If a Russian OAP told you he’d lived in Petrograd, Leningrad and St Petersburg but never moved house, you’d think he was a vodka short of a stomach pump. However, Russia’s second biggest city has changed its name three times in its relatively short life, so this is indeed possible.

A baby by European standards – founded by the Peter the Great in 1703 – the city’s apparent identity crisis reflects its bumpy history. All the same, St Petersburg, positioned across and around the delta of the Neva River at the end of the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, has progressed in leaps and bounds since its modest swampland beginnings to become a real tourist-pleaser.

Decorated with snow in winter, come June and July the powder becomes a distant memory as White Nights fever hits the city. The sun doesn’t dip far enough below the horizon for it to get dark, so many people rock around the clock.

Cultural capital

While the title ‘capital’ has bounced back and forth between St Petersburg and Moscow, the former is without doubt the cultural centre. In a city brimming with museums, it’s the Hermitage – the second biggest art gallery in the world after the Louvre – that wins top dog. Bang in the middle of the city on the banks of the River Neva, it houses more than three million exhibits in six buildings, including the Winter Palace. The museum was originally built for the art collection of Catherine the Great who, having started collecting later than most European monarchs, played a grandiose game of catch-up. The State Rooms and European art displays, with works by Da Vinci, Picasso and Rembrandt, are must-sees.

The second stringer is the Russian Museum, devoted to native art throughout the ages from Tsarist chalices to the romantic paintings of Socialist Realism.

St Petersburg was home to renowned writers Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Pushkin and composers Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Stravinsky – sons the city is understandably proud of. You’ll find museums and memorials dedicated to them and, in Pushkin’s case, a café. The Literary Café at 18 Nevsky Prospekt is where the poet ate his last meal before he died (a fine last supper – the food is great).

Stepping out

If there’s one thing the Russians are good at, it’s kicking up their heels on stage, especially when it comes to ballet. The most impressive theatre is the Mariinsky (www.mariinsky.com),while the Hermitage (www.rus-ballet.com), where Swan Lake is currently showing, is elegantly intimate. Try your luck for the second seat in the second row where Catherine the Great supposedly once sat. It’s also worth seeing some traditional Russian dancing at a folkshow at Nikolayevsky Palace (www.folkshow.ru) – you’ll need a ticket, but champagne and caviar are often included in the price.

Worth a look

Church on Spilled Blood
A lot of people can’t tear their eyes away from this multi-domed stunner. Also known as the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, it deserves your undivided attention. Partially modelled on St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, its interior features a whopping 7000sqm of mosaics. It was built on the very spot Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by the People’s Will terrorist group, hence the rather literal name. There is also a line of markets nearby where you can pick up some pretty matryoshka dolls.

St Isaac’s Cathedral
This golden dome stands out a mile and, thanks to 40 years of dedicated construction work, it’s well worth exploring. If you’re feeling energetic, climb up the colonnade for a panoramic view of the city.

Nevsky Prospekt
The main drag of St Petersburg is one of Russia’s most famous streets and is filled with cafés, boutiques, trendy teenagers, and the odd down-and-out. Landmarks to look out for include the Kazan Cathedral and the gilded spire of the Admirality. Make time for a stroll down the 4.5km-long avenue.