WHY GO NOW?
"Peter" (as locals call it) celebrates its 300th anniversary this year. "Ships of every flag we'll hail," as Pushkin imagined Tsar Peter the Great declaring, when founding his city on the Baltic. But get there quick: the Russian government (led by local lad Vladimir Putin) plans to hail the jubilee in style from 15 May to 10 June. During this time the city will be closed to everyone except guests invited by the state. You might prefer to wait until after the event; Russian rebuilding projects usually run to "skin of the teeth" timing, so this will be the first opportunity for the rest of us to see the enhancements.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
St Petersburg has the finest classical ballet company in the world. Pay the R1,500-3,000 (pounds 30-60) - more, if the local maestro Valery Gergiev is conducting - to see the Mariinsky Theatre's company at the former Imperial Ballet and Opera Theatre (25),Teatralnaya ploshchad 2 (00 7 812 114 1211, www.mariinsky.spb.ru/en). Amid the city's faded splendour, this timeless excellence encapsulates its regal spirit.
WRITE A POSTCARD
Russia's postal service is slow and unreliable. Instead send an e- mail or virtual postcard from Quo Vadis Internet Cafe (24) at Nevsky Prospekt 24. It opens round the clock and costs R60 (pounds 1.15) per hour.
A WALK IN THE PARK
St Petersburg is ringed by stupendous country palaces. Tsarskoe Selo is the most spectacular (take a suburban train to Pushkin); Peterhof (Petrodvorets) has the most beautiful gardens in which to stroll (hop on a hydrofoil from the Winter Palace Embankment). Admission to either is R300 (pounds 6), or visit just the gardens for R100 (pounds 2).
OUT TO BRUNCH
Sadko, the brasserie of the Grand-Hotel Europe (5), makes an elegant, affordable treat for brunch; all you can eat costs R800- 1,300 (pounds 15-25), depending what you drink. Sadly, recent renovation stripped out the historic interiors within which St Petersburg's literati used to dine.
Foreigners need a visa, obtainable for pounds 30 on a two-week turnaround from the Russian Consulate, against Russian-issued proof of pre-booked accommodation or tour. All foreigners must carry the Immigration Card issued at passport control at all times. It is easiest to get a tour operator or visa service to do the work. British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow most days, from pounds 235 return; Global Village (020-7692 7770) has low-season fares from pounds 202 return. St Petersburg's Pulkovo 2 terminal is being rebuilt, and arrivals facilities are scanty - you may have to go to departures to change money. ATMs are widespread in the city. The currency symbol on price lists is P, the Cyrillic letter corresponding to R. The minibus shuttle to Moskovskaya Metro in the south of the city costs R50 (pounds 1), with an extra charge for baggage. Taxis are so cheap - typically R500-600 (pounds 10-12) per cab to central locations - that most visitors choose the luxury of a door-to-door service. Officially, you must pay for everything in roubles, but cabbies will often accept US dollars.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Nevsky Prospekt, inspired by the Champs-Elysees, is the central artery. "Step on to it, and you step into a fairground," wrote Nikolai Gogol. In Gogol's time it was swept clean by arrested prostitutes as their early- morning penance, before they were released to err afresh on its stones that evening. A tourist office operates out of the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace (1) where Nevsky Prospekt meets the Fontanka River, although its hours and very existence seem a state secret. Nevsky's broad ribbon of grandeur is anchored by the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (2) at one end, and seemingly spiked by the golden spire of the Admiralty (3) at the other. The sweep of canals and re-routed rivers was dreamed up by Peter the Great and his drinking partner, Prince Menshikov, to imitate Amsterdam. …