More than 400 palaces grace St. Petersburg, Russia. Their facades stretch along canals as romantic as those in Venice in endless, undulating waves of architectural extravagance. Bathed in the pale light of mid-winter, they form a stunning pastel stage set, as if the city were preparing for the performance of a grand opera.
Life here in the 18th century under Peter the Great and later under Catherine the Great, and still later under the Romanovs — Nicholas and Alexandra — was much like an opera, full of passion and intrigue.
Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 as a "window through to Europe." Built on 42 islands, it became known as "The Venice of the North." He chose to establish his new capital at the mouth of the Neva River on the Bay of Finland, thus giving his city so many enormous palaces. Visitors arriving by horse and carriage weren't allowed to enter the gates of his new city unless they had brought with them big blocks of stone for building. Fortunately, you needn't carry stone, but a suitcase full of hard cash may not be a bad idea.
If the old imperial Russian empire still lives on anywhere today, it's in St. Petersburg. And its soul, Nevsky Prospekt, the street of the aristocracy, still stretches five kilometers between the Admiralty and the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Czar Peter wanted to build a street of such a length that it would be impossible for anyone to see the end of it. And he succeeded.
With world-class architecture, astonishing views and friendly people, you'll find lots to do here. Begin on the south side of the river with the Hermitage Museum, located in the former Winter Palace, a massive palace-museum showing the highlights of a collection of over three million pieces spanning the globe. The Hermitage is truly one of the world's great museums, with an imposing setting displaying priceless works by Rembrandt, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rubens and more. The place is so huge you definitely need a guide to see as much as possible in the time you have, but tour guides can be pricey with some charging as much as $100.
The Admiralty stands at the North end of Nevsky Prospekt next to the Hermitage. And while you cannot go inside, it's still impressive. Nearby, is Saint Isaac's Cathedral on St. Isaac's Square, built in 1818. It has the third highest cupola cathedral in the world. It's colonnaded observation deck affords one of the best views of the city, if you're willing to climb 400 steps.
While not a palace, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, on a canal between Nevsky Prospekt and the Neva River, is certainly palatial. A traditional style Russian church built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, it's interior is elaborately decorated with over 6,000 square meters of mosaics.
Directly across from the luxurious Grand Europe Hotel stands the Mikhailovskiy Palace, housing the extensive collection of Russian paintings and sculpture of the Russian Museum. The main building, the Mikhailovskiy Palace houses the main exhibits, and the Russian Museum also oversees the permanent and temporary exhibits at the Stroganov Palace, Marble Palace and Mikhailovskiy Castle.
After viewing the wall-sized romantic paintings of the Russian Museum, go to the nearby Ethnographic Museum, with its display of the traditions and costumes of various ethnic groups found in the lands of the former Russian Empire.
Crossing the river, your first stop will be the Menshikov Palace, operated by the Hermitage and displaying art and objects from the early 18th century. Built for the first governor of St. Petersburg in 1721, this Baroque palace was one of the first grand stone constructions of the city. Look especially for the grand staircase, and the Walnut, Naval, and Chinese Rooms.
Following the road along the river, you'll come to the Exchange Building, which houses the Naval Museum. Built in 1816 in the Neoclassical style, the Naval Museum is one of the largest in the world, containing historical displays of the Russian Navy from its founding to the present day, including weaponry, models of ships, and even some original mastheads.
Outside at the point jutting into the intersection of several waterways stand the distinctive Rostral Columns are yet another symbol of the city. Constructed in 1810, Six rostra — traditionally, the prows of captured ships, symbolizing the might of the Russian Baltic Fleet — adorn each. At the base of the columns you'll see sculptures representing the great rivers of European Russia, the Volga, Dnieper, Neva, and Volkhov. The columns originally served as lighthouses but today are strictly decorative.
Continuing across another bridge, then following a canal, you'll come to Peter the Great's final resting place, the Peter and Paul Fortress. You can go in for free, but to enter the church and exhibitions you need tickets. You can get a combo ticket for everything, or you can just enter the church.