Exploring the waterways of Russia's elegant St. Petersburg
A long with Nevsky Prospekt, the Romanovs, Fabergé eggs and other emblematic symbols of St. Petersburg, be sure to include water. The one-time Russian capital is the country’s principal port, a riverside city belted with canals and nicknamed the Venice of the North. Set on the banks of the Neva, it is crisscrossed with picturesque bridges.
To fully appreciate the setting, meander through the city by boat. From Griboyedov Canal or the Fontanka River (both just north of Nevsky Prospekt), little open vessels offer one-hour cruises that wind past palaces painted shades of golden-yellow, peachy-pink, minty-green. Or climb to the top of the red brick wall enclosing the Peter and Paul Fortress and gaze across to the Hermitage and other palaces that line the banks.
Many of the city’s museum mansions share waterfront settings. The yellow, classical-style Yusupov Palace on the Moyka Canal was home to the illustrious family that figured in the assassination of Rasputin. Besides the family’s sumptuous living quarters, the Yusupov exhibits wax figures of the mad monk and the nobles who planned to kill him displayed in the actual rooms where the murder took place.
Sited along the Neva’s English Embankment, the Rumyantsev Mansion houses a history museum with dioramas showing inhabitants fishing through the ice and scavenging firewood during the crippling 1941–44 Siege of Leningrad. Across the river on Vasilyevsky Island in the Menshikov Palace, rooms lined in Delft tiles indicate the Dutch influence that inspired Peter the Great to build this city emulating Amsterdam.
At docks across from the Hermitage, catch a hydrofoil to Peterhof. The extravagant suite of palaces just a half hour south of town opens each morning with a symphony of water music, as its 64 majestic water jets spring up one by one creating the Grand Cascade, a magnificent avenue of fountains leading from the pier to the palace. Scattered in the gardens are staccato fountains Peter the Great designed with a sense of humor to shoot up at unpredictable intervals, taking guests by surprise.
Check into the trendy new W Hotel with stylized fish “swimming” on its glass walls. Or take to the water, literally, in the extensive swimming area at the Sokos Palace Bridge Hotel. Its spa offers eight different saunas with varying combinations of humidity and heat, including, for the truly hardy, the Snow Paradise room, which is knee-deep in drifted snow.
While plane or the train from Moscow are customary approaches, it’s memorable to reach the city by sea. Embarking from Stockholm, Helsinki or Tallinn, luxurious St. Peter Line’s cruise ships (the Princess Maria and the Princess Anastasia) provide deluxe state rooms, memorable menus, spas and salons, elaborate floor shows. Traveling on these ferries offers an additional benefit, since passengers arriving by ferry for three days are not required to purchase a visa. Saving the visa fee “pays” for the cruise, resulting in almost-free passage.