn that St Petersburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It lies in the extreme north-west of Russia at the head of the Gulf of Finland, on the River Neva. Founded by Peter The Great in 1703 the city changed its name to Leningrad during the Communist era before reverting to its original name in 1991. 4.6m people live in “The Venice of the North” which is also famous as the cradle of the Russian Revolution in 1917. There is a mixture of grand architecture from the period of Czarist Russia and the functionalist concrete structures of the Stalinist era. Stalin conferred the title “hero city” on St Petersburg after it resisted the German siege of 1941-44.
Soak up both Czarist and Communist Russian history and art; go to the world-famous Mariinsky Theatre and Winter Palace and visit the Hermitage Museum with its 3 million objects. Take a canal boat tour and enjoy hot Russian crepes with caviar and vodka. Unwind in a banya, a traditional Russian bath-house.
When to go?
St Petersburg has a humid, temperate climate, with temperatures reaching 34°C in July and dropping to -35°C in the winter. Wear suitable clothes and footwear if you go in winter or spring; there are around 120 days of snow a year. Visitor numbers peak in June, the period of the White Nights, where the 22 hours of daylight allow the city to keep functioning around the clock. For a quieter, cooler visit, go in September and October.
How to get there?
The city is served by Pulkovo Airport (LED); it welcomes flights from most European cities and from all over Russia and Scandinavia. It is a 2-hour ride in a taxi or on a bus to the city centre. St Petersburg is a major transport hub, so it is possible to get there easily by train, by bus or by car. In town, you can get around by underground metro, bus or tram.
The Hermitage Museum has the largest art collection in the world. Kunstkamera Museum has some truly gruesome exhibits, not to be viewed just after eating. The Ethnography Museum depicts the costumes and cultures of all the different ethnic groups that made up the former Russian Empire. The Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral form the city’s iconic image. For light relief, go to the English Gardens or the Summer Gardens, or take a trip out to the nearby towns of Pavlovsk, Peterhof or Pushkin to visit the spectacular summer estates of the Czars.