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Overview

Introduction

St. Petersburg has had three names in less than 100 years, changes that mirror the shifting political winds of Mother Russia. The names of its places and people are a roll call of Russian history of the 19th and 20th centuries: the Winter Palace, the czars, Dostoyevsky, the Catherine Palace, Tchaikovsky, Lenin.

As the former official—some still say cultural—capital, St. Petersburg is the most westernized of Russia's cities. Its grand architecture echoes the great cities of Europe, and there are seemingly endless museums full of staggering quantities of treasure. St. Petersburg sprawls along the banks of the Neva River and was once known as the Venice of the North for the many canals there. For visitors who want to understand what came before, and what is happening now in Russia, St. Petersburg is essential.

Must See or Do

Sights—Beautiful churches (Kazan Cathedral, Smolny Cathedral, Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac's Cathedral and Alexander Nevsky Monastery); the Peter and Paul Fortress; Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad); a river or channel cruise for a different perspective of the city.

Museums—Masterworks of European painting at the Hermitage Museum; centuries of Russian art at the Russian Museum; vodka tasting (and a history lesson) at the Museum of Russian Vodka.

Memorable Meals—Hefty portions of good Russian cuisine at 1913 and Palkin; catching your own dinner at Russkaya Rybalka; Georgian "pizza" at Khachapuri i Vino; a Dostoevsky-style vegetarian lunch or dinner at Idiot; a cup of coffee on the second floor of Dom Knigi bookstore.

Late Night—Russian rockabilly bands at Money Honey; dancing in Russia's hippest bomb shelter at Griboyedov; listening to the jazz at JFC Jazz Club or The Hat; a stroll at 2 am to watch the drawbridges open during the White Nights.

Walks—Window-shopping on Nevsky Prospekt; strolling along the picturesque banks of the Neva River and the roofs of the city center; exploring the stunning grounds of the czarist summer palaces and gardens in the suburbs of St. Petersburg; enjoying the parks and 19th-century cottages on the Kamenny and Yelagin islands; a walk through the empire of fountains in Peterhof.

Especially for Kids—Military grandeur along the decks of the cruiser Aurora; paddleboats at the summer palaces; the huge amusement park on Krestovsky Island.

Geography

St. Petersburg is as far north as Seward, Alaska, and is more populous than any city at that latitude. It experiences White Nights during the summer when the north pole is tilted closest to the sun, meaning that St. Petersburg only has a few hours of darkness a day in the summer months.

The city sits on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, an inlet of the Baltic Sea. The many fingers of the Neva River run through the city's heart, cutting St. Petersburg into about 60 islands. Nevsky Prospekt, Russia's most famous street, divides the city's main landmass in half from east to west and is lined with hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants.

Just across the Neva from mainland St. Petersburg are Vasilievsky Island and another island colloquially called the "Petrograd Side" of the city (where Peter the Great originally founded St. Petersburg). Both islands contain interesting sightseeing attractions and are easily accessible by bridges.

History

St. Petersburg was founded by progressive-minded Czar Peter the Great in 1703 near the site of a captured Swedish fortress. But the founding of St. Petersburg wasn't easy. More than 300,000 prisoners of war and conscripts died leveling hills, draining marshes and building ornate baroque palaces. Peter made the new city the capital of Russia and insisted that nobles from Moscow relocate there.

The city entered a building boom under czarinas Elizabeth and Catherine the Second (the Great) and Czar Alexander I, giving St. Petersburg many of its most famous buildings. It was during this period, 1741-1825, that the city became one of the most grandiose capitals in all of Europe.

Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs and his industrialization policy brought huge numbers of people into St. Petersburg during the late 1800s. However, poor conditions for the lower classes contributed to widespread discontent. When troops fired upon a peaceful demonstration of workers in Palace Square—a day later known as Bloody Sunday—the 1905 Revolution was under way. Czar Nicholas II finally appeased the working class with the signing of the October Manifesto, which gave birth to the first-ever Parliament in Russia—the State Duma.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, St. Petersburg changed its name to the more Russian Petrograd. In 1917, the city was again the hub of revolution. A combination of wartime grievances and social unrest led to the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. Petrograd gave up the seat of government to Moscow in its wake. After the death of Russia's first socialist leader, Vladimir Lenin, in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad.

During World War II, German forces laid siege to Leningrad in September 1941. The city was completely blockaded for nearly three years, and more than a million people died, many of starvation. The city was rebuilt after the war and gradually regained its position as the cultural capital of Russia. The city restored its name to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s and retains that designation to this day.

Vladimir Putin, who was elected president of Russia in 2000 and has lived in St. Petersburg most of his life, has worked to boost the city's profile. He was re-elected in 2018 for another six-year term.

Putin has largely been credited with leading Russia into a period of stability and economic progress following the hyperinflation of the crisis-ridden 1990s. Under Putin's leadership, the city has hosted numerous international summits and has refurbished an extravagant palace into one of his presidential residences.

A large number of palaces, historic buildings and embankments were reconstructed (most of them only from the outside) in honor of the city's 300th anniversary in 2003. More and more restaurants and services have opened, too, and a few new museums have appeared in the city as St. Petersburg has become more tourist-friendly.

The city's skyline is forever changed with the construction of Lakhta Center on the outskirts of town. The scientific, educational and recreational complex includes the tallest building in Russia and second-tallest in Europe.

Potpourri

St. Petersburg is a very young city by European standards, as it is just slightly more than 300 years old. It is one of two cities in Europe that has never been captured by an enemy during a war or seceded as part of a treaty. The other is Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though Russian and Soviet history teaches that St. Petersburg was nothing but a swamp before Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, it was actually already inhabited by the Ingrians, a race linked to Finns that traded with Dutch traders sailing the Baltic Sea.

A Swedish fortress called Nyenskans, built in 1611, was located at the mouth of the Neva River (across the river from where Smolny Cathedral stands today). It was sacked and destroyed by Alexander Nevsky, a knight who came up from Novgorod and led the Russians to victory over the Swedes. This land moved back and forth between Sweden and Russia several times.

The 900-day Siege of Leningrad is perhaps the darkest period of the city's history, and yet Leningraders showed incredible resistance and did everything they could to go on with life, including two particularly bright days: On 31 May 1942, following one of the coldest days of the siege, a football match was held between local teams Dinamo and N-sky. (Dinamo won 6-0.) On 9 August 1942, the Leningrad Radio Symphony Orchestra debuted Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, The Leningrad, in the Philharmonic's Grand Hall (now called the Shostakovich Grand Hall). The performance was broadcast live across the city.

The Rostral Columns, two orange-red pillars located on the spit, or strelka, were originally navigation instruments. These early lighthouses burned oil for light in the 1800s. Today, natural gas is piped through the inside of the columns, which are lit on certain national and city holidays.

St. Petersburg's underground network (metro system) is the deepest in the world. The average depth is 200 ft/60 m, and some escalators are more than 500 ft/150 m—the longest in the world. There are two reasons for these depths: The metro was built not only for public transport purposes but also as a potential shelter in case of a nuclear attack, and it runs underneath the Neva River and all of the area's many other rivers and streams.

Location

Tourists arriving by ship could end up in a few different locations, including the Marine (Morskoy) Facade Sea Terminal, the old Morskoy Vokzal Sea Terminal or one of a number of docks located closer to the city center not far from the Blagoveshchensky Bridge. Anyone arriving by ferry from Tallinn, Estonia, or Helsinki, Finland, should expect to arrive at Morskoy Vokzal (check the schedule in advance, as it tends to change often).

Independent travelers arriving by ferry typically arrive at the Morskoy Vokzal. The terminal boasts two travel agencies, insurance companies and a rental car office. It was built beneath Morskaya, an old Soviet hotel (which, despite renovations, isn't one of the best places to stay in the city).

Passengers arriving at the Marine Facade Sea Terminal have access to a souvenir shop, cafes, vending machines, ATMs, a post office, car rental agencies, a taxi stand and an information booth. Bus 158 runs between the terminal and Primorskaya metro station.

Those arriving by ferry should obtain a migration card before landing. The cards are usually distributed to passengers as they disembark. If you are not given one, ask. If you go to passport control without one you are likely to be sent back or fined upon departure.



Shore Excursions

Anyone arriving on a cruise ship touring the Baltic Sea will most likely anchor at Marine Facade Sea Terminal or the Morskoy Vokzal Sea Terminal, both of which are on Vasilievsky Island, or at a dock near the Blagoveshchensky Bridge (contact your tour operator for details). Many tour operators have made arrangements to stay in St. Petersburg for less than 72 hours, taking advantage of a provision that allows passengers to visit St. Petersburg visa-free if you book a tour with one of the approved operators. Customs officials will meet you at the dock and process the necessary paperwork. If you are on one of these tours, you will not be allowed to travel independently and must stay with your group at all times, although this rule is not always strongly enforced.

Tourist excursions vary but normally include an early-morning trip through the Hermitage (before it opens for regular tourists, thereby avoiding the crowds), as well as a trip to one of the palaces in the suburbs and an evening at the theater. Other popular options include a boat trip along the rivers and canals of St. Petersburg (day or late-evening options).

If you wish to travel independently, you will need to arrange for a Russian visa well in advance of your arrival. Your cruise company will be able to help you with the details.

Overview

Introduction

Facing Tampa Bay on the opposite side from Tampa, the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, commonly referred to as St. Pete, attracts visitors with a vibrant downtown of historic buildings, a diverse arts scene, and cultural attractions such as the Salvador Dali Museum, the symphony at Ruth Eckerd Hall and theater at American Stage.

On the Gulf side of the peninsula in Pinellas County, the towns of Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach are welcoming swaths of Gulf water lapping at white sand, backed by restaurants, souvenir shops, and boogie-board-and-bikini boutiques. Caladesi Island, Honeymoon Island and Fort de Soto Park are all noteworthy Pinellas beaches.

The St. Petersburg downtown area, once sleepy and empty at night, has been revitalized, in part thanks to Sundial St. Pete, an entertainment and restaurant complex, and an explosion of high-rise luxury condos. Also, boutique cafes and restaurants, bars, art galleries, museums and a variety of shops and other businesses stretch along more than 3 mi/5 km of Central Avenue west from the bayfront.

Must See or Do

Sights—The soaring Sunshine Skyway Bridge; the downtown waterfront, including St. Pete Pier; St. Pete's landmark historic buildings.

Museums—The Salvador Dali Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts; the St. Petersburg Museum of History; the Duncan McLellan Gallery.

Memorable Meals—Enjoy sophisticated fusion dishes at Chouinard's Cuisine & Catering; great grouper sandwiches, a fun atmosphere and ocean views at The Hurricane; an Italian espresso and home-cooked meal at Mazzaro's Coffee & Italian Market.

Late Night—A bay or Gulf dolphin or sunset tour; barhopping along Central Avenue; a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game in season; cocktails at Canopy Rooftop Bar overlooking the waterfront; live music at Floridian Social Club.

Walks—Downtown's waterfront area; Preserve the Burg Historic Walking Tours; strolling along the white-sand beaches of Pass-a-Grille, Fort DeSote, Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island.

Especially for Kids—Hands-on experiences at Great Explorations Children's Museum; the butterfly garden, alligators and tortoises at Boyd Hill Nature Park; a treasure hunt on The Pirate Ship at John's Pass.

Geography

St. Petersburg occupies the large, flat Pinellas Peninsula that forms the west side of Tampa Bay (the city of Tampa is across the water to the northeast). St. Petersburg's grid-plan layout with numbered roads and directional addresses make it relatively easy to negotiate. Avenues run east and west; streets run north and south. Central Avenue is the main dividing line between north and south. The avenue numbers increase as you move from the center of town in either direction, and the "north" or "south" in the address indicates whether the destination is north or south of Central Avenue. The streets are also numbered, beginning at the Tampa Bay waterfront and increasing as you go west. Part of the city spans the whole peninsula, all the way to the Gulf Coast beaches.

Note that the North and South designations of avenues and streets is crucial to understanding where a particular address is located. For example, 34th Avenue North and 34th Avenue South are dozens of blocks apart, as are 60th Street North and 60th Street South. The addresses of businesses and residences correspond with the numbered road they're located near. For example, 400 First Ave. S. is located between Fourth and Fifth Streets South.

St. Petersburg lies on the bay side at the southern tip of the Pinellas peninsula. Downtown St. Pete has more history and a better sense of place and sophistication than most of the beach towns along the Gulf side. The communities of Gulfport and Pass-a-Grille are exceptions, where there are also romantic bed-and-breakfasts, fine restaurants and cultural attractions.

Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach, Pass-a-Grille Beach, Treasure Island and Madeira Beach, all on the Gulf side, have the densest concentrations of beachside accommodations—in Clearwater this often means tall resort hotels and condos right on the beach; in St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and Madeira Beach it's low-rise motels that date back a few decades. Except for Clearwater, these communities are all situated just outside the western edge of St Petersburg city limits.

The communities closer to Clearwater—Belleair and Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach—are fairly residential, but with pockets of beachside hotels, motels and rentals.

The whole Gulf side is really composed of a series of tiny barrier islands connected to the mainland by causeways. Between the mainland and this string of barrier islands runs the Intracoastal Waterway, a more protected water passage for yachts and powerboats. This may not be totally clear to you when driving, but spend a little time with the map so you know when you're looking at boats bobbing on the Intracoastal Waterway, Boca Ciega Bay, Clearwater Harbor or the Gulf of Mexico.

History

Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to visit the peninsula they named Pinellas—Ponce de Leon even searched for the fountain of youth there. It wasn't until the mid- to late 1800s that settlements began to take shape in the St. Petersburg area.

The arrival of a railroad built by Peter Demens in the late 1800s spurred the area's growth. The city was named in honor of Demens' birthplace, St. Petersburg, Russia. By the late 19th century, the area was being promoted by the American Medical Association and the city's entrepreneurial founding fathers for its health benefits.

Even in its early years, the town was a vacation destination. Fittingly, a young aviator named Tony Jannus flew the world's first passenger airline flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 1914.

During the 1920s, St. Pete underwent a massive economic and tourist boom. During this period several huge landmark hotels were built downtown near the waterfront, along with entertainment venues, restaurants, cafes, parks, public services and the large homes of entrepreneurs prospering from the boom. Many of these homes and buildings are still present in the city's historic neighborhoods and on the National Register of Historic Places.

St Petersburg underwent a second boom period in the 1950s and '60s, thanks to the advent of air-conditioning, which spurred the popularity of the area as a retirement destination.

The city went into economic decline during the 1970s and '80s, but in the 1990s, St. Petersburg began a recovery and has been expanding and diversifying ever since. A diverse arts scene has developed, and several major organizations help support local artists and galleries. Dozens of large, colorful wall murals dot downtown St. Petersburg.

Since about 2010, the rate and diversity of expansion has accelerated even more. All sorts of small independent shops, boutiques, cafes, breweries, restaurants, bars and art galleries have sprouted up in downtown, and the Central Avenue corridor's expansion is still ongoing. Not surprisingly, St Petersburg remains popular with vacationers and retirees.

Potpourri

St. Petersburg is in Guinness World Records for having the most consecutive days of sunshine. The cloud-free run began in 1967 and lasted 768 days—thus, some people call it the Sunshine City.

The 4-mi/7-km Sunshine Skyway Bridge is the largest cable-suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. It also rises nearly 200 ft/62 m above Tampa Bay. The old Sunshine Skyway Bridge, however, also boasts a record: It's been repurposed as a fishing pier, the world's longest, with a tremendous concentration of sportfish lurking in the deep waters below. You can rent fishing gear on the pier.

The Renaissance Vinoy Hotel, opened in 1925, was the first hotel in the U.S. to be warmed with steam heat. Celebrities who have checked in include Jimmy Stewart, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Among the locals, the rumor is that Al Capone, one of Chicago's most infamous gangsters, hid out in St. Petersburg in 1926.

St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club is the oldest shuffleboard club in the U.S. Situated on the west side of Mirror Lake, the club opened in 1925 and still has shuffleboard courts open to the public.


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