Saint Petersburg is simply put one of the greatest sightseeing cities on earth. No visit can do it justice—you'll have to move here to really be able to see all the sights. Really, budgeting a month of full-time tourism would not be unrealistic. And that's after all dramatic events of the 20th century that took place here! Perhaps no other city outside Italy can compare in sheer volume of beautiful, grand things to see.
As the center of the Russian world for 200 years of the Romanov Dynasty, the city reaped the rewards of Peter the Great's impossibly grandiose and tyrannical vision, and the Empire's extreme inequality. The wealth of the wealthy in Imperial Russia was almost unfathomably extreme, and led to the extreme opulence of the palaces and ecclesiastical buildings throughout the city center, as well as the suburban palaces at Peterhof, Lomonosov, Strelna, Pushkin, and Pavlovsk. The greatest concentration of sights is found within the huge area of the center inside the Obvodny Canal, along the south embankment of Vasilievsky Island, and in the southern half of Petrogradsky Island.
So, OK, you don't have months to explore the city—what are the highlights? It's a difficult question to answer. The most obvious destination is the Winter Palace on Palace Square (right by the Admiralty and the Bronze Horseman), which houses the Hermitage Museum, and which was the winter residence of the Romanov Tsars and essentially the center of the Russian Imperial government. The Hermitage Museum is easily one of the top five art museums in the world, but even if you don't care about art, wandering around the enormous palace itself is extremely rewarding. The nineteenth century, whimsical Church on the Spilled Blood nearby is another internationally recognized icon of the city, with a spectacular setting on the Griboedov Canal near the Mikhailovsky Garden, and filled—literally filled—with beautiful mosaics.
Speakings of canals, strolling the palace-lined banks of the Moika, the Fontanka, and the Griboedov Canal in the historic center is a must. During the summer months, you can also enjoy this magnificent architecture from the boat by joining any of the popular (albeit expensive) "channel tours," or opt for a budget boat trip along the Neva river on a so-called riverbus, which is a tiny boat zooming along the river on several routes that are integrated into the system of public transport.
In the same neighborhood, walk down Nevsky Prospekt, which serves as Saint Petersburg's main grand avenue for shops (especially the historic mall of Gostiny Dvor), theaters, and another realm of palaces and cathedrals, most notably the massive Kazan Cathedral. The Kazan Cathedral is functioning, so its easier to visit than the other big cathedrals (no lines, entrance fees, etc.). In the same neighborhood, but off Nevsky, are the Square of the Arts, where you'll find the Russian Museum—an absolute can't-miss for art lovers. The Mariinsky Theater is one of the world's most beautiful performance venues, and you should check it out even if you can't see an opera or ballet performance. Mammoth Saint Isaac's Cathedral, with its impressive balcony views, is another obvious sightseeing destination.
Across the Neva River are more can't-miss sights. The Peter and Paul Fortress on the Petrograd Side is easily one of the city's top three attractions. Aside from its sheer beauty, visit it for its immense history as the final resting place of the Romanov Tsars, as well as its role as a notorious prison for the most high-profile political prisoners under their rule. On Vasilievsky Island, you must at least take a taxi over to the Strelka for the views by the Rostral Columns, across the street from the Old Stock Exchange, home to the Naval Museum, surely one of the best of this kind on the planet. Then take another ride along University Embankment before heading back across the river. Better yet, stop along the way at the weird and wonderful Kunstkamera museum of ethnology, home to Peter the Great's bizarre collection of oddities.
Complicating the desire to see the city's highlights in a short period of time are the magnificent suburban palaces at Peterhof, Pushkin, Lomonosov, Strelna, and Pavlovsk. Any tourists who visit Saint Petersburg and don't see neither the Tsarskoye Selo palaces at Pushkin, nor the Bolshoi Palace at Peterhof, really should be a bit ashamed of themselves. It's like going to Paris and skipping Versailles. Of the three, the Pavlovsk Palace would be the least unforgivable to miss, but if you have the time—go.
More time? The center has a world of more sights. Mars Field with the Memorial to the Revolutionary Fighters and the Eternal Flame, the Circus, wonderfully baroque Smolny Cathedral, Peter the Great's Cabin, the rolling parkland of the Tauride Palace and Gardens, Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was killed (if you get the chance to see a performance in the theater inside, jump on it), the neoclassical bust-filled Summer Gardens, Mikhailovsky Castle, the Marble Palace, the small but powerfully heartrending Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad, and much, much more. Literary buffs should seek out Dostoevsky's local haunts, including the famous "Murder Walk" from Crime and Punishment, which will take you right from Raskolnikov's apartment to the door of the very apartment where the grisly deed was done.
Head back across the river to the Petrograd Side, past the Peter and Paul Fortress, you'll find the Saint Petersburg Mosque, the really impressive Military Museum, the museum-ship of the Cruiser Aurora, the ever... interesting Museum of Political History, and the Botanical Gardens. On Vasilievsky, the whole Neva embankment is filled with great museums and grand buildings. Especially great places to visit (aside from the aforementioned Naval Museum and Kunstkamera) include the Menshikov Palace (run by the Hermitage), the Twelve Collegia, and the Mining Museum. And don't forget to hunt down the some 3,300 year-old sphinx statues from the Theban Necropolis!
Few tourists make it out of the city center, south of the Obvodny Canal and north of Petrogradsky Island, but there are still huge amounts of things to see in the north and south of the city—especially in the south. Southern Saint Petersburg is home to the Narva Triumphal Arch and its sister monument—the Moscow Triumphal Gate, the huge Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad (which honestly should be one of the main attractions in this city, if not for its distance from the center), Moscow Victory Park, and one of the best examples of Stalinist architecture (more interesting than you'd think) at the House of the Soviets, fronted by a very large Lenin statue. The most wonderful sight in southern Saint Petersburg, though, may be the whimsical, candy cane-colored Chesme Church.
The eastern part of the city (colloquially known as the Right bank) is renowned for its nineteenth century industrial architecture in the districts of Okhta and Porokhovye (former gunpowder factories).
Northern Saint Petersburg is a bit less notable, but adventurous travelers can find some things of interest, especially in the old industrial district around the Finliandskii Station, at the Forestry Academy and Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery for the fallen in the Siege of Leningrad.
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