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A 'Great' time in St. Petersburg, Russia

A monument of military engineering and architecture, the Peter and Paul Fortress was founded by Peter I in 1703 and is the historical nucleus of St. Petersburg.Evgeny Asmolov / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Special to

Just as the Greek goddess Athena sprang fully formed from King of the God's Zeus head, so St. Petersburg was very much the brainchild of its founder, Czar Peter the Great. He looked west for his inspiration, jettisoning the labyrinthine streets of Moscow and other Russian towns for the grand, straight boulevards of western European capitals; and filling the city with palaces as opulent and ornate as Versailles. To create a city on what was swampland, he conscripted 40,000 serfs per year, many of whom perished in the task (there’s a famous saying that St. Petersburg was constructed from bones as much as stones).

At just a hair over 300 years of age, St. Petersburg is relatively young for a European city. But in that brief amount of time, it’s served as the capital of Imperial Russia and the birthplace for a remarkable number of the great wordsmiths (Gogol, Dostyevsky, Pushkin, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatov) and composers (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Rimsky Korsokov). Take in both the imperial and the artistic sides of the city with the following day-long itinerary.

10 a.m.-Noon:  Begin at the beginning, which for St. Petersburg is the (aka Petropavlovskaya Krepost). When Czar Peter the Great green-lighted this citadel in 1703, he envisioned the city growing up around it on the north shore of the river. The people of St. Petersburg had other plans, and they constructed most civic buildings on the south shore, depositing the Winter Palace and the bulk of the city’s great buildings there. But the Fortress retained its importance. Its prison doors clanged shut on some of the most celebrated names in Russian history, including Dostoyevsky and Trotsky; and its magnificent became the final resting place for every generation of Czars up to the last (the probable remains — there are disputes — of Czar Nicholas and his family were moved here in 1997). In a morning you should have time to tour the cathedral, stroll the fortress’ , and hear the daily ceremonial canon blast at noon.

Morning Alternative: Take in the sights from the water on one of the city’s . Peter the Great envisioned the city as a Russian Amsterdam, its arteries canals rather than streets, and built many of the city’s most impressive buildings right up to the river. Consequently, the views from these boats are unbeatable.

Noon-1 p.m.: Grab a blini (a Russian pancake stuffed with all sorts of savory treats) from , a chain of small wooden hut food stands dotted across St. Petersburg. You’ll find one right outside the Hermitage, your next stop.

2 p.m.-6 p.m.: To avoid armies of school children and guided tour tourists, save the for the (slightly) quieter afternoon. Then tune out the crowds and zero in on the treasures of the place: the luminescent Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci, the ecstatic dancers of Matisse, the many works of Picasso, and Titian and Raphael and dozens upon dozens of other art world luminaries. Set in the fairy-tale-like Winter Palace, it’s one of the world’s richest art collections.

Afternoon Alternative: You’ll be missing out if you don’t make a pilgrimage to the Hermitage. But … if you’ve already done it … several times … well why not high tea or chai, as it’s known here? A gift of leaves from the Moghul Khans to Czar Mikhail I in the 17th century was enough to start samovars a bubblin’ across Russia. The population eventually became as tea obsessed as the Brits, and with the rituals to match. Get the full treatment, with sandwiches, pastries, an ultra-refined setting and a softly plucking harpist at the .

6 p.m.- 7:4.5 p.m.: Head to the Yusupovsky Palace, where the famed mystic Rasputin was plied with poisoned cakes and wines. When this failed to kill him, the assassins beat and then shot him. Like the Terminator, he kept on living until finally he was bound and thrown into the river where he drowned. And why are you going to this palace? Ah, the irony: to dine, just like Mad Monk did. But you’ll be going to , where the setting is exquisite and the food is far from poisonous — in fact, many consider this to be the finest restaurant in the city.

8 p.m. - 11 p.m.: Everything is beautiful at the ballet, especially in the city where Petipa invented the art and especially at the opulent . It’s here where the Mariinsky Ballet, formerly known as the Kirov Ballet performs such classics as Copelia, the Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

11 p.m. - on … How you spend the rest of your evening depends on the time of year. If you’re here in summer, during one of the city’s famed White Nights (when the sun never truly sets), you may find yourself at a midnight concert at one of the palace grounds, or simply wandering the festival-like (English Embankment) on the banks of the Neva, where buskers perform, and revelers stroll into the wee hours. When the weather turns frigid, the music club scene heats up at such venues as and , where bands play Alternative music; or , an extremely popular spot where the draw is Russian cover bands of the Beatles. 

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

The is located on Zaichy Ostrov, and the complex is open from 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Phone 7-812-230-0329 or go to for more information. Admission to the grounds is free, though you will encounter charges for admissions to the museums and cathedral within the fortress.

is located within the Fortress and keeps the same hours. Admission is roughly $4.

To walk atop the you’ll pay a bit less than $1 to the attendant stationed at the stairway.

Sightseeing cruises are available from a number of companies. For an inexpensive cruise, try Vodokhod (Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya, phone 812/380-9011). Russian Cruises (Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya, phone 812/974-0100; however, has an English speaking staff guiding the tours. Prices vary by length of tour and destinations covered.

A blini at a Teremok hut should cost about $3. You’ll find these stands all over St. Petersburg but the one closest to the Hermitage is in front of 29 Italianskaya Street.

Museum, 1 Palace Square, phone 812/110-9079; The main museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays and Russian holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Be careful: the ticket office closes an hour before the museum does. Admission to the Hermitage Museum is $13 adults, $3 students with ID, free for those under 18. You can purchase a museum tour for up to 5 people for an additional $55. Admission to other buildings in the Hermitage collection is $7.50 for each one, or you can buy a $25 ticket that allows entrance to the main museum and three others of your choice over the course of one day.

Grand Hotel Europe, 1 Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa; phone 800/426-3135, 812/329-6000;

Dvorianskoe Gnezdo, 21 Ulitsa Dekabristov, phone 812 312-32-05.

Mariinsky Theater, 1 Teatralnaya Sq, phone 812/114-5264;

Cynic, 4 Antonenko Pereulok, phone 812/312-1526. 

FishFabrique, 10 Pushkinskaya Ulitsa, phone 812/164-4857.

Liverpool, 16 Ulitsa Mayakovskaya, phone 812/279-2054;

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.