Start: Palace Square.
Finish: Gostiny Dvor.
Time: About 2 hours.
Best Times: Any weekday or Sunday morning, when the crowds are thinner.
This tour links key St. Petersburg sights with less important ones. The side streets and embankments are just as crucial to understanding the city as are the palaces, so look at everything, even between stops.
1. Palace Square
Stand at the Alexander Column in the center and turn around slowly, a full 360 degrees. Each building on the asymmetrical square emerged in a different era but they combine to create a flawless ensemble. Nothing in this view, or this city, is accidental. Imagine the royal equipages pulling into the square, the czarist army processions, the revolutionaries' resentment of all the square stood for -- and the Communist-era appropriation of the square for holiday parades. The column itself is not attached to the ground -- its weight keeps it upright.
Walk north from the column to the courtyard of the:
2. Winter Palace
The palace's now tranquil courtyard bustled with court activity in Empress Elizabeth's and Catherine the Great's days, and with revolutionary activity 150 years later. It was closed to visitors until recently, visible only from inside the Hermitage Museum. You can pick up a museum plan while you're here, though a visit to the Hermitage deserves at least an afternoon or a full day to itself.
As you leave the courtyard, take in the view of the curved General Staff building across the square.
Head left toward the Moika Canal, then turn right and follow it down to Nevsky Prospekt. Note the uniformity of the buildings along the canal, all in various shades of yellow, and the odd proportion of the wide bridges crossing the narrow waterway. Cross Nevsky and head left, until you reach the columned gray facade of:
3. Kazan Cathedral
Walking the length of the cathedral's concave colonnade gives you a stepped-back view of Nevsky on one side and a sense of the cathedral's scale on the other. Its modern, secular lines are almost reminiscent of the Capitol Building in Washington, built just 2 decades earlier. Compare this to other Orthodox churches you see around Russia. Marshal Kutuzov, who led the Russian victory over Napoleon, is buried here. Even if you don't go in, note that the church's entrance is on the east side instead of facing the street, to satisfy Orthodox church canon.
Cross the avenue again and stop at the corner of Nevsky and Griboyedov Canal to admire:
4. Dom Knigi
This Art Nouveau treasure is just another building along Nevsky, but worth noting are its glass dome and mystical mosaics. It once belonged to the Singer sewing machine company, whose name is still engraved on the facade, between the second and third floors. For decades it was Dom Knigi, or House of Books, Leningrad's main bookstore. After a recent renovation, it now houses the bookstore on the first floor and an upscale shopping mall on the higher levels.
Cross Griboyedov Canal and head north along it, past the boatmen hawking canal tours, toward the dizzying domes of the:
5. Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood
Built 7 decades after Kazan Cathedral, this church sprang from an entirely different era and worldview. Though constructed during Russia's industrial and economic boom of the late 19th century, the Church of the Savior harkens back to the piled, etched, color-coated domes of medieval Russian churches, and is slathered with gold and precious stones -- a much more Russian style of church-building than the reasoned lines of European-style Kazan Cathedral. Inside the Church of the Savior, note the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a revolutionary. This politicized location is part of the reason for the church's nationalist design.
Walk around the cathedral along the outer edge of Mikhailovsky Gardens, stopping to study the undulating patterns of the cast-iron fences surrounding the gardens. This could be a good moment for coffee, or something more substantial.
Take a Break -- The one-story pink pavilion in Mikhailovsky Gardens was once a public toilet, but don't let that deter you. The Park Giuseppe restaurant (tel. 812/571-7309) now has a splendid terrace overlooking the gardens and the Church of the Savior. Good pizzas (by Petersburg standards), strong coffee, and a good selection of teas and desserts are the menu highlights.
Continue to follow the fence around to the entrance to the gardens.
6. Mikhailovsky Castle & Gardens
The warm coral of the castle's exterior makes it look almost inviting despite its grim history. The paranoid Czar Paul I had it built because the Winter Palace made him feel too exposed to threats from without and within his court. (Paul was right about the threats, but not about the security of his new home: He was assassinated by advisers soon after he moved in.) Compare the high fences enclosing the gardens and the inaccessibility of this castle courtyard to the more sociable Winter Palace, facing the Neva River and opening onto Palace Square. Mikhailovsky Castle was later an engineering school and is now the Engineering Museum.
Circle the palace and turn right onto Italianskaya Ulitsa, heading straight until you reach the Square of the Arts. Take a rest on a bench in this small rectangular plaza, then wander its circumference to study its components:
7. The Russian Museum
This museum is housed in the triumphantly classical Mikhailovsky Palace (Dvorets), not to be confused with the Mikhailovsky Castle (Zamok) that you just saw. The optimism of the period when the palace was built (1819-25) is reflected in the mock war trophies that top its gates and victorious frieze. The royal family made it a museum in 1898, as their belated effort to create a gallery of Russian art to rival Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.
Walk around the square past the Mussorgsky Theater (check out its repertoire of ballet and opera performances on the way), around the Grand Hotel Europe and across Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa to the:
8. Shostakovich Philharmonic
Built in the 1830s, Russia's premier music hall has staged the country's leading works, from Tchaikovsky's concertos to Rachmaninoff's symphonies. It has hosted giants including pianist Sviatoslav Richter and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and does great justice to the composer who gave it a name, Dmitry Shostakovich.
Continue down Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa to Nevsky Prospekt. Turn around and look at the Square of the Arts one more time from this perspective. Then turn left down Nevsky and continue to the underground walkway at the next intersection. Cross Nevsky through this passage, noting its lively commerce in pirated CDs, DVDs, and software. You'll emerge at:
9. Gostiny Dvor
This 19th-century shopping mall has gone through several incarnations. Picture its early years, when it was a gathering place for the nobility looking for gifts to take to balls at the Winter Palace. It was also a place to come after lighting a candle at an icon at Kazan Cathedral. Its current customers include the city's new middle class, as well as some members of the nouveau riche who made fortunes in the privatizations and economic chaos of the 1990s.
To stay in an aristocratic, 19th-century mood after this walk, stop at the mezzanine of the Grand Hotel Europe, back on Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa (tel. 812/329-6000). The plush armchairs in this peaceful atrium make you feel like an escapee from modern St. Petersburg, especially when the harpists play. Tea, pastries, and small sandwiches are available.
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.