Russia's second city, St. Petersburg, is hosting 10 days of events to mark its 300th anniversary. The celebration peaks this weekend, with the arrival of 45 foreign leaders and an estimated 15,000 official guests.
Commemorative flags billow from nearly every major building. Tall ships ply the ink-colored river Neva, and music sounds from flower-laden parks and squares.
Residents and tourists alike are celebrating the official date of the city's founding in 1703 by Czar Peter the Great, who hailed St. Petersburg as a Window on Europe.
An estimated two million foreigners are expected to visit the city and its cultural treasures in May and June alone. Alan Williams from Texas is among them. He says the renovations in St. Petersburg are inspiring. "I think the Russians have done an excellent job in terms of making it very attractive for their 300th year," he said.
In the years before the anniversary, St. Petersburg officials embarked on an ambitious program to restore the grandeur of the city. As a result, Mr. Williams and other visitors are treated to gleaming golden spires and freshly painted facades. They are also being given, in some instances, free entry to world-renowned museums like the Hermitage.
Big crowds are expected to turn out for two high-tech laser shows along the banks of the Neva. The shows will be held very late in the evening because the city, located in far northern latitudes, is starting to experience its famed white nights, marked by extended periods of daylight.
But not everyone is happy about the celebrations. A young woman from St. Petersburg complains that the money spent on laser shows could have been spent on reconstructing run-down communal flats, or the city's many pot-holed roads.
Another native of the city, an elderly pensioner, took a more positive view. She said it is nice to see the city cleaned up and looking so good.
Many cities, regions and countries sent gifts to mark St. Petersburg's birthday. Trees were among the most popular offerings. A Siberian republic sent 300 cedars, Finland matched that number in apple trees, while Japan gave 1000 of its celebrated cherry trees.
But the International Astronomical Union and the Russian Academy of Sciences gave perhaps the most unusual gift - it named a small planet St. Petersburg.