Tours of a new scenic route on the rooftops of Saint Peters­burg

Rooftop tours of­fer a fresh look at Saint Peters­burg


Stand­ing on a roof in cen­tral Saint Peters­burg, Marta Granadeiro gasped as she watched the stat­ues on the Her­mitage Mu­seum’s façade gleam in the sun­set.

“We wanted to see some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary in Saint Peters­burg and now we have,” said Granadeiro, a 23-year-old Span­ish tourist who climbed onto the roof of an apart­ment build­ing on a tour organised by a lo­cal tourism agency.

The rusty rooftops of Rus­sia’s tsarist-era cap­i­tal, with its ro­man­tic sky­line of el­e­gant onion domes and pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary build­ings, have long been a cov­eted des­ti­na­tion for il­le­gal ex­cur­sions.

To con­vince of­fi­cials to let tourists ad­mire the city from above, the agency Panoramic Roof spent four years nav­i­gat­ing bu­reau­cratic hoops to get the nec­es­sary per­mits.

“I had this idea after get­ting my wed­ding pho­tos taken on Saint Peters­burg’s roofs,” said Anas­tasiya Kr­a­sit­skaya, the agency’s co­or­di­na­tor. “It was fan­tas­tic but dan­ger­ous and un­com­fort­able, the roof was slip­pery, and all in all it was stress­ful.”

Pre­vi­ously, tourists could only sur­rep­ti­tiously ac­cess the build­ing’s roof. Those liv­ing in the flats be­low some­times called the po­lice when they spot­ted vis­i­tors clam­ber­ing up the stair­well.

Even­tu­ally, the agency de­cided to strike a deal with the res­i­dents, of­fer­ing to re­pair the stair­well in ex­change for ac­cess to the roof.

Only for for­eign­ers?

The city of 5.3 mil­lion an­nu­ally draws in throngs of vis­i­tors—6.9 mil­lion in 2016—ea­ger to see sights as­so­ci­ated with the rule of the Rus­sian monar­chs and gape at its mu­seum col­lec­tions.

But some tourists are also drawn to go off the beaten path for a more ad­ven­tur­ous ex­pe­ri­ence.

Rooftops of­fer the best view of the city’s sky­line, which has re­mained low-rise in the his­toric cen­tre. The city’s 18th-cen­tury founder Tsar Peter the Great or­dered ar­chi­tects not to build any­thing higher than the Peter and Paul Fortress: 122.5 m. (402 ft.).

Alexan­der Se­my­onov, the head of Panoramic Roof, took five tourists through the build­ing’s at­tic, head­ing to­ward the roof. Be­fore go­ing out to the open air, he re­peated safety in­struc­tions: don’t walk too fast and care­fully fol­low the guide. He dis­trib­uted hard hats and binoc­u­lars. “Safety is paramount,” Se­my­onov told the tourists, who were busy snap­ping pho­tos.

They pro­ceeded care­fully along the crest of the roof, grip­ping a me­ter-high metal bar­rier to avoid slip­ping down the slope.

For An­drei Stepanov, who takes groups on more clan­des­tine out­ings, Panoramic Roof ’s trip is too tame and “mostly for the el­derly and for for­eign­ers.” For him, go­ing the of­fi­cial route is a waste of time: res­i­dents rarely make a fuss and even when they do, the fine is only 500 rubles (around PHP450).

He said the agency charges too much (500 to 700 rubles) and only skims the sur­face of the city’s world of rooftops. “For that price, we can ar­range a visit to sev­eral roofs, and even walk along from one to an­other, to take in more views,” he said. “That’s what’s ex­tra­or­di­nary, not any of­fi­cially sanc­tioned visit.” •

Top: Young Rus­sian thrill-seek­ers find new ways of ex­plor­ing their city. Bot­tom: the best way to see the coun­try’s im­pe­rial cap­i­tal is by hop­ping roof to roof.

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