Orient yourself on St Petersburg's grid of canals and start walking: the city is a visual delight of ornate palaces and churches. Take in baroque masterpiece Smolny Cathedral (cathedral.ru; $4) and the Russian Museum (rusmuseum.ru; $10), dedicated to Russian art from medieval icons to avant-garde Kandinskys. People-watch along shopping drag Nevsky Prospekt. Then check out Yusupov Palace (yusupov-palace.ru; $14), where the notorious Rasputin was assassinated. Have a lunch special of soup and dumplings at The Idiot (idiot-spb.com; $18), an atmospheric café named after a Dostoevsky novel. Spend the afternoon on newly trendy Vasilevsky Island admiring neoclassical architecture, river views, university life and good museums - Menshikov Palace (hermitagemuseum.org; $2) showcases society in 18th-century Russia. Have dinner at inviting, kitschy Soviet Cafe Kvartirka (51 Nevsky Prospekt; $15) and stay at enormous, basic but decent Hotel Oktyabrskaya (oktober-hotel.spb.ru; from $95).
EASY DOES IT
Stay at Novotel St Petersburg Centre (novotel.com; from $126), conveniently located off Nevsky Prospect, and start the day with its excellent buffet breakfast. Gird your loins for the dazzling interior of the Winter Palace (hermitagemuseum.org; $20). It includes the State Hermitage Museum, so crammed with Western art that Rembrandt and Picasso alone take up entire rooms. Get fresh air with a stroll across the river to Peter and Paul Fortress (spbmuseum.ru; $7) and its baroque cathedral where Russia's rulers are entombed. Lunch on Georgian charcoal chicken and salads at Tarkhun (restorantarkhun.ru; $17) before taking the train (spb.rusavtobus.ru; $7) to aristocratic country retreat Tsarskoye Selo. Here, Catherine Palace (tzar.ru; $15 with audio guide) epitomises Russian baroque in gold and amber; garden terraces overflow with pavilions and statues. Dine on hearty stroganoff at cosy city restaurant Gogol (restaurant-gogol.ru; $40 meal).
Take the hydrofoil (peterhof-express.com; $31 return) along the Baltic coast to Peterhof (peterhofmuseum.ru; $16), summer residence of Peter the Great. Tour the baroque palace and wander the grounds, adorned with cascades and trick fountains. Back in town, lunch at pre-revolutionary Literaturnoe Cafe (vk.com/litcafe_group; $30 meal) on sophisticated imperial fare. Head down Nevsky Prospekt to admire the vast Admiralty and Winter Palace, then along the Neva River to the enormous Bronze Horseman, honouring St Petersburg's regal founder. Ascend the dome at St Isaac's Cathedral (cathedral.ru; $11 including audio-guide) for splendid views. In the evening, enjoy a Kirov ballet production at gorgeous Mariinsky Theatre (mariinsky.ru; from $37 opera). Indulge in an extravagant caviar degustation and three-course meal at regal Restaurant Tsar (ginza.ru; $190). Stay at illustrious Grand Hotel Europe (belmond.com; from $350), where historical suites have imperial themes.
The writer travelled courtesy of Viking River Cruises and Belmond.