St Petersburg - Attractions
For 200 years the vast Russian empire was ruled from this half-kilometre block at St Petersburg's heart. This is one of Europe's great squares, lined with colourful yet elegant edifices and dotted with monuments commemorating Russia's victory over Napoleon. It witnessed Bloody Sunday in 1905, the Bolshevik's grab for power in 1917, and all-night vigils in the name of democracy during the 1991 coup.
The square is dominated by the green, white and gold rococo fantasy of the Winter Palace, residence of tsars from 1762 to 1917 and the largest part of the famous State Hermitage Museum. In the grey old days visitors came to the city for the museum alone and even today it could probably eat up a week of your precious time. The complex of buildings is the size of a small town - a map and compass are absolute essentials. Four linked riverside buildings - the Winter Palace, the Little and Large Hermitage buildings and the Hermitage Theatre - hold a vast collection of Western European art, with enough chandeliers, over-the-top interior encrustations and tsarist jewels and treasures to have you seeing stars for days. The collection largely dates from the culturally heightened days of Catherine the Great, and many works were gained when Napoleon's power began to wane.
Adjacent to the Winter Palace is the gilded spire of the Admiralty - a good landmark to use when you're out and about. This Empire-style classical building houses a naval college and is replete with trumpeting angels, oversized statues and fountains. In late 2000 funeral services were held here for past graduates of the college who died in the tragically sunk Kursk submarine.
Peter & Paul Fortress
Tiny Zayachy Island contains the oldest building in town - the Peter & Paul Fortress. It was built in 1703 while Peter the Great was still roughing it in a log cabin overlooking his golden embryonic city (the cabin is preserved as a shrine-like museum), and designed according to plans by the man himself. Its original purpose was to defend the land newly acquired from the Swedes. However, its main use up to 1917 was as a political prison and the first inmate was Peter's own son Alexey (Peter supervised his son's torture), who was followed by other notables such as Dostoevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin's older brother, Alexander.
The cathedral, though plain on the outside, has a magnificent baroque interior. Most of Russia's Romanov rulers are buried here. Between the cathedral and the Senior Officer's Barracks is a strangely proportioned statue of Peter the Great - rubbing his right forefinger apparently brings good luck.
Often overlooked by visitors in favour of the Hermitage, the extensive Russian Museum is a must for anyone interested in Russian art and culture. It's housed in the former Mikhailovsky palace, which was designed by Carlo Rossi and built in 1819-25 for Grand Duke Mikhail (brother of Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I) as compensation for not getting a go on the throne. The museum was founded in 1895 under Nicholas II, and opened three years later. The building is most impressively viewed from the back, during a late-night stroll through the pleasant Mikhailovsky Gardens behind it. The illuminated palace by night makes a great spot for romantic holiday snaps.
St Petersburg's largest island lies wedged like a plug in the mouth of the Neva. The main points of interest are clustered on its eastern 'nose', just across the river from the Admiralty. They include maritime buildings, the city's university, a clutch of museums, and some of the best views of the city. The island's nostrils are adorned with the Rostral Columns, navigation beacons shaped like ship's prows which today spurt forth gas-fuelled fire on holidays.
Museums include the Central Naval Museum, Museum of Zoology, Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography or Kunstkammer (with its creepy collection of genetic freaks) and the Academy of Arts. The Geological Museum is home to a map of the Soviet Union that's over 26 sq m (85 sq ft) and made entirely of precious gems including amethysts, diamonds and rubies. There's also the Sigmund Freud Museum of Dreams, a unique and innovative exhibit housed by the Psychoanalytic Institute and a must for dreamers and shrink junkies.
St Petersburg's 'Champs Élysées' is the famous Nevsky prospekt, which runs west from the Admiralty 4km (2mi) to the Alexandr Nevsky Monastery on the banks of the Neva. It's lined with fine buildings and thronged with people - a good place to feel the city's pulse, particularly during the midsummer White Nights. The list of former residents who lived on and around the famous thoroughfare reads like a veritable Who's Who: Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Turgenev, Nijinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Dostoevsky.
Sights you'll pass include the many-columned Kazan Cathedral (home to the Museum of Religion), the Art Nouveau former premises of the Singer sewing-machine company (now a bookshop) just opposite, the arcaded Gostiny Dvor department store and the huge square dominated by the statue of Catherine the Great surrounded by her numerous lovers. Also look out for the Stroganov Palace, built by Rastrelli for the Stroganov family (yes, their chef did invent beef stroganoff) and now owned by the Russian Museum, and the red Beloselksy-Belozersky Palace, home to the Communist Party until 1991 and now the Historical Museum of Wax Figures. The shops along the street range from 19th-century palaces of merchandise to amazingly opulent Art Nouveau and Art Deco extravaganzas.
Between the Mars Field and the Fontanka River, this is St Petersburg's loveliest and oldest park. Laid out for Peter the Great with fountains, pavilions and a geometrical plan to resemble the park at Versailles, it became a stomping ground for 19th-century ladies (and gentlemen) of leisure. Though changed now, its formal elegance remains.
The modest, two-storey Summer Palace, in the northeastern corner of the park, was St Petersburg's first palace, built for Peter in 1704-14, and now open to the public. Little reliefs around the walls depict Russian naval victories, and many rooms contain early-18th-century furnishings.
Thanks to Paul I, son of Catherine the Great, the magical wooden palace built for Empress Elizabeth to the south of the park was knocked down to make way for the bulky Engineers' Castle. Shame he only got to spend 40 days there before being assassinated. One wing is now owned by the Russian Museum, which stages occasional exhibitions.
Sir Isaac's Cathedral
The 21.8m-high golden dome dominating the St Petersburg skyline is Sir Isaac's Cathedral, the last neo-classical structure to be built in the city. French designer Ricard de Montferrand kick-started proceedings in 1818, but construction took so long (the cathedral wasn't finished until 1858) that Nicholas I was able to extend the original designs to include even more extravagance. The granite was ordered from Finland (and delivered in specially built ships and railways), 100kg of gold leaf were used for the dome and the end result - a lavish interior of marble and mosaic - is a must-see. You can climb up the 43m-high colonnade for breathtaking views of the city.
Pushkin died in this house by the Moyka River in 1837, after a duel with French soldier of fortune Baron d'Anthes who had been publicly chasing Pushkin's beautiful wife, Natalia. The affair was widely seen as a put-up job by Tsar Nicholas I, who disliked the famed poet's radical politics - and who, rumour has it, may have been the one really after Natalia. The museum includes a Russian-language tour (English tours can be arranged in advance). The apartment has been reconstructed to look exactly as it did in the poet's last days. For the morbid among you, on display are his death mask, a lock of his hair, and the waistcoat he wore when he died.
Museum of Decorative & Applied Arts
Opposite the east side of Summer Garden, this museum is seriously stunning. The collection was begun in 1878 by Baron Stieglitz, who wanted to surround students of his School of Technical Design with inspirational works of art. Between 1885 and 1889 the building was created by architect Messmacher and each room was decorated in its own unique style. Unfortunately much of this decoration was ruined when the school was closed after the revolution, but renovation work continues today. The objects on display are breathtaking, from medieval handcrafted furniture to a rare collection of Russian tiled stoves, and works by the school's students. Don't miss the Terem Room, decorated in the style of the medieval palace of Moscow's Kremlin.