St. Petersburg is full of unforgettable architectural moments, if you take a minute -- or 15 -- to stop and look around. Of the city's chief monuments, at the top on your list should be the Bronze Horseman (Medny Vsadnik). This most famous of St. Petersburg's monuments is best viewed from a boat in the Neva River, where you can feel the ferocity of Peter the Great and his stallion rising above you and the city he created. It's worth visiting on foot, too, to enjoy a walk through Decembrists' Square and watch newlyweds pay their respects to the city's founder. Commissioned by Catherine the Great in honor of her grandfather-in-law and designed by French sculptor Etienne Falconet, the monument was unveiled in 1782. It depicts Peter in control of his wild steed (representing Russia), his hand reaching out over his masterpiece of a metropolis. The rearing horse is perched on a wavelike chunk of granite, its hoof stepping on the snake of Treason. The monument took on a deeper and more sinister significance for Petersburg residents after Pushkin's epic poem "The Bronze Horseman," in which the unfortunate protagonist imagines the statue coming to life and pursuing him.

Pushkin himself is the subject of another monument, at the center of the Square of the Arts (Ploshchad Isskustv). The square is the real architectural masterpiece here, forming a nucleus of cultural institutions, while the Pushkin statue, built in 1957, is little more than a landmark. Originally designed by Carlo Rossi, an Italian-Russian architect, the square acquired many of its buildings in later years, but they all adhered to his original vision. Take a moment on one of its benches to appreciate its lines, and then walk around the square to take in Mikhailovsky Palace (now the Russian Museum), the Ethnography Museum delicately and elegantly added later, the Mussorgsky Theater, the Operetta Theater, and the Philharmonic. The closest metro stop is Gostiny Dvor.

Ostrovsky Square (Ploshchad Ostrovskogo) rests at the heart of another of St. Petersburg's impressively planned districts, and is an ideal spot at which to rest your feet after exploring Nevsky. The square separates Pushkin Theater from Nevsky Prospekt, allowing the theater to line up and incorporate with Lomonosov Square on the Fontanka River beyond. The square, designed by the ever-present Italian Carlo Rossi, centers around a statue of Catherine the Great, represented at her most elegant and regal. The base of the statue is carved with Catherine's advisers, envoys, and consorts, some silly enough to be caricatures. Look behind the Pushkin Theater at Rossi Street (Ulitsa Zodchego Rossi), an example of St. Petersburg's relentless sense of proportion: It is 22m (72 ft.) wide and 220m (722 ft.) long, and it's flanked by matching buildings 22m (72 ft.) tall.


Anyone interested in naval history or ship construction should visit the Cruiser Avrora, moored on the embankment on the Petrograd side across from the St. Petersburg Hotel. The cruiser, built in 1897, took part in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. It has been a city landmark since the Russian Revolution, when the ship bellowed out a blank shot to announce the Bolshevik storming of the Winter Palace in 1917. It's now a free public museum and training ground for cadets. In Soviet times the city's Pioneers, a sort of Communist Boy Scouts (and Girl Scouts), were brought here for their swearing-in ceremonies. The exhibits are mostly in Russian, but the cadets speak some English and can serve as informal tour guides. The decks are a bit treacherous in icy weather and the stairs are quite steep. Spend half an hour here before continuing along the embankment for more ship-gazing. Admission is free. The cruiser is open Wednesday to Sunday 10:30am to 4pm (metro: Gorkovskaya).

In sharp contrast to the reverent, almost decadent monuments in the center of town is Piskarevo Park and Memorial Cemetery (Prospekt Nepokorionnikh), open daily sunrise to sunset. The mass graves in this vast and somber park hold the bodies of about half a million people who died during the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II. Most were civilians who died of cold, starvation, and disease. St. Petersburg residents, nearly all of whom have a relative who perished during the blockade, come here regularly to lay flowers and remember. It's far from the center and most tourist sights, but several tours include a stop here. The long central alley leads to a Soviet-style statue of a grieving woman representing the Motherland, and the rest of the graves are uniform and extend far into the park. An exhibit of photographs and documents related to the siege is housed in a pavilion; for a fuller story, visit the St. Petersburg History Museum's blockade exhibit. It's far from public transport, so take a taxi if you're on your own. Allow 2 hours with transport time.

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