St. Petersburg is a coherent and carefully planned city, and the value of its individual buildings is best appreciated when you take a step back and view the ensemble to which the buildings contribute. Sculpted parks and curving canals are part of the plan, and well worth a detour -- though be sure to have a map in English and Russian, because off the main roads, street signs are usually in the Cyrillic alphabet only.
The city is Russia's principal port, and its geography and history make it immediately distinguishable from Moscow. St. Petersburg did not grow gradually from provincial backwater to major metropolis like its southern rival, and it was never the capital of world Communism -- this city was built up from the bogs, fast and furious, to be an imperial capital, and it served as such for 2 centuries. St. Petersburg is better at celebrating the past than at choosing a direction for the future, which means that museums, palaces, and ballet and opera houses are where its strengths lie; daring modern art and architecture are not. The Hermitage is a crucial stop but far from the only museum you should visit on this trip.
St. Petersburg's relative youth and the secular ideas of its founder, Peter the Great, mean that cathedrals play a less crucial and less religious role here than in 850-year-old Moscow. Still, your visit should include a church or two; the ones listed below are architecturally or historically notable. Some cathedrals remain museums as they were in Soviet days, but many are again functioning churches and hold services throughout the day.
Museum entrance fees are often higher for foreign visitors than for Russians, and even higher than those in western Europe. Be prepared to surrender your coat or jacket at the coat check any time of year. Be aware that many museums are closed 1 day a month for "sanitary days" -- especially important to note if you're in town for only a few days.
Around Palace Square
The Winter Palace forms just one element of the magnificent architectural ensemble of Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad), the city's most important plaza. Shaped like a truncated piece of pie, this square isn't large by Russian standards, but it is certainly grand. It was not part of Peter's original plan for the city, but grew up over the 18th and 19th centuries to accommodate the Winter Palace and the curved General Staff Headquarters, while opening up at an angle toward the Admiralty and the Neva beyond. It achieves a perfect sense of balance despite its unusual form, and offers a stunning -- and intentional -- vista of the city's elegant lines from any given point. Its architectural beauty did little to protect it from the city's political upheavals, and the square became a center of fermenting dissent in the century leading up to the Russian Revolution. The unrest culminated in the Bolshevik seizure of the Winter Palace via the square that quashed all hope of retaining aristocratic rule. For decades after the seat of Russian power was moved to Moscow, Palace Square was the staging ground for obligatory displays of Communist solidarity and might -- until the end of the Soviet regime saw it again become a forum for antigovernment expression. Politics rarely touch the square today; instead, it fills with in-line skaters and tour buses. For a calmer experience of the square, show up early in the morning. Stand in front of the Alexander Column -- a 600-ton monolith topped by a cross-carrying angel, built under Czar Alexander II to celebrate Russian victory over Napoleon -- and imagine all that this square has seen.
The square's chief element after the Winter Palace is the General Staff Building (Generalny Shtab; tel. 812/571-8446). Its facade, bending around the square for nearly half a mile, was designed to enclose several facilities, the army's General Staff Headquarters being just one of them. The czarist-era Ministry of Finance and Foreign Ministry were housed on the left as you look from Palace Square, linked to the General Staff Building by an unusual, three-piece triumphal arch celebrating Russia's victories against Napoleon, Turkey, and Sweden. The Library of the General Staff is still housed there and is closed to the public; its collection was once considered among the world's best military libraries. The left wing is now part of the Hermitage and houses temporary exhibits. The city hopes to link the buildings with the Winter Palace via an underground passageway, and the Guggenheim Museum hopes to open a St. Petersburg museum in the General Staff Building in the future. Admission to exhibits is 60 rubles for adults and children 8 and over. It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:30am to 5pm; Sunday from 10:30am to 4pm.
Overlooking Palace Square from a distance to the west is the Admiralty (Admiralteistvo), once a fortified shipyard. It is now a naval academy that sadly is not open to the public. It's such a crucial St. Petersburg monument, however, that it's worth spending a few minutes admiring its 61m-high (200-ft.) spire, topped by a weather vane in the shape of a ship. Stand on the plaza beneath the spire and look toward the city: You're at the nexus of three major avenues -- Nevsky Prospekt, Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, and Voznesensky Prospekt -- that shoot out from the Admiralty like a trident. This is no accident, and is one example of the city's careful design. The building was one of the first in St. Petersburg, built to feed Peter the Great's dream of making Russia into a naval power.
Peter & Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Krepost)
Reserve a morning or afternoon for a visit to the fortress that overlooks the Neva's busy traffic and was originally meant to serve as the city's nucleus. Although today's St. Petersburg is centered on the south bank of the Neva River, Peter had planned to base it on the north side, and the Peter and Paul Fortress was one of his greatest masterpieces. The citadel occupies small Hare's Island (Zaichy Ostrov) across from the Winter Palace, and contains a notable cathedral, the Museum of City History, a mint, an old printing house, a former political prison, and a long stretch of sandy beach packed with bathers in the summer. Peter and Paul Cathedral, named after the city's patron saints and erected in 1723, was St. Petersburg's first stone church. The spire made the cathedral the city's tallest building until the 20th century. It became the burial place of all Russian czars and their families from Peter's day until the end of the Romanov empire. The remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family, executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, were moved here in 1997 from the Siberian city where they were killed, after painful debate over whether the remains were authentic. In another cruel chapter from Russia's history, the Trubetskoi Bastion housed political prisoners for centuries, including Peter the Great's son Alexei, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leon Trotsky, and Vladimir Lenin's brother.
The fortress can be reached from bridges on either side, though the ticket office is closer to the eastern bridge, just inside the gates on the right. Two highlights are walking along the fortress's southern walls (it costs a nominal fee that can be paid as part of a combined ticket at the main ticket desk); and watching (and hearing) the daily cannon blast at noon. The city museum is rather disappointing and not enough exhibits are explained in English. In summer the sandbar on the Neva side of the island hosts a sand sculpture competition. In winter ice fishermen camp out on the shore -- and a few brave souls plunge into the icy water to cure their ills. On the facing embankment is the small house where Peter lived while building his capital.
The fortress is on Zaichy Ostrov (Hare's Island; tel. 812/230-0329; metro: Gorkovskaya). Entrance to the fortress grounds is free. Admission to the cathedral and other museums on the grounds costs 350 rubles; 170 rubles students with ID; free for under 16s. The complex is open daily from 10am to 9pm. The museums and cathedral are open Thursday to Tuesday from 11am to 6pm.
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.