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St Petersburg

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figures supporting globe on the Admiralty building, St Petersburg

To get an overview of the city

To get an overview of the city, climb the stairs to the colonnade of St Isaac’s Cathedral and survey the city’s roofs from above. Better still, take the wall walk along the rampart of the Peter and Paul Fortress and look across the immense expanse of water at the centre of St Petersburg. This vast aquatic arena is really the city’s main square and the principal reason why the city exists. It was Peter the Great’s watery playground and the focal point of his paradise, and has been a flattering mirror to which the city’s most handsome buildings have been drawn through the centuries. But it is also a pattern for the way this city came to be arranged, by the beginning of the 19th century, as a piece of urban planning: vast areas of empty space fringed by mostly classical architecture arranged in horizontal lines that seem low against the vast expanse of Northern sky.

Walk it

"I want to walk about this city all the time now, all day."

(Lucia, planning to emigrate, in Colin Thubron's Among the Russians)

In his youth, at least, a man born in this city spends as much time on foot as any good Bedouin. And it's not because of the shortage or the price of cars (there is an excellent system of public transportation), or because of the half-mile long queues at the food stores. It's because to walk under this sky, along the brown granite embankments of this immense gray river, is itself an extension of life and a school of farsightedness. There is something in the granular texture of the granite pavement next to the constantly flowing, departing water that instils in one's soles an almost sensual desire for walking.

Joseph Brodsky, A Guide to a Renamed City

The best way to get the rhythm of any city is to walk it.

Nevsky is St Petersburg’s main thoroughfare and is unavoidable: try to go anywhere in St Petersburg and you will inevitably find yourself crossing or being swept along or sucked back into Nevsky’s powerful pedestrian currents. By all means use Nevsky as a convenient transit route and people-watching promenade, but, with one or two exceptions, it’s best to walk straight past its overpriced cafes, restaurants, hotels, and shops. For reflective, more thoughtful walking, turn off and explore the cross-streets and embankments.

Moving up Nevsky from ploshchad Vostaniya towards the Winter Palace, the following are the most interesting turnings: statue of Pushkin on Pushkinskaya ulitsa, St Petersburg

,Pushkinskaya ulitsa (Pushkin Street) is an atmospheric canyon of five-storey buildings erected in the space of a few years in the final third of the 19th century. At its centre stands the figure of Aleksandr Pushkin – quite at home among the children, drunks, and other innocents who occupy the surrounding small garden. Legend has it that in the 1930s when the authorities, intent upon moving the statue to what they considered a more appropriate location, sent a crane and a gang of workers to carry out their plan, the local children resisted fiercely, protesting, "But he’s our Pushkin!" Thwarted, the workers phoned their boss to ask what to do. "Very well, leave them their Pushkin!" he spat out.

house at Five Corners, St Petersburg

Ulitsa Rubinshteyna, a street of houses in a wonderful mixture of styles, is now as gastronomically eclectic as it is architecturally, having over the last 10 years accumulated the greatest concentration of cafes and restaurants in St Petersburg. For a selection of the best, click here. Rubinshteyna leads to Five Corners, a busy intersection overlooked by the high tower of house 40, an architectural curiosity staggering under a weight of Neoclassical detail (including Ionic columns, 40 caryatids, and two pediments on each facade).

The embankment of the River Fontanka. The Fontanka is the fountain river: in the 18th century it supplied the fountains that used to play in the Summer Gardens. Turn right here along the far (northern) embankment for the Michael Castle (a cannibal of a building ‒ see here), the Summer Gardens, and the main river; as you go, there’s a chance to watch a fine display of classical and Neo-Baroque architecture unfurl on the other side.

Kryukov canal, St Petersburg
When you come to kanal Griboedova, turn right for the colourful Church of our Saviour on the Blood, but left for a journey that will take you right through a cross-section of St Petersburg ‒ from the fashionable part of town near Nevsky to the seediness, undiminished since Dostoevsky’s day, of Haymarket Square and on, past Kryukov Canal and the bell-tower of St Nicholas Cathedral, into the provincial tranquility of Kolomna, an area which feels forgotten not just by the rest of St Petersburg, but also by the 21st and even 20th centuries.

The Mariinsky is not the only opera house in town

Tickets for the Mariinsky can be booked at www.mariinsky.ru.

For opera at lower prices and in a more intimate setting ‒ a 150-seat private theatre in a turn-of-the-century mansion ‒ try Peterburgksaya Opera (www.spbopera.ru). Yury Aleksandrov’s opera company stages some lively productions of comic opera (including four operas by Donizetti), as well as unusual interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin and Queen of Spades.

Discover what remains of the recent Soviet past

The most important relic ‒ and a very substantial one ‒ is hidden from (your) sight: 30% of housing in the city centre still consists of kommunalki , communal apartments inhabited by a number of unrelated families living in different rooms and sharing the same kitchen, toilet, and bathroom (for a more detailed explanation of this phenomenon, again see my architecture guide).

A relic of a much rarer kind is the champagne and vodka bar at ul. Stremyannaya, 22. A unique left-over from the 70s and 80s in a city whose drinking establishments have been almost completely remade to Western standards, this zabegalovka or stand-up bar deserves to be turned into a museum to Soviet times. This is the way it used to be: a pit-stop for emergency refuelling on the way to or back from work, or simply on the way to nowhere.

Explore the city’s Constructivist architecture

Constructivist sketch by Yakov Chernikhov

For a full guide to the architecture of St Petersburg, click here.

Visit Vasilievsky Island!

church on corner of 15th line, St Petersburg
Originally intended by Peter the Great to be the centre of St Petersburg, Vaska, as it is affectionately known, has a tranquil, unhurried atmosphere that is untypical of this city ‒ partly because it never became its centre. Walk from Vasiliestrovskaya metro station along 5th/6th or 4th/5th lines ‒ streets lined with a mix of restrained Classical houses and modest mansions ‒ towards the University Embankment for another big view of the river and the city’s skyline. Don’t miss the sphinxes posed enigmatically in front of the Academy of Arts.
house on Bolshoy prospekt, Vasilievsky Island, St Petersburg
church on Bolshoy prospekt, Vasilevsky Island, St Petersburg>

Alternative souvenirs

LFZ porcelain is almost as much part of the cultural fabric of this city as, say, the Winter Palace or the statue of Peter the Great. As well as traditional porcelain such as the handsome Cobalt services, the factory also manufactures Malevich’s wonderful suprematist tea pot and cups (originally designed in 1918; see image below).

Walking tours, drivers, and guides

For standard and not so standard guided walking tours, try www.peterswalk.com and www.sputnik8.ru.

Masha, a friend of mine, can offer a personal and usually fascinating take on the city in good English (not a standard tour, but something more personal). Her email address is: mashaera@mail.ru.

I have an excellent and very helpful driver with wonderful English - Leonid (leonid55@yahoo.com) - who, though not a qualified guide, can provide a running commentary. Useful if you want an English-speaking, informed commentator and a car in one package.

Finally, for a different angle, you could do worse than look at my unconventional guide to the city, The Other St Petersburg.