The World Travel Awards has yet again recognised St Petersburg in 2021, this time as both Leading Heritage Destination and Leading City Break destination for Europe, following on from awards in 2020 and 2019 as the world’s top destination for culture.
Conjuring images of grand baroque palaces, gilded candy-striped domes and graceful fountains, the city of St Petersburg has fascinated travellers for centuries.
Famously the cultural capital of Russia, its vast collections of art are renowned throughout the world. The city’s White Knights festivities, held over the summer when the sun barely sets, attract the greatest local and international artists in the fields of classical music, ballet and opera.
The winter months, too, hold their fair share of attractions, such as the New Year festivities and the decorated streets. Created in 2016 and already one of the most eagerly awaited Russian festivals is autumn's ‘Wonder of Light’, when the walls of emblematic buildings form the canvas for a light and sound spectacular.
Visiting has never been easier
As a city break en route to other Russian cities or a destination in its own right, St Petersburg has become increasingly inviting for tourists. A transport hub for flights, boats and high-speed trains, it is the first Russian city to become part of the international Safe Travels program, certified as meeting all the health and safety standards set by the WTTC.
As part of this initiative, tourist spots adhering to UNWTO and World Health Organization recommendations receive a ‘Safe Travels SPB’ sign, a guarantee that the services provided in the city meet international requirements and sanitary regulations.
Another measure to boost tourism is the introduction of an e-visa scheme that means that citizens of 52 countries (including most of Europe) can enter Russia without complications and stay for up to 16 days.
Other new tourism initiatives include ‘Two Cities – A Million Impressions’, a unified plan that sees St Petersburg and Moscow join forces to promote a calendar of events and activities, highlighting the cities’ main attractions, museums and theatres, and focusing on the gastronomic opportunities offered.
‘Piter’, as locals call it, is also on the Silver Necklace, a tourist route through 11 of the great cities and stunning regions of northwest Russia, taking in historical and cultural monuments, many of which are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
A melting pot of influences
Tsar Peter the Great intended this, his great project, to be a gateway to Europe, and many of his ideas for it were drawn from his time working and travelling elsewhere on the continent.
Among the many names by which St Petersburg is known are ‘Venice of the North’ – for its network of canals, and ‘Paris of the north’ – for its wide boulevards and graceful Western-style architecture.
At its geographical heart are the Admiralty shipyards and the canals that radiate out from them. This area is based on urban design in Amsterdam, where Peter the Great had spent his youth as a shipyard worker. The colonnaded Admiralty building is instantly recognisable for its thin spire with a golden ship resting on its tip – one of the emblems of the city.
Nearby is the New Holland Island, built on swamp land in 1719 and later the city’s first military port. In modern times nowhere better illustrates the new face of St Petersburg, and an ambitious development plan has transformed the island into a modern meeting-place of shops, restaurants and elegantly laid-out gardens, and a creative hub of innovative studios and galleries.
Artistic and ecclesiastical highlights
Most visitors, however, are drawn to St Petersburg for its artworks and architectural splendours. Prime among these is the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world. It has been estimated that if you were to spend eight hours a day in the Hermitage, it would take 15 years to look properly at every single exhibit.
The major part of the collection sits in the Winter Palace, a vast and imposing baroque complex, which has served as residence to many emperors over the years. It sits on the Palace Square, across from the similarly breathtaking General Staff Building, where more of the Hermitage’s collection is to be found.
For a fascinating look at contemporary art, however, it’s worth the trip out of the centre to the Erarta museum on Vasilyevsky Island, where you’ll find a good overview of Russian art from the last 50 years.
And if you’ve ever wondered where to find those fantastical Disneyesque turrets that have come to symbolise St Petersburg, head to the evocatively named Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Built at the turn of the 20th century in the medieval romantic Russian style, it was erected as a monument to Alexander II, who was assassinated on this site, giving the church its grisly name.
Specialised forms of tourism
You could easily spend a fortnight in St Petersburg without running out of sights to visit, and the city's infrastructure is constantly adapting to the influx of visitors and new trends. One such development has been the growth of ecotourism, and the many nature reserves and wildlife around St Petersburg have never been easier to visit.
The city is also an important business and networking hub, with great facilities for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) tourism. Major events held throughout the year include the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, the St Petersburg International Cultural Forum and the St Petersburg International Legal Forum.
Many travellers are drawn to the city for high-level healthcare, something that has grown in popularity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rehabilitation might be as simple as spending time in the sea air of the Finnish Gulf, or trips to a 'banya', a traditional Russian bath-house with steam room and icy plunge pool.
Others come to make the most of St Petersburg's renowned specialists and treatments. Post-COVID recovery programmes include balneotherapy, Nordic walking and barotherapy, which saturates the lungs with oxygen, but there are also abundant options for visitors in the fields of dentistry, cardiology, high-tech surgery, orthopaedics and assisted reproduction.
Much of the time these treatments are not offered in visitors' home countries, or are prohibitively expensive at home, but these motivations are often secondary to the appeal of the uniquely relaxed and vibrant backdrop that St Petersburg provides.