Jan. 30, 2008 — -- For centuries St. Petersburg offered its rulers a capital close to Europe with a distinctly Russian flavor.
The so-called "Window on the West" reflects the confluence of these two cultures in its rich history, music, art and architecture.
Though Moscow is now the capital, St. Petersburg remains Russia's cultural heart.
The Hermitage Museum
Russia's treasure trove of an art museum boasts hundreds of galleries of old masters inside a complex of imperial buildings including the czar's famous Winter Palace. Its seemingly endless collection combines the best of Russian art with Western classics as well, in an iconic setting along the Riva Neva. Click here to visit the Hermitage's Web site.
The Catherine Palace
Also known as the Summer Palace or Tsarskoe Selo, this is where you will find the reconstructed Amber Room. The blue and gold Catherine Palace is part of a staggering complex of parks, waterfalls and statues south of St. Petersburg, in the town of Pushkin. Click here to read more about the history of the Catherine Palace.
The Peter and Paul Fortress
St. Petersburg's original citadel, the Peter and Paul Fortress, is also Russia's most famous historical prisons. Don't miss the Prison Museum and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where all Russian czars from Peter I to Alexander III are interred.
The park and fountain complex of Peterhof is as beautiful as it is fun. This former summer playground of the czar's is best to visit in the warmer months when its 176 fountains are running. Click here to visit the Peterhof's Web site.
Rostral Columns and Vasiliesvsky Island
Czar Peter the Great intended this area around the Strelka (spit) of Vasilievsky Island to become the heart of downtown St Petersburg. Though downtown moved to the left bank of the river, the Customs House remains and in the 19th century the imposing white Stock Exchange building was erected, flanked by two Rostral Columns. The two columns, studded with ships' prows, served as oil-fired navigation beacons in the 1800s and are still lit for special occasions.
There are virtually no nonstop flights from the United States to St. Petersburg (Russia's second largest air hub) and connections usually happen via Moscow or other major European hubs.
Fares start as little as $651 on Aeroflot, the largest airline in Russia, and become more expensive in the summer months when it's peak tourist season. Other major airlines (British Air, Air France, etc.) fly to St. Petersburg from their primary hubs. Approximate (nonstop) flight times to St Petersburg: from London is 3 hours 45 minutes; from New York is 12 hours 25 minutes; and from Los Angeles is 16 hours 50 minutes.
Visas are required for most foreign tourists, including Americans.
For internal flights in Russia, such as between Moscow and St. Petersburg, there's a luggage weight limit of just less than 45 pounds (carry-ons are sometimes weighed as well). You'll have to pay a fee if your luggage is above the weight limit.
As Russia's largest naval port, St. Petersburg is a popular destination for cruise ships, which regularly come in and out of the city. Ferries link St. Petersburg with Helsinki and, sporadically, other Baltic ports.
St. Petersburg can be visited year round. While the winter can be cold (average temperatures of about 17-19°F) and very windy, visiting St. Petersburg in winter has its advantages: fewer tourists, beautiful snowy cityscapes and cheaper accommodations.
New Year's Eve is the most widely celebrated Russian holiday (popularized under communist Russia as a move toward a more secular holiday over Christmas) and there's a White Days festival in St. Petersburg during the last week of December.
Late June through early July is high tourist season, when temperatures are often in the mid to high 60s. During this time, visitors can witness "white nights," when there's still daylight at 2 a.m. For two weeks around the summer solstice, the city supports several events to celebrate the northern light. June 12 is Russian Independence Day.