A second day in St. Petersburg is best spent discovering why the city still considers itself Russia's cultural capital. Starting at the Square of the Arts, this tour takes in the masterpieces of the Russian Museum and the ensemble of theaters joining it on the square. The eye-catching Church on the Spilled Blood, the sculpted Summer Gardens, the prestigious banks of the Fontanka River, and the architectural nuances of Ostrovsky Square follow. Rest up and shop in Gostiny Dvor, then use this evening for a visit to the renowned Mariinsky Theater.
Start: Metro to Gostiny Dvor, then take Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa north of Nevsky to the Square of the Arts.
1. Square of the Arts (Ploshchad Isskustv)
A masterpiece of classical symmetry, this square includes the Mikhailovsky Palace, which now houses the Russian Museum, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theater, and a statue of Pushkin that pulls it all together (even though it wasn't added until 1957). Take your time to circle it and note the vistas from every side street.
2. Russian Museum
Even if you can't name a single Russian artist, this museum is a superb introduction to Russian art through the ages. Its display of Orthodox icons shows more clearly than any book the evolution of their styles. The Constructivist and post-Impressionist images by Kandinsky, Chagall, and Malevich take on different meaning in their original, Russian setting. Though exhibits are labeled in English, the audioguide is very worthwhile.
3. Take a Break -- Stray Dog Cellar (Podval Brodyachy Sobaki)
Ensconced in a basement just off the Square of the Arts, this friendly cafe flourished in the early 1900s as an artists' den. Poet Anna Akhmatova and her contemporaries once held readings and staged raucous and daring performances here. The cafe is again enjoying a revival, hosting musical shows and one-act plays. Grab a coffee, lunch, or some jam-filled pancakes. The cafe is at 5/4 Square of the Arts (Ploshchad Isskustv; tel. 812/315-7764).
4. Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood (Tserkov Spasitelya Na Krovi)
The festive facade of this church is almost gaudy and frivolous, despite its morbid name. The real name is the Church of the Resurrection, but it earned its common moniker because it was erected on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Brilliantly restored, the church's interior is almost as vivid as its exterior. Look for the tiles marking the exact spot of the murder. The adjacent embankment is full of souvenir vendors; the better deals and quality are on the opposite side of the canal.
5. Mikhailovsky Castle & Gardens (Mikhailovsky Zamok)
The castle itself was built by the paranoid Czar Paul I, who felt too exposed in the Winter Palace. The interior, now an Engineering Museum, reflects his more austere tastes. It is worth visiting if the weather is lousy or if you're interested in latter-day mechanical developments. Otherwise, use this time to wander the lush grounds, which make the bustle of Nevsky seem worlds away.
6. Summer Palace & Gardens (Letny Dvorets, Letny Sad)
Farther on is the compact Summer Palace that Peter built, a cheery (though unheated) contrast to the somber citadel of Mikhailovsky Palace. The surrounding gardens hosted decadent imperial balls, and include Renaissance-era statues Peter had imported from Italy to perfect his meticulously planned parks.
7. Fontanka River
The river was so named because it once fed the luxurious fountains of the Summer Gardens. Today its embankments house some of the city's architectural masterpieces; note Sheremetev Palace on the east side, where Anna Akhmatova once lived. It now houses a musical instrument museum. The circular building on the west bank houses the well-known city circus. Study the horse sculptures anchoring the four posts of Anichkov Bridge, which carries Nevsky Prospekt across the Fontanka.
8. Ostrovsky Square
Head back west on Nevsky Prospekt to Ostrovsky Square, recognizable by its monument to Catherine the Great. The statue incorporates images of the empress's favorites in various moods and poses, and usually gets giggles out of kids. Behind her is the Alexandrinsky (or Pushkin) Theater, which puts on ballets, operas, and plays, and is a superb alternative to the Mariinsky Theater if tickets aren't available. In summer you can enjoy intermission on the columned balcony and feel like royalty.
9. Gostiny Dvor Shopping Arcade
This spot has been a raucous outdoor market, an upmarket arcade supplying delicacies to the aristocracy, and a Soviet department store with rows of identical shops. Today it's a tightly packed modern shopping mall. You can get fresh apricot or cabbage pies for a few cents in its cafes, or a fur coat for a few thousand dollars. Both a landmark and a convenience, it also has public toilets and 1-hour film developing.
10. Take a Break -- ...ili...
This busy corner cafe across from Gostiny Dvor attracts young Russians and tourists alike. Its name means "either . . . or" and is good for the indecisive: It has a bistro, a restaurant, and Internet tables, and is open around the clock. There's nothing elite about it, but it's nicer than any of the cafes inside Gostiny Dvor. Ice cream, salads, and soups are safe and satisfying choices. The cafe is at 54 Nevsky Prospekt (tel. 812/331-9090).
11. Mariinsky Theater (formerly Kirov Theater)
The aquamarine walls hint at the city's naval ambitions, but everything else about the Mariinsky celebrates St. Petersburg's cultural heritage. Its exterior symmetry and interior opulence alone are worth the price of a ballet ticket. If orchestra seats are sold out or beyond your price range, don't be afraid of the upper balconies. They offer a better view of the magnificent ceiling fresco and a more relaxed viewing experience.
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.