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St Petersburg, Russia
Panorama of Neva River
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePanorama of Neva River - Credit: Život

Known variously as St Petersburg, Petrograd and Leningrad since it was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, Russia's second city is referred to simply and affectionately by its inhabitants as "Peetr". Considering the (self-named) Peter the Great's megalomaniac tendencies, it's surprising to know that the tsar did not name the city after himself but rather after his patron saint, and he gave it a Dutch pronounciation, Sankt Peterburg, to prove his admiration of anything to do with Amsterdam.

Winter Palace and Palace Square
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeWinter Palace and Palace Square - Credit: Nagyman

Other monikers include Paris of the North, Venice of the North (because of the city's many canals) and the city "built on bones", (referring to the slaves who laboured and gave their lives for Peter's fantasy).

Fontanka Canal
GNU Free Documentation LicenseFontanka Canal - Credit: Michael Hoffmann (Hamlet53)

Some have called the city a 'monument to the Russian state's single-mindedness' because of the way in which the city was purpose-built. St Petersburg should not, in fact, exist at all; for reasons all his own, Peter I chose an inhospitable swamp exposed to the Gulf of Finland, unwanted by Sweden and Finland, to build his ambitious  "Window on the West", and as a result, St Petersburg has some of the most blustery, damp and cold weather in the northern hemisphere and it floods cataclysmically on a regular basis.

Bronze Horseman
GNU Free Documentation LicenseBronze Horseman - Credit: Heidas

The fact that the whole city went up in one go makes the architecture - if you ignore the Soviet monstruosities that followed - pleasingly homogenous, and crumbling in a rather even way. An 18th century confection of baroque and rococo style on the wide Neva River, and criss-crossed by a network of canals, St Petersburg has a distinctly European feel in contrast to earthy, more peasantile and medieval Old Russia capital Moscow. In fact, the two cities enjoy a healthy sibling rivalry, predicated on the superiority complex of old-money, cultured, intellectual St Petersburgers versus the money-loving, glitz-worshipping Muscovites.

St Nicholas Cathedral
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSt Nicholas Cathedral - Credit: Jason L. Buberal

St Petersburg occupies a very important place in Russian literature. Being the seat of the Imperial Court, it naturally attracted writers and composers such as Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky until 1917, but once St Petersburg was no longer the country's political capital, it defined itself as the cultural capital instead, giving birth to writers such as Anna Akhmatova who chose to be (or remain) there rather than Moscow. So revered are Russia's writers in their home country that you could spend a whole day riding the St Petersburg metro, navigating various literary periods. You could, for example, jump on at Dostoevskaya station and travel to Pushkinskaya, Cherneshevskaya and Gorkovskaya in only a couple of easy changes.

Almost a hundred years after Nabokov left his beloved native city, St Petersburg still has the majesty of a former Imperial capital. The Winter Palace which houses the world-famous Hermitage Museum on the Neva River, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Mariinsky Theatre (home to the Mariinsky, formerly the Kirov, Ballet and Opera companies). As Russia's largest port, the city still also has strong links with water; uniformed naval cadets are an everyday sight around town, and St Petersburgers love to walk along the city's canals and riverbanks during the remarkable three weeks of the year known as the White Nights, when the city is bathed in a golden glow from 11pm til 3am, and the sun never sets.

The Church of Spilt Blood
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe Church of Spilt Blood - Credit:

In 2003 the then Russian President, Vladimir Putin (himself a St Petersburger) led the celebrations of the city's three hundredth anniversary.