St. Petersburg, or "Peter" if you prefer to sound like a local and can master the rolling Russian "r," is different than other Russian cities. It's actually surprisingly un-Russian. Peter was quite the Europhile, and wanted the city to be Russia's window to the West. Indeed, with long, wide boulevards, canals reminiscent of Amsterdam or Venice, and stunning Baroque architecture, you could easily find yourself wondering why you needed a visa to visit.
When to visit
St. Petersburg is magical any time of the year, however, there's a reason hordes of tourists visit from mid-June through early July: White Nights. Imagine meandering the city's historical streets, cruising its hundreds of canals, or simply soaking in the view from your hotel room—all without it ever getting truly dark outside. While it's not exactly brilliant sunshine 24 hours a day, it also never gets much darker than dusk. If you ask me, that's a nice contrast to St. Petersburg's winters, when the sun never seems to rise.
While summer is popular for a reason, the off-season isn't all that bad. Last winter, my husband and I spent a month holed up in a dark apartment in a dark corner of the dark city, learning Russian. Despite the fact that the streetlights were still on when we walked to class at 9 a.m., and that they came back on when we left (at 3 p.m.), I wasn't completely soured by the experience. One day the sun peeked through the clouds, and what emerged was glorious.
Tourists flock to this northern city for a reason: There is tons to see and do.
The historic center of St. Petersburg is teeming with pastel-colored imperial buildings, sparkling gold-domed churches, and lush green spaces. The main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, is in the heart of the city. Some guidebooks refer to walking along it as a thankless trudge past the sooty trolleys, honking cars, and smelly underground shopping areas that dot the metro exits and entrances, but I saw it as the perfect way to get my bearings. I never tired of passing the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood, Gostiny Dvor, or Catherine the Great's famous Winter Palace. Just make sure to wear a comfortable pair of shoes, unless of course you're a Russian woman and don't feel pain in your stiletto-clad feet.
Weeks on end could be spent visiting St. Petersburg's many museums. They range from the downright odd, like the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, which has a special display of "born freaks and unusual finds" to the magnificent—the State Hermitage Museum comes to mind.
Next, consider shopping. Souvenir stands abound, but if you're in the market for a fabulous fur coat or ushanka (one of those imposing looking furry hats) you've hit the jackpot. Even in the summer you can find places selling top-quality items. Another thing Americans always seem to want to buy is caviar. Never, ever buy it on the street. The hawkers' prices are too good to be true for a reason: The caviar being sold is either not the real deal, or it's not cultivated in accordance with international law.
If it's all a little overwhelming, you can take a tour of the city by land or sea. Getting a seat on one of the plethora of tour buses trolling the streets or open-topped boats plying the canals is rarely a problem. Hosts of operators congregate along Nevsky, especially near tourist attractions such as Gostiny Dvor and the Hermitage. They can be arranged in an impressive number of languages for an affordable price that includes admission to sights, guides, and transportation. There are also tours to attractions in neighboring villages like Pushkin or Petrodvorets.
Tips to consider
Between the sleepless nights in the summer and the cold, sleepy days of the winter, it's obvious there's a lot going on in St. Petersburg. What might not be so obvious is how to get to the city. Here are some tips for making trip planning easier.