St. Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia, with a total area of more than 1400 square kilometres and a population of 5 million. The city is built on 44 islands, interlaced with some 50 canals and rivers (the River Neva alone has five branches): water makes up a tenth of its total area. It is also the most northerly of the world's large cities, located 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Introducing St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg Today

The city is associated with a host of renowned Figures from Russian culture and history. It was here that Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Shostakovich composed; Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Gogol wrote their masterpieces; Mendeleyev and Pavlov made their contributions to science; and Rasputin, Lenin and Trotsky made history. So, too, are various buildings and sites inseparable from their former occupants or visitors: the startling imperial palaces outside St. Petersburg, where Peter and Catherine the Great led the field in exuberant living; the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered; Finland Station, where Lenin returned from seventeen years in exile; and the Winter Palace, the storming of which was heralded by the guns of the cruiser Aurora, now moored along the embankment from the Peter and Paul Fortress - itself a Tsarist prison to generations of revolutionaries.

Today, St Petersburg is a confused city: beautiful yet filthy, both progressive and stagnant, sophisticated and cerebral, industrial and maritime. Echoes of an anachronistic character are everywhere, from the sailors who look like they've just walked off the battleship Potemkin, to the promenading and champagne-quaffing that accompanies performances at the Mariinskiy. Grandiose facades conceal warrens of communal apartments where diverse lifestyles flourish behind triple-locked doors, while beggars and the nouveau-riche rub shoulders on Nevskiy prospekt. Society is in a state of flux, reeling under the enormous changes of recent years.

Although the city is impossible to understand without some knowledge of its history, it is easy for visitors to enjoy - not least for its magnificent architecture. Planned on a grandiose scale, the city center is awash with palaces and cathedrals calculated to impress, their colonnades facades painted in bold Mediterranean colours, reflected in the dark waters of St Petersburg's canals and rivers. Its cultural life is equally rich, embracing the staggering riches of the Hermitage art collection and the Russian Museum, the Kirov Ballet (now renamed the Mariinskiy), all kinds of music and drama, offbeat pursuits and wild nightlife. The people and the seasons provide the rest of the city's entertainment, as visitors are sucked in by the intensity of life - at its most intoxicating during the midsum-mer "White Nights", when the city barely sleeps and darkness never falls. It's easy to make friends in St. Petersburg and anyone staying for more than just a few days is sure to be initiated into such Russian pleasures as going to the bathhouse or spending an evening talking round the kitchen table over a plateful of snacks washed down with vodka.

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