A century ago, this former imperial capital of palace-lined waterways on the Gulf of Finland was known as the “Venice of the North” and could boast more than 100 islands. Blame progress (and relentless engineering) for the fact that they number only about 40. But what a cultural treasure trove this abbreviated archipelago possesses! Museums galore, headed by the Hermitage, one of the world’s two great museums (you pick the other), lavish palaces and churches (more than 200 pounds of gold leaf adorn the golden dome of St. Issacs Cathedral), and legendary theater and dance (Nijinsky, Pavlova, and Nureyev danced here with the Kirov Ballet).
The city has had its ups and downs. A showcase of imperial splendor in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the famed Winter Palace was the heart of one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan capitals, St. Petersburg later suffered through revolution (the city was renamed Petrograd, and again as Leningrad) and was devastated during WWII. Rebuilt (and renamed St. Petersburg a decade ago), the city celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003 – and its architectural heritage and incredible art collections remain a window to its glorious past.
It’s a past that Russian history lovers know well: the city’s favorite poet, Pushkin, was born here (and died here after a duel), and the infamous Rasputin was murdered in Yusupov Palace. Vladimir (Lolita) Nabokov was born and raised here, Dostoyevsky lived out his last years here. And there are exhibits and museums devoted to each of them – just a taste of the city’s cultural tapestry.