Any cursory rumination on Venice will revolve around the city’s adorable little canals, snaking through the city blocks and ferrying gondolas full of starry-eyed but overspending couples throughout the day and night, composing the bulk of the postcard-style photos sent home to jealous loved ones all throughout the world.
But when Peter the Great comes along to do anything, it’s going to be bigger.
It must have ruined his whole day to know that St. Petersburg was often referred to as “the Venice of the North” instead of Venice being referred to as “St. Petersburg for losers.”
Whatever, though. He got his revenge. While St. Petersburg is one of the most interesting and cosmopolitan cities in Europe, Venice is literally collapsing in on itself and sinking beneath its own beautiful waves. Take that, Venetians!
Peter the Great must have realized early on that while roads are boring and ugly and filled with horse manure, canals are gorgeous and romantic, even if they are equally filled with horse manure.
Realizing that Russia barely had any coastline to its name at the time, Peter looked over at his Swedish neighbors and decided to go get some, seizing the land in the Great Northern War, and establishing the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first major structure of the new city:
St. Petersburg quickly became one of the most important cities in the Russian Empire, due in large part to Peter declaring it the capital, though it traded the title back and forth with Moscow over the centuries. Construction also progressed rapidly, costing tens of thousands of laborers their lives during its development.
A stroll through the historic center of the city will reveal one palace after another, interspersed among ornate cathedrals, basilicas, churches, parks, fountains, statues, museums, universities, and the wide canals that distinguish this city from so many other Baroque-era urban monuments.
It’s easy to see why St. Petersburg is so popular with day-tripping tourists, who often hop over from the Scandinavian countries to visit, without ever going any further into Russia than here. It’s packed with gorgeous palaces, and each is packed with massive collections of artwork.
And canals! Who doesn’t love canals?
If this city were smack in the middle of Europe, it would easily be one of the most popular tourist draws in the world, and it’s easy to forgive the “I’m only visiting St. Petersburg and then leaving” crowd for going only this far. Around the city center you can’t go more than two minutes in any direction without walking into a palace.
On the other hand, it’s also empty. Well, not empty, but for a city this dense with historical attractions, it’s practically devoid of the sort of tourism you’d expect of its Western neighbors. Visiting St. Petersburg in the height of summer might as well be like visiting Paris in the dead of winter.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s a city of 5 million with a million different palaces to see, whereas Venice often has more tourists than residents and its attractions are concentrated around a relatively small main square. Sure, the Hermitage is packed, but not annoyingly packed.
But for the most part, Russia just seems so far away. Tell people you’re visiting Russia, and chances are they’ll ask what for.
Here’s a good answer:
Oh, and they also have this thing called the White Nights festival, where they celebrate the longest day of the year by throwing a massive party that grinds the entire city (except the liquor stores) to a halt as millions of St. Petersburg kids and all of their buddies pack the streets ’til it’s so thick you can’t move.
Oh, and since it’s so far north that during this time the sun doesn’t set until midnightish, and then comes right back up again around 3am. It makes for difficult sleeping, but then again, so does a city filled with millions of simultaneously partying Russians.
So yeah, it’s pretty cool. Peter the Great would be proud. And then he’d probably go burn Venice to the ground or something.
Okay, one more: