Best things to do in St Petersburg
Find out more about those top places in St Petersburg
Known historically as St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and St. Petersburg once again, the former Russian imperial capital is a window onto Russia’s fascinating and turbulent history. Founded by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, the city developed into the Venice of northern Europe. Built on the marshy shoreline where the Neva River spills into the Gulf of Finland, St. Petersburg’s elegant canals today exude an intoxicating sense of faded grandeur. While St. Petersburg is Russia’s most ‘western’ city, it was also the cradle of the Russian Revolution with many star attractions, such as the Winter Palace and Peter and Paul Fortress, central in the epochal event. Whether you want to experience the regal history of the Romanov dynasty, the revolutionary heroics of the Bolsheviks or the city’s cutting-edge 21st century art and gastronomy, St. Petersburg has it all.
Housed in the former imperial Winter Palace, which was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s October, the Hermitage Museum is the world’s second largest museum. Founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century, the museum’s collection of fine art ballooned in size during the Russian Revolution as the Bolshevik’s seized the art of the country’s aristocracy and placed it on public display. As a result, the Hermitage today has a near unrivaled selection of European art. Due to its vast size forward planning or guided tours are highly recommended.
Clearly modeled after Moscow’s iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood is one of Russia’s most lavish churches. Bedecked in a psychedelic array colored tiles and gold leaf it is one of St. Petersburg’s most recognizable landmarks. Contrasting its dazzling exterior, the church holds a dark history as the place where Tsar Alexander II was nearly assassinated in 1881.
While much of the palace today houses the Hermitage Museum, the vast pastel hued building remains an iconic relic of the Tsarist era. Although art fills most of the palace’s rooms, guided tours offer visitors a unique insight into the lives of the Russian emperors and empresses who lived in the baroque masterpiece between from 1732 and the 1917 revolution.
Hugging the icy coast of the Gulf of Finland just west of St. Petersburg, Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, is every bit as extravagant as its French counterpart. Peter the Great initially built a wooden cabin in the area to oversee construction of the Kronstadt naval base but liked the setting so much he and his successors ordered the building of a vast series of gilded palaces, ornate gravity powered fountains and landscaped gardens.
The Peter and Paul Fortress, located on an island in the Gulf of Finland, is the historic core of St. Petersburg. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and remodeled extensively throughout that century, the fortress today houses a cathedral that is the final resting place for members of the Romanov dynasty, multiple museums and a former prison that was used until the 1920s. Beyond these attractions, the island setting offers breathtaking views of the mainland city and has a number of unspoiled beaches for sunbathing.
Towering above the St. Petersburg skyline is the shimmering dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which is coated in upwards of 100 kilograms of gold leaf. While many visitors bypass the cathedral itself for the jaw-dropping rooftop views, the cathedral interior is one of the city’s richest with a wealth of neoclassical marble work and notable Russian art.
Modeled after the Vatican, the neoclassical Kazan Cathedral was commissioned by Tsar Paul shortly before his assassination. The cathedral’s most notable feature is the 100 meters long colonnaded arms that encircle a garden peppered with marble sculptures. For the best experience, a guided tour will unlock the little known agenda of Tsar Paul who hoped to re-unite Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Housed in the grand Mikhailovsky Palace, the Russian Museum showcases the best of Russian art from medieval icon painting to the realism 19th century itinerant painters and the revolutionary works of social realist and constructivist artists.
Opening its doors in 1860, the Mariinsky Theater is St. Petersburg’s premier theater for ballet, opera and classical music. Known for staging works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the theater has been reinvigorated by Valery Gergiev, the new general director. What is more, across the Kryukov Canal from the neoclassical theater is the newly opened and cutting-edge Mariinsky II.
No trip to St. Petersburg would be complete without a trip to the ballet, especially one to see an iconic performance of Swan Lake. Written by Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake is one of the most dramatic and moving performances in ballet and it can be seen at various historic venues across St. Petersburg: the Mariinsky Theater; the Hermitage Theater; the Alexander Theater; the Aurora Ballet Hall; and the Mikhailovsky Theater.
The best place to learn about Russia’s national drink and most famous export is the Vodka Museum where exhibits take visitors through the firewater’s long history. Tour guides are recommended as most of the exhibitions and displays are in Russian only.
The meticulously restored Shuvalovsky Palace is home to the world’s largest collection of pieces crafted by the world-renowned jeweler Peter Carl Faberge. Most notably, the museum’s collection includes nine original Faberge eggs that belonged to the Romanov family.
In the boreal woodlands south of St. Petersburg lies the grandiose royal estate of Tsarskoe Selo. While the estate contains a treasure trove of gilded palaces, the two most impressive are undoubtedly the pastel blue 18th century Catherine Palace and the Italianesque Pavlovsk Palace built by the short-lived and thoroughly disliked Tsar Paul I.
Besides vodka, Russia’s most well-known export is likely the Kalashnikov. At this shooting experience you can get to grips with firing this well-known weapon alongside a variety of other military grade guns.
Learn about Rasputin, one of Russian history’s best known but most mysterious characters, on this guided tour. Visitors will uncover his enigmatic origins in the depths of Siberia, his rise to infamy amongst the elite of St. Petersburg and his close relationship with the last Romanov monarchs and will see a thrilling recreation of his eventual demise subservient to assassins.