St Petersburg

St. Petersburg Guide

A bridge between the East and West, Amsterdam of the (far, far) North: none of St. Petersburg’s slightly silly nicknames can truly capture the spirit of this enigmatic city.  In truth this city is more than just a bridge between the East and the West; it also straddles the centuries, presenting visitors with Tsarist, Communist and Modern Russian influences at every street corner.  While Moscow might have long overtaken St. Petersburg as Russia’s first city, this city has so much more to offer.

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The Aurora

Tsarist splendour is everywhere in this city, whether in the Hermitage Museum, which easily classes with the Louvre and the British museum as one of the world’s greatest, or in the form of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the birthplace of the city.  Living history abounds, with the Cruiser Aurora, which heralded the start of the revolution that would eventually turn Russia into the Soviet Union, now open to the public.  The city’s splendid churches, including the onion-domed Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood and the baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral are also once again open to the public, after years of restoration.  While St. Petersburg is sprawling in many ways, it is also ideal for cruise guests, as the metro (which is both a work of art and a testament to Communist grandeur) will allow you to reach all the major sights within the short time you have.

While St. Petersburg is undoubtedly the most European of the Russian cities, getting around and buying things may not be entirely intuitive.  Consider downloading our guide on Practicalities for more information on Cyrillic signage, Russian phrases, currency exchange and the somewhat infamous Russian loos.

To get the most of this city, we offer two guides: the Deep Guide and the Lite guide.  If you’re the sort of person who likes to delve into every nook and cranny of a city’s history and culture before you go, the Deep Guide is definitely for you.  To find out more about the history of the city, its cultural significance or about the slew of famous Petersburgers who have shaped Russian life for centuries, look no further!

If, on the other hand, you want to find out just how Queen Victoria was responsible for the downfall of the Romanov dynasty, or just where exactly the best shopping is located in the city, the Lite Guide is the one for you.  Written for your needs and interests while in the city, it provides you with all the necessary background, and will point you in the way of the must-see attractions.

Those travelling with children or teenagers need look no further than our Savvy Guide for Kids to Teens, which will help you and your kids make the most out of places you will already want to visit.

Did we miss something you wanted to read about?  Did we get something wrong?  Did we get something right?  Do let us know, we always welcome your comments!

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Language

The double-trouble of communicating in St. Petersburg is you are not only confronted with a different language (Russian) but also a different alphabet (Cyrillic).  So, to begin with, here is some Cyrillic writing you might see that is useful to decipher:

Метро                  Metro

Переход             Subway (leading between two metro lines, for example)

Вход                      Entrance

Вход нет             No Entrance

Выхода                                Exit (way out)

Выхода нет        No Exit (No way out)

Туалет                  Toilet

М                            Sign on Gents’ Toilets

Ж                            Sign on Ladies’ Toilets

Below are some potentially useful phrases.  The transliteration is on the left (i.e. the words are written in Latin characters as you would expect to pronounce them in English), and translation on the right.

Zdravstvujte                                      Hello

Izvinite                                                 Excuse me

Da                                                           Yes

Net                                                        No

Izvini                                                      Excuse me (informal)

Pomogite                                            Help!

Spasiba                                                 Thank you

Gde nahoditsa …                             Where is the

Vannaya                                              Bathroom

blizhaishee metro                            nearest metro

taksi                                                       taxi

avtobus                                                bus

bilet                                                       ticket

levo                                                       Left

pravo                                                    Right

pryamo                                                                Straight ahead

Obmen valuty                                   bureau de change

Skolko eto stoit                                 how much does it cost?

Va gavarite pa agliysjki?                Do you speak English?

Ya tabya lyublyu                               I love you

Ship Berth

The Port of St. Petersburg is about to open a new passenger section in 2010.  Until then, you will be arriving at one of the Port’s Your ship may dock either on the Promenade des Anglais or near the Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge.  In either case, you will be only steps away from the historic centre of the city.

How to get around

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Hermitage

Public transport is plentiful in St. Petersburg.  The furthest-reaching form of transport is the St. Petersburg Metro, which holds the honour of being the world’s deepest underground railway.  Its network is supplemented by a tram system and buses (both public and private).  Transport in St. Petersburg is generally cheap: a metro token (for a single journey) costs just 22 roubles no matter how far your journey is.

The metro network is comparatively easy to navigate.  Stations feature colour-coded maps very similar to those you will be familiar with from the London Underground (most stations will also have some maps posted in English).  Beware though, that stations may not be announced in quite the way you might be used to, so be sure to count the number of stops until your destination before you get on a train.  You can purchase tokens or a ten-journey card, though the latter is really not worth the bother for single-day visits.  Similar to the Moscow Metro, many stations can well be regarded as sights worth seeing unto themselves due to their grandiose architecture.  For those interested in a bit of Metro tourism, Line 1 offers some of the oldest and grandest stations.

Another alternative is the tram, providing the serious advantage that you can look out the window and see where you are.  The tram system too can boast of a superlative, namely that it has the world’s largest rolling stock.  Stops are identified by a red ‘T’ sign.  You pay the conductor in cash (the current fare is 14 roubles).  A word of caution: the tram tracks run in the middle of the street, and Russian drivers are not exactly known for their deference to embarking/disembarking passengers.

As previously mentioned, there are two sorts of buses: public and private.  All buses follow routes identified by numbers.  In the case of public buses (just like trams) you pay the conductor upon entering the bus.  The private buses can be identified by their smaller size (usually Japanese minibuses are used) and a K before the route number (i.e. K-13).  You pay the driver upon entering or leaving.  Beware that while these private buses follow the same routes as the public ones, they do not necessarily stop at the normal stops: hail one from the street to get on and indicate to the driver when you want to get off.

Cultural do’s and don’ts

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This corridor in the Hermitage is a copy of Vatican's famous 16th century gallery

There are certain dangers in making cultural generalisations about all Russians.  The following, therefore, is not meant to be a stereotyping exercise, but rather, is meant to familiarise you with some of the unfamiliar behaviours and customs you might encounter while in St. Petersburg.  The preferred Russian form of greeting is a firm handshake (no limp fish, please), while women meeting other woman will give three bisous on alternating cheeks.  It should also be noted that as with most stereotypes, the image of the unfriendly Russian has some basis in reality.  Russians will tend not to take notice of other strangers in the street or on public transport, not unlike the British but rather the polar opposite of the stereotypical American.  On the other hand, when you do need to strike up a conversation (to ask for directions, for example) chances are that people will be very friendly and helpful.

If you are waiting for the attention of a shop clerk, don’t: simply march up to him or her and state your business.  Russians’ also do not have the quasi-religious respect for queues that is common in the British Isles: if you are not quite firm about keeping your place (and quite close to the person in front of you) in the queue you will never make it to the front.  The same pushiness can also be seen in drivers, whose casual disregard for red lights and other traffic regulations can be downright Mediterranean.  So, do take care when crossing the street.  It should also be noted that Russians, by and large, a very proud of their country.  In speaking about Russia with Russians, you might do well to think of the country as a child: you may complain bitterly about your own child, but woe betide the stranger who mentions your child’s tendency to imprison any and all dissidents.

Currency

The Russian currency is the rouble (also ruble).  At the time of writing (May 2010) the Pound Sterling was worth about 45 roubles, while the US Dollar was worth about 30 roubles.  The rouble is divided into 100 kopeks. The Cyrillic spelling is рубль, and the most common abbreviation (used in place of a symbol like £) is руб.  Note that you must make purchases in roubles, the use of foreign currency is illegal.  Bureaus de change are common, especially along Nevsky Prospekt

Loos

Being a modern and touristy city, most public toilets in St. Petersburg are perfectly serviceable, though they often charge a small fee (about 1 rouble).  While squat toilets have all but disappeared, some of the peculiarities remain.  For example, toilet paper may only be available outside the stalls, or not at all.  Travellers particularly worried about the facilities might consider visiting http://goeasteurope.about.com/od/russia/p/russiantoilets.htm for more extensive information.

Souvenirs

The typical souvenir from anywhere in Russia is the Matryoshka nesting doll, which opens up to reveal ever-smaller dolls.  Generally, a lot of wood-based items are available, such as pots and boxes decorated in beautiful traditional Russian patterns.  Lacquer boxes are a popular choice, though do stay away from the cheap plastic and cardboard jobs: it’s better to spend a little bit more money and get a hand-made original.  Those with more expensive tastes might consider stopping into the Hermitage gift shop, which stocks gifts for hundreds of pounds and more.  Of course, smaller purses are also catered for with books, calendars and the like.  If you don’t wish to lug your purchases about, you can also shop online for example at http://hermitagemuseum.org/shop, or http://www.stpetersburger.com/.

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Inside the Hermitage

Politics

To say that the politics of Russia are colourful would be an understatement.  While St. Petersburg might not be at the heart of it all anymore as the nation’s capital, it is still a ‘federal subject’ (that is to say politically directly subordinate to the Federal Government).  It is also the administrative centre of its oblast, or state (which still carries the name of Leningrad) and the North-Western Federal District.  Of course, there is no longer a Soviet Assembly, as in the days of the October Revolution, but a Legislative one, which is headed by a Governor.  The Governor, by the way, is called Valentina Matviyenko, and is the highest ranked female politician in Russia.

Those wishing to discover more about St. Petersburg and Russia’s political history may wish to stop by the State Museum of Political History, which contains collections ranging from the Imperial times to the present.  Of particular note are the exhibits focussing on the Soviet era, which the museum inherited from the now-defunct Soviet Museum of the Revolution.  Open from 10.00 to 18.00 every day except Thursday, the Museum is located at 2-4 Ulitsa Kuybysheva near Gorkovskaya metro station.  For more information visit www.polithistory.ru/en/.

Architecture

If there is one thing St. Petersburg is not short on, it’s iconic architecture.  Many of the city’s old palaces and other buildings have found new functions in the 21st century.  The Mariinsky Palace (located on St. Isaac’s Square), has found a new use as the home of the local council.  Perhaps the most gorgeous palace of all is the Peterhof, which also features a fine park dotted with picturesque chalets.  It is quite a way outside the city, but can be reached by train (Baltisky station to Noviy Peterhof), hydrofoil boat (Hermitage to the end of the Marine Canal) or even by helicopter.

If you wish to see as much as you can in a short time, you can do worse than to stroll up the Nevsky Prospect to Palace Square.  Nevsky Prospekt itself is lined by some of the most important buildings of the city (like the Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood, below).  The square is flanked by the Winter Palace, the General Staff Building and the Admiralty, it contains some of the city’s most beautiful vistas and is crowned by the Alexander Column, which, like the 1812 Overture, commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleon.  The former two buildings actually form part of the Hermitage Museum, which is described in more detail below.

Also worth a visit is the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island in the Neva River.  Besides featuring the splendid Peter and Paul Cathedral (see Religion, below), it still contains a range of buildings from various periods of St. Petersburg’s history, including the Grand Ducal Mausoleum, the bastion which served as the ‘Bastille of St. Petersburg’ in the Imperial Era and the City Museum.  The fortress, including the Cathedral, were designed by Domenico Trezzini in the baroque style.  The entirety of the fortress is open every day except Tuesday.  The cathedral and museum are the only buildings to charge an entrance fee.

Arts & Culture

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The Church on Spilled Blood

An absolute must-see for any visit to St. Petersburg is the Hermitage Museum, which ranks with the Louvre in Paris and London’s British Museum as one of the finest museums in the world. Created by Catherine the Great as the Imperial Hermitage Museum, it was continually expanded throughout the ages, and now encompasses what was once the Tsar’s Winter Palace.  The extensive collections not only feature the palatial art and furniture, but also oriental and ancient art, old masters, porcelain and more.

Different parts of the museum have slightly different closing times, but is generally open 10.30-18.00 Tues-Sat, and 10.30-16.00 on Sundays.  The museum is closed on Mondays.  A number of different ticket options are available depending on which parts of the museum you wish to see, with steep discounts for students with ID.  In order to skip the queues (which can be substantial in the high season) by booking tickets online and for more information, you may consult the Museum’s website http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/.

St. Petersburg’s claim to be the cultural heart of Russia goes beyond the collections of the Hermitage.  In the Russian Museum the city also possesses one of the finest collections of Russian art in the world.  In fact, the collection is so large it has to be spread out over four sites.  The main collection, housing examples of all periods of Russian art, is housed at the Mikhailovsky Palace.  It is located at 4 Inzhenernaya Street (nearest Metro Gostiny Dvor, Nevsky Prospekt).  The Museum is open Mon. 10.00 – 16.00 and Wed-Sun until 17.00.  for more information, visit http://www.rusmuseum.ru/eng.

History

The history of St. Petersburg is, in a way, a reflection of the history of Russia as a whole.  A city of greats, St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great, who, having reconquered the territory on which the town now stands from Finland, also lent his name to the place.  It was here that Catherine the Great played practiced her unique combination of being a patroness of the enlightenment and a totalitarian despot at the same time, and it was from here that Alexander the Great decided to explore Western Europe with his Great Embassy.

Its history in the 20th century is neatly illustrated by its many names.  It is quite possible for someone to have been born in St. Petersburg, grow up in Petrograd, live and work in Leningrad and finally die in St. Petersburg, all without ever moving house. It was at what was the Tsar’s Winter Palace that the 1905 Revolution was triggered, when palace guards fired on unarmed protestors.  It was from the Petrograd Soviet that the Bolsheviks led the October Revolution that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union.  World War II saw the brutal Nazi siege of Leningrad for nearly 2 and half years, leaving almost 4 and a half million soldiers and civilians dead. Jude Law’s ‘Enemy at the Gates’ (though set in Stalingrad) gives some idea as to the amount of destruction caused by this event.

After the war, the city was rebuilt.  And while much of this rebuilding was done in the typical ‘soviet drab’ style of architecture, this period also saw the opening of the Metro system, which rivals its bigger brother in Moscow in both size and beauty.  The end of the Cold War saw the restoration of the city’s name, and some tender loving care devoted to the city’s many architectural monuments, quite a few of which have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Literature

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Smolnyy Cathedral

St. Petersburg has left a deep impact on a number of Russian writers, perhaps none more famous than Alexander Pushkin, whose birthday is still somewhat of a holiday in the city today.  Though born in Moscow, Pushkin was one of the first graduates of the Imperial Lyceum in St. Petersburg.  Though his social reformist urges led to banishment from the capital early in his life, he eventually returned to St. Petersburg, writing at court.  The house where he died (after being mortally injured in a duel) is now the All Russian Pushkin museum and definitely worth a visit for literary enthusiasts (12 Moika Embankment near Nevsky Prospekt metro, open daily except Tuesday and the last Friday each month 10.30 to 17.30).  For more information, click on the museum’s website: http://www.museumpushkin.ru/info/moykaeng.php.

A more modern Petersburg author is Ayn Rand.  Rand was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, where she also attended university.  Though she left Russia for America at the age 25, her very brief encounter with communism would go on to shape her major works, such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.  Her writings are generally strongly anti-statist and in favour of capitalism, making her somewhat of a darling among the American intellectual right.

Music

St. Petersburg’s greatest contribution to music is, undoubtedly, its Conservatory, which was founded in 1862 and is still teaching students today.  Looking at a list of its famous graduates is a bit like browsing the who’s-who of Russian music: Tchaikovsky, Prokoviev, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich all studied there, while Rimsky-Korsakov and Rubinstein both taught there.  The conservatory is not open to be toured, but does enrol foreign students (interested? See http://istud.conservatory.ru/).

St. Petersburg’s contribution to music does not end with the classical, however.  The city is widely regarded as the birthplace of Russian Jazz, and even today is at the forefront of Russian popular and alternative music.  If you are lucky enough to be visiting during the city’s White Nights festival (May to June), you will be confronted with a wide range of concerts from the classical to the modern held in venues throughout the city.  In fact, barely a week goes by without a festival of some sort.  The local council has compiled these in a handy list, which is well worth checking out: http://wwweng.gov.spb.ru/culture/pr_kult2008.

Religion/places of worship

Most Russians are members of the Russian Orthodox Church, which will be known to foreigners mostly in the form of the colourful and onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.  St. Petersburg’s equivalent is the Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood, which strongly draws on architectural influences from St. Basil’s.  This particular Church also illustrates the strong link between the Russian royalty and the church –it is built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  After being closed and neglected during Soviet Rule, the church underwent extensive renovations and one again open to the public.  Located at Naberezhnaia Kanala Giboedova, the church is as breathtaking inside as out, and is decorated with literally thousands of square meters of mosaics.

The Church of our Saviour is, however, by no means the only, or even the largest church in St. Petersburg.  The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul offers nice architectural contrast to the very traditionally Russian-looking Church of our Saviour.  Being built in the Baroque style, it would not look out of place in any European city, and its spire was the tallest object in St. Petersburg until the erection of the Television Tower.  Two things make this cathedral well worth a visit.  For one, most Romanov Tsars and Tsarinas are entombed here, including Nicholas II, whose remains were reinterred here when they were identified in the 1990s.  The second is the church’s impressive iconostasis (an intricately decorated wooden screen, separating the church’s nave from its sanctuary), which has managed to survived several fires and the Soviet era more or less unharmed.  The cathedral is located inside the Peter and Paul fortress.

Famous Sons and daughters

Petersburgers, as the residents of this wonderful city on the Gulf of Finland are known, have reached the very top in nearly every sector of Russian society.  Russia’s former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin as well his successor in the presidency Dimitry Medvedev were both born to working-class families in what was then Leningrad, where they grew up (quite separately) in the cramped confines of soviet communal apartments.

St. Petersburg has hosted more than its fair share of great musicians.  Igor Stravinsky, while born elsewhere, grew up in St. Petersburg, where he was sent to law school by his parents.  Luckily for him and posterity, the university was closed down in the Bloody Sunday Massacre, and young Igor was sent, on the advice of no other than Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, to the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  Rimsky-Korsakov himself was born in the hinterland of St. Petersburg and only came to the city at age 12, to pursue a career in the Imperial Navy.  Again, posterity is lucky that this career never matured.  Prokoviev too, while initially enrolled at the Moscow conservatory eventually transferred to St. Petersburg.

The list of members of the historical ‘Who’s Who’ that have some association with St. Petersburg is too long to be exhaustively explored here.  Suffice to say that it includes Carl Fabergé, creator of the famous eggs was born there, and, inventor of dynamite, who attended university there.

Royalty

Though St. Petersburg may spring to mind more as the birthplace of communism or the second city of the current (republican) Russian Federation, it was once the capital of the Russian Empire, and as such teeming with Tsars, Tsarinas and Tsareviches (i.e. Emperors, Empresses and Crown Princes).  The name of the dynasty that ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917 is Romanov, and its last Tsar was Nicholas II.  As with every other European ruler in World War I, he was very closely related to Queen Victoria, from whom his son inherited the ‘royal’ haemophilia.  King George V, British monarch during the First World War, was, in fact, his first cousin.

During the course of the Bolshevik revolution, Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate on 15 March 1917.  On 17 July 1918, the entire family was shot and stabbed in the basement of the house they were staying.  Though wild rumours that Princess Anastasia had somehow survived circulated for a very long time, these were decisively disproven by DNA identification of the remains in 1998.  The entire family had already been made saints in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981.

Traditions

Perhaps the greatest tradition in St. Petersburg is the White Nights Festival, which is held every year from May to June, during the time of the midnight sun.  It is the largest festival anywhere in Russia, and features classical music, opera and carnivals.  The festivals largest acts, usually stars of popular music of the calibre of Paul McCartney, are put on in Palace Square or at the Winter Palace.  The highlight of the festivals is the Scarlet Sails celebration at the end of the Russian school year which features a spectacular fireworks display at Admiralty Pier.  Want to know what’s going on at this year’s festival? Click on http://www.balletandopera.com/index.html?lang=eng&festival=28&page=catalog#play.

One holiday that features prominently in the calendar of every Russian city is Victory Day, the celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.  While the St. Petersburg parade is not quite of the same bombastic scale as the one in Moscow, if you happen to be around on May 9, it is worth checking out the parade, which features quite a lot of Soviet-era pageantry.  Basically, Petersburgers will use any excuse for a celebration.  The day of Cosmonautics (9 April) and Pushkin’s Birthday (June 6) are just two of the examples, each accompanied by its own festivities.

Shops & Shopping

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St Isaac's Cathedral

By this point, you might get the impression that Nevsky Prospekt is the heart of the city.  Well, this mantra is not completely wrong when it comes to shopping.  This is, by the way, also the place where you get the best exchange rates.  Exchange points are located in almost every major store, though do be sure to bring along your passport: you will not be able to exchange money without it. If you want to plan your shopping route in advance, try http://www.saint-petersburg.com/shopping/index.asp, where you will find shops arranged by category, along with descriptions and addresses.  For the adventurer longing after the excitement of the Moroccan Souks, this too can be catered for.  There is a flea market located behind the Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood where you can buy souvenirs and pretty much everything else.

St. Petersburg has a wide range of shops and department stores, for example Bolshoi Gostiny Dvor and the Passage Trading House, both of which are located on Nevsky Prospekt.  There is also a wide variety of antiques shops, though here caution is the watchword: to take any antiques from before 1940 out of the country requires a special license which you will not have time to acquire during your short stay, so perhaps a visit to a store like Arteria (32-34 Nevsky Prospekt), which features modern as well as classical pieces of Russian art is a more sensible option.

History

The history of St. Petersburg is intricately intertwined with that of Russia.  The city is named after Peter the Great, who built his capital on this patch of land that he only recently captured from the Finns and Swedes in the Great Northern War in 1703.  Peter’s autocratic successors (many of whom choose to adopt the suffix ‘the Great’) shaped not only the history of the city, but of the entire country.  Catherine the Great, Peter’s immediate successor founded, in the Hermitage, one of the greatest art collections in the world.  Alexander the Great, returning from his under-cover tour of Europe, introduced as the naval jack the flag that is now the national flag of Russia.

Renamed Petrograd in 1914 to ‘sound more Russian’; it was here that the Cruiser Aurora fired the opening shots of the Russian Revolution.  Though it only fired blanks in the direction of the Winter Palace, these shots signalled the beginning of the assault.  The cruiser is now a public museum and can be visited (for free) from 10.00 to 16.00 every day except Monday and Friday.  It is located on the Petrogradskaya Embankment near Gorkovskaya metro.

It was also from here that Tsar Nicholas II (unsuccessfully) attempted to flee the Bolshevik threat.  Renamed Leningrad in 1924, the city became the site of one of the bloodiest and longest sieges of the Second World War.  More than four and a half million soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the ultimately successful defence of the city.  Though St. Petersburg lost its status as Russia’s capital with the revolution, it nevertheless continued to be an important city during the Soviet era, and played a large part in the Russian space programme, for example.  After the fall of communism in 1991, Petersburgers overwhelmingly voted to restore the name of St. Petersburg.

Music & Culture

Culture is something that St. Petersburg has in spades.  In the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg has inherited from the Tsars one of the finest art collections in the world.  Set in the splendour of the Tsars’ Winter Palace and its outbuildings, highlights include the Egyptian collections and its grand masters.  It is open from 10.30-18.00 Tues-Sat, and 10.30-16.00 on Sundays.  The museum is closed on Mondays.  A number of different ticket options are available depending on which parts of the museum you wish to see, with steep discounts for students with ID. You can skip the (often substantial) queues by booking tickets online, or by taking part in a tour.  For further information, click on http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/.

As for music, the St. Petersburg Conservatory has seen some of the finest musical minds in the 20th Century.  Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky both studied there, and Shostakovich taught there as late as the 1960s.  While the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest was hosted in Moscow and not St. Petersburg, the city has nevertheless been on the forefront of popular music for decades.  It was here that Russian jazz was born, and alternative rock bands such as ‘Tequilajazzz’ are still popular throughout Russia.

Personalities

The largest personality in today’s Russia, few people would argue, is Vladimir Putin.  Though his current haunt is the Kremlin in Moscow, he was born in St. Petersburg.  Looking at Mr. Putin hobnobbing with his G8 colleagues (or fishing in Siberia with his shirt off), one would hardly imagine that he was born in a communal apartment in what was then Leningrad to two thoroughly working-class parents.  Putin’s successor and current Russian President Dimitry Medvedev also grew up in similarly humble surroundings in Leningrad.

Appreciators of the female form will also be pleased to hear that Oxana Fedorova also hails from this city on the Gulf of Finland.  Who, you ask?  The young lady was the first Russian Miss Universe, and was crowned in 2002.  This slightly sexist factoid is offset by the fact that St. Petersburg’s governor is not only a native, but also Russia’s first lady governor of a large city.

The city’s past is similarly crowned with famous faces.  Perhaps none more so than Vladimir Lenin, was smuggled into what was then Petrograd by the Germans to lead the revolution against the Empire.  After his death, the city was named Leningrad in his honour.  Carl Fabergé might not have been as bolshie, but is probably no less famous, as the goldsmith’s ‘Imperial Easter Eggs’ have now entered legend as Fabergé eggs, some of the world’s most expensive and intricate jewels.

(Some information taken from http://petersburgcity.com/city/personalities/)

Sport

The city has a rich sporting tradition going back to the time of the Tsars.  It hosted the football matches of the 1980 Summer Olympics (the rest of which were held in Moscow), and the 1994 Goodwill Games.  The city is the home of Zenit FC.  The club has been having a very good time of it lately, coming out on top of the Russian Premier League and the UEFA Cup in 2007, and the UEFA Super Cup the following year.  They used to be housed in Kirov Stadium, a Soviet-era monstrosity holding 100,000 spectators.  The club’s current home, Petrovsky Stadium, is decidedly more modest, seating 21,500 fans.

Scandals & Gossip

Russian society is rife with scandals, often revolving around the somewhat dubious legal system.  There is, for example, the former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovksy, who was imprisoned on fraud charges and whose company was taken over by the government-controlled Gazprom shortly after he dared criticise the political system in Russia.  The name of Alexander Litvinenko has also achieved a special notoriety in Britain.  The former Russian spy was poisoned with Polonium in London in 2006.  While the Russian government denies any involvement, the case is popularly seen as a state-sponsored assassination.

Opposing the government generally does not seem to form part of a healthy lifestyle in Russia.  After a career of highly critical writing, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her apartment building in 2006, not long after Litvinenko episode.  Another touchy area is that of LGBT rights.  The 2009 Moscow Pride march was broken up by police, while in previous years, the event failed to get the necessary licenses.  This attracted some attention in the West after several marchers were arrested in 2009, including British Activist Peter Tatchell.

6 Quirky Facts

  1. The city changed its name three times in the 20th century.  Someone could have been born in St. Petersburg, grow up in Petrograd (a name the city adopted to sound more Russian in 1914), work and grow old in Leningrad (a name given to the city almost immediately after Lenin’s death in 1924) only to die once again in St. Petersburg (a name the city reassumed after a referendum in 1991).
  2. Rasputin, the last Tsarina’s infamous spiritual advisor did not part easily from the world of the living.  Apparently, having ingested enough cyanide to kill five men, he was subsequently shot through the back four times and finally clubbed and castrated before being thrown into the Neva River in St. Petersburg.  Cause of death: drowning.
  3. St. Petersburg is actually the most northern city in the world with a population greater than 4 million.  Sound a bit far-fetched?  Well, Russians are quite keen on records, and aren’t too picky about how to get them.
  4. In a way Queen Victoria is to blame for the downfall of the Romanov dynasty.  She was the one that spread haemophilia across the European royal houses, and the young Tsarevich’s haemophilia greatly weakened the imperial family, contributing, in the end, to its downfall.
  5. Of the three post-Soviet era Russian presidents, two were born in St. Petersburg
  6. Petersburgers are proud of superlatives: St. Petersburg is the northernmost city with a population over 4 million, its tram system has the largest rolling stock anywhere in the world and the Peter and Paul Cathedral is the tallest orthodox church in the world.

Savvy for Kids to Teens

While St. Petersburg is no Disneyland, there are still plenty of things to do for Kids and Teens.  Many of the city’s attractions that one would want to visit as an adult can also appeal to the younger generation.  Some of these have been compiled for you below.  As always, if you have found a part of your visit to be particularly kid-friendly (or conversely, particularly kid-unfriendly) do let us know!

Peter and Paul Fortress

The Peter and Paul Fortress offers good one-stop-shopping for families, especially those with boys.  It is fairly close to the cruse-ship berths, and within its confines are a wide variety of different sights to see and activities to undertake.  The Fortress was built by Peter the Great himself, and is considered to be the oldest part of the city (though very little in the way of original buildings has survived).  While it never fulfilled its original purpose, to defend the city against the Swedes, it has served various functions over the years.  Within its walls are the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Boathouse, the Commandant’s House, the National Cosmonautics Museum, a mint and an artillery museum.

The centrepiece of the complex is definitely the very un-Russian looking Peter and Paul Cathedral.  Besides being somewhat unusual for a Russian Orthodox church by being built in the baroque style, it is also the second tallest building in St. Petersburg, and the tallest Russian Orthodox house of worship anywhere.  Inside are the graves of all Tsars up to Alexander III, some of whose gravestones are exquisitely carved.

The Commandant’s house will also be especially interesting to those wanting to get a flavour of the city without running around all over the place, as it now features a museum on the history of St. Petersburg.  To see the darker side of Tsarist Russia, have a look inside the Bastion, where several cells have been recreated as they were in Tsarist times.  The Peter and Paul fortress has variously been described as the ‘Bastille of Russia’, though some say that while in operation as a prison, it made the Bastille look positively hospitable.  Somewhat bizarrely, given the very historic surroundings, the Peter and Paul Fortress also contains Russia’s museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology, which also tell the tale of the city’s connection with the Russian spaceflight programme, which some say was born there.

The visit can be rounded off nicely with a visit to the Boathouse, which nowadays houses a gift shop.  If the visit has tired you out a bit, a nice place to relax is on the beach between the fortress walls and the river, which is very popular with locals.

The Fortress is located on Hare Island, and is open every day except Tuesday.  Admission is free, though some individual buildings (like the cathedral) do charge.

(some information from http://it.stlawu.edu/~rkreuzer/phayden/ppfort.htm)

Hermitage Area

The Hermitage area offers several possibilities for children, depending on the age.  To begin with, the building itself is incredibly grand and will set the heart of any young girl who has ever seen Disney’s Anastasia aflutter.  For those wishing to indulge their little princesses a bit further, the collection entitled ‘End of the Empire of Nicholas II’ allows a glimpse into the incredible splendour of the imperial palace around the time of Anastasia’s birth and childhood.  While the Hermitage does feature a lot of the ‘traditional’ art museum fare that is likely to send kids to sleep (such as the old masters), it also features several exhibitions that might be interesting to young people.  The armoury, for example, features several centuries’ worth of fighting paraphernalia – helmets, suits of armour and guns – which will undoubtedly appeal to all boys aged 6 to 106.  The younger among these might not really care about the artistic value behind these pieces, but derive enjoyment from them nevertheless.  The Egyptian collection has the same sort of awe-inspiring feel about it, and while it lacks the sheer number of mummies on show in the British museum, it does contain statues and other items that are sure to enthral.

(Open from 10.30-18.00 Tues-Sat, and 10.30-16.00 on Sundays.  Closed on Mondays.  A number of different ticket options are available depending on which parts of the museum you wish to see, with steep discounts for students with ID. Skip the (often substantial) queues by booking tickets online, or by taking part in a tour.  For further information, click on http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/)

The Hermitage also sits in an area of splendid beauty.  Palace Square, with the Alexander Column in its centre is nothing short of spectacular, and gives sets the stage nicely for the several buildings that make up the Hermitage museum.  Carriages are also available here for tours of the city.

(some information from hermitagemuseum.org)

Toys for Boys: The Cruiser Aurora and the Navy Museum

It is fairly clear that most children below high-school age will not really care about the historical significance of the Cruiser Aurora (the ship that signalled the start of the revolution that would eventually bring the Bolsheviks to power), boats with big guns never fail to impress.  The slightly older kids might be impressed to know that besides signalling the storming of the Winter Palace, the cruiser also served both world wars, and was actually sunk in the harbour during WWII, when it served as an anti-aircraft battery during the protracted siege of Leningrad.  Nowadays, the ship is open to the public both as an attraction a museum in its own right, and as the host of a collection that features various naval-technological devices from the past two centuries.  (Open every day 10.30 to 16.00 except Mondays and Fridays. Admission: Free.  Nearest metro: Gorkovskaya.  For more info, click on www.aurora.org.ru).

The Central Navy Museum, which can claim both to be one of the oldest museums in Russia and one of the largest naval museums in the world, is a must for anyone who has spent significant amounts of time in a bathtub with a toy boat.  The museum’s centrepiece is Peter the Great’s boat, known as the grandfather of the Russian Navy, and contains several thousand artefacts and pieces of art.  Housed in a splendid columned building that was once a stock exchange, it is renowned for its collection of ship models from every epoch of Russian naval history.  (Open daily except Mondays, Tuesdays, and the last Thursday of each month.  Located at 4 Birzhevaya Ploschad. Nearest metro: Vasileostrovskaya)

Nevsky Prospekt

The Nevsky Prospekt is basically the main street of St. Petersburg and is lined by some of the city’s most important buildings and monuments.  Have a stroll down its length (starting either at Palace Square or Alexander Nevsky Lavra).  Along the way you can point out some of the important buildings lining the street.  Alternatively, you can give your kids a list of the buildings (out of order) and ask them to find them as you stroll past.  Some select highlights include

  • The Admiralty
  • The Alexander Column
  • The old Duma
  • A statue of Catherine the Great
  • Moscow Railway Station
  • Anichkov Bridge
  • A veritable slew of palaces

To better plan your trip, we suggest visiting this excellent English-language site on Nevsky Prospekt, which features maps, a listing of buildings on the street by number as well as descriptions of the most important sights: http://nevsky-prospekt.com/.