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Commissioned by Peter the Great as "a window looking into Europe," St. Petersburg is a planned city built on more than 100 islands in the Neva Delta linked by canals and arched bridges. It was first called the "Venice of the North" by Goethe. Little wonder it's the darling of today's fashion photographers. With its strict geometric lines and perfectly planned architecture, so unlike the Russian cities that came before it, St. Petersburg is almost too European to be Russian. And yet it's too Russian to be European. Memories of revolutionary zeal and one of the worst ordeals of World War II, when the city-then known as Leningrad-withstood a 900-day siege and blockade by Nazi forces, are still fresh in the minds of citizens. Nevertheless, St. Petersburg is filled with pleasures and tantalizing treasures, from golden spires and gilded domes to pastel palaces and candlelit cathedrals.
 
There's something eerily fascinating about coming to St. Petersburg. It's probably a combination of Cold War remembrances (this was, after all, once an Evil Empire) and all sorts of warnings from ship personnel about pickpockets and black marketers. It doesn't help that you have to walk past stern-faced, uniformed customs officials at the pier before you can experience the city itself.
 
Once in the city, though, you'll likely find St. Petersburg a wonderful place, particularly if you're lucky enough to come during White Nights, when the sun barely sets and the entire city seems to be up all night. It's not entirely without hassles: The key museums and attractions are not air-conditioned and rarely have special facilities for the disabled. Very few signs are in English, and understanding what you are seeing -- whether it's a street sign, a shop name or a painting description -- can be impossible. And the Hermitage is typically packed to the gills; you may have to do a lot of jostling to see the art highlights if you aren't on a tour that specifically avoids the crowds.
 
Even so, the beautiful city Peter the Great founded in 1703, in what was then swampland, has unbelievably sumptuous Czarist-era palaces (efforts have been underway for years to fix the crumbling ones), onion-domed churches and the lovely Neva River (where twilight cruises are offered). Peter was inspired by London, Paris and Vienna and carefully developed the city by plan, creating canals and passageways that will remind you of Venice. Most of the design remains intact today, testimony to St. Petersburg's pride -- and the inability of Hitler to conquer the city during World War II. It's a fascinating place, with a lurid past that's fit for a romance novel. You could find yourself falling in love.
 
The fact that cruise ships typically spend at least one overnight there allows you to explore the countryside, as well, where past the bland Soviet-style apartment buildings of the suburbs are opulent country palaces -- impressive memorials to the best Czarist money could buy.
 
St. Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 to 1914 and remains Russia's cultural capital. All the big names have been affiliated with St. Petersburg, including Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. The city itself is like a living museum. You are likely to find yourself oohing and aahing at the architecture from your cab or bus, and art is a key attraction. You've been to the Louvre in Paris; now see the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, home to significant collections of Matisses, Picassos and Rembrandts. And don't miss a chance to see Russian ballet performed live.
 
Where You're Docked
St. Peterburg's Sea Facade has been built on reclaimed land at the mouth of the Neva River. It's on Vasilyevsky Island, about a 15-minute taxi ride from the city's historic center. Although the port can handle up to seven mega-liners simultaneously, debarkation doesn't seem to be much of a hassle.
 
Hanging Around
Completed in spring 2011, the three Sea Facade terminals are new and very user-friendly, offering a taxi stand with set prices (600 rubles one-way to the Hermitage), a tourist info booth, ATM's, vending machines, souvenir shops, a cafe, Wi-Fi service and between 28 and 36 passport booths each to help speed debarkation. While plans are underway to make the Sea Facade area a true tourism and business center, there's nothing there right now that will entice you to linger.
 
Getting Around
If you go it alone and travel by cab, it's a good idea to have the ship's berth location written down in Russian characters, since your return driver may not speak English. Ship personnel at the pier should be able to help you with that. The major in-town attractions, such as the Hermitage, the Russian Museum and St. Isaac's Cathedral (all highlights), are within a brisk walk of one another. Taxis typically line up outside the big attractions; negotiate the price before getting into the car. Otherwise, head for one of the five-star hotels (Grand Hotel Europe, Nevsky Palace Hotel, SAS Radisson) on Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main boulevard, and hail one there.
 
If you would prefer to rent a car and driver, you can try and negotiate with the on-pier taxi drivers. One offered us a private tour of wherever we wanted to go for about $30 an hour. You can also visit the City Tourist Information Center, #41 Nevsky Prospekt, which can set you up with a driver (although the on-pier option is undeniably more convenient). Cruise lines' shore excursion offices may also offer car-and-driver rentals.
 
Watch Out For
St. Petersburg can be a challenging place to visit. First and foremost, if you're not on a shore excursion through a licensed operator and want to go it on your own, you need a Russian visa, and you have to apply for it in advance of your trip. The cost varies wildly, and it can creep up to $400, depending on whether you use regular or express service. Your source for such is the Russian embassy or consulate. Or ask your travel agent or cruise line if they work with a reputable visa service; they charge a fee but save you time. You will, either way, need to submit two passport photos. Click here for more details.
 
Or go with a local tour operator -- such as SPB tours, Alla or TJ Travel -- that has special certification to carry passengers without a visa. You'll need to book your tour in advance and show your ship a copy of your confirmed tour receipt before you can debark.
Also, don't drink the tap water. Stick to bottled varieties, and go easy on ice in your drinks, as well. The water is not up to Western standards and may cause "traveler's tummy" (stomach upset).

 
Attractions

St. Isaac's Cathedral
The biggest in St. Petersburg, is an immense, awesome spectacle. It's not all that old -- it was completed in the mid-19th century -- but it's replete inside and out with gorgeous mosaic murals, granite pillars and marble floors. Its huge gold dome can be seen for miles around. (Closed Wednesday and the last Monday in the month; open 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Thursday - Monday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday)
 
The Church of the Resurrection of the Christ (Savior on the Spilled Blood) gets its gruesome name from Emperor Alexander II, who was assassinated on this very spot in 1881. Modeled after St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, the onion-domed exterior immediately fulfills all your dreams of Russia; a photo op there is a must. Inside, there are 7,500 square meters of mosaics, all restored, as well as a shrine to the departed tsar. (Closed Wednesday; open 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Thursday - Monday in summer, 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. September - May)
 
The Russian Museum is housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace and is one of two top places in all of Russia to experience the culture of the country, from 12th-century icons to the avant-garde. Don't miss the adjacent Mikhailovsky Gardens, a lovely spot to rest during a long day of sightseeing. (Closed Tuesday; open 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Thursday - Sunday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday)
 
The Peter and Paul Fortress is where St. Petersburg began. Built in 1703, it was initially planned as a defense against Sweden, but the Russians won that war before the fortress was completed. It was used, until 1917, as a political prison instead. Many of the czars and other Russian royalty are buried there. Other highlights include the Baroque-style Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (open every day) and the Trubetskoy Bastion. (Fortress closed Wednesdays and the last Tuesday of every month; open from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Thursday - Monday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Tuesday.)
 
If you really want to see how the Romanovs lived, take a trip to some of their magnificent palaces, located outside the city proper. The primary palaces are Catherine Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great's Peterhof -- and you can do them in a day (but just barely). Peterhof lies on the Baltic Sea, a magnificent landmark of Russian artistic culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, founded in the very beginning of the 18th century by Emperor Peter the Great. It's known as the Russian Versailles for its gorgeous fountain-laden grounds and elaborate interiors. Try to schedule your tour on a weekend, when all of the portions of the complex are open. In Pushkin, Catherine Palace neighbors the palace of Pavlovsk, which was built for Russian Czar Paul I, the only son of Catherine the Great. Both were built in the mid- to late-18th century, have been beautifully restored and are situated among gorgeous parks and gardens. At Catherine Palace, don't miss the re-created Amber Room, which took 20 years and cost more than $12 million. (The original amber panels were stolen by Nazis during World War II and sent back to Germany, where they were never recovered.)
 
You'll kick yourself if you leave St. Petersburg without attending one of its famed cultural performances. The city has long been a magnet for Russian musicians, composers and dancers, and its residents flock to its theaters (where they pay a much lower ticket price than visiting tourists). While the famed Mariinsky Theatre is the best known (the former Kirov Ballet is housed there), the city has enough venues and talented performers that your night out is bound to be special.
 
Highly Recommended: Erarta Museum and Galleries of Contemporary Art
 
The Hermitage
A day isn’t really enough to do justice to the Hermitage’s vast collection of art, which includes masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso and Rembrandt (2). Indeed, officials say it would take 11 years to examine every single exhibit. Take a wander on the vast Palace Square beforehand.
Contact: (00 7 812 710 9079; hermitagemuseum.org), Dvortsovaya Nab 30-8 -- Open: Tues-Sat, 10.30 am-6pm; Sun, 10.30am-5pm
Admission: R400 (about £8), children free

Metro: Nevsky Prospekt
Church on Spilled Blood
With its exuberant onion domes and almost gaudy mosaics, this extraordinary building just off Nevsky Prospekt was constructed in the early 20th century on the site of the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II (3). Used by the Soviets to store potatoes during the Second World War siege of the city by Nazi forces, the church was finally reopened to the public in 1997Contact: (00 7 812 315 1636), Konyushennaya Ploshchad -- Open: May-September 10am-7pm, October-April 11am-6pm, closed Wednesdays Admission: R400

Peter and Paul Fortress
There is a lot to see at this fortress (4), built in 1703 and one of the first buildings to be erected in St Petersburg, including the Baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is the final resting place of almost all of Russia’s pre-revolutionary leaders, from Peter the Great onwards. Other exhibits include an extremely odd – and controversial – statue of Peter the Great, a working mint and the cells where Tsarist-era revolutionaries were held. If the weather is good, be sure to check out the riverside “beach”. The city’s so-called “walruses” – believers in the therapeutic effects of freezing water – gather here to bathe in winter.
 
The first building in Sankt-Piter-Burkh, as the city was then called, was erected in just one year, between 1703 and 1704, during the Great Northern War against Sweden. It was never used for its intended purpose, however, as the Russian line of defense quickly moved farther north, and, in fact, the war was won before the fortress was mobilized. Instead, the fortress served mainly as a political prison, primarily under the tsars. The date on which construction began on the fortress is celebrated as the birth of St. Petersburg. As you leave the cathedral, note the small classical structure to your right. This is the Boathouse (Botny Domik), built between 1762 and 1766 to house Peter the Great's boyhood boat. The boat has since been moved to the Naval Museum on Vasilievsky Island, and the building is not open to the public. In the yard of the fortress there is the most unusual bronze sculpture of Peter the Great. Visitors rub the tsar's fingers hoping that it will bring them wealth and take pictures of themselves sitting on Peter's laps. Some casements close to the Neva Gate have been converted into a printing workshop (pechatnya), where you can buy good-quality graphic art in a broad range of prices. Original late-19th-century presses are used to create lithographs, etchings, and linocuts depicting, most often, urban St. Petersburg landscapes, which make nice alternatives to the usual souvenirs. In the basement, the original foundations were excavated; different layers of the history of the fortress can thus be seen. 3 Petropavlovskaya Krepost, Petrograd Side. Admission charged.

St Petersburg city break guide
The city’s so-called “walruses” – believers in the therapeutic effects of freezing water – gather here to bathe in winter Contact: (00 7 812 238 4550; spbmuseum.ru/peterpaul), Petropavlovskaya Krepost -- Open: Open 10am-6pm, closed Tues and Wed. Admission: Grounds free, exhibits vary

Children’s Music Theatre
A visit to this magical venue is sure to prove a big hit, even if your kids’ Russian language skills aren’t so hot (5). Featuring musicals based around Russian fairy tales, the shows are renowned for their colourful stage scenery and enthusiastic performers.
Contact: (00 7 812 315 5480; zazerkal.spb.ru – in Russian only), Ulitsa Rubenshtenya 13 -- Open: Performances at 11:00, Noon, 15:00, but not every day – check website http://www.zazerkal.spb.ru/  Admission: Tickets from R200 to R1000

Mariinsky Theatre
First opened in 1860, the Mariinsky Theatre (6) has long been one of the world’s most famous venues for ballet and opera. It has been a venue for premieres by greats such as Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, and its dance school was responsible for Nureyev and Nijinsky. Forthcoming highlights include the opera of Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (March 27) and the ballet of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karinina (April 29).
Contact: mariinsky.ru
Open: Performances start at 11:30, Noon, 18:00, 19:00 (but see website for exact details) -- Admission: from £8

Russian Museum
World’s largest permanent collection of Russian art; 400,000 exhibits from 10th-21st centuries; complex includes St. Michael’s Castle, the House of Peter the Great, three gardens, and the Marble, Stroganov, and Summer Palaces.
While the State Hermitage displays fine art from all over the world, the Russian Museum (7) concentrates on home-grown masterpieces. Opened in 1898, the museum contains everything from priceless religious icons to works by avant-garde artists such as Kandinsky. Among other outstanding exhibits are The Last Day of Pompeii, a gigantic depiction of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius by the 19th-century artist Karl Bryullov, and Ilya Repin’s colossal The Zaporozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan.
Contact: Inzhenernaya Ulitsa 4; 00 7 812 314 6424; www.rusmuseum.ru -- Open: (ticket office hours) 10am-5pm; Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm; closed Tues -- Admission: £7

St Isaac’s Cathedral
The gold-domed, 19th-century St Isaac’s Cathedral (8) is one of St Petersburg’s most famous landmarks and offers wonderful views of the city from its gilded viewing platform. Statues of the apostles stand guard at the top of St Isaac’s, while its vast doors are decorated with biblical scenes. Inside, the cathedral boasts a vast ceiling painting by Karl Bryullov – The Virgin in Majesty – as well as St Catherine’s Chapel, a 19th-century hybrid of Baroque and Classical styles. The cathedral was used as a museum of atheism in Soviet times and remains a museum today, now with a collection of 19th-century art.

Focal point of the city’s second center; 333-foot-tall (102-meter-tall) gilded dome rises high over the city skyline; built as a national monument after the Napoleonic Wars; a wonderland of semiprecious stones, metals, and decorative arts. St Petersbury city break guide. Forthcoming highlights include the opera of Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.  web: www.cathedral.ru Contact: Isaakievskaya Pl 4; 00 7 812 315 9732; eng.cathedral.ru -- Open: 11am-7pm -- Admission: £5

Vasilevskiy Island
The largest island in St Petersburg (9) offers a bizarre selection of attractions, including a pair of 15th-century sphinxes from Egypt on the river side and a museum of biological oddities (Kunstkammer, Universitetskaya Nab 3) where you can see the skeleton and heart of Peter the Great’s gigantic personal servant. The island is also home to the 19th-century Rostral Columns, whose torches are lit on special occasions. It’s a great place to wander the banks of the Neva river.

Foreigners pay a higher entrance fee at many tourist sites. It’s unfair, but there’s nothing you can do, and there is little point in complaining. Best to laugh it off, and picture Roman Abramovich paying five times less than you under the “discounts for Russian citizens” scheme.
 
St Petersbury city break guide
The anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg is celebrated in extravagant style, with fireworks and concerts on Palace Square.

Palace Square
City hub dominated by the Alexander Column, celebrating Tsar Alexander I and victory over Napoleon; surrounded by the immense Winter Palace and General Staff buildings, which house The Hermitage Museum; open-air venue for concerts, parades, political meetings, and occasional sporting events. Fee for museum. Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya 38; tel. 7 812 311 3420, 110 9625 or 571 3420. www.hermitagemuseum.org
 
Peter and Paul Fortress
Final resting place of many of the tsars; Peter the Great’s wooden fortress marks the 1703 beginning of modern Russia and its new capital city; occupies all of Hare Island; includes a cathedral, prison, mint, and various museums. Petropavlovskaya Krepost 3; tel. 7 812 498 0511, 498 0243 or 232 9454; fee. www.spbmuseum.ru
 
Nevsky Prospekt
St. Petersburg’s signature thoroughfare; considered Russia’s most famous street; upscale shopping and restaurants; grand palaces, museums, and cathedrals; luxury condominiums and apartment buildings; stretches three miles (4.5 kilometers); accessed by five metro stations and four bridges.
 
The Strelka
The spit of Vasilevsky Island; historic economic heart of St. Petersburg; marked by its twin red rostral columns and white colonnade Stock Exchange building; offers excellent views of Peter and Paul Fortress and the Hermitage Museum. Tip: Visit the Anthropology and Ethnography Museum and the Tsar Peter’s disturbing anatomical collections in the Kunstkammer. Tel. 7 812 328 1412; fee. www.kunstkamera.ru
 
Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Prime monastery of Peter the Great’s Russia; named for the city’s spiritual protector of St. Petersburg; includes Trinity Cathedral, Church of Annunciation, and the Tikhvin and Lazarus cemeteries—final resting places of many famous Russians. Aleksandra Nevskogo Ploshchad 1; tel. 7 812 274 2635 or 277 1716; fee for church. www.gmgs.spb.ru
 
Church of the Savior on the Blood
“The most beautiful vision of ‘Ancient Russia’ before St. Petersburg in St. Petersburg.”—Sergei Kuznetsov, historian and curator, Stroganoff Palace. Memorial church built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881; incredible mosaics and stonework. Kanala Griboedova Naberezhnaya 2a; tel. 7 812 315 1636; fee.
 
Summer Gardens
Romantic setting; shaded paths, baroque sculptures, and waterways; perfect spot for a leisurely stroll; home to Peter the Great’s cozy Summer Palace. Tel. 7 812 314 0374; fee. www.rusmuseum.ru
 
The Neva Embankments
Elegant, granite barriers built to control flooding along broad River Neva feature elaborate architectural details, such as sphinx and lion sculptures; paths along the top popular with walkers, especially during summer “White Nights” (late May to mid July) when the night sky stays light; parallels river, providing close-up views of water and passing ships.
 
Dvortsovaya Ploshchad ( Palace Square)
One of the world's most magnificent plazas is a stunning ensemble of buildings and open space, a combination of several seemingly incongruous architectural styles in perfect harmony. It's where the city's imperial past has been preserved in all its glorious splendor, but it also resonates with the history of the revolution that followed. Here, the fate of the last Russian tsar was effectively sealed, on Bloody Sunday in 1905, when palace troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, killing scores of women and children. It was across Palace Square in October 1917 that Bolshevik revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace and overthrew Kerensky's Provisional Government, an event that led to the birth of the Soviet Union. Almost 75 years later, during tense days, huge crowds rallied on Palace Square in support of perestroika and democracy. Today, the beautiful square is a bustling hub of tourist and market activity. City Center.
 
Kazan Cathedral (Kazansky Sobor)
After a visit to Rome, Tsar Paul I (1754-1801) commissioned this magnificent cathedral, wishing to copy-and perhaps present the Orthodox rival to-that city's St. Peter's. It was erected between 1801 and 1811 from a design by Andrei Voronikhin. Inside and out, the church abounds with sculpture and decoration. Note the enormous bronze front doors-exact copies of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise in Florence's Baptistery. In 1932 the cathedral, which was closed right after the revolution, was turned into the Museum of Religion and Atheism, with an emphasis on the latter. Religion was presented from the Marxist point of view, essentially as an archaeological artifact. The museum has since moved to 14 Pochtamtskaya ulitsa, not far from St. Isaac's Cathedral and opposite the main post office (thepochtamt). Kazan Cathedral is once again a place of worship. At each end of the square that forms the cathedral's front lawn are statues of a military leader-at one end, one of Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, at the other, Mikhail Kutuzov. 2 Kazanskaya Pl., City Center.
 
St. Isaac's Cathedral ( Isaakievsky Sobor).
The grandly proportioned St. Isaac's is the world's third-largest domed cathedral and the first monument you see of the city if you arrive by ship. Tsar Alexander I commissioned the construction of the cathedral in 1818 to celebrate his victory over Napoléon, but it took more than 40 years to actually build it. The interior of the cathedral is lavishly decorated with malachite, lazulite, marble, and other stones and minerals. Gilding the dome required 220 pounds of gold. To one side of the cathedral, where the prospekt meets Konnogvardeisky bulvar, is the early-19th-century
 
Konnogvardeisky Manège, gracefully designed by Giacomo Quarenghi and decorated with marble statues of the mythological twins Castor and Pollux. This former barracks of the Imperial horse guards is used as an art exhibition hall. 1 Isaakievskaya Pl., Admiralteisky. Admission charged.
 
State Hermitage Museum ( Gosudarstvenny Ermitazh Muzey). Leonardo's Benois Madonna,Rembrandt's Danaë, Matisse's The Dance. one of the world's most famous museums is virtually wallpapered with celebrated paintings, part of the former private art collection of the tsars. In addition, the walls are works of art themselves, for parts of this collection are housed in the lavish Winter Palace, one of the most outstanding examples of Russian baroque magnificence. The museum takes its name from Catherine the Great (1729-96), who used the palace for her private apartments, intending them to be a place of retreat and seclusion. Today's Hermitage is one of the world's richest repositories of art; it was continually enlarged with tsarist treasures and acquisitions, all later confiscated and nationalized, along with numerous private collections, by the Soviet government after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. With more than 400 exhibit halls and gilded salons, it's impossible to see everything here in a single day. Since you probably only have a few hours, be sure to take in the major attractions, which include Egyptian mummies and Scythian gold; the splendid halls of Russian tsars; the Peacock Clock; the great paintings of Leonardo, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Velázquez; and the outstanding collection of Impressionists and Postimpressionists. Possibly the most prized section of the Hermitage-and definitely the most difficult to get into-is the ground floor's Treasure Gallery, also referred to as the Zolotaya Kladovaya (Golden Room). This spectacular collection of gold, silver, and royal jewels is well worth the hassle and additional entrance fee. The collection is divided into two sections. The first section, covering prehistoric times, includes Scythian gold and silver treasures of striking simplicity and refinement recovered from the Crimea, Ukraine, and Caucasus. The second section contains a dizzying display of precious stones, jewelry, and such extravagances as jewel-encrusted pillboxes and miniature clocks, all from the 16th through the 20th centuries. 2 Dvortsovaya Pl., City Center. Admission charged.
State Museum of Russian Art (Gosudarstvenny Russky Muzey)
In 1898 Nicholas II turned the stupendously majestic neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace (Mikhailovsky Dvorets) into what has become one of the country's most important art galleries. Outstanding icons include the 14th-century Boris and Gleb and the 15th-century Angel Miracle of St. George. Both 17th- and 18th-century paintings are also well represented, especially with portraiture. One of the most famous 18th-century works here is Ivan Nikitin's The Field Hetman. By far the most important works are from the 19th century-huge canvases by Repin, many fine portraits by Serov (his beautiful Countess Orlova and the equally beautiful, utterly different portrait of the dancer Ida Rubinstein), and Mikhail Vrubel's strange, disturbing Demon Cast Down. 4/2 Inzhenernaya ul., City Center. Admission charged.
 
Winter Palace ( Zimny Dvorets)
With its 1,001 rooms swathed in malachite, jasper, agate, and gilded mirrors, the residence of Russia's rulers from Catherine the Great (1762) to Nicholas II (1917) is the grandest monument of Russian rococo, that eye-popping mix of the old-fashioned 17th-century baroque and the newfangled 18th-century neoclassical style. The palace is now part of the State Hermitage Museum, and the only parts you may tour are the relatively few rooms open to museumgoers. Among these are three of the most celebrated rooms in the palace: the Gallery of the 1812 War, where portraits of Russian commanders who served against Napoléon are on display; the Great Throne Room, richly decorated in marble and bronze; and the Malachite Room, designed by the architect Alexander Bryullov and decorated with columns and pilasters of malachite. The exterior-adorned with rows of columns and outfitted with 2,000 heavily decorated windows-is particularly successful and pleasing; note the way the enormous horizontal expanses of outer wall are broken up by vertical lines and variations of lines, pediments, and porches, all topped with a roof balustrade of statues and vases. 34 Dvortsovaya Pl., City Center.

 
Don't Miss
This is one of the few Baltic ports of call where we recommend that passengers take organized shore excursions, either through the ship or a licensed tour operator. Some lines now offer an "at your leisure" tour that gives you the visa, yet allows you time to go off on your own -- really, the best of both worlds. The only way that you can be truly independent is if you obtain a visa prior to your trip.
 
The Hermitage is the world's second-largest art museum (behind the Louvre) and easily St. Petersburg's most famous attraction. The four buildings that make up the museum include the opulent Winter Palace, which was built by Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth and has undergone major renovations that have left it sparkling. Walk up an imposing baroque marble staircase, marvel at all the gold leaf, and check out the several heavily decorated rooms, including a throne room.
 
Your guide will tell you how the art-collecting began with Catherine the Great (although what she collected could only be viewed by royal eyes and invited guests). Today's art collection is in chronological order. On a recent visit, we started with names familiar to fans of the old Ninja Turtles cartoon -- Leonardo (DaVinci), Raphael, Michelangelo. Next, we moved on to the Spanish collection (Velazquez, Goya and El Greco, to name a few).
 
While the Hermitage's Rembrandt collection is the second-biggest (after Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum), many of the more famous pieces have returned to Holland as part of the Hermitage Amsterdam. Still at the Hermitage on a recent visit: The Danae, which may or may not actually be by Rembrandt but has a place in history for being slashed and burned with acid in 1985 by a madman. It took 12 years to restore the work.
 
Get there early to view the museum's famous Impressionist collection, put together by collectors in Moscow. Declared bourgeois by Stalin, the collection sat in warehouses until the end of World War II, when it was divided up between the Hermitage and the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow. Renoirs, Van Goghs, Cezannes and Gauguins cover the walls in room after room, followed by a lot of Matisse and some Picasso, too. Don't miss the fabulous gift shop, which is a great place to buy quality souvenirs. The museum offers a radio system where you can put on headphones and actually hear your guide despite the crowds. (Closed Monday; open from 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, 10:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday.)

Been There, Done That
Those with visas should spend at least part of their time on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's most famous street and the city's major commercial thoroughfare. Nevsky Prospekt is life in Russia on display, with street vendors and exclusive Western boutiques (ranging from Hugo Boss to Versace), cathedrals and parks, cafes and canals. One fun diversion is a boat ride along the canals; plan to pay about 200 rubles for an hourlong trip. Boats leave from Anichkov Bridge (the Fontanka River) just off Nevsky Prospekt at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Buy your ticket on the spot.
 
Nevsky Prospekt is also a good place to pick up edible and drinkable souvenirs (from caviar to vodka); among the handful of mini-markets, the stores at #21 and #41 have excellent selections. One warning to visitors: Despite the presence of pedestrian crossings, there is no such thing as "yield to pedestrians" in this city of frantic drivers; pay close attention to traffic, or cross the street through the underground pedestrian tunnels.
 
If you're young, hip, trendy or daring, follow the crew to St. Petersburg's nightlife scene! Because of the city's exotic quality and the overnight in port, the stop in St. Petersburg is a big evening out for cruise travelers. Typically, cruise lines will organize ballet or folkloric excursions, but the city's got some fabulous nightclubs, too. Of note are Hollywood (#46 Nevsky Prospekt) and Metro (#174 Ligovsky Pr.). A word of caution: Don't carry any valuables or too much extra cash.
 
If you want to do some shopping, pick up quality souvenirs at the Hermitage or cheap trinkets -- including nesting dolls, other craft items and Communist-era pins -- from the street vendors outside or at any market. (Be aware some products may be fakes.) Outside the Hermitage, one T-shirt vendor had a shirt with the Communist Party symbol of a hammer and sickle that announced, "The Party's Over," in case anyone didn't know that.
 
Shore Excursions
Best for First-Timers: Look for two-day overview excursions that include both landmarks in the historic center -- such as St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Church on Spilled Blood and the Hermitage -- and a visit out to the countryside to see Peterhof or Catherine Palace. Some lines add in a canal cruise, a romantic way to experience the city's architecture, while others tack on stops at the Metro. What's so special about a subway? Built during Stalin's rule, the stations were considered "palaces of the people" -- and they feature chandeliers and gorgeous Soviet-era artwork.
 
Best for Culture Vultures: Almost every line has an option to take in a ballet or cultural performance (although you usually won't find out which specific theater you're going to until you're onboard), with Champagne and mineral water available at intermission. Not all of St. Petersburg's theaters have elevators, so you'll want to make sure you can climb some stairs. Packing note: The lines suggest jackets for men going on this excursion.
 
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've toured St. Petersburg already, use one of your days in port for Moscow. The trip is via regular scheduled airline (the flight takes about an hour) or by a four-hour high-speed train. It's a long day (your trip will start early and last until 1 a.m.), and it's pricey (day trips are about $679 - $795, overnights substantially more), but you get to see the major sights of Russia's bustling capital city -- including the Kremlin, a masterpiece of Russian architecture, and Red Square, with views of Lenin's Tomb. Overnight trips typically also include a ballet performance at the Russian State Theatre.
 
Day trips
 
Peterhof
The elegant gardens, fountains and grand palaces of Peterhof (20 miles from St Petersburg) were influenced greatly by Peter the Great’s visit to Versailles in 1717, and the estate is a testimony to the tsar’s well-known love of all things European. Hydrofoils leave for Peterhof from the jetty in front of the Hermitage (R850 return, 30 minutes). There is also a bus service that leaves from outside Avtovo metro station (R60, 45 minutes). For further information, visit: peterhofmuseum.ru.
Open: 10am-6pm Tues-Sunday -- Admission: Estate 400R, Palace 600R

Tsarskoe Selo
The big attraction of this country estate is the Amber Room, painstakingly restored to its former glory between 1979 and 2003. The original was looted by Nazi soldiers and has been lost for many years. To get there, take an electric train from Vitebsk station to Detskoe Selo, then bus 371 or 382. For further information, visit: tzar.ru. Open: Open 10am-5pm Wed-Mon (closed last Monday of month) -- Admission: Palace 600R
 
Dining Out
St. Petersburg's dining scene has experienced a facelift in recent years. While Russian food tends toward simply prepared meat, potatoes and fresh fish , you'll find the quality and cafe atmosphere have improved, especially in the city's historic center. Grab bliny -- pancakes with filling -- for a quick snack, or stop in one of the tempting pastry shops on Nevsky Prospekt for a sweet treat. In a Russian restaurant, you'll see a bewildering array of "salads" on the menu, many containing fish or meat; try the Salad Olivier, a dish similar to American potato salad that holds a special place in Russian hearts. For something different, try Georgian cuisine, what the Russians consider their "southern" food for its regional flavor and hospitality.
 
Stolle is the place to get pies -- either the meat or fruit variety. Disregard the cranky counter people, and have a seat. Once you're done, buy another to bring back to your room or cabin for a late-night snack. They're that good. (Vasilievsky Ostrov, 1st Line 50, not too far from the Church of the Spilled Blood. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
 
Rossi's is a pleasant sidewalk cafe just off Nevsky Prospektt; the food is adequate, the people-watching sublime. (Nevsky Prospekt at Mikhailovskaya, part of the Grand Hotel Europe. Open daily from noon until midnight.)
 
The Idiot Cafe, named for the Dostoyevsky novel, is a favorite with St. Petersburg's expat and artsy crowd. It's known for its borscht and other vegetarian dishes, served in a quasi-Bohemian atmosphere in a cozy basement space. Wash it all down with a free shot of vodka. The staff speaks English. (82 Moika Canal, not too far from St. Isaac Square. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.)
 
Teplo is one of St. Petersburg's more popular restaurants. With outdoor seating and kitschy homestyle decor, it reminds you of an independent cafe you might see in a major American city. The potato pancakes -- which come with Buko cheese, red caviar and smoked salmon -- are delicious, as is the beef Stroganoff made with mushrooms and veal. Reservations are recommended. (45 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, next to the Vladimir Nabokov Museum. Open 9 a.m. to midnight Monday - Thursday, 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday - Saturday.)
 
Kafe Tbilisi is considered one of the best places to experience Georgian food, which is considered fashionable right now in St. Petersburg. (The Russians see it as "southern food.") Make sure to try the khachapuri (cheese bread) and some Georgian red wine; menus are available in English. (10 Sytninskaya, not far from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Open noon to 1 a.m.)
 
Sever is a legendary Soviet-era cake shop, where people used to line up for the brightly colored sweets. Do some drooling before you pick, although prices are reasonable enough that you might choose more than one. (44 Nevsky Prospekt. Open 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday - Saturday, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. Sunday.)
 
The Other Side (TOS) Gastro & Refuge is an American version of the many British-style pubs that you can find in St. Petersburg's historic center. Meals are similar to the gastro-pub fare that you find at upscale bars in the States. The St. Petersburg Times, the city's English newspaper, sometimes has pub quizzes there; there's often live music. (1 Bolshaya Konyushnnaya. Open daily, noon to last customer.)
 
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 glitz and trendy garb. And all those nifty threads that the models are wearing are fully stocked in the international boutiques around the city.
 
A two-tiered system of stores exists in St. Petersburg. Western-style shops taking credit-card payment have replaced the old Beriozkas (Birch Trees) emporiums, which were stocked only for foreigners. State-run shops are also better stocked now than before. Only rubles (as opposed to credit cards) are accepted in the state-run shops, however, and you'll have a tough time maneuvering through the cashiers if you don't speak some Russian.
 
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.
 
For true souvenirs of the city, think quality crafts just like the tsars did. Ceramic painted eggs, á la Fabergé, and almost anything ornate and gilded are typical of the "imperial" style. Look also for good quality linens. Furs may not be to everybody's taste, but wealthy locals still prefer them during the freezing winters. For kitsch, what better than a set of Russian dolls? These vary in quality and in price.


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