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St. Petersburg

Conceived in the soul of a visionary emperor, St. Petersburg is Russia’s adopted child. With its strict geometric lines and perfectly planned architecture, so unlike the cities that came before it, St. Petersburg is almost too European to be . And yet it’s too to be European. The city is a powerful combination of both East and West, springing from the will and passion of its founder, Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), to guide a resistant Russia into the greater fold of Europe, and consequently into the mainstream of history. That he accomplished, and more.

“The most abstract and intentional city on earth”—to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky—became the birthplace of Russian literature, the setting for Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. From here, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Rimsky-Korsakov went forth to conquer the world of the senses with unmistakably Russian music. It was in St. Petersburg that Petipa invented—and Pavlova, Nijinsky, and Ulanova perfected—the ballet, the most aristocratic of dance forms. Later, at the start of the 20th century, Diaghilev enthralled the Western world with the performances of his Ballets Russes. Great architects were summoned to the city by 18th-century empresses to build palaces of marble, malachite, and gold. A century later it was here that Fabergé craftsmen created those priceless objects of beauty that have crowned the collections of royalty and millionaires ever since.

The grand, new capital of the budding Russian empire was built in 1703, its face to Europe, its back to reactionary Moscow, which had until this time been the country’s capital. Unlike some cities, it was not created by a process of gradual, graceful development but was forcibly constructed, stone by stone, under the might and direction of Peter the Great, for whose patron saint the city is named. Just as the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., rose from a swamp, so did Peter’s city. It was nearly an impossible achievement—so many men, forced into labor, died laying the foundations of this city that it was said to have been built on bones, not log posts. As one of 19th-century France’s leading lights, the writer Madame de Staël, put it: “The founding of St. Petersburg is the greatest proof of that ardor of the Russian will that does not know anything is impossible.”

But if Peter’s exacting plans called for his capital to be the equal of Europe’s great cities, they always took into account the city’s unique attributes. Peter knew that his city’s source of life was water, and whether building palace, fortress, or trading post, he never failed to make his creations serve it. Being almost at sea level (there is a constant threat of flooding), the city appears to rise straight up from its embracing waters. Half of the River Neva lies within the city’s boundaries. As it flows into the Gulf of Finland, the river subdivides into the Great and Little Neva and the Great and Little Nevka. Together with numerous effluents, they combine to form an intricate delta. Water weaves its way through the city’s streets as well. Incorporating more than 100 islands and crisscrossed by more than 60 rivers and canals, St. Petersburg is often compared, except for its northern appeal, to that other great maritime city, Venice.

Even during periods of economic hardship and political crisis, St. Petersburg’s gleaming Imperial palaces emphasize the city’s regal bearing, even more so in the cold light of the Russian winter. The colorful facades of riverside estates glow gently throughout the long days of summer in contrast with the dark blue of the Neva’s waters. Between June and July, when the city falls under the spell of the White Nights, or Belye nochy, the fleeting twilight imbues the streets and canals with an even more delicate aura. During this time following the summer solstice (generally from June to early July), the gloom of night is banished, replaced by a twilight that usually lasts no more than 30 to 40 minutes. To honor this magical phenomenon, music festivals and gala events adorn the city’s cultural calendar.

St. Petersburg is not just about its fairy-tale setting, however, for its history is integrally bound up in Russia’s dark side, too—a centuries-long procession of wars and revolutions. In the 19th century, the city witnessed the struggle against tsarist oppression. Here the early fires of revolution were kindled, first in 1825 by a small band of starry-eyed aristocratic officers—the so-called Decembrists—and then by organized workers’ movements in 1905. The full-scale revolutions of 1917 led to the demise of the Romanov dynasty, the foundation of the Soviet Union, and the end of St. Petersburg’s role as the nation’s capital as Moscow reclaimed that title. But the worst ordeal by far came during World War II, when the city—then known as Leningrad—withstood a 900-day siege and blockade by Nazi forces. Nearly 650,000 people died of starvation, and more than 17,000 were killed in air raids and as a result of indiscriminate shelling. Thousands more died from disease.

St. Petersburg has had its name changed three times during its brief history. With the outbreak of World War I, it became the more Russian-sounding Petrograd. After Lenin’s death in 1924, it was renamed Leningrad in the Soviet leader’s honor. Following the failed coup d’etat of August 1991, which hastened the demise of the Soviet Union and amounted to another Russian revolution, the city reverted to its original name—it was restored by popular vote, the first time the city’s residents were given a choice in the matter. There were some who opposed the change, primarily because memories of the siege of Leningrad and World War II had become an indelible part of the city’s identity. But for all the controversy surrounding the name, residents have generally referred to the city simply—and affectionately—as Peter.

In honor of the city’s 300th anniversary in May 2003, the government spent more than 1 billion dollars restoring St. Petersburg to its prerevolutionary splendor—sprucing up mansions and palaces, polishing old monuments, repaving roads, and throwing festivals and celebrations. More than ever, busloads of tourists come to feast their eyes on pastel palaces, glittering churches, and that great repository of artwork, the Hermitage.

St. Petersburg Sights

Commissioned by Peter the Great as “a window looking into Europe,” St. Petersburg is a planned city whose elegance is reminiscent of Europe’s most alluring capitals. Little wonder it’s the darling of today’s fashion photographers and travel essayists: built on more than a hundred islands in the Neva Delta linked by canals and arched bridges, it was first called the “Venice of the North” by Goethe, and its stately embankments are reminiscent of those of Paris. An Imperial city of golden spires and gilded domes, of pastel palaces and candlelit cathedrals, it’s filled with pleasures and tantalizing treasures.

The city’s focal point is the Admiralteistvo, or Admiralty, a spire-topped golden-yellow building; a stone’s throw away is the Winter Palace, the city’s most-visited attraction. Three major avenues radiate outward from the Admiralty: Nevsky prospekt (St. Petersburg’s main shopping street), Gorokhovaya ulitsa, and Voznesensky prospekt. Most visitors begin, however, at Palace Square, site of the fabled Hermitage. The square is one of the best starting points for exploring the city, and not just for geographical reasons: in a way it symbolizes the city’s past, the transition years, and the present. The square housed not only the center of power—the tsar’s residence and the great offices of state—but also the splendid art collections of the Imperial family. In the twilight of the tsar’s empire, it was here that troops were ordered to disperse a workers’ demonstration on Bloody Sunday in 1905—sealing the fate of the Imperial family and ushering in the Revolution of 1917.

Wherever you go exploring in the city, remember that an umbrella can come in handy. In winter be prepared for rather cold days that often alternate with warmer temperatures, often resulting in the famous Russian snowfalls. One note: as with most Russian museums, you will find that St. Petersburg’s museums charge a small extra fee to entitle you to use your camera or video camera within their walls.

The city can be divided into approximately nine neighborhoods. The City Center embraces Palace Square, the Hermitage, and the northern end of Nevsky prospekt, with the Fontanka River as its southeastern border. Most of St. Petersburg’s major attractions are within this area. Within the City Center is the smaller neighborhood of the Admiralteisky, surrounding the Admiralty building.

Second in number of sights, including the Chamber of Art and the Rostral Columns, is Vasilievsky Island, opposite the Admiralty and set off from the City Center by the Little and Great Neva.

North of the City Center and the Neva River is the Petrograd Side, which holds Peter and Paul Fortress and the sights of Petrograd Island. Back on the mainland, Vladimirskaya is an area south of the Fontanka, taking in the lower part of Nevsky prospekt and bordered by the Obvodny Canal. The Liteiny/Smolny region lies to the northeast of Vladimirskaya and includes the Smolny cathedral. The Kirov Islands (north of the city), the Southern Suburbs, and the Vyborg Side (in the northeast corner of the city) have just a few sights.

St. Petersburg is a large city of 5 million inhabitants, which makes it as likely a place for petty crime as any other metropolis. As a foreigner, you’re an even more likely target. Whatever you’ve heard about crime and poverty in Russia has probably been exaggerated, but you should still exercise caution if you wander too far off the beaten path.

St. Petersburg Reviews

The new restaurants and cafés of the burgeoning St. Petersburg scene stand in sharp contrast to the traditional, sometimes uninspired, Russian-style eateries of the former Soviet Union. Of course, the old-style restaurants can still be found in abundance—the places that insist on bottles of vodka on every table, the synthesizer-accompanied singer droning Russian chansons, and long, often pricey meals in settings designed to evoke the luxury of the Imperial past. Although it’s certainly worth experiencing Russian-style dining during your stay—and discovering the French underpinnings of Russian cuisine that become apparent at some of the finer establishments—know that you have plenty of options, and you don’t have to pay an exorbitant price to eat well.

At the new breed of Russian eateries, you almost feel you could be anywhere in Europe. Although originality is still rare, the food is often reasonably priced and almost always good. Old habits die hard, however, so even when the chef ventures into new territory, say, with Asian-influenced dishes, you tend to still find traditional standbys like borscht on the same menu.

Hotels often house excellent restaurants and foreign chefs, who used to be a rarity even in top-flight hotels, have become an integral part of the city’s culinary scene. The Grand Hotel Europe is filled to the brim with reliable places, including Chinese and Western restaurants, as well as the elegant L’Europe, in a category all its own. At the restaurants of the Astoria and Radisson SAS Royal you will find top-notch service, some imaginative chefs, and often good views. Most leading hotels and finer restaurants offer tempting three-course or generous buffet business lunches for $10-$15. They are normally advertised or reviewed in dining sections of The St. Petersburg Times and St. Petersburg In Your Pocket, and are a fantastic value, so be sure to check them out.

It’s not necessary to plan ahead if you want to land a table in a nice establishment on weekdays, but it’s generally a good idea to reserve ahead for weekend dining or for a large party. Ask your hotel or tour guide for help making a reservation. Note that few restaurants in St. Petersburg have no-smoking sections; in fact, some places have cigarettes listed on the menu. Most restaurants stop serving food around 11 PM or midnight, although more and more 24-hour cafés are opening.

Homey and jovial little budget eateries serving quick, substantial, and good meals for under $10 have mushroomed around the city. You can opt for a Russian pancake cafeteria, an authentic Italian pizzeria, a Greek taverna, or a lively Caucasian inn. What has also boomed across the city are stands selling Russian bliny, the hearty Russian cousin of the French crepe. The dish seems easy to make but it’s actually even easier to ruin, so to avoid a pale, bland, glutinous mass with an indiscernible filling, our advice is to stick to the best purveyor, Teremok.

Fodor’s selection of reviews is a sampling of old-era restaurants that have managed to maintain a high level of quality, new places of international standards, eateries that cater to tourists and expats, and a few bargain, off-the-beaten-path spots. It’s cause to rejoice that it’s no longer possible to enumerate all of the good dining spots in the city. At one time the only place to find a decent espresso was at one of the city’s upscale hotels. The situation has changed drastically, with numerous true Western-style coffee shops opening up all over the city.

St. Petersburg Hotel Reviews

St. Petersburg’s capacity for overnight visitors is rather small: 139 hotels can accommodate 36,000 people. By 2010 St. Petersburg plans to have added dozens of new hotels, yet with tourism projected to bring 5 million visitors a year by 2010, some unfortunate tourists will be well exposed to the White Nights in the high season of May and June. What the city especially lacks are two- and three-star hotels, which would be a welcome alternative to the predominance of expensive ones.

On an organized tour, you’re likely to land in one of the old Intourist standbys, which used to belong to the Soviet tourist agency that enjoyed a monopoly. Most U.S. and British tour operators take advantage of the discounted rates at the Moskva, the Pribaltiyskaya, the Pulkovskaya, or the St. Petersburg. These hotels were built in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and though they are dated, many of them were spruced up in time for St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary celebrations. The facilities at these hotels are fairly uniform and generally include several restaurants and perhaps business services and pools; many hotels are slowly improving their facilities to meet Western standards. The service, though mildly unpredictable, is perfectly acceptable—provided you don’t expect royal treatment. The main reason to choose one of these hotels is their lower rates; note that many of them are not convenient to the major attractions.

If you want insulation from the uglier side of life here, however, plan to shell out a substantial sum for a higher level of accommodation. Almost all of the hotels with Web sites have online booking facilities, though you should follow up such applications with phone calls.

An expanding number of realty agents can organize a suitable and safe apartment rental, usually in the center of the city. The prices for such apartments usually run the level of three-star hotels, but they often have much more space and you can also share the expenses with your traveling companions.

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg’s cultural life is one of its top attractions. Except for the most renowned theaters, tickets are easily available and inexpensive. You can buy them at the box offices of the theaters themselves, at teatralnaya kassa (theater kiosks) throughout the city—Central Box Office No. 1 is at 42 Nevsky prospekt (812/571-3183) and is open daily from 11 to 7—and at service bureaus in hotels, most of which post performance listings in their main lobby. Note that some theaters charge different prices for Russians and foreigners.

The very efficient online service www.kassir.ru is available in English: go to http://spb.kassir.ru to reach the page with an English-language option on the upper right-hand side. The Mariinsky theater also sells tickets online through its Web site www.mariinsky.ru. The tickets can either be bought or reserved.

Bear in mind, too, that theater tickets purchased through hotels are the priciest of all, as most hotels tend to charge a markup on the foreigner price. All in all, your best option is to go in person to the theater concerned and buy the ticket there.

Your best source of information is the St. Petersburg Times (www.sptimes.ru), a free, local, independent English-language newspaper. It comes out on Tuesday and Friday and is widely distributed. The Friday edition has a calendar of events in the “All About Town” section, with theater and concert listings, and a restaurant column. Pulse, a glossy, advertising-driven paper published monthly in English and Russian editions, also has extensive listings. Copies of both papers can be found at Western airline offices, bars, clubs, hotels, cafés, and other places generally patronized by foreigners.

Most major theaters close down between mid-July and early August and start up again in mid-September or early October. However, summer is also the time for touring companies from other regions in Russia to come to town, so it’s a rare day that there are no shows on at all. Sumptuous balls are thrown in the most famous palaces and concert halls in winter; the top two events are the Mariinsky Ball and the Temirkanov Ball on New Year’s Eve.

St. Petersburg Shopping

Pick up a copy of Russian Vogue and you may be surprised to see that it nearly outdoes its Parisian and American counterparts for sheer gloss, glitz, and elegant, trendy garb. And all those nifty threads that the models are wearing—Versace, Hugo Boss, Gucci, Kenzo, Prada, Armani—are fully stocked in St. Petersburg’s international boutiques. The days of basic items being scarce are long gone. And to make room for all these new shoppers, stores have considerably extended their opening hours—many stay open until 8 or 9 PM, or on Sunday.

The same sense of a two-tiered system of stores exists in St. Petersburg as in Moscow. “Western-style” shops taking credit-card payment have replaced the old Beriozkas (Birch Trees) emporiums, which were stocked only for foreigners. With increased competition, some of the prices at these shops have gone down, and they are open to anyone who can afford them. State-run shops are better stocked now than before, and if you aren’t looking for anything fancy you might be interested in some of these groceries and department stores. Only rubles (as opposed to credit cards) are accepted here, however, and you’ll have a tough time maneuvering through the cashiers if you don’t speak some Russian.

Kiosks, street tables, and impromptu markets sell a colorful jumble of junk most of the time. You’ll see women lined up selling socks, scarves, and who-knows-what near Sennaya Ploshchad, and if you’re lucky you might pick up some great old books (watch in particular the corner of Nevsky and Fontanka, across the street from the Palace of Prince Beloselsky-Belozersky). But this mini-industry of individual entrepreneurs, which mushroomed wildly in the first years of glasnost, is on the wane. Everything is being tidied up and taken back inside. You may also be surprised to find a plethora of “24 chasa” stores (i.e., open 24 hours a day). They vary from smallish to big, but there will always be one near you, stocked with alcohol, cigarettes, and groceries.

The central shopping district is Nevsky prospekt and the streets running off it. Don’t expect too many bargains beyond the bootlegged CDs and videos (which could be confiscated at customs in the United States), however, because prices for items such as clothes and electronic goods are just as high as in the West, and in the chic stores in hotels they are even higher.

Outside the large department stores of Nevsky prospekt, you’ll find some boutiques and lots of “variety shops”—part souvenir-oriented, part practical—which can be a bit bewildering. Check them out if you have time; you never know what you may find.

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