Floating over the quiet delta of the Neva River sits St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. It has gone by several names according to the political circumstances of the times. Once called Petrograd, in the Soviet era the name was changed to Leningrad until the city regains—in 1991—its original name: St. Petersburg. Review our curated selection of cultural and historical destinations around the world.
Unlike other large European cities, St. Petersburg is quite young. It was founded in 1703 by order of Tsar Peter the Great to serve as Russia’s window to the western world. Vast numbers of foreign architects, artists, craftsmen, and engineers were hired to build the city. They worked–alongside Russians–to create unparalleled monuments that remain paradigms of elegance and good taste. These include masterful constructions such as the magnificent Cathedral of St. Isaac; the Winter Palace—official residence of Russian tsars—the Fortress of Peter and Paul; the classical Admiralty with its emblematic golden spire; the Smolny Convent, and the original headquarters of the Imperial Academy of Sciences.
For more than 200 years, St. Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire. The arrival of the Russian Revolution saw the seat of government moved to Moscow. Today, the city is one of the world’s leading cultural centers and is known for its magnificent architectural structures, palaces, and museums. In fact, its beautiful historic center was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. The city is also known as the Venice of the North for its countless canals, islands and bridges, ideal for pleasant strolls under the crisp glow of a glorious sunset.
St. Petersburg is a cultural magnet, but if you want to discover the city’s essence, you should visit the many markets that dot the city. Of particular interest are Sennoi, and Aprachka where you’ll feel the hospitality and warmth of the local people. Also worth a visit, Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin’s murder in 1916 is said to have taken place.
St. Petersburg deserves a visit even if all you see is its museums. The most emblematic is the Hermitage, an impressive architectural complex consisting of five buildings—the Winter Palace, the Hermitage Theatre, the Small Hermitage, the Great Hermitage and the New Hermitage. It is home to one of the most comprehensive art collections in the world featuring works by Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rodin, as well as a collection of more than three million valuable pieces of art and antiques. St. Petersburg also boasts a significant contemporary art scene with more than 50 galleries and exhibition halls. .
The Mariinsky Theatre is another landmark in St. Petersburg worth seeing. It is home to one of the countries most exemplary institutions: the Mariinsky Ballet. It was formerly the Imperial Ballet and the Kirov Ballet during the Soviet era and some of dance’s most iconic stars—Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov among others—have performed on its legendary stage.
There are also magnificent parks—like the famous Peterhof, Pushkin, and Pavlovsk—where the weary traveler can sit and enjoy the quiet and beauty of the gardens. We also recommend a trip to some of the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, including Gatchina, Peterhof, Strelna or Lomonosov. And a boat tour through the canals at dusk helps us appreciate the beauty of this city and its splendid bridges.
If you love to shop, by all means stop by the fabled Nevsky and Liteiny Streets, where the leading fashion labels have set shop in the past few years opening luxurious boutiques. The area is also perfect to buy all kinds of regional specialties such as samovars, amber jewelry from the Baltic Sea, and the mandatory caviar and vodka.
The Belmond Grand Hotel Europe— one of the most glamorous in St. Petersburg— is a superb and luxurious accommodation with over 140 years of history. It has hosted celebrated guests such as the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, tenor Luciano Pavarotti and members of the imperial Romanov family. The hotel is also famous for its magnificent restaurant L’Europe, with its impressive art nouveau décor and excellent Franco-Russian cuisine, featuring classic delicacies such as caviar, oysters, and the traditional blinis. ■