Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 on the Neva river, amidst the land he had just conquered from Sweden, outside the area populated then by the Russian people. Pre-planned rather than spontaneous almost from the very beginning, the city, called by Peter "my window on Europe", was designed to look European rather than Russian, and many European architects were invited to work here. As the capital of the Russian Empire from the early 18th century to the early 20th century, the city grew steadily, saw many crucial events of the Russian history, and was a major cultural center. Many world-famous artists, scientists, writers and composers, such as Mendeleev, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky, lived and worked here.
In 1917 the Russian Revolution started. The significance of Saint Petersburg has declined somewhat after the transfer of the Russian capital to Moscow in 1918, but this allowed its cityscape to remain largely intact to this day. During World War II, the city was besieged by the Wehrmacht for 872 days, resulting in more than a million of civilian losses, mainly from starvation.
Saint Petersburg has almost always been, or at least tried to be a city with strong foreign connections, and this is where its authenticity lies. Don't expect it to be overly indigenous. Matryoshkas and other such souvenirs popular among foreigners have very little to do with its authentic life.
The language spoken in Saint Petersburg is Russian, as in most parts of Russia. English is usually taught in schools and universities, so younger people are supposed to understand it to some extent, but the chance of finding anybody who is fluent in English on the streets is, though better than elsewhere in Russia, still not that great. Average people will probably be able to point out a direction, but don't expect much more. The signs and labels in most places, especially off the beaten path, are still in Russian only, with a notable exceptions of metro (subway) and street signs in the city centre. It may be a good idea to get familiar with the Russian alphabet before the travel, as this is easy and lets you recognize street names and so on.
There is a local weekly English-language newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times.
The city's position at 60°N makes for huge seasonal variation in day length. Days are less than 6 hours long at the end of December, but it never gets darker than twilight during the White Nights season in June. Not only are the days very short in late autumn and early winter, but the weather may be overcast for weeks, without a hint of blue sky, which may feel depressing. The driest season with least precipitation is early spring. July and August are usually the rainiest months, though the difference is usually not big enough to worry about. But if you care about this, it is a good idea to have an umbrella or raincoat handy.
In November–March there are hardly any tourists—even domestic tourists—so you won't see the barest hint of the long lines of the summer at the Hermitage. Saint Petersburg's neoclassical streets are also simply gorgeous in the snow. Temperatures can range from relatively mild, slightly above freezing point, to bitterly cold. From time to time it may get well below the averages, to -25°C (-13F) and below, often with high humidity and wind, so be prepared to dress warmly. Most major tourist attractions (except fountains and all sorts of water transport, of course) are still open and some hotels offer lower prices during this time.
Snow cover persists on average from November till early April (late April in the countryside), with most of it falling during the first half of the winter. Snow is not always removed from streets in time and may exacerbate traffic problems. The danger of slipping may be high in winter, as the surfaces are often covered with ice. Wear good boots, take small steps, and watch your feet! Also beware of icicles falling from roofs.
The rivers and canals are frozen on average from late November till April. Usually from late April till November the Neva is navigable, and during this season most of its huge bridges are drawn up to let ships pass for several hours each night according to a published schedule. This is a spectacular sight during the White Nights, but also a major transport inconvenience.
In April dog poop emerging from under the snow, the sludge resulting from melting snow and the dust which forms when it dries up may get tiresome.
May 9 is Victory Day (День победы) celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. This day is marked with an opening military parade on Palace Square, directly in front of the Hermitage, visiting various war monuments, giving flowers to war veterans who are dressed in full military outfits, and an evening parade down Nevsky Prospekt which includes survivors of the Siege of Leningrad.
June is peak tourist season during the famous White Nights (roughly 11 June–2 July), when the sun sets only for a brief period of twilight, and the streets stay alive around the clock. The last ten days of June, during the White Nights Festival of all-day performances, concerts, festivals, and parties, are the busiest time of the season and it can be difficult to reserve accommodation and transport. Book early.
July and August are usually the warmest months. This is a rather northern city, and it rarely gets really hot, but even more modest warmth can be hard to bear in summer because of the high humidity. Rain showers usually come and go throughout this time, so it is always a good idea for one to have an umbrella or rain jacket at all times, even on sunny clear days.
Late September—early October is a lovely time in the city. The temperatures drop to moderate, often with strong winds, and the tourists are all gone. Rain is still common.
Fountains work from May through mid-September. Most trees are in leaf from May through October.
When deciding on the time of your visit, keep in mind the days of school holidays, when museums and other similar venues can become considerably more crowded. School holidays happen in early November, the first half of January and late March. Moreover, general holidays are held around the New Year into early January, as well as in early May.
Keep in mind that New Years is the biggest holiday of the year in Russia. Reserving a hotel room is usually not a problem during this time, but be prepared for very large crowds and noisy celebrations.
Primorskoe shosse, d. 536
Dvortsovy prospekt, d. 48
Sadovaya St., 20
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