Standing on a roof in central Saint Petersburg, Marta Granadeiro gasped as she watched the statues on the Hermitage Museum’s facade gleam in the sunset.
“We wanted to see something extraordinary in Saint Petersburg and now we have,” said Granadeiro, a 23-year-old Spanish tourist who climbed onto the roof of an apartment building on a tour organised by a local tourism agency.
The rusty rooftops of Russia’s tsarist-era capital, with its romantic skyline of elegant onion domes and pre-revolutionary buildings, have long been a coveted destination for illegal excursions.
To convince officials to let tourists admire the city from above, the agency PanoramicRoof spent four years navigating bureaucratic hoops to get the necessary permits.
“I had this idea after getting my wedding photos taken on Saint Petersburg’s roofs,” said Anastasiya Krasitskaya, the agency’s coordinator. “It was fantastic but dangerous and uncomfortable, the roof was slippery, and all in all it was stressful.”
Previously tourists could only surreptitiously access the building’s roof. Those living in the flats below sometimes called the police when they spotted visitors clambering up the stairwell.
Eventually the agency decided to strike a deal with the residents, offering to repair the stairwell in exchange for access to the roof.
Only for foreigners?
The city of 5.3 million annually draws in throngs of visitors – 6.9 million in 2016 – eager to see sights associated with the rule of the Russian monarchs and gape at its museum collections.
But some tourists are also drawn to go off the beaten path for a more adventurous experience. Rooftops offer the best view of the city’s skyline, which has remained lowrise in the historic centre.
The city’s 18th-century founder Tsar Peter the Great ordered architects not to build anything higher than the Peter and Paul Fortress: 122.5 metres (402 feet).
Alexander Semyonov, the head of PanoramicRoof, took five tourists through the building’s attic, heading toward the roof. Before going out to the open air, he repeated safety instructions: don’t walk too fast and carefully follow the guide. He distributed hard hats and binoculars.
“Safety is paramount,” Semyonov told the tourists, who were busy clicking photos. They proceeded carefully along the crest of the roof, gripping a metre-high metal barrier to avoid slipping down the slope.
For Andrei Stepanov, who takes groups on more clandestine outings, PanoramicRoof’s trip is too tame and “mostly for the elderly and for foreigners”.
For him going the official route is a waste of time: residents rarely make a fuss and even when they do, the fine is only 500 rubles ($8, seven euros). He said the agency charges too much (500 to 700 rubles) and only skims the surface of the city’s world of rooftops.
“For that price, we can arrange a visit to several roofs, and even walk along from one to another, to take in more views,” he said.
“That’s what’s extraordinary, not any officially sanctioned visit.”