OK, where to start……
For those of you who have never been to St. Petersburg, let’s start with a brief physical description of the city. It is not an old city, as you may know, being built by Peter the Great (who named it after his favorite Christian saint, who just happened to have the same name as he had. What a coincidence.) at the turn of the 1700s to give Russia a port on the Baltic (a window to Europe) and a city which had a European feel. He hired European architects and planners, who designed a city centered on an island, today called Vasilyevsky Island( that bridged the two branches of the wide Neva River, and he authorized the building of canals, based on existing smaller streams, that today give the city the title “the Venice of the North”. A complex series of wide streets was laid out, and architects were presumably required to build in a uniform style, placing most of the more important buildings, including government buildings, royal family residences, and the palaces of the nobility, so that they had unobstructed water views. Large cathedrals were built, generally fronted by elegant squares and small parks.
The city that Peter established and that was built over the next century, and which today forms the center of the city and the part of the city that tourists are most likely to see, is surprisingly little changed. What does this mean visually? First, that the river views are beautiful, and that nothing (or maybe it’s virtually nothing – I am giving you my impressions) was constructed later than the mid 19th century. Second, that many of the roads (including the famous and impressive Nevsky Prospekt, the center city’s main commercial street) present long, often unbroken vistas. The buildings are generally of a uniform height – there are zero high rises in central St. Petersburg, and zero high rises visible from afar. The facades of all of the buildings are fairly flat (they may have ornamentation, but they don’t curve, and they aren’t c-shaped with driveways to the front door); this is true whether you are talking about commercial or residential buildings. And every building touches its neighbor; there is no space between them, giving each block a massive, symmetrical feel. The buildings generally do have an opening for a carriage or a car, and is built around a central courtyard not visible from the street. Although virtually all of the buildings in central St. Petersburg look like they are in very good condition, if you step into a courtyard, the condition of many of them appears like a Potemkin Village and may also be filled with debris (you may remember that Catherine the Great’s lover, Potemkin, when Catherine was taking a trip down, I think, the Volga, made sure that every building she saw from the water looked beautiful, although it was all a facade – hence the term, Potemkin Village), and the city has been on a campaign to “clean up the courtyards”.
Sidewalks stretch between the buildings and the streets. They are pretty uniform, and are not wide enough for things like outdoor cafes. There is now green strip between the sidewalk and the streets. There is no landscaping, except in the parks and public squares (of which there are many).
There are many impressive cathedrals, most of them naturally Russian orthodox. Some of them remained open during the Communist years, some not. But tourists flock to the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul (looking more like it belongs in New England than Russia) in the fortress of the same name (the Cathedral was not used during Soviet times, and, although it now does have some services, it is better known as the resting place of the Romanovs, the Russian rulers, their spouses and other close family members), St. Isaac’s Cathedral (more traditionally Romanesque in design, built in the early 19th century and the largest in the city), the strangely termed Cathedral of the Spilled Blood (very Russian in design, with colorful onion bulb towers reminiscent of St. Basil’s on Red Square in Moscow, built in the second half of the 19th century on the site of the assassination of Czar Alexander II), and the arcaded Kazan Cathedral, on Nevsky Prospekt (closed to worshipers during the Soviet years, but open to museum goers as the Museum of Atheism; it is now being restored, in time for its 200th anniversary next year).
While Peter himself did not believe in living in oversized residences, his followers did, and this shows best in the city when you look at the famous Hermitage Museum, in four buildings, the largest of which was the Winter Palace of the Romanovs (remembered for the revolutionary activity that took place when it was stormed by the Bolsheviks during the 1817 revolution). The Hermitage is located on the Neva, across from the island holding the Fortress of St. Peters and St. Paul, and from Vasilyevsky Island, and its many museums and impressive old buildings, including the Naval Museum (formerly the stock exchange), the Zoological Museum (over 1,000,000 stuffed critters), Peter’s Kunstkammer (google it!), and the famous art school, with two 3200 year old Egyptian sphinxes in front). To the west of the Hermitage is the Admiralty building, one of the government’s most impressive, and then, just a block or two away St. Isaac’s, surrounded today by buildings which house government offices, NGOs and embassies, hotels, restaurants and the like.
Nevsky Prospekt also starts at the large (unlandscaped) public square in front of the Hermitage and runs in a generally southward direction. If you follow it, you will cross the three major canals that are found in this part of the city. There is a bridge over each canal (the canals are used now largely by tourist boats) and a roadway that parallels the canals on each side, again with the unbroken facades of the largely 19th century buildings looking out over the canal on both sides. Nevsky Prospekt itself runs from the Hermitage (or the Admiralty) to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
Once you get outside of the old central city, particularly if you head south in the direction of the airport and, further on, Catherine’s Palace in the Village of Pushkin (formerly Tsarskoe Selo), you go through the commercial center of the Soviet city. The streets get even broader, the vistas begin to open up, and the building mix becomes more eclectic, although equally as interesting and impressive. It is only when you get beyond the Soviet city (and that takes quite a while…..) that you begin to reach the suburbs with their modern apartment buildings (mixed up amongst some of those Soviet projects that have seen better days) and typical suburban retail, transportation and industrial development.
A few more things. Where once there were few privately owned cars, now there are many, although (especially at night) some drive as if they are the only car on the road for miles. And the city has a wonderful commuter oriented subway system, as well as a very efficient (if at rush hour, very overcrowded) tram and bus system. Taxis are another story. For whatever reason, taxi fares are either unregulated or have regulations which are unenforced. Every taxi ride is a negotiation – and the driver has all the leverage on his side. I recommend the public transportation.