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St. Petersburg

There's something eerily fascinating about coming to St. Petersburg. Many visitors are faced with a combination of stern-faced customs officials, guidebook warnings about pickpockets and black marketeers, and their own Cold War remembrances (this was, after all, once an "Evil Empire").

Once in the city, though, you'll find St. Petersburg a wonderful place, particularly if you're lucky enough to come during White Nights -- when the sun barely sets and the entire city seems to be up all night. Peter the Great founded this beautiful city in 1703 in what was then swampland, and it has unbelievably sumptuous czarist-era palaces (efforts have been underway for years to fix the crumbling ones), onion-domed churches and the lovely Neva River (where twilight cruises are offered). Peter was inspired by London, Paris and Vienna and carefully developed the city by plan, creating canals and passageways that will remind you of Venice. Most of the design remains intact today, testimony to St. Petersburg's pride -- and the inability of Hitler to conquer the city during World War II. It's a fascinating place, with a lurid past fit for a romance novel. You could find yourself falling in love.

Be sure to make time to explore the countryside as well, where past the bland Soviet-style apartment buildings of the suburbs are opulent country palaces -- impressive memorials to the best czarist money could buy.

St. Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 to 1914 and remains Russia's cultural capital -- all the big names have been affiliated with St. Petersburg including Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. The city itself is like a living museum -- you are likely to find yourself ooing and ahhing at the architecture from your cab or bus -- and art is a key attraction. You've been to the Louvre in Paris; now see the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, home to significant collections of Matisses, Picassos and Rembrandts. And don't miss a chance to see Russian ballet performed live.

The city isn't without its hassles. The key museums and attractions are not air-conditioned and rarely have special facilities for the disabled. There are few signs in English and understanding what you are seeing -- whether it's a street sign, a shop name or a painting description -- can be impossible. And the Hermitage is typically packed to the gills; you may have to do a lot of jostling to see the art highlights if you aren't on a tour that specifically avoids the crowds.

--written by Chris Gray Faust

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