War dominated much of Peter's reign. At first Peter attempted to secure the principality's southern borders against the Tatars and the Ottoman Turks. His campaign against a fort on the Sea of Azov failed initially, but after he created Russia's first navy, Peter was able to take the port of Azov in 1696. To continue the war with the Ottoman Empire, Peter traveled to Europe to seek allies. The first tsar to make such a trip, Peter visited Brandenburg, Holland, England, and the Holy Roman Empire during his so-called Grand Embassy.

Peter the Great was the first Muscovite ruler ever to go to Europe. To learn about the west Peter traveled for 18 months in 1697-98 in England, France, Holland and other European countries. The trip took place at a time when Russians were still very suspicious of the West. In Moscow, foreigners were required to live in special enclaves.

Peter the Great spoke eight languages and read Latin and Greek. One of the purpose of his European trip was learn shipbuilding in England and Holland. He worked in English and Dutch shipyards and studied everything he could: anatomy, science, engraving and industrial engineering. He also visited hospitals, workshops and trading houses. Peter the Great attempted to travel incognito as a Russian soldier and ship’s carpenter. He worked a shipwrights apprentice in the London docks. But his height for one was a dead give away and most everyone he came in contact with knew he was.

Peter learned a great deal and enlisted into his service hundreds of West European technical specialists. The embassy was cut short by the attempt to place Sofia on the throne instead of Peter, a revolt that was crushed by Peter's followers. As a result, Peter had hundreds of the participants tortured and killed, and he publicly displayed their bodies as a warning to others. Peter was unsuccessful in forging a European coalition against the Ottoman Empire, but during his travels he found interest in waging war against Sweden, then an important power in northern Europe.