This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
When to go
At all costs avoid the terrible winters that seize the city and its surroundings in an icy iron grip. Even in May, the temperature can be near to freezing, and the river Neva still carries ice floes down from Lake Lagoda to the sea.
With the spring thaw comes the city’s brief, often hot, summer. That is the time to see St Petersburg at its best, when the days are long, and the nights are brief twilights known as White Nights.
What to take with you
Some warm clothing is essential, even in summertime. You are strongly advised to bring some stout boots too – not only because of the horse dung littering the wide streets, but also to keep you dry when the heavens inevitably open or flood water from the river Neva begins to lap at your feet. Alas, since 1706 the city has been hit by several major floods – all blown in by winds from the Finnish gulf.
The city’s modest taverns are often disrupted by raucous singing and organised bouts of fist-fighting
Costs and money
Getting there in the first place is no easy matter. Overland travel is a long nightmare of muddy, unpaved roads under the constant threat of assault and robbery. By sea is the best and cheapest option, but should, of course, only be attempted once the winter ice has melted.
As for the cost of good food, accommodation and transport, you’re likely to get as much (or, more to the point, as little) change from your hard-earned cash as in any major European city like London or Paris.
Sights and activities
An abundance of new architecture is the glory of St Petersburg, Russia’s capital since 1712, and a tribute to the energy and vision of the reforming, westward-looking Tsar Peter I – understandably known as Peter the Great.
Inspired by foreign-born architects like the Swiss-Italian, Domenico Trezzini, and more recently by the chief architect Jean-Baptisie LeBlond, splendid and sometimes awe-inspiring buildings appeared as if from nowhere. They include the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Winter and Summer Palaces, St Isaac’s Church, the Menshikov’s Palace, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, and the Admiralty.
Among other architectural wonders are the Kunstkamera (one of the first museums in the world to be open to the public) and the Peterhof Palace (designed to match Versailles in splendour).
There are large, beautifully conceived gardens, where plays and operas are sometimes enacted, though mostly by troupes of foreign players (German musicians gave the first public orchestral concert in 1721). Lavish displays of fireworks are meant both to entertain and overawe the general populace.
Dangers and annoyances
Diseases like smallpox are commonplace, and since the city is in effect built upon a number of swampy islands, malaria is widespread too. And if you do fall ill, don’t count on the city’s doctors to help you recover in a hurry – the great tsar himself was left with a partially paralysed arm through medical malpractice.
Do not antagonise the city authorities, since even for minor offences you may be arbitrarily imprisoned and even tortured. Bribery and corruption are rife. Thieves and pickpockets abound, often working in gangs to isolate and rob their victims.
St Petersburg’s modest taverns are often disrupted by raucous singing and organised bouts of fist-fighting. Luxurious hotels are less rowdy but hard to come by. If you’ve got money and friends in high places, you’d be better served getting yourself an invitation to an assembly celebration, hosted by one of the nobility. These are nothing if not lavish, and last for days.
Eating and drinking
Avoid the more lowly eating places since, apart from the poor quality of their fare, the stench from unwashed fellow diners will probably put you off your food for days. In the better establishments, local dishes such as borscht, cabbage soup, hearty and tasty casseroles of meat and vegetables, and fresh, locally caught, fish are a delight.
Don’t forget to sample the popular Russian tipple of vodka: if drunk at speed and in sufficient quantity, this can make the world a very pleasant place indeed. And if you’re in possession of an iron palate, why not join the locals in a shot of vodka mixed with cayenne pepper.
Many small boats carry passengers as they ply the Neva and the multitude of canals that have led to St Petersburg becoming known as the ‘Venice of the north’. Some of the larger ferries, however, have the reputation for being poorly maintained and accident-prone. Horse-drawn cabs make good use of the very wide, straight new thoroughfares like the Grand Nevsky Perspective. Failing all else, you can always walk.
Professor Denis Judd is the general editor of The Traveller’s History series, published by Arris Books. Find out more at www.arrisbooks.com