At the sound of a shrill bell, everybody ducks and the boat slides underneath a bridge. It’s a sound heard frequently on such a tour of St Petersburg in Russia – the “Venice of the North” has 400 bridges.

A boat tour is a must on any trip to Russia’s former capital, which has had a makeover to greet hundreds of thousands of football fans visiting the area for the Fifa World Cup.

Ivan Sidorov, who owns six boats giving tours along St Petersburg’s canals and rivers, says this year’s tourist season began in April, earlier than when it usually starts in mid-May.

The sun almost never shines

“It’s not worth waiting for better weather in this city anyway,” the 28-year-old Sidorov adds with a cheeky grin. “The sun almost never shines, it’s incredibly damp. It depresses some people. The moss thrives but not much else.”

The one-hour boat tour along the rivers Moyka, Neva and Fontanka is perfect for taking in the city’s main sites, including the pastel green Winter Palace – home to the Hermitage Museum – and the Peter & Paul Fortress.

St Petersburg

At the monument to Russian Emperor Peter the Great in St Petersburg, a host city for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Photo: Reuters/Anton Vaganov

The fortress was built by Peter the Great 300 years ago, when the tsar founded the city as a port to trade with the rest of Europe.

Reminder of its former glory

The palaces, which form a guard of honour along the waterfront, are a reminder of St Petersburg’s former glory in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, they are now showing the signs of ageing, their plaster crumbling in parts.

The boat docks at Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s main avenue, where there are restaurants and cafes aplenty.

However it’s worth checking out the side streets, where there are other hip cafes and shops trying to appeal to locals as well as tourists.

St Petersburg

One popular St Petersburg cafe is Piscki, where slightly abrasive staff serve greasy donuts in a Soviet atmosphere. Photo: Thomas Korbel/dpa

One popular cafe is Piscki, where slightly abrasive staff serve greasy doughnuts in a Soviet atmosphere – visitors must be prepared to queue for the experience.

World Cup tourists may have limited time for sightseeing and for that reason, tourism official Dmitry Gerashchenko has worked out a series of new tours for them.

Classics of St Petersburg

One is called “What can you see in three hours before a game?” and takes in “the classics of St Petersburg”, according to Gerashchenko.

“Visitors have enough time to get out and take a picture,” he says.

And where to drown your sorrows should your team get knocked out? A basement bar called Travel Bag, complete with spy kitsch like an old listening device, is not only popular with tourists but also locals, according to its manager, Igor.

Or you can try out smashing porcelain at a shop on the Nevsky Prospect. According to Russian superstition, shards are lucky, so it’s traditional to write your wish on a piece of porcelain and throw it against a wall. – dpa/Thomas Koerbel