As the main seat of Russia's former royal family, St Petersburg offers a wealth of gold-studded royal palaces, beautiful orthodox churches and world-class museums to discover – including the second largest art museum in the world. With so much to see, it can be difficult to decide where to go first. Especially if you are a first-time visitor and or only have limited time. So based on my own visit back in 2017, here are my top ten tips for things to do in St Petersburg…
1. See the city by bus
St Petersburg is not only a big city population-wise (it's the 4th largest city in Europe after Istanbul, Moscow and London), but also in terms of its surface and distances.
So in order to get a first overview of this vast town it’s a good idea to be shown around by a guide on a bus. Some bus tours can pick you up straight after you've arrived at the ferry port, others conveniently collect you from your hotel.
A sphinx in Russia
2. Marvel at the fascinating Church of the Spilled Blood
The Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg. Photo by Je-str (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Typical for Russia are the Christian Orthodox churches and their unique onion-shaped towers. There are several in St Petersburg, but if you just have time for one, make sure it's this one.
Also known as the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood or the Church of Resurrection on Spilled Blood, the building was erected on the very same spot where the former Russian tsar and Emperor Alexander II was murdered in 1881.
Many visitors think that the beautifully decorated inside is even more impressive as the outside. And the best thing: unlike in other orthodox churches in St Petersburg, you can take as many photos and videos as you like here!
Entrance is around 250 Rubel (about 3–4 Euros) for adults.
Getting my typical "Russian onion tower pick" didn't turn out perfect because of the scaffolding, but it was still an amazing sight to see!
The inside of the church is stunning!
3. See world-class art and a lavish former royal palace at the Hermitage Museum + Winter Palace
Me in front of the Hermitage
Follow in the footsteps of the film Russian Ark (2002), which was shot here in just one single take and be amazed at the wealth of art treasures you will find here!
Formerly the Winter Palace of the Russian royal family, the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is now a museum. More specifically, it is the second largest art museum in the world after the Louvre in Paris.
Thus, you might get a little overwhelmed initially. A tour with a guide is a good idea to get a first overview of this huge museum (and to skip the line)!
Part of the museum is located in the former royal family's Winter Palace. So be prepared to see a lot of gold and lavishly decorated imperial rooms here, too!
Fun Fact: Although the series was entirely filmed in England and Italy, the Hermitage Museum and former Winter Palace would have been the real-life home of Catherine the Great (Catherine II of Russia) and her husband Peter, who are portrayed by Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in the hilarious comedy-drama streaming series The Great (2020-).
Entrance is free for students.
The first Thursday of each month is free for all, but you need to still get yourself a free ticket.
For more info, visit the museum website.
4. Check out the Russian Museum
If you can handle even more art, you should check out the Russian Museum either on your own or on a skip-the-line tour with a guide. As the name suggests, the Russian Museum focuses on works by Russian artists only from the 17th century up until today.
For the most part, these artists are less known outside of Russia, but they surely produced some truly stunning paintings and art works! I was very impressed.
Entrance is about 500 Rubel (about 6–7 Euros) for adults. Find out more on the museum website.
5. Brace yourself for a gold overload on a guided half-day tour to the Catherine Palace
Only a 40 min. bus drive from the city, you'll find another great example of Russian splendour: the Catherine Palace.
Just as in the Hermitage Museum, I would recommend you to book a tour with tour guide. You will get so much more historical insight as if you would just stroll through the impressive gold rooms by yourself.
Plus, you will have the bus transportation from and back to the city centre covered and you might stop at the Lenin Memorial.
Inside the Catherine Palace you can also see the famous "Amber Room" – or at least a recreated copy of it as the original room was lost in the chaos of World War II.
Fun Fact: Some scenes of the BBC series War & Peace (2016) were shot here.
Scene from War & Peace (2016). © BBC
6. Feel the breeze at the former royal summer residence Peterhof Palace
The impressive fountains at Peterhof Palace are another well-known attraction of St Petersburg. The famous fountains are only in operation during the summer months though, so it’s best to visit Peterhof during the warm season.
A guided tour with transportation is recommended.
Peterhof Palace is a popular summer excursion. Photo by Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov via Wikimedia Commons
7. See where it all began at the Peter and Paul Fortress
When Peter the Great founded the city of St Petersburg as Russia's "gateway to the West" in 1703, he built the fortress as a way to fight off the then powerful Swedish army.
As a serious attack never came, however, the fortress was more commonly used as political prison and private cemetery for Russia's royal Romanov dynasty.
Today, the Peter and Paul Fortress also includes the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History as well as the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
To learn more about the intriguing history of St Petersburg, book a guided city tour that already includes a stop and admission to the fortress.
"Walking on water" in St Petersburg
8. Try some yummy Russian Food!
Russian Food is a lot better than its reputation. At least in St Petersburg!
The Marketplace chain (several branches, for example at Nevsky Prospect 92), offers a varied choice of fresh salads, meat and vegetables for "health-conscious" eaters. Just like in many other of the popular St Petersburg "self-service places", you pick up a tray, then go around the various stations and let the cooks behind the counter know what you would like to have.
I was also positively surprised by the prices. If you do a little research, you can eat well but very cheaply here (more in the "Soviet Charm" section).
For more info on typical Russian dishes to try in St Petersburg, check out my post A Quick Guide to St Petersburg, Russia.
9. Soak up some Soviet Charm
Even though it’s been more than 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent end of the Soviet Union, Russia’s communist past can still be experienced on a visit to St Petersburg.
St Petersburg at night
For example at these eating places:
Kvartirka Soviet Café (Nevskiy Ave. 51): Reasonably priced food in an interior that has not changed since the days of the Soviet Union.
SB Stolovaya No. 1 (several branches, for example at Gribojedowa 14 close to the Church of the Spilled Blood): Even without knowing any Russian, ordering was not too difficult here as you go past all dishes on display with a tray and then just point to the ones you would like. Most dishes also had a description in English.
I had an extremely cheap lunch here (220 Rubels = around 3,15 Euros for a three-course meal and a drink). Plus, the nostalgic interior made me feel like I was sitting in the living room of a former soviet home.
Pyschnaja (Bolschaja Konjuschennaja Uliza 25): The only two items on the menu of this original Soviet standing café are coffee "from the draught" and pyshki (a ring-shaped Russian donut).
Other "Soviet Spots":
Lenin Memorial and a giant Soviet Building behind: If you booked a guided bus tour to the Catherine Palace (see point 5), you might stop here on the way back to the city. It all looks pretty gray, especially on a cold November day. But I guess that's part of the allure.
Lenin Memorial on the outskirts of St Petersburg
The State Museum of Political History of Russia: Learn all about the country’s turbulent past, including the times of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. You will find the current entry prices and how to get there on the museum's website.
The Hermitage Museum (see point 3): As of 2017, there is currently an exhibition about the Russian October Revolution in 1917.
10. Catch a show of classical ballet or Russian folk dances
If you're fan of ballet, St Petersburg is one of the best cities in the world to see a world-class show!
Examples for popular grabs include tickets to the Swan Lake Ballet or a Skip-the-line ticket for a show at the famous Mariinsky Theatre.
Another way to learn more about Russian culture is the fun Russian folk dance show + dinner at the Restaurant Petrousha (4, Konnogvardeysky Blvd).
Have you visited St Petersburg and have some great tips? Or are you planning to visit St Petersburg and still have some questions? Let me know in the comments below!
Unless otherwise credited, all photos by © Sonja Irani | filmfantravel.com
For more about St Petersburg, check out my post A Quick Guide to St Petersburg, Russia.
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