News / Europe

St. Petersburg Tops Moscow as Russia's Leading Tourist Destination

James Brooke
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — St. Petersburg was built to be Russia’s window on Europe. Now it is becoming the world’s window on Russia. Coming by train, plane and cruise ship, more than six million tourists this year are expected to visit St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital. That is more than the tourist flow to Moscow, the nation’s business and government capital.

With its waterways and canals, St. Petersburg has long been called the "Venice of the North." Now, with visitors outnumbering inhabitants, Russia’s second-largest city may one day rival Italy's Venice in tourism flow.

Emilia came here from Rome to check out Europe’s hot new destination. She said she was surprised by the quantity of things to see and the helpfulness of local people.

St. Petersburg recently opened the world’s largest cruise ship port of call, capable of handling seven ships at a time. In contrast to Russia’s image of tight government controls, foreign cruise passengers now can visit St. Petersburg for three days without visas.

Peter the Great founded the city three centuries ago and it has been witness to a considerable amount of Russian history.

Once the seat of the Czars, the Winter Palace was stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Now, it is the Hermitage Museum, one of the best art museums in the world.

Anya, a Russian tourist, said she loves the history. She said she likes visiting the Czarist palaces and seeing the old costumes on display.

In 1883, Czar Alexander III ordered construction of The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood on the exact spot where his father, Czar Alexander II, had been killed by an anarchist bomb.

Katya, from Uzbekistan, was exploring the church, when she stopped to talk. She said visitors may be wearing jeans and sneakers, but they feel as if they are in the 18th century.

At the airport here, international arrivals are up 25 percent this year. Planning for more growth, officials broke ground last year on a $1.5 billion project to build the region’s largest airport.

This is part of a bigger investment flow directed by two local sons of St. Petersburg - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Katya said the effort shows, and that there has been a huge amount of restoration, which makes the city shine.

Whether they come by new high-speed train from Helsinki or Moscow, or by one of the 200 cruise ships expected to dock here this year, visitors to St. Petersburg say they find a quality not often associated with Russia - friendliness and fun.

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