St. Petersburg, land of the Romanovs, was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on May 27, 1703, and acted as the imperial seat of Russia for most of the time leading up to the Russian Revolution. Since then, it’s gone by other names—Petrograd, Leningrad—depending on the whims of the current leadership. Today, its nickname of the Northern Capital of Russia speaks to its rivalry with Moscow. The city is built on more than 100 islands in the Neva River delta on the Baltic Sea and lies in close proximity to both Finland and Estonia. It’s a rare winter month that there isn’t snow on the ground, while summer temperatures rarely top 30C/86F.
As the cultural capital of Russia, the city is brimming with the arts, from its Baroque and Neoclassical architecture—most notably its many palaces and churches—to its renowned opera and ballet troupes. The restaurant scene may not have the cachet of that of Paris or Florence, but St. Petersburg’s more upscale venues offer dining experiences fit for a tsar, with L’Europe at the Grand Hotel Europe a standout. Because of its northerly location, summer months enjoy White Nights that transform the city into a 24/7 party town—and few cities know how to party like St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage ranks among the world’s finest museums—and also boasts the largest collection of paintings, showcased in a collection of buildings and former palaces, including The Winter Palace, former residence of Catherine the Great. St. Petersburg is home to some of the world’s most renowned opera and ballet companies, the most famous of which is the Mariinsky Ballet (sometimes still referred to by its Soviet Era name, the Kirov), where legendary dance Mikhail Baryshnikov got his start. The interior of Saint Isaac's Cathedral rivals that of the view from its 101.5-meter-/333-foot-high gold-plated dome. For something more offbeat, Grand Maket Russia presents the entire country on a miniature scale.
The city’s nexus lies in Palace Square, which, although small, holds several top attractions, including the Hermitage. A stroll down chic Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare, brings visitors to sights such as the Elisseeff Emporium (home to a popular food hall) and numerous churches, as well as past the city’s best shopping and nightlife options. The canal-lined area south of Nevsky is home to scenic bridges, the St. Petersburg Conservatory (where Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev both studied), and the Dostoevsky Museum, where the legendary author wrote The Brothers Karamazov. Many of the more famous estates are located in the suburbs, such as Petergof, whose Peterhof Palace is often referred to as the “Russian Versailles.”