This blitz tour begins at Palace Square and the Hermitage, for an intense morning of history and art that provides context for the rest of the St. Petersburg experience. The semicircle of sights surrounding this nucleus provides a sense of the careful vision the city's designers infused into their masterpiece. A walk along the embankment and across the Neva to the Peter and Paul Fortress rounds out the day. An optional stroll along Nevsky Prospekt is reserved for evening, when the avenue lacks its midday intensity. Note: Don't do this tour on Monday, when the Hermitage is closed.
Start: Metro Nevsky Prospekt. Then follow Nevsky west to Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa and turn right, entering Palace Square through the arch.
1. Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad)
Site of czarist processions, raucous imperial revelry, revolutionary riots, Soviet displays of worker unity, and anti-Communist demonstrations, Palace Square encapsulates St. Petersburg's rich and troubled 300-year history. The best way to enter it is through the Triumphal Arch from Nevsky Prospekt. If you get here before 10am, you'll have it mostly to yourself and have plenty of time to explore its facets before the Hermitage opens at 10:30am.
2. State Hermitage Museum
With a collection second in size only to that of the Louvre, the Hermitage would be an international treasure even if it were housed in a concrete warehouse. But its packaging, the resplendent Winter Palace, enhances the experience of viewing world art from the ancient Egyptians to the French Impressionists. Entering through the tranquil courtyard, you forget that the mighty Neva River splashes against the palace's other face. Get a map at the entrance -- or even better, print one out from the museum website before you leave home -- and plan your visit in order to avoid exhaustion.
3. Take a Break -- Literaturnoye Café
A city landmark perched on the corner of Moika Canal and Nevsky Prospekt, this cafe plays up its past as a haunt of Alexander Pushkin and other 19th- and 20th-century poets and writers. The first floor has been taken over by a KFC, but the second floor is great for a cup of tea or a midday meal overlooking the city in a cozy setting. The terrace is nice on a summer day, but awfully tiny. The cafe is located at 18 Nevsky Prospekt (tel. 812/312-6057).
For a reminder of the city's swampy past, wander the embankment of Moika Canal as it heads south from Nevsky Prospekt. You'll pass little commerce and few tourists, but you'll see quaint arched bridges closer in scale and style to those of western Europe than to Moscow. An exception is the Blue Bridge between St. Isaac's Cathedral and City Hall, a cast-iron bridge so wide that you don't notice the water under it. Note the Stroganov Palace on the opposite bank. The Moika's more remote banks inspired philosophical and suicidal strolls by Dostoyevsky's heroes. Many of the historic buildings you pass are rather dilapidated and look better from a distance or at dusk.
5. St. Isaac's Cathedral (Isaakevsky Sobor)
The Moika opens onto Isaac's Square just south of the staggering gold dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral. Unadorned by the peripheral cupolas that characterize other Russian churches, St. Isaac's is a monolith inside and out. To 20th-century Russians it stood less as a religious symbol than a wartime bastion, having survived shelling by Nazi forces during the 900-day blockade of the city then known as Leningrad. The balcony surrounding the dome, sometimes open to visitors, offers a stunning vista.
6. Bronze Horseman (Medny Vsadnik)
St. Petersburg's most famous rider, the Bronze Horseman, rears fearlessly over the Neva River at the opposite end of Decembrists' Square from St. Isaac's. It depicts Peter the Great commanding his city in a rather fierce and autocratic interpretation favored in the era of Catherine the Great, who commissioned the monument. Alexander Pushkin made the statue come alive to generations of Russians with his brooding, stormy poem of the same name.
Following the shore of the Neva eastward from the Bronze Horseman, you come to the carefully classical Admiralty building. Its spire is the building's raison d'être, providing a compass point visible from the city's chief avenues. Once used as a fortified shipyard, the Admiralty is now a naval academy, and though it's closed to the public, its grounds are worth a wander. Its 400m-long (1/4-mile) facade blends in with the Senate building next door, and both provide a counterweight to the Winter Palace up ahead, framing the Palace Bridge (Dvortsovy Most) across to Vasilevsky Island.
8. Take a Break -- Sit on Strelka
There's not much in terms of snacks along this walk, but if you have a bottled drink or something to munch on in your bag, this spit of land pointing into the Neva is a great place to stop and enjoy it. It's adorned by the two Rostral Columns representing four great rivers, which were Russian at the time the columns were built: Neva, Volga, Dnieper, and Don. It gets windy here, but the view can't be beat. The spit is on Vasilevsky Island, at the north end of Palace Bridge (Dvortsovy Most).
9. Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Krepost)
This next stop demands either a good 15-minute walk or a taxi ride. Rabbit Island, the sandbar upon which Peter chose to base himself while his city arose from the marsh, later became the Peter and Paul Fortress. You can wander the grounds for free but must pay to visit the cathedrals and galleries. It's worth the fee to see the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which holds the tombs of Russia's royal families from Peter's until that of the last Romanov czar, Nicholas II.
10. Nevsky Prospekt
Evening is the ideal time to discover St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare, as the daytime traffic thins (a bit) and dusk, or the long summer sunset, softens its harsher edges. The street's architectural precision can still be appreciated by streetlight. Passersby are less rushed, and the dining and bar scenes buzz with Russian and just about every other language.
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.