If the great cities of Europe competed for the title of ‘Most Beautiful’, St Petersburg would be right up there. The history, the contemporary, and the diversity of 5 million people –those are the elements that make the city compelling. In the midst of a new era of cultural expression, majestic historical buildings and classical artistic traditions are still preserved and valued by the locals. This list of attractions and reasons on why you should visit St Petersburg will tap you right into the heart of the city’s vibrant energy.
1. Feel like a Russian Tzar in St Petersburg’s Palaces and Parks
St Petersburg is home to Russia’s best preserved and most elaborate constructions from the extravagant Tsarist era. Brimming with baroque palaces, classical sculptures, royal gardens, and grandiose cathedrals, you can not simply miss to visit St Petersburg in your lifetime. Walking around the city is like wandering through a living museum. Although these architectural buildings were established hundreds of years ago, most were preserved and transformed into museums. Enjoy and feel the history and culture instilled in every room and wall of each infrastructure.
The Winter Palace is one of the most popular palaces in St Petersburg. It was the imperial residence of the Tsars and is the main site of the Hermitage Museum. Rooms were restored in order to depict what its like to live at the time of Russian Empire and is part of what you can see in the State Hermitage Museum. Mikhailovsky Palace or the Russian Museum is boasting about Russian fine arts such as paintings, fabrics, and ancient coins and is also a former musical salon. Yusupov Palace is where most diplomatic meetings are conducted. It has been visited by the biggest celebrities and politicians today. The Museum of Glass Art sits inside the Yelagin Palace. The palace hosts lots of events including music festivals, backyard parties, and tulip festival. Marble Palace has an impressive marble hall and room. More than thirty types of marble were used to build and decorate the palace which is also part of the Russian Museum.
Pushkin, south of St Petersburg, is where one of the most extravagant residence ensembles you could see when you visit St Petersburg. In this town, you can see the neoclassical Alexander Palace. It was Nicholas II –the last Russian emperor’s favorite residence. The palace is now a naval college and a museum which exhibits the palace’s history by restoring three of its rooms and photographs and a documentary film about Nicholas’ regime. On the other hand, a Russian Baroque palace can be found at the centre of the town. Catherine Palace is famous for its Great Hall, Golden Enfilade, and Amber Room. The whole palace is decorated with gold. In fact, more than 100 kilograms of gold were used to illuminate the facade and interiors.
2. The Architectural masterpiece of Palace Square
Similar to the Red Square of Moscow, Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad) is a public space where major historical Russian events took place including the Red October and the Bloody Sunday Massacre. As the city’s main square, political ceremonies and rallies still occur in the vast space every now and then. But festivals and concerts take place more often. It is also considered as one of the most fascinating architectural and historical ensembles in the world which combines baroque and neoclassical architectural styles.
On the Northern side of the square, you will find the Baroque-style Winter Palace while opposite to the elegant green and white palace is the equally appealing neoclassical General Staff Building. It served as the home of the Imperial Army General Staff, Tsarist Foreign Ministry, and Ministry of Finance and is currently used as offices by the government in the west wing and as part of the Hermitage Museum in the east wing. What enables to meet the east and west wings is the triumphal arch which also leads you to the famous Nevsky Prospekt.
The Royal Guards’ General Staff Building on the eastern side is also being used as government offices. While on the west of the square is where you can see the Admiralty which serves as naval college and was Russia’s Naval Headquarters. At the centre of the building is the golden Admiralty Tower, the focal point of the city’s main streets: Nevsky Prospect, Gorokhovaia Street, and Voznesensky Prospekt. Another attraction on the square’s west is the Admiralty Garden which is a must visit especially during spring and summer.
On the centre of the Palace Square stands the Alexander Column. It commemorates Russia’s victory over Napoleonic France and is named after Alexander I, the ruler during that era. Standing next to the column, you will surely realize that the square itself is almost enough for you to visit St Petersburg.
3. The Magnificent Hermitage Museum
With over three million items, the Hermitage Museum is considered the second largest museum in the world. It is estimated that it will take 11 years for an individual to view each display item for one minute. Filled with artworks of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, and other artists the Tsars have collected, you just can’t simply miss to see this museum when you visit St. Petersburg. It serves as a symbol of St Petersburg’s (and of Russia’s) love for art, history, and culture. There are several sites that constitute the whole complex, but the main museum is the Winter Palace which is the reason why the Hermitage is called “museum-palace” and not just a museum.
TIP: Tickets are free every first Thursday of the month. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the museum is open until 9 pm while the usual in until 6 pm. It is more expensive if you buy your tickets online than the standard way of personally lining up to purchase tickets at the entrance. However, for a short visit, we recommend that you go to the museum on Wednesday and/or Friday at 4 pm for a shorter queue.
4. Venice of the North
Sharing the name “Venice of the North” with six other cities, St Petersburg has a network of stunning canals and bridges just like Venice. Known for having extravagant palaces, museums, and theatres, it can be tiring to see and discover all of them just by walking around the city. That’s why we recommend you to take some time out for a leisurely canal cruise through the heart of the city. A cruise is necessary when you visit St Petersburg. It gives you the opportunity to sail under photogenic bridges and see most of the city’s famous landmarks along the way.
Canals cruise, St Petersburg
There are several rivers and canals which you could sail through to see the city from different angles. Neva River is the main waterway of the city and almost all major attractions can be seen from a boat tour along the river. Moyka River is a narrow river that when you decide to cruise around, you’ll find the Court Stables —where Alexander Pushkin’s funeral was held, the Glinka State Academic Capella, and St Isaac’s Square. Zimnyaya Kanavka (Winter Canal) although a short canal is considered the most romantic spot in the city because of its scenic and pleasant view. It connects the Neva and Moyka rivers in the Winter Palace area. The last waterway that we would like to feature is the Kryukov Canal. We believe that a greater recognition must be made for this canal because of its particular history and since the Mariinsky Theatre, New Holland, and the Bell Tower of St. Nicholas Cathedral sit on its banks.
However, if you can’t get enough of cruising through Russian waters when you visit St Petersburg, why not opt for a longer cruise? We offer Russian river cruise, on which you’ll take in the sights, sounds, and history of Russia’s heartland from the comfort of a modern cruise vessel.
5. The Spectacle of the Neva Bridges Opening
Being one of the largest rivers in Europe and one of the world’s shortest river, the Neva River deserves a separate piece. As I wrote above, most of the main attractions in the city can be easily seen from a boat sailing through the river or simply just from any spot on the banks of the river. Navigation season in Saint Petersburg starts in April and ends in November.
During this period drawbridges (moveable bridges that let ships pass through) of St Petersburg are opened for a few hours during the night. Although the raising of the bridge is one of the prominent reasons why tourists want to visit St Petersburg, the actual reason is to let cargo ships to pass up and down the river. A walk along the embankments or a ride on a cruise boat in the Neva river will surely leave an unforgettable impression of the city at night.
TIP: Always check the schedule to avoid being stranded on the wrong side of the river. The bridges usually stay up between 2 am to 5 am.
6. The Awe-Inspiring Churches & Cathedrals
Although several Orthodox churches were destroyed during the Russian Revolution, these churches and every church that was left were returned to the Diocese of St. Petersburg for reconstruction. Each church in the city today has equally fascinating history and beauty —inside and out. For those who are devoted to doing a pilgrimage annually, these exquisite churches are the reason why they visit St Petersburg. The architectural design of each church is striking that it makes every structure irresistible to stare at.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
If St. Basil’s Cathedral is one of the reasons to visit Moscow, The Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood is one of Russia’s. It has a Medieval Russian architecture —distinct from the common Baroque and Neoclassical styles of most buildings in St. Petersburg, The church also claims to have the largest collection of mosaics in the world that depicts scenes and characters from the Bible. It was where Alexander II was murdered, thus, earning its unique name. Dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, Kazan Cathedral is considered as the most sacred icon of Russia. When you go enter the impressive bronze doors, you can immediately notice that the cathedral features various Russian sculptures, paintings, and icons.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral is the largest cathedral in St. Petersburg and fourth in the world. Its dome was illuminated with gold and twelve statues of angels. The entire cathedral amounted to one million golden rubles. During the Soviet government, the cathedral was denounced as a religious place. Instead, the government established a Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism on the cathedral itself. However, after the fall of the Soviets, religious practice was resumed and the museum was kept open. One of the most bizarre churches, Chesme Church was built as the house church of the Chesme Palace. What makes it unusual is its Gothic-style architecture which is shaped like a cake and is striped in pink and white. Smolny Cathedral, Church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, Church of Ss. Simeon and Anna, and Church of the Epiphany of the Mother of Godare just some of the incredible churches you definitely should not miss seeing when you visit St Petersburg.
7. Peter and Paul Fortress
It may not be as famous as the Hermitage and the Mariinsky Theatre, but Peter and Paul Fortressare as historically rich and beautiful as the two landmarks. It is the birthplace of the city, founded by Peter the Great and served as the citadel of the city. The fortress is located on Hare’s Island and is labelled as the “Museum of the History of the City”. It is comprised of multiple historical infrastructures that half day is not enough for you to see each one of them. It should be definitely be on your list if you’re planning to visit St Petersburg.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Served as the burial site of the imperial family, Peter and Paul Cathedral symbolizes Imperial Russia. It is the oldest church in St. Petersburg and the gilded spire with an angel holding a cross at the top makes it second-tallest building next to Television Tower in the city. In honour of the apostles Peter and Paul, you will find their status inside the cathedral along with antique paintings and icons. As mentioned above, the compound constitutes numerous buildings and attractions including Imperial Rooms, Bell Tower, Trubetsky Bastion Prison, Commandant’s House, Neva Curtain Wall, Mint, Statue of Peter the Great, Ioannovsky Ravelin, and Engineering House. You can also relax at the beach outside the walls if you’re lucky enough to be there on a nice weather.
TIP: Taking the Metro and getting off at Gorkovskaya station is the easiest way to get to the amazing fortress. Tickets for each museum and exhibition can be purchased at each entry point of the building. But if you already know which buildings you would like to visit, you can buy the tickets in one go at Ioannovsky Ravelin or at the Boat House (near Peter and Paul Cathedral).
8. St Petersburg’s Contemporary Art Scene
State Hermitage Museum, State Russian Museum, Fabergé Museum, Russian Museum of Ethnography, and Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts are just some of the well-known museums in the city. However, St Petersburg isn’t all about the old masters. The city’s reputation as a hub for art and culture has carried on into the modern era. As young artists, writers, musicians, and designers continue to flock to the city, you won’t ever run out of new exhibitions and galleries when you visit St. Petersburg.
A former bakery has now turned into an uber-cool visual and performing arts space called the Loft Project ETAGI or New Holland Island. It serves as a huge multifunctional creative space complete with galleries, bookstores, and hip cafes. Etagi may seem like a little city, as a matter of fact, it is also called “Container City” since containers are used shops and cafes in the exhibition space.
ITAGI art scene
The Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art sits in a Neoclassical Stalinist building, a former synthetic rubber research institute. But don’t be fooled because it is actually the largest private museum of contemporary art in the whole country. Erarta which means Era of Art produce their own creative projects such as the known U-Space and Theater With No Actors. Their gift shop sells original artworks and home decor items and they even have an interior design service.
Focusing on the 21st-century arts, the Anna Nova Art Gallery has a two-story space where large-scale installations by Russian and international artists are displayed. The gallery also offers a special service for artists who want to promote and develop their own collection and exhibit.
Art re. Flex Gallery exhibits diverse types of applied arts including sculpture, jewellery, and embroidery. Novy Muzei, a 20-minute walk from Erarta Museum, displays controversial modern arts such as naked Stalin and Hitler paintings. If you’re into photography, you should definitely go to ROSPHOTO. Every year, around 50 photographic installations and experimental cinemas are held in the gallery. Perhaps the most diverse art space is Taiga St. Petersburg. It is home to creative startups, recording and design studios, fashion boutique, and showrooms.
9. St Petersburg’s Theatres
St Petersburg is not only famous for its fine and visual arts, the city is also boasting with the world-renowned drama, musical, and ballet performances. For some people, the theatres are the sole reason why they visit St Petersburg, so why would you miss this for the world? Each performance is absolutely jaw-dropping. The city’s theatre season begins in mid-September to late June. However, the winter and autumn are the best times to watch the remarkable ballets and operas.
The Mariinsky Theatre is the most famous musical theatre in St. Petersburg. Opened in 1860, it is one of the oldest theatres in Russia. The theatre still has one of the most impressive facilities. Outstanding performances of ballet plays such as “The Nutcracker” and “Russian Seasons” have always made their audience in awe. The Mikhailovsky Theatre is the said rival of Mariinsky Theatre. It is the oldest ballet and opera theatre in Russia. Although the building is not as impressive and luxurious as Mariinsky Theatre, it houses classic plays from the Soviet era that most of the locals love to see.
Since the Mariinsky Theatre is closed during summer, the Hermitage Theatre is the go-to theatre for most tourists. Aside from ballet performances, the theatre also hosts international music festivals and orchestra. Known for drama performances rather than ballet, Alexandrinsky Theatre claims to be one of the architectural gems in the city. The Nikolaevsky Palace and St. Petersburg Philharmonia are just two of other places where you can watch phenomenal musical and drama performances in the city.
10. Nevsky Prospekt
A 2.5-mile avenue, Nevsky Prospekt is the main avenue of St. Petersburg. Walking down this street will definitely satisfy your eyes with breath-taking architectures of significant Russian historical buildings. Stroganov Palace, Winter Palace, and Vorontsov Palace are just some of the majestic places along the avenue.
Nevsky Prospekt also claims to be the city’s central shopping street and nightlife. However, if you want to have a different and complete shopping experience, stop at Gostiny Dvor. It is the largest department store in the city and one of the first shopping malls in the world. Other famous landmarks that are along the street include Kazan Cathedral, Dom Knigi bookstore (the former headquarters of Singer company), the Admiralty, and Mertens Building. We highly suggest walking down the whole avenue from daytime to nighttime to get the whole experience of being a real city dweller when you visit St. Petersburg.
11. White Nights
As one of the world’s most northern city, St Petersburg experiences wondrous ‘white nights’ in the peak of summer. It starts in May when the arctic sun stays out late, and eventually never sets. The lack of darkness affects the very fabric of life in the city and the whole town seems to be taking part in a two-month round-the-clock celebration. The streets are alive with people right through till morning, a motley flotilla of boats cruises the rivers and canals non-stop, and the city’s nightlife is at its most active.
White Nights – 3 am
To experience the full splendour of these polar nights (late May to early July) when you visit St Petersburg, here are some of the activities and places for everyone. Enjoy walking around the creative hub (1) New Holland Island and the green spaces of (2) Summer Garden. Dip in the waters of (3) Lake Ladoga and (4) Komarova Beach. Take a midnight stroll and (5) watch the Neva Bridges open or (6) go for a canal or river cruise. Last but definitely not the least, join the Russians as they celebrate (7) Scarlet Sails.
12. Scarlet Sails Festival
In celebration of youth and to congratulate school graduates, the Scarlet Sails is an annual festival in St Petersburg. It is based on the fairy tale written by Alexander Green which celebrates love, hopes, and dreams. Scarlet Sails started in June 1968 but was suspended after a decade. However, it returned in 2005 and we promise, this biggest annual festival in Russia will be one of the best moments of your trip when you visit St Petersburg. Besides, what is a better occasion than celebrating hopes and dreams of your life? It has won multiple awards and has been considered as an international event since it attracts almost 3 million guests and tourists each year.
The festival starts at a concert on Dvortsovaya Square for school graduates. However, for non-graduates who wants to celebrates could go to Vasilievsky Island as an alternative. Then the concerts are followed by a light and water show on the Neva River after midnight. The most awaited show of the festival involves orchestra, water show, lights, pyrotechnics, and special appearances of ships sailing on the river. It usually lasts for 20-30 minutes and is always celebrated around the 15th to 25th of June every year. Make sure to check the schedule and weather before you visit St Petersburg.
13. A Culinary Delight For Every Taste
Restaurants in Russia’s second largest city range from luxurious establishments fit for a tsar to humble cafés that serve down-to-earth traditional local food like pancakes and soups. There are countless places to explore, from traditional Russian cuisine in palatial surroundings to modern rooftop terraces serving international fusion menus.
Stroganoff Steak House is said to be the only steakhouse in the country that hand butchers and dry ages imported meats from Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. Literary Café was where Pushkin ate before his last in 1837. It serves Russian and European dishes. Russkaya Rybalka cooks only fish in various Russian cuisine. St Petersburg also serves different cuisines from all over the world. Erivan offers Armenian dishes, Francesco serves original home Italian recipes, Beau Rovageprovides sophisticated French cuisine, and Ginza, one of the trendiest restaurants offers Japanese and Italian food,
For those with a tight budget, of course, you could still enjoy exploring the city with a full stomach. Tandoor is an Indian restaurant which serves Russian curries. 1818 Kafe and Bikes offers street foods such as Shawarma, pizzas, khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread), and Syrniki (sweet cheese fritters). Savour traditional and authentic Russian food in Na Zdorovye! and for sure, you’ll come back for its fresh dishes and fast service. Green Room serves big portions but affordable Blini (Russian pancakes) and other Russian meals. We also recommend Stolle Pies —a bakery chain known for their fresh savoury and sweet pies.
However, if you happen to visit St Petersburg during the summer, one of the best ways is to experience the city is to eat out at the summer terraces. Each restaurant will give you different views of the city while delighting yourself with every flavour of the food you ordered. Victoria, Artist’s Attic Fondue Bar, Mansarda, Chayka, and Mix in St Petersburg are just some of the best summer terraces we love. For sure, you’ll find more when you visit St Petersburg.
14. A Visit to St Petersburg’s Glamorous Nightlife
St Petersburg was the first city in the country to have the first rock club and of course, the first to adopt the clubbing culture. The city’s nightlife has one of the most varied clubs and bars in the world. From cocktail, rooftop, karaoke, sports, gay, to (of course) vodka bars, whatever floats your boat, St. Petersburg will be there for you.
Fish Fabrique is an underground club which serves cheap drinks coupled with good music. Vodka Room No. 1 as you guessed offers a wide selection of vodkas as well as traditional snacks. If you’re more of a rock and roll star, Money Honey is the pre-drink place where you can chug pints of local beers. However, you may opt to spend your whole night here as you wish. If you have a knack for cocktails, MadLabBar makes exclusive cocktails perfect for every taste bud and hosts dance parties on weekends. For a fine wine night, head to Probka and indulge sophisticated Italian food. Coyote Ugly have bartops created just for dancing. So if you’ve had enough shots or just feel like dancing, move your body and share the time of your life with Russians. If you’re into contemporary music, Stackenschneider plays electronic music and promotes various independent music talent.
15. Visit St Petersburg, it is safe.
The city has long been free of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Theft crimes have also been reported to have dropped in the past few years. Just make sure you’re not flashing your money everywhere you go and you’ll be free from the eyes of pickpockets when you visit St Petersburg. Apart from pickpockets, St Petersburg is definitely one of the safest cities you could travel to.
*What to pack for St Petersburg?
If you’re planning to visit St Petersburg from late May onwards, normally, the weather will be warm and humid (from +18C to +25C), but not excessively so and evenings can be cool even when the sun is still shining. It’s worth bringing at least one warm sweater. It should be pointed out that, if you’re over the age of fifteen, shorts will immediately mark you out as a tourist. Even if the weather in St Petersburg is really hot and dry, there is almost always a chance of rain, so don’t forget to take your umbrella with you.
While you will find summer wear acceptable, do bring less casual attire if you plan to enter Russian Orthodox churches, which will require that men and women have their legs covered and women have their shoulders and hair covered.
Evening concerts, which are prevalent during St Petersburg White Nights, will also require less casual attire than what would be worn for daytime sightseeing.
Check out this amazing short video clip by Kirill Neiezhmakovwhich showcases stunning sites to further inspire you to visit St Petersburg.
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