The creation of Tsar Peter the Great, St Petersburg - "Russia's Window on the West" is an incredible city of stunning and seemingly endless beauty.
The building of St Petersburg commenced in 1703, when Peter decided to move his capital from Moscow, in an attempt to orient Russia more to Western Europe. At the time he chose St Petersburg, it was nothing more than a marshy delta where the Neva River empties into the Baltic Sea. A massive construction project spanned over his reign and that of several subsequent Tsars as a new city arose from nowhere, to become one of the grandest of all European capitals. The city was officially decreed the new Russian capital in 1712.
His original log cabin can be visited (not far from the Peter & Paul fortress) and this provides an astonishing contrast to the grandeur with which he imbued the rest of the city. Peter was an interesting character - he stood 6' 8" tall (2.03m) at a time when the average person was much shorter than they are today, further accenting his height. He was both a visionary and, alas, in some respects a petty tyrant - perhaps the ultimate in "benevolent dictators", but however flawed the man himself, his finest creation, St Petersburg, allows for no criticism whatsoever.
Also sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the North" due to its canal system (now not nearly as extensive as it formerly was), the city is crammed full of stunning buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to the array of extravagances in the city itself, there are also outlying palaces - "summer houses" in places such as Pushkin, Pavlovsk, Lomonosov (Oranienbaum) and, maybe greatest of all, Petrodvorets (Peterhof) - Peter's answer to Versailles.
St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1914 at the onset of World War 1 to make it sound more Russian (and less German). While this might sound extreme, we should remember that the British Royal Family (closely related to the Russian Tsars) at the same time renamed themselves from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor for similar reasons! After the Russian revolution in 1917, and Lenin's death in 1924, the city subsequently was renamed Leningrad, not only in honor of Lenin himself, but also to reflect the central role that the city had in Lenin's revolutionary activities. The communists moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918, preferring Moscow as a more secure location further away from possible German attack, where it has remained ever since.
After independence, in 1991 the citizens of the city voted to rename itself back to its original name of St Petersburg, while the regional district within which it is located confusingly retains the name of Leningrad Oblast. Many of the streets in the city have also been returned to their original, pre-Communist, names, which can on occasion cause confusion if you're using material that refers to the old instead of the new names of places.
These days St Petersburg is a bustling city of 5 million people. The inner city area remains in a state of semi-suspended animation, with curious contrasts such as modern upmarket shop windows cut into the front of what were perhaps once palaces and stately homes along the main shopping street - Nevsky Prospect. Further out, ugly high-rise housing projects project the kind of urban blight that can be found in most large cities everywhere in the world, but fortunately this is all essentially completely out of sight for the typical visitor.
Like so much of Russia, St Petersburg is struggling to survive with inadequate funding. Many of the magnificent buildings are at an age where they desperately need substantial capital repairs, and too little money is being allocated to preserve this marvellous city. While the very best known buildings are in a reasonably satisfactory state, a careful and close-up look at some of the less well known buildings shows a distressing amount of decay and degeneration.
Petersburg has always considered itself more cultured than Moscow, and maybe this is so. Certainly, you can enjoy a profusion of amazing quality opera and ballet in amazing theatres - and as a very special experience, you can even reserve, on occasion, the former "Tsar's Box" at the grandest of all theatres, now again known as the "Mariinsky" and formerly in Soviet times called the Kirov.
St Petersburg is approximately 400 miles north-north-west of Moscow. It is so far north (almost exactly on the 60th parallel, a similar northerly aspect to that of Anchorage in Alaska or Stockholm in Sweden) that during the summer, the sun barely sets at night before rising again very early in the morning. This period is known as the "White Nights" and is an enchanting time to be in this charming city. It is, of course, also the height of its tourist season, and so the most difficult time of year to manage to arrange accommodation.
Summer temperatures tend to be warm, usually in the high sixties and low seventies. Winter temperatures are - well, cold!
We personally tend to spend most of our time "off season" in St Petersburg; indeed, I'll confess myself to loving the city even more in the depths of winter. The pale pastels of the buildings blend beautifully with the fresh snow that falls most days, and the covering of snow also obscures some of the ugliest aspects of the city, making it instead a wonderful, almost unreal dreamlike environment in which to enjoy the museums, opera, ballet and theatre.
We strongly urge you to include St Petersburg on your travel itinerary to Russia.
Museums and Theatres
Russian hotels vary wildly in quality and price. Although prices and values have improved in the last few years of the 1990s, the best hotels are still among the most expensive in all of Europe, but as a redeeming feature, their quality is also of highest world standards. In St Petersburg, there are three excellent quality hotels (the first three listed below). There are then a number of second level - what might perhaps be styled as "average" hotels - the next ones listed. Then there is another quantum drop in standard to hotels that involve major compromises in quality and comfort (eg the Moscow Hotel), and of course, there are plenty of opportunities to find even worse hotels below these.
Perhaps surprisingly, the last property we list - a youth hostel (but open to travellers of all ages) isn't too bad a quality, and certainly is good value for what it offers, and would appeal to the more adventurous and budget minded travellers, probably being a better choice than some of the horrible nasty cheap hotels.
The cheaper the hotel, the less English that is spoken. In the highest grade of hotels, all reception, bar, restaurant and porter staff will speak acceptably good English. When you move down to the next grade of hotels, some staff will speak English, and when you move down another grade, you may quite likely find that, depending on who is on duty, perhaps no-one will speak English at all. The youth hostel seems to be staffed at all hours by cheerful young Russians that speak good English.
Comments? Suggestions? Send mail to David Rowell email@example.com . This page last edited : May 15, 2010