The Hermitage is the world's second largest art museum (behind the Louvre) and easily St. Petersburg's most famous attraction. The four buildings that make up the museum include the opulent Winter Palace, which was built by Peter the Great's daughter (Elizabeth) and has undergone major renovations that have left it sparkling. Walk up an imposing Baroque marble staircase and marvel at all the gold leaf, and check out the several heavily decorated rooms including a throne room.
Your guide will tell you how the art collecting began with Catherine the Great (although what she collected could only be viewed by royal eyes and invited guests). Today's art collection is in chronological order. On a recent visit we started with names familiar to fans of the old Ninja Turtles cartoon -- Botticelli, Leonardo (Da Vinci), Raphael, Michelangelo. Next you move on to the Spanish collection (Velazquez, Goya and El Greco, to name a few).
While the Hermitage's Rembrandt collection is the second biggest after Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, many of the more famous pieces have returned to Holland as part of the Hermitage Amsterdam. Still at the Hermitage on a recent visit: The Danae, which may or may not actually be by Rembrandt, but has a place in history for being slashed and burned with acid in 1985 by a madman. It took 12 years to restore the work.
Get there early to view the museum's famous Impressionist collection, put together by collectors in Moscow. Declared bourgeois by Stalin, the collection sat in warehouses until the end of World War II, when it was divided up between the Hermitage and the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow. There are Renoirs, Van Goghs, Cezannes and Gauguins in room after room, followed by a lot of Matisse and some Picasso too. Don't miss the fabulous gift shop, which is a great place to buy quality souvenirs.
St. Isaac's Cathedral, the biggest in St. Petersburg, is an immense, awesome spectacle. It's not all that old -- it was completed in the mid-19th century -- but it's replete inside and out with gorgeous mosaic murals, granite pillars and marble floors. Its huge gold dome can be seen for miles around.
Church of the Resurrection of the Christ (Savior on the Spilled Blood) gets its gruesome name from Emperor Alexander II, who was assassinated on this very spot in 1881. Modeled after St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, the onion-domed exterior makes you feel like you really are in Russia. Inside, there's 7,500 square meters of mosaics, all restored, as well as a shrine to the departed czar.
The Russian Museum is housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace and is one of two top places in all of Russia to showcase the culture of the country, from 12th-century icons to the avant-garde. Don't miss the adjacent Mikhailovsky Gardens -- a lovely spot to rest.
Peter & Paul Fortress is the original part of St. Petersburg. Built in 1703, it was initially planned as a defense against Sweden, but the Russians won that war before the fortress was completed, so it was used until 1917 as a political prison instead. Many of the czars and other Russian royalty are buried here; other highlights include the Baroque-style Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Trubetskoy Bastion.
The primary palaces are Catherine's Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great's Peterhof -- and you can do them in a day (but just barely). Peterhof lies on the Baltic Sea, a magnificent landmark of Russian artistic culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, founded in the very beginning of the 18th century by Emperor Peter the Great.
Pushkin neighbors the palace of Pavlovsk, which was built for Russian Czar Paul I, the only son of Catherine the Great. Both Catherine's Palace and Pavlovsk were built in the mid- to late-18th century, have been beautifully restored, and are situated among gorgeous parks and gardens.
Nevsky Prospekt is St. Petersburg's most famous street and the city's major commercial thoroughfare. One warning: Despite the presence of pedestrian crossings, there is no such thing, in this city of frantic drivers, as walkers' rights; pay close attention to traffic or cross the street through some of its underground tunnels. Nevsky Prospekt is life in Russia on display, with street vendors and exclusive Western boutiques (ranging from Hugo Boss to Versace), cathedrals and parks, cafes and canals. One fun diversion is a boat ride along the canals; plan to pay about 200 rubles (about $6.65 USD at the time of this writing) for an hour-long trip. Boats leave from Anichkov Bridge (the Fontanka River) just off Nevsky Prospekt each afternoon.
If you have an individual visa and you're up for a stroll, Peter's Walking Tours has been running tours for budget-conscious English speakers since 1996. The half-day tours leave rain or shine from the Life Hostel at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Vladiminsky in the historic center. You can also set up private walking tours with one of their guides for an hourly rate.