Once a swamp, then an imperial capital, and now a showpiece of vanished aristocratic opulence shot through with the dingy ruins of communism, St. Petersburg is Russia's most accessible and most tourist-worthy city. (It's also, arguably, European Russia's least "Russian" city.) Palaces, gardens, statues, and arched bridges over graceful waterways bring back the time of the czars. Two of the world's greatest art museums and some sumptuous Orthodox churches top it off. While this place can be exasperating, it is worth grappling with. Beyond its brick-and-mortar sights, St. Petersburg gives first-timers a perfect peek into the enigmatic Russian culture. Venture beyond the city's famous main boulevard and explore the back streets along the canals. On a sunny day, stroll through the Summer Garden. Shop for a picnic at a local market hall, then take a a canal-boat cruise. Step into a neighborhood church, inhale the incense, and watch the devoted bend at the waist to kiss an icon. When the Baltic Sea brings clouds and drizzle, plunge into the Hermitage or the Russian Museum.