Peter the Great built his dream city on a cluster of islands in the marshland of the Gulf of Finland. To make sense of this boggy site, he designed a network of canals and bridges whose grueling construction cost the lives of many of the city's builders. The gift they left later generations is a city of remarkable logic and beauty despite the irregularity of its land.
The Neva River folds around the city center in a rounded number 7, taking in water from the city's dozens of canals before flowing out to the Baltic Sea. The city's main land artery is Nevsky Prospekt, a 4km-long (2 1/2-mile) avenue that slices across the city center roughly northwest to southeast. The city retains a coherent center even as it has expanded north, east, and south in recent decades. (The sea stops it from expanding westward.) Museums, hotels, and shopping are conveniently concentrated in and around Nevsky and the historical downtown. Train and bus stations are all attached to the subway system, which is fast and efficient even though the city has outgrown its overcrowded four lines.
Today's St. Petersburg houses five million residents and, like Moscow, is both dense and territorially large. That means a lot of walking even within the city center, but St. Petersburg is not nearly as unwieldy or overwhelming as its southern sister.
Addresses in Russia are often perplexing, so don't be afraid to ask for detailed directions. It's also a good idea to carry your hotel business card with you, to show taxi drivers the name written in Russian to avoid misunderstandings.
The drawbridges that span the Neva are both a charming attraction and a logistical consideration for St. Petersburg's tourists. They remain down during the day for automobile and foot traffic, but lift in the middle of the night in a carefully synchronized performance to allow shipping traffic from the Baltic Sea into Russia's inland rivers. That means you want to be sure to be on the same side of the river as your hotel when night falls, or else you may be stuck for a few hours.
The main bridges are up at roughly the following times, with minor adjustments each year:
Volodarskiy: 2 to 3:45am and 4:15 to 5:45am
Alexandra Nevskogo: 2:20 to 5:10am
Liteiny: 1:50 to 4:40am
Troitskiy: 1:40 to 4:50am
Dvortsovy: 1:25 to 4:55am
Blagoveshchenksy (formerly Leytenanta Shmidta): 1:25 to 2:45 and 3:10 to 5am
Birzhevoy: 2 to 4:55am
Tuchkov: 2 to 2:55 and 3:35 to 4:55am
Finlyandsky: 2 to 5:30am
Bolshoi Okhtinsky: 2 to 5am
By Public Transportation
The St. Petersburg Metro is a fast, cheap, and extraordinarily deep subway system that every visitor should try out at least once. Station entrances are marked with a big blue letter M. The four-line system is easy to follow, with each line color-coded and transfers clearly marked -- though usually in Russian only. This is where it's highly useful to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Trains run from 5:45am to 12:15am. Each train car has a metro map inside to consult, though it's a good idea to carry one with you (they're available free at all ticket counters). The trains run quite frequently but the system is insufficient for the size of the city and doesn't serve many of the key tourist attractions. It can also be crowded at any time of day, and you can find yourself in a waddling mass squeezing onto the fast, steep escalators. Most platforms are enclosed and resemble a long hall full of elevator-like doors. You can't see the train as it approaches, but you hear a tone and suddenly the doors open -- and there's a train on the other side.
One ride costs the same no matter how far you're going. The city is phasing out metro tokens, replacing them with paper cards using a magnetic strip. For the time being, every metro station sells tokens, which cost 20 rubles, or they sell cards for 5, 10, or more trips that get cheaper the more you buy.
The blue plastic tokens are dropped into machines with marked slots. The cards are slid into machines with slots on the side and pulled out on the other end before you can cross.
Trams are a pleasant way to see the city, but only a few lines are convenient for hotels and tourist sights. Two lines worth trying are the no. 14, which runs from the Mariinsky Theater up through the center of town and across the Neva, and the no. 1, which runs through Vasilevsky Island, including a stop just outside the Vasileostrovskaya metro station. Trolley buses run along Nevsky Prospekt and some other large avenues.
Tickets for trams and trolley buses cost 18 rubles and are available from a conductor in a yellow vest who roams the vehicle selling them. Maps are posted inside the vehicles, and routes are often listed at the stops, but in Russian only.
Reliable companies to try are the official Petersburg Taxi (tel. 068 -- that's right, just 3 digits) or Taxi Park (tel. 812/265-1333), or Khoroshee Taxi (tel. 812/700-0000) or New Yellow Taxi (Novoye Zholtoye Taxi; tel. 812/600-8888. All work 24 hours.
Some rental companies to try are these:
Hertz/Travel Rent: Pulkovo Airport-1 and 2, arrivals halls. tel. 812/326-4505, 326-4501. www.hertz.com. Rents cars with or without drivers.
Europcar: Pulkovo-2, arrivals halls. tel. 812/703-7733. www.europcar.com. Rents with or without drivers.
Rolf-Neva: 17/10 Vitebsky Prospekt. tel. 812/320-0010. Rents with or without drivers.
Several European tour companies offer bus trips to Moscow, usually from Germany; or to St. Petersburg, usually from Finland. The journey from Berlin to Moscow is long, about 2 days, and involves poorly maintained Russian highways and long waits at the borders. You will need transit visas if you travel through Belarus, as most Moscow-bound routes go. The Helsinki-to-St. Petersburg journey takes about 7 hours and is often included on Scandinavian-based tours.
By Cruise Ship
St. Petersburg, one-time capital of imperial Russia and the second-largest city in Russia, is the country's largest port. It's also become a popular cruise ship destination. Shore excursions to St. Petersburg include visits to top sights like the Hermitage Museum, which has one of the richest art collections in the world; the Peter & Paul Fortress, the burial place of the Romanov dynasty; and St. Isaac's Cathedral, the fourth-largest cathedral in the world. Cruise lines also typically offer nighttime shore excursions to see ballet, opera, folk performances, or circuses.
Important Visa Information -- Passengers who participate in St. Petersburg shore excursions or arrange for private transportation through the ship's shore-excursions desk do not need to obtain a visa.
Those who wish to go ashore on their own, however, do have to obtain a tourist visa prior to departure. To receive a Russian visa, you must have a valid passport that remains valid at least 30 days past the last day of the cruise.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.