While Moscow is the most popular Russian city for tourists, most people say they prefer to visit St Petersburg, and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes called the “Venice of the North”, you can spend your days wandering along canals lined with baroque and neoclassical palaces and exploring old churches and cathedrals. The old capital city is also home to two of the greatest art and cultural museums in the world, The State Hermitage and The State Russian museums.
You could spend weeks exploring everything this beautiful city has to offer, but there are a few highlights that shouldn’t be missed. Whether you have a month-long tourist visa, or you’re on a three-day land excursion from a cruise ship, it’s possible to see everything on this list, just make sure you pack good walking shoes!
The historic center of St Petersburg is the first place you’ll want to explore. Everything is within walking distance, but public transport is cheap and easy to use with Google Maps if your feet get tired. It’s possible to see each of these in a day, but you’ll want extra time to actually visit the museums.
The State Russian Museum
Only a 10 minute walk from the main street of Nevsky Prospect, this is as good a place as any to start your walking tour. It’s the largest collection of Russian fine art in St Petersburg and one of the largest museums in the country. You can easily spend half a day visiting the Mikhailovsky Palace, with other exhibitions held at the Marble Palace, the Mikhailovsky Castle and the Stroganov Palace. A same-day ticket to two exhibitions will cost 600R ($9), or a three-day ticket to all four will cost 850R ($13).
The Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Located just behind the State Russian Museum, this will be your first taste of an onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral and it will not disappoint. It’s so similar to St Basil’s in Moscow with its multicoloured domes and turrets, just not quite as busy! Tickets to go inside cost 250R ($4) and it’s well worth it to see the interior decorated with a kaleidoscope of colourful mosaics.
The Summer Garden
Head through Mikhailovsky garden, across the Moika river and take a walk along the leafy green paths of St Peterburg’s oldest garden, the Summer Garden, where you’ll find marble statues, fountains and the modest Summer Palace of Peter the Great tucked away at the back. It’s a great place to escape the city streets for a while, entrance to the garden is free, while the palace is currently closed for refurbishment.
Walk through the barren Field of Mars and cross the massive Neva river for a detour to this 1900’s Russian cruiser that played a small part in the communist revolution by firing a blank round from the forward gun as a signal to start the assault on the Winter Palace. It now houses one of the largest maritime museums in the world with a huge collection of model ships, tickets cost 600R ($9).
Peter and Paul Fortress
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, the Peter and Paul Fortress was the original citadel of St Petersburg, set on an island on the banks of the Neva river. Entrance to the grounds is free, if you want to go inside the golden Peter and Paul Cathedral tickets cost 450R ($6). You can also buy tickets to visit the bastion and its grim prison cells, or to climb to the top of the fortress walls for stunning panorama views.
At the tip of Vasilyevsky Island, as you cross the Neva river again, is where you’ll find the banks of The Strelka, with great views of Peter and Paul Fortress to the left and The Hermitage to the right, flanked by two Rostral Columns, iconic St Petersburg landmarks.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
Walk along the river past the Admiralty and a statue of Peter the Great and you’ll see the golden dome of this stunning cathedral that dominate St Petersburg’s skyline. You can buy tickets to visit the museum inside (250R, $4) or to climb the 262 steps to the collonade (150R, £3) rewarding you with incredible panoramic views of the city.
The State Hermitage Museum
Follow the road past the southern face of the Admiralty and you can’t miss the baby blue Winter Palace. If you want to explore this vast museum housing over three million items displayed throughout five buildings (the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre), you’ll need at least a full day, more if you have the time, a combined ticket costs 700R ($11). You can also visit part of the Hermitage Storage Facility and the other branches; the east wing of the General Staff Building, the Winter Palace of Peter I, the Menshikov Palace and the Imperial Porcelain factory.
If, like me, you want a quick tour of the stunning Winter Palace then you can give yourself a few hours to admire the architecture, the chandeliers and of course the artwork and historic pieces on display. They offer free entry on the first Thursday of every month, but the queue was a mile long even an hour before it opened, so good luck with that. The best time to visit is on a Wednesday or Thursday evening, when it’s open until 9pm and most of the tour groups have left.
Outside the Hermitage lies the Palace Square which connects back to the main shopping street of Nevsky Prospekt with one last sight to see. From the outside the 111m long collonade of this cathedral makes it look more like a government building, but once you step inside it’s all dark and gothic traditional Orthodox architecture. You’ll often see a long line of people waiting to kiss the icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
While most of St Petersburg’s sights are in the historic heart of the city, there are a few just outside that are worth tackling public transport or paying for a taxi to visit.
This baby blue cathedral of the patron saint of sailors is one of the most picturesque in the city with its golden domes, finely carved wooden iconostasis and bell tower overlooking Griboyedov Canal.
I thought I had seen most of the cathedrals that this city had to offer, but when I climbed to the collonade of St Isaac’s I could see the towering blue domes covered in gold stars far away in the distance, so I made my way there the next morning. In 2006 it was destroyed by a fire, but has now been restored to its former glory.
This sky blue cathedral is the beautiful centerpiece of Smolny Convent, built in the 1700’s. Its plain white interior makes a nice change from the usual colourful mosaics, and you’ll find a large collection of golden icons. The highlight is a climb to the top of the bell tower (150R, $3), the views are stunning!
Once you’ve gotten the hang of public transport in St Petersburg, it’s definitely worth heading farther out to see two of the grandest sights this city has to offer.
The Grand Palace of Peterhof is an imposing yellow building that dominates the hill above the Gulf of Finland, but that’s not why people visit, they come for the magnificent grounds. The Upper Park is free to enter, but it’s worth buying a ticket for the Lower Park (900R, $14) so you can enjoy the stunning collection of golden fountains, tree-lined canals and acres of parkland. You can also take the hydrofoil for 800R ($12) one way which is a nice way to see the Neva River.
Naval Cathedral of St Nicolas
On the island Kotlin stands the navel fortress of Kronshtadt, and it’s here that you will find the stunning white and gold Naval Cathedral. The interior is just as impressive, and although it’s far from the city it’s worth a visit on your way back from Peterhof.
This is everything I managed to visit with just three days and a lot of walking. On my first day I covered everything in the historic heart of the city. On my second day I visited the things farther away, and went back to a few of my favourite locations in the center to get better photos. On my last day I visited The Hermitage and Peterhof, stopping at the Naval Cathedral on the way back.
Public transport is very easy to use, you can rely on Google Maps to get you anywhere you need to go, whether it’s on the metro or the buses. You can pick up a local prepaid SIM card from мтс (MTS) with unlimited internet for only 600R ($9).
There are also many options for food, shopping and accommodation throughout the city, head to the main street of Nevsky Prospekt to find the best of everything!