Spiffed-up St. Petersburg becomes a travel must-see

  • By Rick Steves
  • Thursday, February 13, 2014 3:27pm
  • Life

The last time I visited St. Petersburg, in the 1990s, the Russian city was gray and depressing. But during a recent visit, I found a town that sparkles.

Three hundred years ago, St. Petersburg was a dismal swampland. But that was before Tsar Peter I — better known as Peter the Great — came along.

In the late 17th century, the ambitious young ruler visited Amsterdam to learn about shipbuilding. Inspired by that canal-laced city, he returned to Russia determined to create his own great city.

Using experts from around Europe (and the free labor of his peasant serfs), Peter filled in the wetlands, built seawalls and laid out canals.

Many of Peter’s original grid-planned neighborhoods still survive, and Russia’s recent affluence has brought a rising vibrancy to the city.

It’s fun to be a “temporary local” here, enjoying the terrific public transportation, the inviting little eateries and pastry shops opening up left and right, and the impressive sights covering everything from imperial to Soviet times.

With its good Baltic access and a huge new cruise facility, the city has also become a popular cruising destination.

The sightseeing spine of the city, the street called Nevsky Prospekt, starts at the riverside Winter Palace.

This rambling Baroque complex, the state residence of the Russian emperors from the mid-1700s, is also home to the world-class Hermitage Museum.

When I visited the Hermitage years ago, I knew it had an awe-inspiring collection. But the building was dingy, and its treasures were poorly displayed. But after my recent trip, I’d give the Hermitage the “most improved museum in Europe” award. It is dazzling.

You can enjoy Leonardos, Rembrandts and Matisses while gliding through some of the most opulent ballrooms and throne rooms ever built.

While St. Petersburg has plenty of worthwhile turnstile sights, a visit to a simple neighborhood market was one of the most entertaining experiences I had.

Just stopping by the corner market and buying some handpicked blueberries gave me a chance to exchange smiles with a local as I pantomimed my way through our transaction.

The language barrier in Russia is formidable — but not insurmountable. Many of the people I dealt with (clerks, salespeople, waiters, tellers) spoke only Russian.

I found that one key to more predictable dining was to eat in a self-service cafeteria, with menu items illustrated with easy-to-identify pictures.

The food is good (everything from buckwheat porridge to soups and savory or sweet crepes), the price is right, and you order by pointing — something I’m good at.

St. Petersburg’s subway system saves steps and lines up nicely with places of interest to tourists.

Throughout Europe, fast-fingered thieves can nip your valuables without you even knowing it.

In Russia, the thieves are not so subtle — when they hit, you’ll know it. While I don’t always wear my money belt these days (shhh, that’s a secret), I wore it in Russia.

And don’t come here expecting service with a smile: Whether you’re a local or a tourist, service often stinks. Don’t take it personally.

Travelers to St. Petersburg see an evolving city. By creating this city out of swampland, Peter the Great declared a new direction for his country and his people, moving toward a world of culture, arts and science.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com.

© 2014 Rick Steves distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

More in Life

From Jasper to Banff: A Canadian adventure in an RV

Jennifer Bardsley plans to take her family on two-week roadtrip through Canada in a tent trailer.

Skippers share sea stories at Marysville speaker series

The Bellingham couple will talk about charter cruises on the historic wooden vessel they rebuilt.

Anxiety, or chronic worry, is a growing problem

Paul Schoenfeld shares four approaches to help keep your anxiety from getting out of control.

Expo in Stanwood can help you get ready for the country

The Country Living Expo and Cattlemen’s Winterschool is set for Jan. 27 at the high school.

Find many of our region’s winter birds in the Skagit Valley

If you love birding, also check out these bird-related festivals, lectures and other events.

What’s new this year for travelers in England, Ireland

The nations are improving tourism infrastructures and adding exhibits to well-known sights.

Curries continues home-cooked Indian cuisine at new location

The restaurant, now located on Evergreen Way, also puts an Indian spin on Northwest cooking.

Megyn Kelly trashes Jane Fonda’s ‘poor-me routine’

Kelly defended her decision to ask Fonda about her history with plastic surgery last September.

Don Imus announces date of his radio show’s final episode

His contract was to end in December, but the syndicator of his show filed for bankruptcy last year.

Most Read