For a taste of nature within St. Petersburg that few foreign tourists seem to know about, venture out to the three island-parks north of the Neva. The nobility used them for outdoor pursuits in the 18th century, but they were opened to the proletariat in the 20th. Today Russians of all classes wander their peaceful paths.
The most pleasant of the three is Yelagin Island (Yelaginsky Ostrov), officially named the Central Park of Culture and Rest. Stroll its traffic-free, oak- and chestnut-lined roads, float in a canoe on its boating ponds, and tour its classical royal palace. Yelagin Palace, built in 1812, was the first major building by Carlo Rossi, who later left his mark on much of the city. Note the patterned parquet floors and mahogany doors with gilded fittings. Yelagin Palace Museum (tel. 812/430-1130) is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Watching the sun set on the far west end of the island, over the Gulf of Finland, is an honored tradition, though it's a long walk. Several rides and other attractions for children are available, some sturdier than others. To get to Yelagin Island, head to metro station Krestovsky Ostrov, then walk over one of the footbridges or take bus no. 411 or no. 416 to the end of the line.
Kamenny Island (Kamenny Ostrov) became a private refuge of the nobility soon after it was forcibly relocated to Peter the Great's new capital in the 1700s. Catherine the Great bought it for her son at one point, and commissioned a palace for him on its eastern point. The neoclassical Kamennoostrovsky Palace is now a veterans' hospital that is largely off-limits to visitors. The west side of the island is more accessible and once housed the summer mansions of the aristocracy, and later the Soviet elite (particularly top KGB generals). It now is home to Russia's nouveau riche. Seeking security, they've built fences so high that the elaborate homes are not visible to outsiders. A few of the older homes are still visible and worth admiring. The main pursuit here, however, is wandering the tranquil, wooded roads. This can be combined with a visit to one of the other islands. To get to Kamenny Island, get off at the Chernaya Rechka metro station and walk south across the river (about 10 min.).
Krestovsky Island (Krestovsky Ostrov) is the largest and least romantic of the three. It's more a sporting center, with tennis courts, yacht clubs, and enormous Krestovsky Stadium. Seaside Victory Park (Primorsky Park Pobedy) was planted by survivors of the World War II siege of Leningrad in memory of those who died, and in celebration of the victory over the Nazis. Two popular restaurants are boosting the island's reputation -- Russkaya Rybalka and the German-style beer hall Karl I Friedrich -- though they're hard to reach without a car. To get to the island, take the metro to Krestovsky Ostrov. Most of the sights are west of there, reachable on foot or by bus no. 134 from the metro.
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.