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While Moscow is quintessentially Russian, St. Petersburg has always looked westwards to Europe. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, the city’s bonbon-coloured palaces were largely built by Italians, while central Nevsky Prospekt and Palace Square and waterways such as the Moyka River variously recall Paris, Vienna, Rome and Venice.
Demoted from capital status after the Russian Revolution, St. Petersburg remains a Russian intellectual stronghold, a cultural centre rivalling Moscow and one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. St. Petersburg is also top-heavy with sites. One of the world’s grandest residences, the Baroque Winter Palace also houses the Hermitage’s great art collection, while St Isaac’s Cathedral’s malachite columns and the Kazan Cathedral’s huge colonnade make them among Russia’s most striking churches. For more offbeat sites, the Aurora battleship – which fired the October Revolution’s first shot, is moored on Petersburg’s Neva quaysides. Where you can also find the Kunstkammer’s ghoulish cabinet of curiosities. Beyond these sights, St. Petersburg is simply a pleasant place to spend time, containing some of Russia’s oldest cafés and theatres and a social scene that runs until morning during the June White Nights, when the city’s northern position means the sun never really sets.