St. Petersburg occupies a world of architectural order forged out of a swamp at a forbidding latitude. Peter the Great's invention cost the lives of thousands of workers sent to make the Baltic Sea delta inhabitable 300 years ago. But his vision lives on -- even new buildings adhere to the symmetry and classicism of Peter's day. The sea-green Winter Palace overlooking the Neva River houses the Hermitage Museum's staggering collection of fine art, and sumptuous royal estates dot the surrounding forests. St. Petersburg's reputation as Russia's intellectual and cultural center has not brought the city the prosperity that today's Moscow enjoys, but Petersburg has better hotel choices and a restaurant scene nearly as vibrant as the capital's.
Organized Tours -- Russia's tourism industry is only beginning to tap the travel possibilities across the world's largest country. No roads exist across much of the territory, and hotels and services in small towns are often little better than gulags. All this makes an escorted tour -- with a group leader, including airfare, hotels, meals, admission costs, and local transportation -- quite appealing. The chief benefit is that the tour company negotiates the hassle of getting a visa; it's also handy to have tour guides navigate museums and street signs labeled in Russian only. The main drawback of an escorted tour is its high cost.
Special-interest tours remain rare in St. Petersburg, though some adventure and ecological tours take you to the wilds of the Russian Far East or the Trans-Siberian railway.
For general-interest tours to Russia's premier cities, Escorted Russian Tours (tel. 800/942-3301; www.escortedrussiantours.com) provides a range of offerings focusing on Moscow and St. Petersburg, as do the U.K.-based Russian Gateway (tel. 07050-803-160; www.russiangateway.co.uk) and the Russian-based www.tourstorussia.com.
One popular excursion is a cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It takes your boat about 10 days to wind through rivers and canals, with stops at the island monastery at Valaam, the fairy tale-like wooden village of Kizhi, lakes Ladoga and Onega, and the Volga river towns of Yaroslavl and Kostroma. Russian Tours (www.rus-tours.com) and Russiana (www.russiana.co.uk) are two places to start.
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.