Commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725) as "a window looking into Europe," St. Petersburg is a planned city whose elegance is reminiscent of Europe's most alluring capitals. Little wonder it's the darling of fashion photographers and travel essayists today: built on more than a hundred islands in the Neva Delta linked by canals and arched bridges, it was called the "Venice of the North" by Goethe, and its stately embankments are reminiscent of those in Paris. A city of golden spires and gilded domes, of pastel palaces and candlelit cathedrals, this city conceived by a visionary emperor is filled with pleasures and tantalizing treasures.
With its strict geometric lines and perfectly planned architecture, so unlike the Russian cities that came before it, St. Petersburg is almost too European to be Russian. And yet it's too Russian to be European. The city is a powerful combination of both East and West, springing from the will and passion of its founder to guide a resistant Russia into the greater fold of Europe, and consequently into the mainstream of history. That he accomplished, and more.
With a population of nearly 5 million, St. Petersburg is the fourth largest city in Europe after Paris, Moscow, and London. Without as many of the fashionably modern buildings that a business center like Moscow acquires, the city has managed to preserve much more of its history. Here, you can imagine yourself back in the time of the tsars and Dostoyevsky. Although it's a close race, it's safe to say that most visitors prefer St. Petersburg's culture, history, and beauty to Moscow's glamour and power.
That said, St. Petersburg has begun to play a more active role in politics in recent years, as if it were the country's northern capital. It may be because of the affection the city holds in the heart of the country's political elite, many of whom are natives of the city. New high-speed trains now travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a new international airport and metro stations have just opened, and some crumbling parts of the city are undergoing reconstruction. St. Petersburg revels in its historic beauty but also embraces the new.