The creation of westward-looking Peter the Great, St Petersburg was intended from its inception as a display of imperial Russia’s growing status in the world. Fine-tuned by Peter’s successors, who employed a host of European architects to add fabulous palaces and cathedrals to the city’s layout, St Petersburg grew to be the Romanovs’ showcase capital and Russia’s first great, modern city. The capital may have moved back to Moscow following the revolution, but despite all that history has thrown at it, St Petersburg still feels every bit the imperial city with its historic heart largely frozen in time.
Whether you’re cruising along the elegant canals, crossing one of the 342 bridges in the city, or just watching them being raised in summer over the mighty Neva River at night to allow ships to pass through, you’re never far from water in St Petersburg. This has earned the city unsurprising comparisons to Venice, but the similarities don’t stop there: walking around the historic centre will reveal canals lined by Italianate mansions and broken up by striking plazas adorned with baroque and neoclassical palaces. North of the city centre there are also pristine beaches fringing the Gulf of Finland.
St Petersburg is an almost unrivalled treasure trove of art and culture. You can spend days in the Hermitage, seeing everything from Egyptian mummies to Picassos, while the Russian Museum, spread over four sumptuous palaces, is perhaps the best collection of Russian art in the world. Add to this world-class ballet, opera and classical concerts at the illustrious performance halls, and a slew of big-name music festivals over the summer months, and you won’t be stuck for cultural nourishment. Contemporary art is also available at the fantastic Erarta Museum, the Street Art Museum and in the buzzing gallery scene.
Summer White Nights are legendary: the northern sun barely dips below the horizon. Revelry begins in May, with parks and gardens greening with flowering trees, and peaks in mid-June when performing arts festivals pack out concert halls and the entire city seems to party all night long. It’s the busiest time to visit and the crowds can often be overwhelming. But Piter, as the city is affectionately known, is just as beautiful in early spring, golden autumn and even winter: the skies may be leaden and the ground covered in snow, but the culture still dazzles and delights.