St Petersburg - Off the beaten track
The Leningrad Radio-Tele Broadcasting Centre's antenna is open to visitors. The 50,000-watt, 310m (1020ft) transmitter tower offers excellent views of the city and its environs, and there's an observation deck 200m (660ft) up the structure. The tower sways on windy days, and you can feel it! The construction of the tower was supervised by an all-female crew.
Most European rulers had at least one Versailles, and Peter the Great was no exception. He built a series of palaces on a beautiful site 30km (20mi) west of St Petersburg, the combined ensemble known as Petrodvorets. The occupying Germans trashed this legacy of tsarist overindulgence in WWII, but recent historians reveal that it suffered heaviest damage under Soviet bombing campaigns in December 1941 and January 1942 (Stalin wanted to thwart Hitler's plans to hold a big party there). What you see today is largely a reconstruction from photographs, drawings and anecdotes.
Fountains play a very large part in explaining Petrodvorets' impressive charm. The Grand Cascade & Water Avenue is a symphony of fountains and canals partly engineered by Peter himself. Petrodvorets' other components include the Grand Palace, enlarged by Rastrelli for Empress Elizabeth and later remodelled by Catherine the Great. The pendulous chandeliers and paintings are originals; fortunately they were removed before the Germans arrived. Peter's original villa, Monplaisir, has bright and airy galleries facing the sea - it's easy to see why it was his favourite place to doss. The gardens are dotted with the ubiquitous fountains, charming pavilions and summer houses, including the ultimate in private dining rooms, the self-contained and moated Hermitage.
The outer delta islands, lying to the north of the centre, are collectively called the Kirovsky Islands, and include Kamenny, Yelagin and Krestovsky. The islands were granted to court favourites and developed into elegant playgrounds. Yelagin Palace, built by Rossi for Alexander I's wife, Empress Maria, is open to the public. Today the islands are mostly leafy venues for picnics and cavorting. Summerhouses, gingerbread mansions, boating channels, cycle paths and a seaside park mingle with the houses of St Petersburg's very rich.
Evocative of the rosy days and the grey days of the Romanovs, the summer palaces at Tsarskoe Selo (renamed Pushkin in 1937 to commemorate the centenary of his death) were created for Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. They lie 25km (15mi) south of St Petersburg. The baroque Catherine Palace was left in ruins by the Germans at the end of WWII but today is a masterpiece of restoration. The facade features golden domes and blue and white detailing, while the interior positively gleams and glitters with mirrors, chandeliers and tumescent cherubs. Just north of the Catherine Palace is the classical Alexander Palace. Favourite haunt of Nicholas and Alexandra, it ironically became their prison when they were put under house arrest before being shunted off to Yekaterinburg. It's the least touristy palace, so in some ways the most pleasant, and now open after an eons-long renovation.
Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad
The Siege/Blockade of Leningrad was one of the most significant events of WWII, and, some say, the history of war. South of the city and only 9km (6mi) from the front line, this impressive ensemble of bronze statues, centred on a 48m-high obelisk, is a tribute to the eventual victory by the Russians over the invading Nazis. The underground exhibition is as eerie as it is informative with a huge relief map of the front lines, showcases featuring items from the siege, details of events that happened during the siege, and documentary films. The bronze lamps, haunting music and sound of the metronome (the only sound heard by Leningraders on their radios throughout the war, save for emergency announcements) create a sombre and reflective mood.