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ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

St. Petersburg has had three names in less than 100 years, changes that mirror the shifting political winds of Mother Russia. The names of its places and people are a roll call of Russian history of the 19th and 20th centuries: the Winter Palace, the czars, Dostoyevsky, the Catherine Palace, Tchaikovsky, Lenin.

As the former official—some still say cultural—capital, St. Petersburg is the most westernized of Russia's cities. Its grand architecture echoes the great cities of Europe, and there are seemingly endless museums full of staggering quantities of treasure. St. Petersburg sprawls along the banks of the Neva River and was once known as the Venice of the North for the many canals there. For visitors who want to understand what came before, and what is happening now in Russia, St. Petersburg is essential.

Highlights

Sights—Beautiful churches (Kazan Cathedral, Smolny Cathedral, Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac's Cathedral and Alexander Nevsky Monastery); the Peter and Paul Fortress; Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad); a river or channel cruise for a different perspective of the city.

Museums—Masterworks of European painting at the Hermitage Museum; centuries of Russian art at the Russian Museum; the amassed deformities of nature at the Kunstkamera.

Memorable Meals—Hefty portions of good Russian cuisine at 1913 and Palkin; catching your own dinner at Russkaya Rybalka; a gorgeous view from Okean; a Dostoevsky-style vegetarian lunch or dinner at Idiot; a cup of coffee on the second floor of Dom Knigi bookstore.

Late Night—A mug of freshly brewed beer at Baltika Brew; Russian rockabilly bands at Money Honey; dancing in Russia's hippest bomb shelter at Griboyedov; listening to the jazz at JFC Jazz Club or The Hat; a stroll at 2 am to watch the drawbridges open during the White Nights.

Walks—Window-shopping on Nevsky Prospekt; strolling along the picturesque banks of the Neva River and the roofs of the city center; exploring the stunning grounds of the czarist summer palaces and gardens in the suburbs of St. Petersburg; enjoying the parks and 19th century cottages on the Kamenny and Yelagin islands; a walk through the empire of fountains in Peterhof.

Geography

St. Petersburg is as far north as Seward, Alaska, and is more populous than any city at that latitude. It experiences White Nights during the summer when the north pole is tilted closest to the sun, meaning that St. Petersburg only has a few hours of darkness a day in the summer months.

The city sits on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, an inlet of the Baltic Sea. The many fingers of the Neva River run through the city's heart, cutting St. Petersburg into about 60 islands. Nevsky Prospekt, Russia's most famous street, divides the city's main landmass in half from east to west and is lined with hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants.

 

Just across the Neva from mainland St. Petersburg are Vasilievsky Island and another island called the "Petrograd Side" of the city (where Peter the Great originally founded St. Petersburg). Both islands contain interesting sightseeing attractions and are easily accessible by bridges.

History

St. Petersburg was founded by progressive-minded Czar Peter the Great in 1703 near the site of a captured Swedish fortress. But the founding of St. Petersburg wasn't easy. More than 300,000 prisoners of war and conscripts died leveling hills, draining marshes and building ornate baroque palaces. Peter made the new city the capital of Russia and insisted that nobles from Moscow relocate there.

The city entered a building boom under czarinas Elizabeth and Catherine the Second (the Great) and Czar Alexander I, giving St. Petersburg many of its most famous buildings. It was during this period, 1741-1825, that the city became one of the most grandiose capitals in all of Europe.

Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs and his industrialization policy brought huge numbers of people into St. Petersburg during the late 1800s. However, poor conditions for the lower classes contributed to widespread discontent. When troops fired upon a peaceful demonstration of workers in Palace Square—a day later known as Bloody Sunday—the 1905 Revolution was under way. Czar Nicholas II finally appeased the working class with the signing of the October Manifesto, which gave birth to the first-ever Parliament in Russia—the State Duma.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, St. Petersburg changed its name to the more Russian Petrograd. In 1917, the city was again the hub of revolution. A combination of wartime grievances and social unrest led to the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. Petrograd gave up the seat of government to Moscow in its wake. After the death of Russia's first socialist leader, Vladimir Lenin, in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad.

During World War II, German forces laid siege to Leningrad in September 1941. The city was completely blockaded for nearly three years, and more than a million people died, many of starvation. The city was rebuilt after the war and gradually regained its position as the cultural capital of Russia. The city restored its name to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s and retains that designation to this day.

Vladimir Putin, who was elected president of Russia in 2000 and has lived in St. Petersburg most of his life, has worked to boost the city's profile. He was re-elected to a third term in 2012, after swapping posts with prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, also a St. Petersburg native. Putin was elected to a fourth term in 2018.

Putin has largely been credited with leading Russia into a period of stability and economic progress following the hyperinflation of the crisis ridden 1990s. Under Putin's leadership, the city has hosted numerous international summits and has refurbished an extravagant palace into one of his presidential residences.

A large number of palaces, historic buildings and embankments were reconstructed (most of them only from the outside) in honor of the city's 300th anniversary in 2003. More and more restaurants and services have opened, too, and a few new museums have appeared in the city as St. Petersburg has become more tourist-friendly.

The city's skyline changed forever with the construction of Lakhta Center on the outskirts of town. The scientific, educational and recreational complex includes the tallest building in Russia and second-tallest in Europe.

Port Location

Tourists arriving by ship could end up in a few different locations, including the new Marine (Morskoy) Facade Sea Terminal, the old Morskoy Vokzal Sea Terminal or one of a number of docks located closer to the city center not far from the Blagoveschensky Bridge (formerly known as the Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge). Anyone arriving by ferry from Tallinn, Estonia, or Helsinki, Finland, should expect to arrive at Morskoy Vokzal (check the schedule in advance, as it tends to change often).

Those arriving by ferry should obtain a migration card before landing. The cards are usually distributed to passengers as they disembark. If you are not given one, ask. If you go to passport control without one you are likely to be sent back or fined upon departure.

Shore Excursions

Anyone arriving on a cruise ship touring the Baltic Sea will most likely have made arrangements through their tour operators to stay in St. Petersburg for less than 72 hours, taking advantage of a provision that allows passengers to visit St. Petersburg visa-free. Customs officials will meet you at the dock and process the necessary paperwork. If you are on one of these tours, you will not be allowed to travel independently and must stay with your group at all times, although this rule is not always strongly enforced.

If you wish to travel independently, you will need to arrange for a Russian visa well in advance of your arrival. Your cruise or tour company will be able to help you with the details.

Potpourri

St. Petersburg is a very young city by European standards, as it is just slightly more than 300 years old. It is one of two cities in Europe that has never been captured by an enemy during a war or seceded as part of a treaty. The other is Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though Russian and Soviet history teaches that St. Petersburg was nothing but a swamp before Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, it was actually already inhabited by the Ingrians, a race linked to Finns that traded with Dutch traders sailing the Baltic Sea.

 

A Swedish fortress called Nyenskans, built in 1611, was located at the mouth of the Neva River (across the river from where Smolny Cathedral stands today). It was sacked and destroyed by Alexander Nevsky, a knight who came up from Novgorod and led the Russians to victory over the Swedes. This land moved back and forth between Sweden and Russia several times.

St. Petersburg's underground network (metro system) is the deepest in the world. The average depth is 200 ft, and some escalators are more than 500 ft—the longest in the world. There are two reasons for these depths: The metro was built not only for public transport purposes but also as a potential shelter in case of a nuclear attack, and it runs underneath the Neva River and all of the area's many other rivers and streams.

Sightseeing

 For visual and decorative arts, it's hard to beat the famous 1,367-sq-ft Hermitage Museum, which ranks among the world's finest. Allow at least half a day just to look at the room decorations, but days and days if you really want to see the museum's incredible art. The bulk of the collection is housed in the Winter Palace, the former home of the czars and one of the focal points of the 1917 revolution. Afterward, stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main street for shopping and restaurants, and visit St. Isaac's Cathedral—there is a wonderful view of the city from its tower.

For another interesting route, turn off Nevsky Prospekt (don't forget to have a look at Kazan Cathedral) down Kanal Griboyedova and visit the ornate Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. If the weather is warm, visit one of the many outdoor cafes nearby or browse through the large souvenir stands around the church. Also in the area are the Russian Museum, Mikhailovsky Castle and Mikhailovsky Park, which is nice for a stroll.

Across the Neva River from the Hermitage, near the Palace Bridge, is the Peter and Paul Fortress, one of the first buildings constructed in the city. It has been home to many unwilling guests, including Dostoyevsky. Peter the Great imprisoned one of his sons, Czarevich Alexei, in its dungeons, and Catherine the Great "buried her enemies alive" there by exiling them to the fortress for life.

But the best part of sightseeing in St. Petersburg may well be a trip out of the city. In the so-called "palace suburbs"—most of them within a 45-minute drive of Nevsky Prospekt—visitors get a glimpse of Russia's imperial past. In the former czarist estates at Peterhof, Gatchina, Tsarskoye Tselo (Pushkin) and Pavlovsk, you'll find green, rolling parks with cleverly made lakes and canals, as well as exquisitely decorated palaces. Don't miss an outstanding Pushkin landmark—a re-created Amber Room.

Be aware that the government has decreed that all transactions are to be carried out in rubles. Also, be aware that foreigners must often pay several times more than Russians do for admission to museums and other attractions.

Dining Overview

Leningrad was never a fine-dining destination, but St. Petersburg is becoming one in its democratic resurgence. Almost overnight, hundreds of new restaurants have sprung up. Russian cuisine, too, is enjoying a domestic renaissance. The cuisines of neighboring Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are spicier than Russian cooking and well worth trying.

Fast-food restaurants, both international and local, are plentiful throughout St. Petersburg, especially in the city center and along Moskovsky Prospekt. Russian fast food generally takes the form of pancakes (blini) with sweet or savory fillings. Try the delicious, fresh blini from one of the Teremok stands—marked with a T—just off Nevsky Prospekt.

As more and more Russians are living life on the go, coffee- and teahouses have become popular places to meet friends and business associates or to just take a load off.  A basic coffee will cost about 100 rubles-120 rubles.

Beware of buying food and drink from street vendors and from the kiosks around metro stations, as the quality and hygiene standards are both questionable—there have been many reports of people becoming seriously ill. Also avoid the restaurant at the Moscow train station unless you are absolutely famished (the staff is notorious for overcharging tourists).

When eating out, be aware that many restaurants do not have everything that's listed on the menu. Servers also may try to slip you an extra salad, drink or plate of bread. Don't be shy about sending it back. And keep in mind that mistakes in figuring the tab—innocent or otherwise —are not infrequent. Don't be afraid to question any discrepancies you notice. The smoke level in restaurants can be a problem—Russians frequently smoke between courses, and a smoke-free section is not always available. Also, don't be surprised if loud Russian pop-music plays in the background—ask to have it turned down.

Reservations are a good idea at most restaurants. Peak times tend to be 6-7 pm (particularly Monday-Thursday) and 10-11 pm. Credit cards are now widely accepted—particularly Visa and MasterCard, but rarely American Express. But do double-check before you order: Even restaurants displaying credit-card signs may refuse your card, sometimes because of a temporary technical problem. You never know for certain what a restaurant's policy is going to be, so take along plenty of rubles.

 

Dos & Don'ts

Do make copies of your credit cards, passport, visas and other documents—and keep the originals in a safe place.

Don't forget to get a migration card before going to passport control when you arrive.

Do keep a photo ID with you if you are planning on using a credit card.

Don't shake hands over a threshold (it's regarded as bad luck).

Do carry a small roll of toilet paper with you just in case you have to use a public toilet that doesn't have any.

Don't drink the water unless it has been boiled or filtered.

Do ask for the British Consulate's small handout on crime in St. Petersburg (it should be available at your hotel). It has a great map and useful information.

Don't be offended if Russian men don't shake hands with women (women who offer their hands might find them kissed rather than shaken).

Do watch your head—ice tends to fall off buildings in the spring.

Don't be irritated that you might be required to pay a "foreigner price" at many theaters and museums. That's just the way it is, and discussions with the babushka (matron) guarding the entrance won't get you anywhere, even in perfect Russian.

Do show up at least an hour before museums or restaurants close. Many ticket offices close an hour or more before the museum, and sometimes the kitchens close early so the staff can leave at the official closing time.

Geostats

Passport/Visa Requirements: Passports, visas and proof of onward passage are needed by Canadian and U.S. citizens. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure. A tourist visa is valid for a maximum of 30 days. For longer stays, a business (multiple entry) visa is recommended. Anyone who travels on a multientry business visa can stay in Russia no longer than 90 days in any 180-day period.

If you arrange your trip through a tour agency, the agency will handle visa arrangements for you. If you are traveling independently, you'll need an official letter of invitation from a Russian citizen or company, and you'll have to apply for a visa through a Russian consulate. After entering the country, you must register the visa and migration card within seven days. Your hotel will usually take care of this for you (by law they must register you within 24 hours), but you may be charged a small fee.

Expect the process to take at least a day, and be sure to pick up your documents from the hotel (they don't necessarily return them to you until you ask). Many tourist agencies will also handle the registering for you. Note that if you fail to get registered on time, you will be fined when leaving Russia and may miss your flight.

Population: 5,028,000.

Languages: Russian. English is spoken in hotels and most upscale restaurants, and taxi drivers speak just enough English to charge three times the going rate. A crash course in the Russian alphabet is a must to decipher maps and signs on streets and subways.

Predominant Religions: Christian (Russian Orthodox), Islamic.

Time Zone: 4 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+4 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.

Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.

Telephone Codes: 7, country code; 812, city code;

Travel 42

Copyright ©2017 Northstar Travel Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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