Russia's Second Capital, the Northern Capital or just plain Piter, as the locals like to call it – St. Petersburg goes by many names nowadays. Historically, it has been through a few names as well. Founded as St. Petersburg in 1703, its name was changed in 1914 to Petrograd, then renamed in 1924 to Leningrad, only to finally have its original name returned in 1991 after a citywide referendum.
One of the first things that strikes you when arriving in this Venice of the North (yet another of the city's monikers) is the abundance of canals that crisscross the city center. St. Petersburg's waterways set the tone of the town. From the aristocratic Griboyedov Canal to the majestic Neva River, many of the city's sights are complemented by water views.
Here are 7 must-do’s on a visit to St. Petersburg:
The Peter and Paul Fortress, surrounded by water on the Neva River, is one of St. Petersburg's most popular attractions. The city's original citadel, it was on this small island that Peter the Great personally laid the city's first founding stone. Inside the fortress' walls you'll find the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which boasts a gold spire that stretches 404 feet into the air. Topped with an angel holding a cross, it is one of the main symbols of St. Petersburg. The sandy public beach located along the fortress' Neva-facing wall comes as a surprise – especially in the depths of winter, when hardy souls brave the sub-zero temperatures for a spot of extreme sunbathing.
The Russian cruiser Aurora is moored on the Neva River not far from the Peter and Paul Fortress. It saw active battle duty during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, but is most famous for its role in the October Revolution. It was a blank shot fired from its cannon that signaled the start of the storming of the Winter Palace. The Aurora was later sunk 1941 while defending the city during the siege of Leningrad. It was raised and repaired, and to this day can be visited as a museum-ship.
Situated almost directly across the river from the Peter and Paul Fortress you'll see the Winter Palace, once the residence of the tsars, now home to one of the world's most impressive art museums – The Hermitage. The Hermitage's collection of art numbers more than 3 million items, including the world's largest collection of paintings. Do not attempt to see it all – it's an impossible feat. Rather, select your favorite genres and make a beeline for them. If you have no great artistic preferences, you can just wander the museum's ornately decorated halls, which are as much a draw as the artworks themselves.
4. Ogle Onion Domes by the Canal
Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral is certainly Russia's most famous collection of onion domes, but the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood must surely come second. Built beside Griboyedov Canal on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, it is just a youngster compared with the 16th-century St. Basil's, having been finished only in 1907. If you haven't had an overload of art at The Hermitage, check out the Russian Museum located just up the canal from the church – it houses one of the country's best collections of Russian art.
5. Float Your Boat on the City's Waterways
While seeing the sights on foot is fine, it's a whole lot more fun to take one of the city's numerous canal cruises. Departing from a number of the city's downtown moorings, the cruises provide views that can be hard to see from the city's sidewalks. You can catch a cruise boat on the Fontanka River near its intersection with Nevsky Prospekt, as well as on Griboyedov Canal near its intersection with Nevsky Prospekt, and on the Moika River by the Mikhailovsky Garden. Naturally, Neva River tours are also available, and those interested in going farther afield can take a hydrofoil to the spectacular palace and park at Peterhof, about an hour outside St. Petersburg.
6. Catch the Opening of the Bridges
A traditional summertime form of entertainment among the city's younger inhabitants, watching the Neva River bridges rise at night to let the ships pass is a spectacle not to be missed. Each bridge follows its own schedule and festive crowds gather beside them to sing songs, drink beer and generally make merry in the White Nights twilight.
Discover that vodka means “little water” at the Vodka Museum and attached Ryumochnaya No. 1 Restaurant. The museum has gathered an interesting collection of historical vodka-related artifacts and curios that trace the development of Russia's most famous beverage. A degustation selection can be sampled in the tasting hall, and for those looking for something a little more substantial, the restaurant offers a full menu of Russian dishes and what may well be the nation's largest collection of vodkas.