St Petersburg might be the “second city” of Russia after Moscow, but many would argue (myself included) that it’s the most beautiful one. Like pretty much all of Russia, it has a tumultuous history, and through its iterations as Petrograd and Leningrad it has seen many changes, despite being a relatively young city, founded in 1703. It’s full of culture and history and has a particularly western edge to it – if you’re not sure about visiting Russia, then St Petersburg is probably the best place to start. Here is a list of ten things to do in St Petersburg, in the most recent of our Europe city guides.
The Hermitage in the Winter Palace
For me, this is by far the most impressive art museum in the world. The Hermitage is one of those places which you visit not just for the art collection but for the building and location itself as well. With some three million items in its collection (not all on display at once, obviously – despite its size!) even the locals who visit regularly will probably never see them all. Spread across several connected buildings of the Winter Palace, the architecture and decor is impressive enough even without seeing some of the world’s most famous paintings – artists like Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Michaelangelo are just the tip of the iceberg.
Ballroom in the Hermitage by Amanda Kendle
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
This is my second favourite church in the world – after Moscow’s incredible St Basil’s Cathedral. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (some guidebooks refer to it as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, just to confuse us) is colourful in a more sedate way, and has a lovely canal-side location. Make sure you go inside because its interior is covered with masses of incredible mosaics – you have to slip covers over your shoes so as not to damage the ones on the floor!
Ceiling of Church of Saviour on Spilled Blood by Amanda Kendle
Peter & Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress was the first building to be constructed after being founded by Peter the Great. There are various museums and buildings on the fortress site including the St Petersburg City History Museum and the whole area is a real hive of tourist activity – but still worth a look!
View to the Peter & Paul Fortress by Amanda Kendle
St Isaac’s Cathedral
St Petersburg is fairly rich in cathedrals and churches but there really are several that are worth your while to look at, and St Isaac’s Cathedral is one of them. As well as its impressive architecture, for me the best part is that you can climb to the top and get fantastic views over St Petersburg. It’s not a particularly tall building but there are well over 300 steps so be prepared – but the effort is worth it because the views over the city are really lovely – you do get the impression that St Petersburg is a much greener city than Moscow.
View to the Hermitage from St Isaac’s Cathedral by Amanda Kendle
The last must-see cathedral or church on my St Petersburg list is the Kazan Cathedral. With its very central location on the main street of St Petersburg, Nevsky Prospekt, it is on my list because you will definitely see it, unless you close your eyes as you walk around the city! It’s a gorgeous neoclassical building and is superbly decorated inside and is basically just well worth a peek.
Kazan Cathedral by Amanda Kendle
Surprisingly, the Leningrad Zoo decided not to change its name back to St Petersburg when the rest of the city did in 1991. It’s an impressive place and one of the oldest and largest zoos in the world with some 400 different species of animals (some of whom, I often imagine, must really shiver through a St Petersburg winter!). It is part of Alexander Park, not that far from the Peter and Paul Fortress.
As an avid reader, one of my favourite experiences in St Petersburg was visiting the Dostoyevsky Museum. There are numerous tributes and memorials to various Russian writers across the city but the Dostoyevsky Museum, housed in a flat where Dostoyevsky once lived (and, importantly, wrote), is really well set up and gives an interesting insight into the life of a writer. It includes all kinds of artefacts from his life, right down to handwritten notes from his children, and pages from his manuscripts complete with doodling and corrections.
A Dostoyevsky draft by Amanda Kendle
The Summer Garden
Home to the Summer Palace (don’t get excited – it’s a lot less impressive than the Winter Palace!), the Summer Garden is the oldest park in St Petersburg. Fortunately the gardens are far more substantial than the palace and the park also includes a large collection of park sculptures, including some gorgeous ones of famous Russian writers. It’s also very green and a delightful place for a stroll or perhaps a picnic lunch. If you’re tired after walking around the park, you can book a taxi in St Petersburg to get back to your hotel.
Summer Garden by Amanda Kendle
Neva River Cruise
The Neva River meanders its way through the city centre of St Petersburg, along with various canals, and the river in fact splits the city in half – quite literally at times early in the morning (around 1am to 5am), because bridges are drawn up for boat traffic and you can get stuck on one side of the city. During the day there are many companies offering river cruises to tourists, and although the cruise ticket hawkers might seem pushy it’s worth finding a decent deal and taking a cruise, because you can see so much of St Petersburg from the water. Typically you’ll pass by the Winter Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress and the Cruiser Aurora, and hopefully along the canal past the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, and it’s a relaxing way to see the city from a different angle.
View from a Neva cruise by Amanda Kendle
You might pass by the Cruiser Aurora on a river trip or stop by to tour the ship itself, and it’s an important part of St Petersburg history. Anyone with a smattering of Russian history knowledge will recognise at as the ship which sparked the October Revolution by firing on the Winter Palace, and it is now moored as a museum in the Neva River.
Cruiser Aurora by archer10