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.
I’m a big fan of Moscow’s insane-looking St Basil’s Cathedral, with its colourful domes and irregular shapes. But if it’s a little too crazy for you, then you might prefer the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (also known as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ) in St Petersburg.
It’s also colourful, and covered with unusual domes, but in a slightly toned down way, and perhaps one more fitting a cathedral. Sitting next to one of St Petersburg’s many canals, the outside is extremely photogenic, and the kind of building you could stare at for hours. Inside it is jam-packed with incredible mosaics, and in fact these are main attraction for going inside these days, as it doesn’t function as a church. You’ll have to put plastic covers over your shoes so you don’t damage the floor, but you won’t have time to actually look at the floor – there are something like 7,000 square metres of mosaics on the walls and ceilings to enjoy.
If you asked me which of St Basil’s and the Saviour on Spilled Blood was my favourite church in Russia, I’d be really torn in making a decision – my best recommendation is that you absolutely must visit both, and then decide for yourself.
When I travelled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian I wanted to take some good Russian literature with me, and I eventually decided on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It is set in St Petersburg, and by the time I’d reached this gorgeous city (it took three weeks, with stops, from Vladivostok) I was more than ready to learn more about the author by visiting the Dostoyevsky Memorial Museum, housed in an apartment where the man himself used to live, and write.
For any avid reader, and especially for writers, this museum is a must. Not only does it explain the historical background to the novels of Dostoyevsky, telling much about Russia in the process, but it also shows his life as a writer – drafts he made, the desk where he wrote, and the critical reaction of the time. There’s even a note from his young son asking Papa to bring him some sweets! Pictured here are notes and scribbles Dostoyevsky made when planning his book “The Adolescent”.
The museum is a short walk from the Vladimirskaya / Dostoyevskaya metro stations in St Petersburg, and is closed on Mondays. I rented an audio guide in English and it was well worth it, with lots of interesting anecdotes to go with the various exhibits throughout the flat.
If you’re wandering the main streets of St Petersburg, you won’t be able to miss the city’s largest cathedral: St Isaac’s Cathedral or the Isaakievskiy Sobor. Architecture fans are sure to be impressed; I loved the granite columns, and it’s obvious that it was built with the intention of looking impressive – it was intended to be the most important church of the Russian Empire when it was built in the early nineteenth century.
The best way to visit St Isaac’s is to get there early (it opens at 10am in summer and 11am in winter) and climb the 300-odd steps to get up to the balcony around the top dome. Since St Petersburg is not a particularly “tall” city, this is high enough to get spectacular views over the Hermitage buildings along with the rest of the city. If I remember correctly, there was an extra fee for being allowed to take photographs (a common surcharge in Russia) but I was early and sneaky enough to get away with some snaps – but if you’re more honest than me, pay up because you’ll definitely want to take pictures while you’re up there.
There are many sides to St Petersburg, but many parts are certainly indicative of past good times and a quiet decadence – it’s an interesting contrast to other parts of Russia. One place that is a good sunny afternoon excursion is the Summer Garden, the oldest park in St Petersburg and one of the most beautiful.
Peter the Great is responsible for setting it up back in 1704, and it’s especially famous for the dozens of Italian-made sculptures and statues around the park. It’s also home to the Summer Palace – the other-season option to the Winter Palace, which is now home to the Hermitage galleries.
The area’s open from 10am to 9pm daily, and I’d recommend a walk around there late in the afternoon of a hot summer day – it’s shady enough to be quite refreshing. Take enough time to check all the statues out if you’re interested in sculpture, because some are incredible.
I know some people aren’t really into visiting art galleries when they travel, but I have to say that everyone should make an exception for The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It’s not only a Russian icon but it’s also a truly breathtaking place to stroll around – whether art interests you or not, even just the buildings that house all the art are fascinating.
Okay, enough of the lyrical adjectives, this is the plain truth: the Hermitage is stuffed full of paintings, sculptures and other works of art and every guide book likes to cite some statistic on how many lifetimes you would need if you wanted to look at the entire collection (there’s a lot more that’s not on display). Whichever period of the history of art you’re attracted to, there’s some representative of it there.
Being this incredible means that every man and his dog wants to visit the Hermitage, so you have to plan your visit well to avoid either paying too much or seeing too little. I’ve been twice and both times have got there early in the morning, about half an hour or so before it opens, and as long as you have a book to read in the queue or a snack to keep you busy, it’s quite tolerable. As for buying tickets, there are several ways to go and they change regularly. At the moment you can buy tickets online for US$17.95, which seems reasonable although locals get in much, much cheaper; having tickets in advance at least means less queuing.
Last time I was there a tour guide was walking up and down the queue giving people the tip that if they were in the first hundred or so people they could pay for the special Jewellery tour and general admission was included – yet weirdly, this made it cheaper. We took her advice and got to see some of the more secret stash of jewels as well as get in cheaper. So keep your ear to the ground if you’re on a tight budget.