Being the famed seat of the Tsars does wonders for a city. For one thing, people don’t dwell on St Petersburg’s humble beginnings, built as it was on a less than desirable patch of swampland. Now referred to as “the Venice of the North”, the St Petersburg islands, threaded with winding waterways and charming canals, are very much part of the city’s allure. There are 42 in total to explore, so we’ve put together a handy list of highlights to save you some time. From big-hitters like Yelagin Island and Vasilyevsky Island to historic Kamenny, here’s how to get the most out of your visit to St Petersburg.
For a taste of the St Petersburg of old, Yelagin Island – one of the three most famous St Petersburg islands (a grouping known as the Kirov) – is the place to go. With boating lakes and a neo-classical palace, Yelagin is part-island, part-pleasure garden – or at least it was for the Tsars. Historic and unspoiled, the island is completely traffic-free, which makes this a tranquil, beautiful place to spend a lazy afternoon. Catch the sunset from the west coast of the island and you might even spy the Gulf of Finland peeking out on the horizon.
Speaking of the Kirov Islands, Krestovsky Island is the largest of the three. It’s also the home of Divo Ostrov – an amusement park that makes for a fun family day out. Already prominent for sports, the island is going to be even more of a magnet for travellers in the coming years, thanks to the impending completion of a brand new sports stadium. One of the FIFA World Cup locations for 2018, prepare to put Krestovsky on your itinerary.
No visit to the St Petersburg islands would be complete without stopping off at Kamenny. Famous for being the retreat of choice for the great and the good of St Petersburg, the city’s elite lived and played here for close to 300 years. Picturesque and quiet, this is a great place to just walk around; you can see venerable old dachas built by the aristocracy and one of the few remaining Gothic churches in the city (namely, the Church of the Nativity of John the Baptist). Unfortunately not open to the public but still great to glimpse from the outside, make sure to wander past the imposing Kamennoostrovsky Palace, built by Catherine the Great for her son, Peter III.
Originally imagined as the centre of the city by founder Peter the Great, Vasilyevky Island was pipped to the post as St Petersburg’s central hub due to slow development. The 19th century, however, was very kind to Vasilyevky (the largest of the St Petersburg islands), with many beautiful architectural additions and innovations being brought to bear. Nowadays, it’s a charming district to visit, with elegant, wide boulevards, neoclassical buildings, and historic churches. Take in some culture while you’re there and pop into the Russian Academy of Fine Arts Museum, just along the Embankment.