Sailing up the River Neva towards St Petersburg (or Petrograd, or Leningrad) must have filled visitors with expectation and apprehension for more than 300 years. Created out of swamp land to be Peter the Great’s European city, it remains an exotic destination for the Westerner. It is not European. Although it likes to think of itself as the Venice of the North, it is actually much more like Amsterdam and is none the worse for that. It has all the advantages of a planned city as well as the lack of spontaneity with a resulting sense of control. The canals are wide and gracefully shaped, lined with astonishing buildings. The great palaces, notably Peterhof on the Baltic coast, Catherine’s Palace at Tsarskoe Selo and the Winter Palace, together with the Hermitage Museum, are startling but only intermittently beautiful. There are numerous great privately owned houses in Britain and France which are infinitely more beautiful. Nevertheless, it is the cultural differences in taste that make the St Petersburg palaces interesting, combined with recollections of the world-changing events which occurred there. But the present weighs heavily: we were constantly reminded of restrictions and restraints in this home city of the present Tsar Vladimir. Vast sums have been spent to restore the glories of the tsars but the result seems like Disneyland for history buffs. We should have been more grateful.

The Helsinki Olympics were the first Games which struck me as special. Of course I was aware of the London Olympics in 1948, but then everything special happened in London. The Helsinki Games of 1952, occurring in an unimaginably remote place, were brought to life by the fact that my Sunday school teacher competed in them, rowing in the men’s eights. Today the city is engagingly fresh, with a strong design aesthetic and a superb Lutheran cathedral. Both its geography and history at the intersection of great power struggles made it a strong contender for a seat on the Security Council, although I can’t imagine why such a nice country would want a seat on such a body.

My only visit to Berlin was 40 years ago when it was impossible to imagine anything would change. Back then, crossing the Wall to meet with the East German concert agency to discuss chamber music groups was an experience filled with profound apprehension. Since the end of the repression and the reunification with the West, the whole of Berlin has become a showcase for capitalist achievement and 21st century architectural modernism. There are endless examples in this new-old city of German creativity, ingenuity, efficiency and determination. The thing is, it is very Germanic. Well, it would be wouldn’t it? But our generation has to deal with knowledge and memories which are echoed in the very stones of the city.

None of this can take away from the scale of the achievement of the reunification project, which is a testament to the strength and vigour of the (formerly West) German economy and its industries. The patience and patriotism of those residents and taxpayers of the West who had to absorb the debt and decay of the East is truly remarkable; now they are shouldering a similar burden from parts of southern Europe. Those with some knowledge of the work of the Stasi, so vividly depicted in the film The Lives of Others, can only wonder how much corrosion still lies beneath. But these are a truly resilient people.

The Kiel Canal linking the Baltic and North Seas is one of those 19th-century engineering achievements which we now rather take for granted but shouldn’t, since we seem incapable of completing the Pacific Highway and similar projects hopefully called ‘nation building’. The canal led us to Amsterdam and its superb Rijksmuseum. The building itself has been subject to restoration and redevelopment since the 1990s, which is still not complete, but partial access enabled us to view the simply miraculous Rembrandt and Vermeer rooms. This is a city still conscious of its colonial past. The very recent elections in the Netherlands favoured the two main centre parties; it is to be hoped that the new government can be sufficiently decisive in addressing issues as much to do with social cohesion as with economics.

Sailing across the Atlantic from Cork to St John in Newfoundland is to retrace one of mankind’s epic advances. There are unavoidable reminders of the centenary of the departure of the Titanic from Cork, bound for New York. Fortunately the band only played ‘Anchors Aweigh’. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, we could have visited the graves of many of the victims of the Titanic, but left them to rest. The remoteness of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia from the rest of Canada together with their closeness to the north-eastern US seem to have thrown them back onto their tribal memories of Scotland and Ireland for their sense of identity.

Even in calm weather, approaching New York from the sea is an awesome experience; in the pre-dawn light the illuminated Statue of Liberty is outshone by the nearly completed One World Trade Center at Ground Zero, previously known as Freedom Tower. This new building soars above the 9/11 Memorial Grounds and Pools of Remembrance. It is an appropriately defiant and confident structure. Opened only last year and as yet incomplete, the Memorial Grounds are a model of restraint and quite profoundly moving. The Pools are of such an unexpectedly perfect and thought-provoking design that no one could fail to be affected by them. Yet they can’t lead to an understanding of the unimaginable.

Donald McDonald, formerly CEO of the Australian Opera and chairman of the ABC, is director of the Classification Board.