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Whether traversing the bustling Nevskii Prospekt, admiring the grand residential architecture on Vasilievskii Island, or taking in the awe inspiring Palace Square, visitors will find each of St. Petersburg's neighborhoods steeped in culture and history.
Nevskii Prospekt is a grand-scale thoroughfare cutting right through the heart of the city. The rough triangle (to the north of Nevskii) formed by the street's central stretch, the Fontanka canal and the Neva is crammed full of St. Petersburg's main cultural attractions and a good number of its restaurants and places of entertainment. There's the Winter Palace and Palace Square , the Saviour on Spilled Blood Cathedral and Museum , the Russian Museum , the Mussorgsky Concert Hall and the nearby Philharmonic. On the south side of Nevskii Prospekt stands the impressive semi-circular and columned Kazan Cathedral and further along you will find the central department store Gostinyi Dvor which is not far from the plush Grand Hotel Europe .
This is the touristic, commercial and cultural heart of the city where visitors are guaranteed to spend a large chunk of their time. Nevskii itself is buzzing at all hours, but traffic (both human and vehicular) can be escaped by venturing to the peaceful Summer Gardens which are located north of the triangle.
This large chunk of land lies to the northwest of the center, dividing the river Neva into the Greater and Lesser Nevas. Although the island is now primarily a sleepy residential district, it played a major role in the city's early history.
Peter the Great originally intended Vasilevskii to be the city's center and therefore encouraged newly-arrived nobles and merchants to set themselves up there. His plans were never realized—problems with the construction of a canal network and the logistical nightmare of locating a city center on a sometimes inaccessible island encouraged the rise of Nevksii Prospekt as the alternative hub of the city. Nonetheless, testimony to the former importance of the island lies in the cluster of museums and buildings on the eastern side—the pre-revolutionary stock exchange building (now home to a Naval Museum) still stands here, along with Peter's macabre Kunstkammer museum and a little further on, St. Petersburg State University —the alma mater of President Putin.
Beyond this there isn't a lot to see or do on Vasilievskii, although if you want a look at some awe-inspiring Soviet architecture you could do a lot worse than the vast residential building stretching westwards from Primorskaia metro. Also nearby is the hulking mass of the Swedish-built Pribaltiiskaia hotel which stands atop an extensive open area of concrete looking out onto the Gulf of Finland.
The Petrograd Side & the Kirov Islands
When Peter the Great first concocted his grand plan for a capital city on the Gulf of Finland, construction began on the Peter and Paul Fortress , located on the northern shores of the Neva. Although Nevskii Prospekt may constitute the heart of modern-day St. Petersburg, the city's origins actually lie on the other side of the river.
The area to the north of the fortress is known as the Petrograd side. After the construction of Trinity Bridge , the area experienced something of a housing boom, contributing to its essentially residential nature. That said, it's not without interest. For a start, there's the Museum of Political History (in which Russia is not exactly lacking) and the "ship that launched the revolution"—the Aurora —which is moored just around the embankment from the fortress. The Petrograd side was home to a number of notables (including Shostakovich, Lenin and Pavlov), each of whom have respective apartment museums situated here.
The islands—Krestovskii, Kamennyi and Yelagin—are favorite winding-down spots for Petersburgers tired of the hectic city life to the south. Lurking at the western end of Krestovskii Island is the huge Kirov Stadium.
South & West of Nevskii
The area south and west of Nevskii (again, the area of land enclosed by the Neva, Nevskii and this time the southern stretch of the Fontanka canal) is also home to many tourist delights which are obviously less concentrated here than in the heart of the city. The tone of the area can change fairly dramatically: Sennaia Ploshchad is about 15 minutes by foot from the imperial St. Isaac's Square, but in comparison to the soaring grandeur of St Isaac's Cathedral or the elegance of its neighbor the Astoria hotel, it's a dingy vision of haphazard kiosks. However, much of the area is residential and fairly sleepy.
Behind Gostinyi Dvor stands Apraksin Dvor—a downmarket complex of market stalls, smaller stores and cafes. At the northern end stands the Admiralty and the Bronze Horseman —two great symbols of the city—while deeper inside the territory stands the world-famous Mariinskii Theatre , the city's premiere cultural venue.
Beyond the Fontanka
This incorporates a huge area, including the eastern end of Nevskii as well as the Liteinyi, Vladimirskaia and Smolnyi regions.
Beyond the Fontanka, Nevskii itself becomes more solidly commercial, although a glance above shop level reveals an impressive mish-mash of architectural styles. The modern, luxury Nevskij Palace hotel is situated about a ten minute's walk from the Fontanka.
Vladimirskaia—to the south—is a bustling hub of activity, its main thoroughfares being important shopping areas. The area is also dotted with museums such as the Dostoevsky Museum .
To the north, Liteinyi Prospekt and the area around Chernyshevskaia metro is a little quieter and more restrained. Maybe there's a reason for this—at the end of the street lie the former offices of the St. Petersburg KGB. It's very much a residential/commercial district, but there are nonetheless a few cultural attractions to be found here.
The Country Estates
The city itself isn't exactly lacking in extravagant monuments from the Imperial age, but if you want a glimpse of just how extravagant Russia's pre-Communist rulers really were, you'll need to jump on a suburban train and visit at least one of the Tsarist country residences. Though nearly all the palaces were sacked by the Germans during their World War II invasion, the palaces have been well-restored to their former glory.
For sheer bombastic opulence, visit Peterhof —built to order by Peter the Great as a riotously over-the-top testimony to Russia's victory over Sweden. The huge Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo is also grand, while the other estates— Pavlovsk , Oranienbaum (also known as Lomonosov) and Gatchina —are not quite as ostentatious but are still redolent of Imperial grandeur.