Built from the vi­sion of one head­strong tsar, the el­e­gant and im­pres­sive St Peters­burg has gone from marsh to me­trop­o­lis in 300 years, and it’s clearly not fin­ished there…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Upfront -

♦ ASSISTANT EDITOR ♦ Aim­ing to set foot among the Euro­pean-crafted de­lights of St Peters­burg

Get ori­en­tated

St Peters­burg is down to one man’s tenac­ity. Mere marsh­land a lit­tle over 300 years ago, its boggy set­ting would tell most builders that it’s no place for a city. Not Tsar Peter the Great. Once he nabbed the land off the Swedes in 1703, he set to work. It came at a price – the bones of labour­ers line its foun­da­tions – but just nine years later, Rus­sia had a new cap­i­tal.

At the time it was a big state­ment of in­tent, and its el­e­gance has stood the test of time. The web of canals built on the marsh draws com­par­isons to Venice to­day, and its smart man­sions and av­enues smack of Paris – not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing the Tsar’s fleet of Euro­pean ar­chi­tects at the time.

Rus­sia can be a di­vi­sive coun­try among trav­ellers yet it’s clearly grow­ing in your af­fec­tions – fin­ish­ing sev­enth in the ‘Top Coun­try’ cat­e­gory of our an­nual Reader Travel Awards. We have a sneaky feel­ing the ‘Venice of the North’ had a lit­tle to do with that.

Get­ting there & around

Both Bri­tish Air­ways (britishair­ways.com) and Aeroflot fly di­rect to St Peters­burg from Heathrow and Gatwick re­spec­tively, taking around 3.5 hours. Re­turn fares from around £144.

On ar­rival, St Peters­burg has a large pub­lic trans­port sys­tem, con­sist­ing of trol­ley­buses, buses, trams and a metro. Sin­gle jour­neys start from RUB40 (50p), or buy a Podor­ozh­nik travel card for RUB51 (65p; valid on all trans­port), which of­fers dis­counted rates. Al­ter­na­tively, travel passes range from RUB180 (£2.30 for one day) to RUB680 (£8.70 seven days).

The visit

The Tsar saw St Peters­burg as a ‘win­dow look­ing into Europe’, and its western in­flu­ence has only grown. Nevsky Prospekt, its main artery, buzzes to the sound of cof­fee cups and chat­ter, all un­der the elec­tric-blue domes of Our Lady of Kazan Cathe­dral.

Ex­trav­a­gant build­ings aren’t in short sup­ply here. The candy-coloured Church of the Saviour On Spilled Blood marks the spot where Alexan­der II was as­sas­si­nated, while the golden-topped St Isaac’s Cathe­dral boasts fine ceil­ing paint­ings.

But noth­ing beats the vast Win­ter Palace (see p150), the seat of Rus­sia’s em­per­ors un­til the 1917 Revo­lu­tion, when the cap­i­tal re­verted to Moscow. Its Her­mitage Mu­seum is truly world class, with many a lost day spent wan­der­ing its art col­lec­tion.

Gaze across the Neva River and you’ll see the roots of the city. Built in 1703, the Peter and Paul Fortress be­gan it all and, prior to the Revo­lu­tion, was the chief rest­ing place for Rus­sia’s mon­archs, in­clud­ing Peter him­self. There’s still plenty to see, from its cathe­dral and jail to a host of ex­hi­bi­tions. The panoramic views from its Cur­tain Wall alone is a swoon-wor­thy re­minder of how far St Peters­burg has come – not bad for an un­in­hab­it­able bog.

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