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Published: Sunday, February 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Spiffed-up St. Petersburg becomes a travel must-see

  • The Winter Palace and its great square are synonymous with St. Petersburg's imperial grandeur.

    Rick Steves

    The Winter Palace and its great square are synonymous with St. Petersburg's imperial grandeur.

The last time I visited St. Petersburg, in the 1990s, the Russian city was gray and depressing. But during a recent visit, I found a town that sparkles.
Three hundred years ago, St. Petersburg was a dismal swampland. But that was before Tsar Peter I — better known as Peter the Great — came along.
In the late 17th century, the ambitious young ruler visited Amsterdam to learn about shipbuilding. Inspired by that canal-laced city, he returned to Russia determined to create his own great city.
Using experts from around Europe (and the free labor of his peasant serfs), Peter filled in the wetlands, built seawalls and laid out canals.
Many of Peter's original grid-planned neighborhoods still survive, and Russia's recent affluence has brought a rising vibrancy to the city.
It's fun to be a "temporary local" here, enjoying the terrific public transportation, the inviting little eateries and pastry shops opening up left and right, and the impressive sights covering everything from imperial to Soviet times.
With its good Baltic access and a huge new cruise facility, the city has also become a popular cruising destination.
The sightseeing spine of the city, the street called Nevsky Prospekt, starts at the riverside Winter Palace.
This rambling Baroque complex, the state residence of the Russian emperors from the mid-1700s, is also home to the world-class Hermitage Museum.
When I visited the Hermitage years ago, I knew it had an awe-inspiring collection. But the building was dingy, and its treasures were poorly displayed. But after my recent trip, I'd give the Hermitage the "most improved museum in Europe" award. It is dazzling.
You can enjoy Leonardos, Rembrandts and Matisses while gliding through some of the most opulent ballrooms and throne rooms ever built.
While St. Petersburg has plenty of worthwhile turnstile sights, a visit to a simple neighborhood market was one of the most entertaining experiences I had.
Just stopping by the corner market and buying some handpicked blueberries gave me a chance to exchange smiles with a local as I pantomimed my way through our transaction.
The language barrier in Russia is formidable — but not insurmountable. Many of the people I dealt with (clerks, salespeople, waiters, tellers) spoke only Russian.
I found that one key to more predictable dining was to eat in a self-service cafeteria, with menu items illustrated with easy-to-identify pictures.
The food is good (everything from buckwheat porridge to soups and savory or sweet crepes), the price is right, and you order by pointing — something I'm good at.
St. Petersburg's subway system saves steps and lines up nicely with places of interest to tourists.
Throughout Europe, fast-fingered thieves can nip your valuables without you even knowing it.
In Russia, the thieves are not so subtle — when they hit, you'll know it. While I don't always wear my money belt these days (shhh, that's a secret), I wore it in Russia.
And don't come here expecting service with a smile: Whether you're a local or a tourist, service often stinks. Don't take it personally.
Travelers to St. Petersburg see an evolving city. By creating this city out of swampland, Peter the Great declared a new direction for his country and his people, moving toward a world of culture, arts and science.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com.
© 2014 Rick Steves distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Story tags » Travel

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