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In cities, courtyards are often places to wind down or discover hidden nuggets of local history. In St. Petersburg, they’re a space for imagination.

Venture into the alleys between buildings and every so often you’re rewarded with a garden of art. The interior walls of buildings are covered in colorful mosaics or four-story paintings. Sculptures of characters from classic Russian fairy tales stand impishly in flowerbeds.

It’s a stark contrast with the outside walls. In the city’s center, most of the architecture is Baroque or 19th-century Neoclassical (think: Paris). So walking into these concealed spaces is like a sudden leap into the present.

In New York, courtyards often help preserve the city’s past. But in St. Petersburg, courtyards let 21st-century locals leave their marks in neighborhoods that seem frozen from the time of Catherine the Great (minus the cars and flashing neon store signs). Because by law, no building in the city’s center can be made higher than the 18th-century Winter Palace – a 98-foot tall building that is now the main location of the Hermitage Museum.

Below are some of the hippest courtyards we found.

1. Mosaic Courtyard

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St. Petersburg may only have 75 days of sun a year, but the mosaic courtyard is always glowing. Murals depict angels, people dancing and children flying on the backs of geese. Waves of tesserae spring out from the walls onto the ground. There are mosaic planters, mosaic benches in the shape of lions and a mosaic sundial. There’s even a children’s jungle gym made entirely of mosaics.

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The project began in 1984, when local artist Vladimir Lubenko decided to spruce up the outside of his workshop – a building located within this courtyard. Soon his inspiration spread from the building to just about every inch of surrounding pavement. He made his workshop into a children’s art school, and today he, his students and staff continue to add mosaics.

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The courtyard brings to mind the work of Mosaic Man Jim Power in New York City’s East Village.

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