Czar Peter the Great had a brainstorm: What Russia needed was a new capital. A major seaport was essential, he knew, for his landlocked country to claim its place among the nations of Europe. And so in 1703 Peter the Great captured a chunk of marshy Baltic coast from Sweden and proceeded to build a glittering new capital there, with a network of canals draining the Neva River delta into a cluster of islands.
Moscow regained capital status after the Revolution in 1917, but the ghosts of the czars linger in Saint Petersburg, at elegant Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad). Standing under the Alexander Column—a 600-ton monolith topped by a cross-carrying angel, commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon—imagine all that this asymmetrical plaza has seen, from royal coaches pulling up to the baroque Winter Palace on one side, to Communist solidarity marches in front of the long, curved General Staff Building. Through the grand courtyard of the Winter Palace today, you enter the State Hermitage Museum, which houses the peerless art collection of the czars. The Hermitage’s extravagantly decorated salons display an incredible catalog of Renaissance Italian art and loads of Dutch and Flemish masters; it has more French artworks than any museum outside of France.
If you stand on Strelka, a spit of land on Vasilievsky Island, you’ll view a panorama of nearly every major landmark in Saint Petersburg—a classically harmonious assemblage of architecture, which luckily escaped the massive Stalin-era reconstruction that blighted many other Russian cities. Over 3 centuries, Saint Petersburg—dourly renamed Petrograd during World War I, and Leningrad from 1924 to 1991—gradually spread out from the south bank of the Neva, but under Peter the Great its center was the Peter & Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Krepost), on Hare’s Island (Zaichy Ostrov) across from the Winter Palace. The complex includes the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which holds the tombs of all Russian czars from Peter’s day through the last czar, assassinated Nicholas II (he and his family were reburied here in 1997). Also at the fortress, the Trubetskoi Bastion housed such political prisoners as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leon Trotsky, and Vladimir Lenin’s brother.
You may also stroll around the formal gardens of the Summer Palace; glean literary insights at the Dostoevsky House (5/2 Kuznechny Pereulok) and Nabokov House (47 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa) museums; walk along Nevsky Prospect, Saint Petersburg’s greatest boulevard; and photograph the blindingly bright beveled domes of the Cathedral of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, commemorating the spot where Czar Alexander II (who freed Russia’s serfs in 1861) was assassinated in 1881. Exploring the city, you’ll cross a lot of bridges—342 of them, many exquisitely designed and adorned with statues. If you’re lucky enough to be here in June during White Nights, when the sun never dips below the horizon, perch on the quay at 2am to watch the Neva’s drawbridges unfold in careful rhythm to allow nighttime shipping traffic through. Just be careful not to get caught on the wrong side of the river from your hotel!