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Dazzling St. Petersburg

By Rick Steves
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
The Winter Palace and its great square are synonymous with St. Petersburg's imperial grandeur. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
Deli counter, St. Petersburg, Russia
Small neighborhood markets (like this one, specializing in pickles) are an adventure in communicating and eating. (photo: Rick Steves)

When I visited St. Petersburg in the 1990s, the Russian city was gray and depressing. But during my last visit, I found a town that sparkles.

Three hundred years ago, St. Petersburg was a dismal swampland. But that was before Czar Peter I — better known as Peter the Great — came along. In the late 17th century, the ambitious young ruler visited Amsterdam to learn about shipbuilding. Inspired by that canal-laced city, he returned to Russia determined to create his own great city. Using experts from around Europe (and the free labor of his peasant serfs), Peter filled in the wetlands, built seawalls, and laid out canals.

Many of Peter's original grid-planned neighborhoods still survive, and Russia's affluence in the early 2000s brought a rising vibrancy to the city. It's fun to be a "temporary local" here, enjoying the terrific public transportation, the inviting little eateries and pastry shops opening up left and right, and the impressive sights covering everything from imperial to Soviet times. With its good Baltic access and a huge new cruise facility, the city has also become a popular cruising destination.

The sightseeing spine of the city, the street called Nevsky Prospekt, starts at the riverside Winter Palace. This rambling Baroque complex, the state residence of the Russian emperors from the mid-1700s, is also home to the world-class Hermitage Museum.

When I first visited the Hermitage decades ago, I knew it had an awe-inspiring collection, but found its treasures poorly displayed and the building itself dingy. After my last trip, however, I'd give the Hermitage the "most improved museum in Europe" award. It is dazzling. You can enjoy Leonardos, Rembrandts, and Matisses while gliding through some of the most opulent ballrooms and throne rooms ever built.

While St. Petersburg has plenty of worthwhile turnstile sights, a visit to a simple neighborhood market was one of the most entertaining experiences I had. As a tourist, it's helpful to enjoy the little chores and rituals of everyday life. Just stopping by the corner mini-market and buying some handpicked blueberries gave me a chance to exchange smiles with a local as I pantomimed my way through our transaction.

The language barrier in Russia is formidable — but not insurmountable. Many of the people I dealt with (clerks, salespeople, waiters, tellers) spoke only Russian. I found that one key to more predictable dining was to eat in a self-service cafeteria, with menu items illustrated with easy-to-identify pictures. The food is good (everything from buckwheat porridge to soups and savory or sweet crepes), the price is right, and you order by pointing — something I'm good at.

St. Petersburg is a sprawling place, but its subway system saves steps and lines up nicely with places of interest to tourists. The subway treats commuters like VIPs, with grand and stylish-in-Soviet-times halls. You ride down, down, down on escalators to the trains — a reminder that this city was built on swampland. The vast system seems to have enough capacity to move the city's people until the end of time.

While probably not worth the hassle for most travelers, St. Petersburg's "unofficial" taxi system offers locals an inventive way to get around. If you want to give it a shot, look for an old beater car (usually a Soviet-era Lada driven by a Central Asian man), and hold out your hand. If it stops, you negotiate a price. Locals pay 100 rubles ($3.50 at the time of my last visit), but tourists are lucky to get a ride for 200 rubles (then about $7). While hopping into a car on one occasion, I said to my guide, "This is a good system." He corrected me, saying, "No, this is a good lack of a system."

Throughout Europe, fast-fingered thieves can nip your valuables without you even knowing it. In Russia, the thieves are not so subtle — when they hit, you'll know it. While I don't always wear my money belt these days (shhh, that's a secret), I wore it in Russia. And I know better than to expect service with a smile: Whether you're a local or a tourist, service usually stinks. Don't take it personally.

Travelers to St. Petersburg see an evolving city. By creating this city, Peter the Great declared a new direction for his country and his people, moving toward a world of culture, arts, and science. With some fits and starts, his vision is turning into a vibrant reality, making historic St. Petersburg well worth a visit.