Once a swamp, then an imperial capital, and now a showpiece of vanished aristocratic op-
ulence shot through with the dingy ruins of communism, St. Petersburg is Russia's most
accessible and most tourist-worthy city. (It's also, arguably, European Russia's least “Russi-
an” city.) Palaces, gardens, statues, and arched bridges over graceful waterways bring back
the time of the czars. Two of the world's greatest art museums and some sumptuous Ortho-
dox churches top it off.
But the city also challenges its visitors, most of whom have to jump through hoops to get
a visa—and then struggle with not enough time, little or no English, and few Western stand-
ards of service and predictability.
Challenges aside, most visitors leave St. Petersburg with vivid memories of a magnificent
city that lives according to its own rules. While this place can be exasperating, it is worth
grappling with. Beyond its brick-and-mortar sights, St. Petersburg gives first-timers a per-
fect peek into the enigmatic Russian culture.
Save time on a sunny day just to walk. Keep your head up: The upper facades are sun-
warmed and untouched by street grime. While Nevsky Prospekt—the city's famous main
boulevard—encapsulates all that's wonderful and discouraging about this quixotic burg,
it's essential to also explore the back streets along the canals. Stroll through the Summer
Garden. Shop for a picnic at a local market hall. Go for a canal-boat cruise. Step into a
neighborhood church, inhale the incense, and watch the devoted bend at the waist to kiss an
icon. Take a Metro ride anywhere, just for the experience. Climb St. Isaac's Cathedral for
the view. The next day, when the Baltic Sea brings clouds and drizzle, plunge into the Her-
mitage or the Russian Museum.