In the early 18th century Peter the Great’s desire to Westernize Russia began when he took the area that would become St. Petersburg in a war with Sweden. Here he would build his great European city. What few realize is that the first of these settlements appeared across the Neva River, on the opposite side of what is now considered St. Petersburg proper. It’s called Petrograd and most visitors to the area go to the Peter and Paul Cathedral, a gold-spired icon that is the burial place of the Romanovs, then head back to Nevsky Prospekt. But those willing to press on find that Petrograd offers rich, new experiences.
Trinity Square In 1703 the first houses in Peter the Great’s new capital were built here, along with Trinity Cathedral, and the senate soon occupied the eastern end. Today all that has disappeared and the square is a park bordered on the north by two magnificent early-20th-century mansions. Where the church once stood is now a small monument that holds a boulder from the island of Solovki, in the White Sea. Solovki was one of the first Gulags created for "enemies of the state," and the rock is a grim reminder of the millions who perished there. The monument was originally intended to be larger and more prominent, but when Putin—a former KGB colonel—became Russia’s president in 2000, those plans were scuttled.
City Center As you continue north along the river, a large modern glass building appears. Known as City Center, it is, in fact, a reincarnation of a Soviet defense factory that was mysteriously called The Vibrator, perhaps in hopes of fooling American spies, who’d have never guessed that it produced top-secret parts for submarines. Now the structure includes a four-floor gym, as well as the chic restaurant Moskva (dinner, $140; 18 Petrogradskaya Naberezhnaya; 7-812/332-0200) at the top. Moskva offers sublime traditional food—try the baked salmon—and even better, it serves up a commanding view of downtown St. Petersburg across the river.
Kshesinskaya Palace On the north end of Trinity Square is an Art Nouveau mansion once home to the famous ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, the lover of Nicholas II before he ascended the throne in 1895. His parents ended the affair, so the wily dancer found herself another Romanov: Grand Duke Sergei, who proved his love by financing the residence. When Russia fell into chaos in 1917, dozens of workers, soldiers, and sailors moved in. They were soon joined by Lenin, who had a weak spot for luxury despite his proletarian views. He would sometimes appear on the balcony and address supporters below. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became the Museum of Political History. At 2/4 Ulitsa Kuibysheva; closed on Thursdays.
The Cabin of Peter the Great and the Aurora cruiser Just down the embankment from Trinity Square is a small park with trees; in the center is a brick house that encloses a log cabin (6 Petrovskaya Naberezhnaya)—the czar’s first home here—which serf carpenters built in just three days in May 1703. A little farther along, where the Neva River splits in two, a czaristera warship, the Aurora, is moored. On October 25, 1917, the ship fired at the Winter Palace, signaling revolutionaries to attack. Palace officials were quickly arrested and Soviet power proclaimed. The Cabin of Peter the Great is open daily except Tuesdays. The Aurora is open Wednesday through Sunday.