Saint Petersburg is situated in the northwest of Russia, covering an area of 1,439 square kilometers and hosting a population of 6 million. Often referred to as Russia’s Northern Capital, this magnificent city is the country’s second largest after Moscow and the fourth most populous city in Europe. While Moscow has a population of 12 million and is ranked as the most populous city in Europe, Saint Petersburg attracts visitors from around the world with its stunning architecture, cultural vibrancy and lively ambience.
In this in-depth guide, we will explore what makes Saint Petersburg such an alluring travel destination and popular place to live for Russians. From its extensive canals to its grand imperial palaces, access to the sea, lively parks and bustling streets, Saint Petersburg offers a visual feast for the eyes at every turn.
An Alluring Location Close to Europe
One of the biggest advantages Saint Petersburg has over Moscow is its proximity to Europe. Situated close to the borders of Finland and Estonia, Saint Petersburg is the closest major Russian city to Europe. For residents with the proper documents, European countries are just a short 1-2 hour drive away, facilitating an active lifestyle of travel between Russia and Europe.
Saint Petersburg’s location enables residents to enjoy easy access to the pleasures and conveniences of Europe that other Russians can only dream of. This geographic advantage makes the city highly appealing for Russians looking for a more international lifestyle.
Access to the Sea Sets It Apart
Unlike landlocked Moscow, Saint Petersburg enjoys direct access to the Gulf of Finland. Situated along the Baltic Sea, the presence of the sea greatly expands the potential activities for residents. Russians flock to Saint Petersburg’s beaches during the summer months for swimming, seaside walks and to enjoy the refreshing sea air after a long work week.
With longer summers, Saint Petersburg could have become one of Russia and Europe’s premier beach destinations. Unfortunately the warm weather is fleeting, but the sea remains a major advantage over Moscow.
Islands and Canals Make It the ‘Venice of the North’
Flowing through Saint Petersburg is the Neva River, which originates from Lake Ladoga to the city’s east before emptying into the Gulf of Finland. The river divides Saint Petersburg into several branches, resulting in the western part of the city being made up of numerous islands.
Famous islands like New Holland are linked by over 400 picturesque bridges. Saint Petersburg is often referred to as the Venice of the North, owing to its 55 scenic canals and hundreds of bridges set against elegant waterside architecture. These postcard-perfect canals and islands are a photographers’ paradise.
Magnificent Imperial Era Architecture
One of Saint Petersburg’s biggest draws is its wealth of exquisite imperial architecture marked by grand neoclassical facades, exuberant baroque styling and pastel-hued buildings. As the imperial capital for 200 years, Saint Petersburg contains architectural marvels rivalling even Moscow.
The historic district is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and the Winter Palace being just two of the splendid structures found here. Simply walking along the main streets feels like stepping back in time to Imperial Russia.
Lively Parks and Public Spaces
Despite its northern location, Saint Petersburg exudes liveliness in its many green spaces and public areas. Its numerous parks and squares burst with activity on weekends and summer evenings as residents soak up the long hours of northern sun. Music, dancing, relaxing picnics with family – the parks and beaches provide a space for locals to unwind and embrace life.
The main thoroughfare of Nevsky Prospekt never sleeps, with crowds flocking here day and night to shop, dine and enjoy live performances. Saint Petersburg hums with energy and its residents know how to embrace the fun.
Cultural Capital of Russia
As a center of arts and culture, Saint Petersburg contains over 200 museums and historic sites. The world-famous State Hermitage Museum and its outstanding art collections is but one of its cultural jewels. Other top attractions include the Peterhof Palace with its Grand Cascade fountain and the Kazan Cathedral, resplendent with its Russia’s iconic onion domes.
Saint Petersburg reveals itself as a progressive city that values the arts, culture and self-expression. Creativity flourishes here.
Education Hub of Russia
With over 40 universities, Saint Petersburg is recognized as Russia’s top educational center behind Moscow. Prestigious institutions like the Saint Petersburg State University as well as leading technical institutes attract students from across Russia.
The city’s educated population, with a high literacy rate of over 90% for women, creates a youthful, intelligent and cultured environment. The city prides itself on fostering progress, with women strongly represented across industries like engineering, technology and the sciences.
White Nights Create a Festive Atmosphere
Situated close to the Arctic Circle, Saint Petersburg experiences the natural phenomenon of White Nights during the summer months. During this time, the sun remains above the horizon from May to July, creating perpetual dusk rather than true darkness.
The White Nights are celebrated through non-stop festivals, concerts, ballet performances and other cultural events that keep the city energized around the clock. For those who enjoy non-stop activity under the midnight sun, it’s a magical time to visit Saint Petersburg.
Saint Petersburg vs. Leningrad
An intriguing aspect of Saint Petersburg’s history is its Soviet-era name of Leningrad. In 1924 Saint Petersburg was renamed Leningrad after communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, a name it retained throughout the Soviet period.
The city’s heroic fortitude during the 900-day Nazi siege in World War 2 occurred under its Leningrad identity. In 1991 after the fall of the USSR, the city finally reverted to its original name Saint Petersburg.
Demand Outstrips Supply for Housing
With its high standard of living, Saint Petersburg is in hot demand from Russians around the country. However, demand dramatically exceeds available housing. Rental rates are now on par with Moscow, averaging $1,000/month for a modest two bedroom apartment.
Many employed in the city must find more affordable housing in nearby communities like Kudrovo and commute into Saint Petersburg. For an average family to live comfortably, a monthly income of around $3,000 is required.
Transportation by Metro and Bus
While Saint Petersburg has its share of traffic congestion, the excellent metro system provides affordable and efficient mobility around the city. The metro stations themselves are designed as marvels of architecture, making it a joy to use.
Surface transportation relies on a network of bus routes, many originating from Nevsky Prospekt in the city center and reaching to the suburbs. Saint Petersburg is also easily accessible by rail from Moscow, with passenger trains making the trip in around 5 hours.
Challenges for Non-Russian Speakers
While Saint Petersburg is Russia’s most outward looking city with higher rates of English compared to elsewhere in Russia, Russian remains the predominant language. Visitors unfamiliar with Cyrillic script may find navigating and reading signs difficult.
Mastering Russian provides the best experience living in this captivating city and makes it easier to connect with locals who appreciate you making the effort to learn their mother tongue.
The one potential nuisance visitors should know about is Saint Petersburg’s frequently wet weather. While expected for this northern maritime climate, the abundant rainfall and overcast skies lasting for days can dampen time spent outdoors. Having an umbrella on hand is a wise idea.
A Captivating City Not to Be Missed
As we’ve discovered, Saint Petersburg is one of Russia’s brightest gems, dazzling with its majestic beauty, rich culture, liveliness and youthful vitality. From its grand imperial boulevards to its bustling parks and romantic canals, Russia’s Northern Capital captivates all who visit. Saint Petersburg deserves its reputation as one of the world’s must-see destinations.