Peter the Great (no not me!), considered St Petersburg to be his window on the West and this has shaped St Petersburg ever since. Founded in 1703 it has been known as Petrograd, and while I was growing up Leningrad, then in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union it became St Petersburg. It is Russia’s 2nd biggest city with a population of 4 ½ million and its historical centre is a Unesco World heritage site. It was the capital of Russia for nearly two hundred years before Moscow became the capital after the revolution in 1918.
St Petersburg is a visually stunning city and a lot of this, just like Paris, is down to good town planning. In 1762 the cities governors decreed that no building could be taller than the Winter Palace. As a result we are left with a wonderfully walk able city that is a pleasure to explore.
A must see is the Hermitage, one of the oldest museums in the world, started by Catherine the Great in 1764 and opened to the public in 1852, it houses one of the most impressive art collections in the world. St Petersburg is a very green city and its many parks contain some impressive imperial residencies such as Catherine’s Palace, Peterhof with its stunning Versailles like gardens and Alexander palace, a former royal residence.
Across the river from the Hermitage is the Peter & Paul fort and in the fort is the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, quite distinct from other churches as it has a stiletto spire rather than the normal onion domes.
Whilst I was there I did a walking tour of the city guided by a local student, this was fantastic and the history learnt was incredible. Does the name Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin mean anything to you? What history this man had and he met a, some would say untimely death, in St Petersburg in 1916.
Around St Petersburg – Peter built the city to keep an eye on the west and so it is a great place to get a first taste of Russia, you can easily combine it with a trip to the Baltic’s or of course you can combine it with Moscow, which I did by getting the overnight sleeper train between them. There is also a train link to Finland, which of course was part of Russia until 1917, and many people combine Helsinki and Scandinavia with St Petersburg.