Living in: St Petersburg

The former capital of the tsars and tsarinas is one of the world’s most expensive, yet its grace, glamour and 300-year history attracts residents from around the globe.

The imperial city built by Peter the Great as Russia’s window to the west is filled with beautiful Baroque and Neoclassical architecture and hundreds of bridges crossing the River Neva. The former capital of the tsars and tsarinas, today St Petersburg is one of the 30 most expensive cities to live in. Yet its grace, glamour and rich 300-year history continue to attract visitors and travellers to its world-class museums, palaces and cultural institutions.

What is it known for?
Italian architects gave St Petersburg its distinctive look, but its flavour is distinctly Russian. Built on a series of natural islands and carved through by a number of canals and the Neva River, this city on the Gulf of Finland is home to some of Russia’s greatest national treasures, from the magnificent Hermitage Museum, housed in the tsars’ Winter Palace; to the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where Peter the Great and other Romanovs are buried; to the grandiose Palace Square, the central square at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Many of the city’s main attractions are on Nevsky Prospekt, the grand boulevard and commercial heart of St Petersburg. “St Petersburg has the benefits of big city life, with great opportunities and a lot of interesting places to visit, but it is quieter than Moscow,” said long time resident Ekaterina Kazmina. “It is the most European city in Russia, both geographically and mentally.”

Throughout the city’s history, the arts have flourished in close proximity to the ruling classes, with composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky calling the city home. St Petersburg’s cultural attractions include the famed Mariinsky Theatre, the ballet, opera and orchestra hall (known as the Kirov in the Soviet era) and the Mariinsky II opera house that opened in the summer of 2013. The White Nights is a nearly three month-long midsummer celebration that heralds the almost 24-hours of sunlight that blesses this northern latitude. The festival survived both the terrible three-year Siege of Leningrad during WWII and the restrictions of the Soviet era that ended in 1991, rebounding to include concerts, dances, fireworks, a sailing fleet, jazz performances, street parties and more.

Over the last 20 years St Petersburg has become a popular tourist destination, with a wealth of luxury hotels and top restaurants as well as a sense of modern urbanity. Recently however, the city’s international standing has been affected by Russia’s recent crackdown on gay rights and the LGBT community. Milan, Venice and Lansing, Michigan have suspended their sister city status with St Petersburg, while Los Angeles and Melbourne are considering following suit.

Where do you want to live?
St Petersburg is divided into 18 administrative districts, and one of the most popular and expensive areas to live is the Central district on the south bank of the Neva, home to the Hermitage and Palace Square, and filled with beautiful 18th- and 19th-century buildings as well as some very high-end new construction. The neighbouring Admiralteysky district just to the west is also popular for its central location on the river and canals. “It’s a big advantage for property buyers if a big park or a developed infrastructure are located nearby,” said Tamara Popova, head of research for Knight Frank St Petersburg. South along Nevsky Prospekt, the Moskovsky district is also popular for its concentration of apartment buildings.

Many families look to live in the eastern corner of the Central district near Chernyshevskaya Prospekt, where a number of embassies are located. The district’s splendid Tavrichesky Garden and palace once belonged to Grigory Potemkin, lover and advisor of Catherine the Great, and now draws the public with its concerts, events, lawns and ponds, as well as for skating and sledding in winter. Also popular are the upscale areas across the river in the Petrogradsky district for proximity to the international schools, and further north in the Primorsky district, home to many parks and green spaces.

Side trips
The suburbs are home to many of the tsars’ former country estates and summer palaces, including the enormous Baroque pile of Catherine Palace in Pushkin, just 25km south of St Petersburg. The Peterhof palace complex, located 30km west of the city on the Gulf of Finland, is known as the Versailles of Russia, with its grand structures and elaborate gardens and fountains. Today, many wealthy city residents spend much of the summer in their dachas, or country houses, in villages outside of town and near the Gulf of Finland coast. The medieval town of Vyborg is a popular destination for day trips, located 130km northwest of the city near the Finnish border on the Baltic Sea. Weekend destinations include the fortress town of Old Ladoga near Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake, 40km east of St Petersburg, as well as Veliky Novgorod, one of Russia’s most ancient cities, 180km south of the city.

The high-speed Moscow to St Petersburg Railway makes the 650km trip to Moscow in three and a half hours, and the train to Helsinki takes about the same amount of time. There are frequent ferries to Tallinn, Estonia, as well as Helsinki and Stockholm. Pulkovo International Airport has flights to domestic cities such as Moscow and Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, as well as international destinations. Flights to London are around three hours and it is more than six hours to Dubai.

Practical info
St Petersburg experienced a housing boom that lasted from the early 2000s to the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. Since then, housing prices have stabilised, remaining steady since December 2012. The highest quality and most expensive flats are in the historical city centre, and volume has increased in that market this year.

After 1991, the government recognised land ownership, and new construction began all over the city. However in existing properties, many of which need repairs, there can be disparity in resident income, which in turn makes it difficult to form a condominium that would pay for maintenance. Communal apartments still exist as well, with multiple owners.

The average apartment purchase price in the Central district is about 100,000 rubles per square metre, while new construction costs around 130,000 rubles per square metre. In the Admiralteysky district the average cost is 96,500 rubles per square metre. “The decisive factors in choosing a new construction building are commonly: when it will be ready to move into, what is the quality of view and is there a concierge,” Popova said. “For older buildings, [buyers focus on] the condition of the lobby and the front door security.”

Many rental apartments are furnished, with parking in the central courtyard. A two- or three-bedroom apartment in and around the Central district rents for between 45,000 and 80,000 rubles a month, depending on the quality of the building.

Further information
The St Petersburg Times
: English-language newspaper covering international and local news, business, arts and culture

Life in Russia: one expat photographer’s visual blog of life in St Petersburg

Petersburg 4U: city guide, culture, current events and lifestyle tips for visitors and expats