A birthday makeover is the icing on the cake

St Petersburg is 300 years old. Margaret Campbell says go while the paint is fresh and the people festive

One could almost feel sorry for Tony Blair. Next weekend, he visits St Petersburg, one of Europe's most beautiful cities, with good weather virtually guaranteed (Russian air force planes are on standby to spray cloud-bursting liquid nitrogen at the first hint of rain). But the Prime Minister will spend less than 48 hours being whizzed round a Baroque fantasy of colonnaded palaces, ornate façades and gold leaf, and while he will celebrate St Petersburg's 300th anniversary in undeniable style and opulence, as only the Russians know how, he will not see the real "Peter", or catch more than a glimpse of the northern capital's attractions.

One could almost feel sorry for Tony Blair. Next weekend, he visits St Petersburg, one of Europe's most beautiful cities, with good weather virtually guaranteed (Russian air force planes are on standby to spray cloud-bursting liquid nitrogen at the first hint of rain). But the Prime Minister will spend less than 48 hours being whizzed round a Baroque fantasy of colonnaded palaces, ornate façades and gold leaf, and while he will celebrate St Petersburg's 300th anniversary in undeniable style and opulence, as only the Russians know how, he will not see the real "Peter", or catch more than a glimpse of the northern capital's attractions.

Fortunately, the rest of us will be allowed back into Russia's magical second city on 10 June, as the town gears up for its annual festival of music and the long northern White Nights, when bridges are raised overnight and traffic stops. Huge investment has gone into sprucing up the centre, so go soon, while the paint is fresh and the population is in festive mood.

"Peter's City" sits on more than 40 islands in the Neva estuary, near the shores of the Baltic Sea. It straddles a network of canals and rivers that reflect a constantly changing sky and give its streets and embankments a sense of light, space and mystery rivalled only by Venice.

Peter the Great modelled his "Window to the West" on Amsterdam, but its palaces and cathedrals would have been far too grand for sensible Dutch burgers - this is the extravagance and drama of Italy, transposed to a wasteland of northern swamps in a rejection of Moscow's Byzantine traditions and Asian heritage.

The evocatively named Church of the Spilt Blood, an over-the-top onion-dome fest at the end of Griboyedova Canal, was looked down on by St Petersburg sophisticates in the late 19th century - but provides a colourful contrast to the neo-classic Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt, at the opposite end of the canal. After decades of neglect and periods as a warehouse and the Museum of Atheism, this impressive building has been restored to some of its Orthodox glory.

St Isaac's Cathedral, another re-consecrated church, willfigure in next weekend's formalities, but it is hard to imagine the hundreds of guests feeling cramped in this massive edifice, its gilded dome soaring up from solid granite pillars. One of the best views of St Petersburg's dazzling riverscape can be had from its observation platform, a great place to get one's bearings and pick out landmarks.

To the east, the gold Admiralty spire marks one end of Nevsky Prospekt, and lines up with a similar spire rising from the St Peter and Paul Cathedral. Set in the heart of the Peter and Paul Fortress, this is where Peter the Great and his Romanov descendents are buried. Around it, the former Imperial Mint and the Trubetskoy prison are reminders that "Hare Island" was once the centre of the Russian empire. A walk along the fortress's bastions provides a shimmering panorama back across the Neva to the Winter Palace's seemingly endless green and white facade and tall windows.

If you are lucky, a boatman will offer to row you over for a small charge. The tsars' official residence has been the setting for more than its share of intrigue and tragedy. It is now one of the five monumental buildings that house the Hermitage, one of the world's greatest art collections. No visit to St Petersburg would be complete without at least one attempt to see part of its treasures. St Petersburg has a reputation as Russia's artistic and intellectual centre, and the streets are stalked by literary ghosts, from Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in the Hay Market and Bashmachkin, hero of Gogol's The Overcoat, to Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel prize-winning poet who died in exile in 1996 - a public subscription is raising money for a monument in his honour. The homes of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Anna Akhmatova, who captured the stoicism and horror of Leningrad's war years, are now museums.

The metro is cheap, but the centre is compact and better crossed on foot or from a boat: how else to see wrought-iron railings and chess-players in the Summer Gardens, countless statues of literary and military heroes, modest villas that hug the shore or champagne-wielding bridal parties laying flowers by the Bronze Horseman? Or the charm of canals that wind beneath delicate bridges and suddenly emerge beside imposing squares?

For people-watching, start in front of the Hermitage, and head down Nevsky Prospekt - one of the world's great thoroughfares, where package-laden locals dash between dawdling visitors, boxy Ladas chug along next to flashy inomarki (foreign cars), and the vibrant colours of the Stroganov and Beloselsky-Belozersky palaces compete with advertising outside Gostiny Dvor department store. Keep going, even when the street turns south-east at Ploschad Vostanniye, and you'll be rewarded with Alexander Nevsky Monastery and cemeteries, a beautiful compound where Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and others are buried.

One place that tourists won't be visiting is Konstantinov Palace: a former imperial residence, it has been restored to its past grandeur, and is now the Russian President's official residence in St Petersburg. Mr Blair has something over us after all.

The Facts

Getting there

Foreigners need a visa, obtainable for £30 on a two-week turn-around from the Russian consulate, against Russian-issued proof of a pre-booked accommodation or tour. It is easiest to get a tour operator or visa-handling service to do the work. British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow for around £320 return in June.

Intourist (0870 1121232; www.intourist.co.uk) offers three-night weekend breaks from 10 June to October from £549 per person sharing, flying from Heathrow and staying in a three-star hotel. For bookings before 30 June, readers will receive a 5 per cent discount. Please quote "May Independent".

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