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The Real Venice Of The North.

St. Petersburg, Russia

These days it seems that any city which has even a single canal running through it gets the soubriquet ‘Venice of the North’ slapped on it. ‘Amsterdam, Holland – the Venice of the North!’ cry the travel brochures. You can even find ‘Manchester, England – the Venice of the North’ if you look hard enough, though any city less like Venice than Manchester is hard to imagine. Detroit, maybe.

The real Venice of the North is St Petersburg, Russia. As European cities go, it’s really young. St Petersburg was built in 1703 on the orders Savior on the Blood Cathedral of Russian emperor Peter the Great. Peter’s guiding aim was to stop Russia being seen as barbaric and backward by the rest of ‘civilized’ western Europe. His aim in making St Petersburg his capital was to move closer, both spiritually and physically, to the European capitals he so admired. Moscow, it was felt, was just a bit too far east to be properly European.

Savior On the Blood Cathedral

You only have to walk the streets of St Petersburg today, or along the side of the River Neva, to appreciate Peter’s European dream. The architecture is far removed from the onion domes of the present-day Russian capital. Columns, statues and classical facades dominate the streets of the city centre.

Winter Palace Hermitage Make sure you see the Winter Palace, the 200-metre frontage of which dominates the riverfront in the centre of the old city. This royal residence, completed in 1763, houses one of the finest art collections in the world inside the Hermitage. This building was added by Catherine the Great as a further royal bolt hole. These days it is solely occupied by a staggering 2.8 million works of art. It is also often surprisingly empty. On a quiet day you can virtually have the place to yourself – which is a stunning experience if you love great art. The collection contains pieces by all the major European masters. You could wander around for months and still not see everything it has to offer.

Smolny Cathedral
Smolny Cathedral St Petersburg has been through a lot. This spirit of endurance is reflected in the buildings and in the character of the people, who are charming but tough (they have to be – in winter it gets so cold the ice on the Neva is often a foot thick). After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the city changed its name, taking the moniker of another great political leader, albeit one more in tune with the communist times. ‘Leningrad’ the city remained until 1989, when it reverted to its old name.

During those seventy years times were hard – Peterhof Palace Fountains mainly due to the encroachments of Nazi Germany. During World War Two Leningrad/St Petersburg was pretty much on the frontline between Soviet and Nazi forces. Large parts of the city were reduced to rubble, to be rebuilt later in one of the most extensive and sensitive reconstructions of the post-war era.

Peterhof Palace

A few survival tips for the city:

  • Try to book a central hotel. It’s a big old town and although being based right in the middle may be a little more expensive up front you’ll save a lot on public transport fares.
  • Wrap up warm! St Petersburg can have the odd cool day even in the middle of summer. In winter it is freezing. Plenty of layers, sensible shoes or boots and a woolly hat are vital.
  • Take some hard cash. The rouble isn’t the world’s most stable currency, so some dollars (or Euros, or sterling, if you’ve been touring Europe) can come in handy. Many major outlets, hotels and restaurants – and some smaller ones – will happily take dollars. Before you go, check out the rules about the amounts of different currencies you can take in and out of the country – it varies.
  • Stay safe. While it’s true that St Petersburg is really no more dangerous than most US cities – and arguably safer than some – it has had a pretty turbulent time over the past few years, especially with organized crime. You’re very unlikely to run into the Mafia, but the city suffers from the usual run of tourist hazards such as pickpockets. Take sensible precautions and you should be fine.

Peterhof Palace Cascade St Petersburg is a wonderful city – as much a true meeting point between east and west as Istanbul is. It’s also a great place to visit to get a real feeling for what’s going on in modern Russia. In 1917, the Revolution kicked off in St Petersburg when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. The city remains a cultural and political barometer of the nation, and as such should not be missed – even if it is a little short on gondolas.

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