St. Petersburg (Russia’s So-Called Northern Capital)

St. Petersburg (Russia’s Northern Capital)

St Petersburg in Russia lies on the Baltic Sea, close to Finland. For two hundred years it was the capital of Russia, in land original conquered from the Swedes by Peter the Great. It has often been called the Northern Capital, and is indeed the largest city in Northern Europe.

How and when to go

Although for most of the twentieth century St Petersburg lay as a forgotten jewel in Russia with few foreign visitors, it is now much easier to access. One recommendation is to fly by plane to Helsinki, where there is a modern airport serviced by many airlines, including Easyjet, then take a bus to the station from the airport, and a train to St Petersburg. There are at the time of writing two trains a day. Whereas getting a ticket is easy, it is important to check carefully the timetable to schedule with the flights. However Helsinki is a very pleasant place for a stopover and the square near the station is surrounded by hotels.

Once in St Petersburg, the easiest way to travel is by metro. Tickets are by tokens, which can be bought in bulk and are used one per journey. If you are arranging a hotel, it is often a good plan to make sure it is quite near a metro station. Most of the visits then can be planned around this.

When travelling to Russia, most foreign travellers require a visa, which also requires an official invitation letter. The latter can be quite easily obtained over the internet from a travel company, but you should book accommodation first. If you are inexperienced in obtaining visas, go to a visa agency : they usually charge a fee but will go in person to the embassy to deliver and collect all relevant documents and will advise you what you need. You will not normally be able to get a visa on or near the border, so this must be arranged in advance for most travellers, dependent, of course, on your nationality.

St. Petersburg, Russia

You should also consider the time of year. The snow can be very intense in the winter, often lying on the ground for 5 months. Temperatures can drop to below -20 C. People who are not used to these conditions often find it quite hard to move around. However an advantage of the long winter is that there are less tourists around and that the theatres are open, ballet being especially well regarded. In the spring and summer although conditions are very pleasant, beware that if one of your interests is to visit theatres, they may be closed as companies often tour during the summer. So choose your window of time carefully according to what you want to do.

Where to go and what to do

It is not possible to be comprehensive. St Petersburg is said to contain around 700 palaces, 200 museums and 50 theatres. There is possibly no city in the world with such richness, and one could go back and forth many times and still uncover gems.

To get around the city, Nevsky Prospekt (or Boulevard) is considered the main artery. There are numerous shops and cafes there as well as being close to many important museums and monuments and is easy to reach by metro. One unmissable treat is the Hermitage which contains a rumoured 3 million paintings, but is not restricted to art, consisting of several important palaces that have been merged together.

St. Petersburg, Russia

The Church of Spilt Blood, built on the place where the Czar Alexander I was assassinated in the 19th century, possibly contains more mosaics than any other church in the world. There are numerous theatres, and the Miriinsky theatre is the home of the famous ballet company of that name, which included Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Rudolph Nureyev as the stars. There are also numerous parks and canals in the city. In the surroundings of St Petersburg are some extravagant palaces, of which the Peterhof is the best known and most magical.