Saint Petersburg is an amazing city that I simply admire! IMHO, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world (and I am not only saying that because I am Russian!)
If you are heading there for the first time, I am so happy for you, you will surely have a great time!
In case, you were not planning to visit Saint Petersburg in the near future, read this post! St. Pete might be added to your bucket list right after! 😉
Thanks to its royal history, Saint Petersburg is a unique city. This is where the Tsar family used to live 300 years ago, and all the splurge royal palaces can be found here too, not in Moscow.
St. Pete, or “Peeter”, as we call it in Russia, the city of Peter the Great and Queen Ekaterina can offer so much!
While you can easily stay here for two weeks and discover the city and its surroundings, here are the main 11 things to visit in Saint Petersburg that I carefully crafted for you!
1. Hermitage museum (save $10 per person with my tip!)
You must think I am boring for including a museum as the 1st thing to do in the city, but I don’t care!
Believe me, Hermitage museum is an absolute must!
Hermitage (“Эрмитаж”- rus.), or we also call it the Winter Palace, can easily compete with the Louvre by the amount of masterpieces stored inside.
Don’t forget the museum’s location – it is an ex-Royal Palace of Russian Tsars (trust me, Russian kings knew a thing or two about luxury life) – it is an absolute must for a jaw dropping experience!
How to buy tickets the smart way:
I recommend buying tickets online as there might be long queues. If you did what I advised, congratz, you should go to a queue with the selected people who have online tickets (read- no queue!) see map here.
PRO TIP 1: In case you did not do your homework and you don’t have tickets – be smarter than all those tourists lining up! You can also buy your ticket in the yellow building (called the Modern Art Museum) that is located right in front of the Hermitage. Then you can easily go to the main entrance bypassing the queue!
NOTE: If you are a student – you can get in for free, but you will have to stand in line to present your ID.
PRO TIP 2: The first Thursday (not Sunday) of the month is free of charge for all visitors.
PRO TIP 3: If you are buying your tickets online, the price in English on the official website is US $18. You can buy the same ticket if you switch the language to Rus for 580 Rub (about US $9). The difference is presumably due to currency exchange fluctuation. 580 Rub indeed used to be $18 a couple of years ago, but not anymore because of the current economic crisis (good for you, guys!)
NOTE: Like most of the museums in the world, Hermitage is closed on Monday.
2. The Palace Square
The Palace Square is located right in front of the Hermitage museum, you cannot possibly miss it!
In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful squares in the world!
It is huuuuuuge (bigger than the Red Square). This is where you can feel how enormous and opulent the Russian Empire was. This square witnessed both posh emperor parades and drama during the revolution.
When you’re there, stare at the Alexander column that is located right in the center of the square. The column is 47,5 mt. tall, weighs 704 tones and it does not have any foundation!
Can you even imagine it? A huge 704 tonne column stands there just under its weight. It is so heavy it does not need a foundation.
No worries, we had great engineers back in those times, it is perfect and it’s not going to fall down! There are plenty of musicians and people that sit right on the floor to prove my point if you don’t believe me. Pay a visit!
3. Cathedrals and churches!
There are so many great cathedrals and churches in the city that requires your visit, so I decided to group them in one point.
There are the main three that is a MUST.
- Kazan Cathedral – located on Nevsky prospect, the main street in the city that I strongly recommend strolling around. They call it a little brother of the Vatican and you will see why, when you get there! The entrance is free of charge.
- Isaac’s Cathedral – serves as a museum now and the colonnade has a wonderful overview to the city. It is open until 4 a.m. during the white nights in the summer. The price varies depending on the time and day, but it is around 600 RUB (10 USD) and you can buy your ticket at the machine. Right in front, when you go out from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, don’t miss the statue of the Bronze Horseman that has become one of the symbols of Saint Petersburg.
- Church of the Savior on Blood (Church on Spilled Blood or “Tserkovʹ Spasa na Krovi” in rus) – many people mix it up with the St. Basil cathedral in Moscow. It is indeed quite similar as it is made is the “Russian style”. The church has a very long interesting history including serving as a warehouse of foodstuff during World War 2. Now it is a working church again. I recommend taking a tour to get to know the story of the place. The entrance is free.
4. Watch the bridges open
Saint Petersburg is the city of bridges, and guess what? It opens them up every night for big cargo ships to pass. And it is a BEAUTIFUL show that you should not miss!
Not sure why it took me years, I have only done drawing of the bridges tour in my 4th of 5th visit. But it is one of the most interesting things to do in the city to truly feel its spirit!
The first bridge opens up at 1.25 a.m. and then they go up on one by one. It is much more beautiful to see it from the water when on the boat. This way you see the opening “from the inside”, see all the details and not stay in the crowd. And by boat you can manage to catch the opening of all the main bridges!
The tour starts at midnight and usually lasts for two hours. The usual Drawing bridges excursion costs about 1000 rub (~$17) per person.
If you want to see it from the land, it is fine, just make sure you are on the right side of the river, otherwise you will have to wait until they close the bridges back and open them to traffic (at about 3 a.m.) to get back to your hotel.
5. Visit Mariinsky Theatre
– Is she being boring again with her theater recommendations?
– Well, what can I do guys, you are visiting the cultural capital of Russia!
The Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg is the main competitor to the Bolshoy theatre in Moscow. Just that the prices are much lower than in the capital! 😉
It was always famous for its fantastic opera and ballet performances. And before you tell me that you don’t understand Russian – you don’t have to, there are English subtitles!
Buy your tickets here. But be sure to double check if there are subtitles in English.
NOTE 1: Keep in mind that there are a couple of buildings that belong to the Mariinsky theatre. The brand new one is spacious and it has great acoustics, I think it is more interesting to visit the new one.
NOTE 2: The opera I have been to (“Idiot” by Dostoevsky) had only Russian subtitles. Even if it said “English subs” on their website, it just did not work when we were there. It never hurts to call and ask. You can ask your hotel to do that for you, or just call yourself (see sim card options below). I am quite sure somebody should be able to reply in English.
NOTE 3: Do not be late! Picture this – you paid for your tickets and you are supposed to have some good seats, but because you were late, you will be seated in some random free places somewhere on the balcony (until the break, then you can change). Try to arrive 15-20 minutes in advance just to be safe.
6. Climb the roof of St. Pete
You are waiting for some action, weren’t you? Let’s see if you are brave enough for this one!
Locals LOVE to climb on the roofs in St. Pete, they even organize romantic dates there. You can even propose on the roof, and there are companies that specialize in that service!
And well, you get to see view like this. I bet none of your friends can brag they have a picture like this in St. Pete, can they?
To be fair, roofing is technically illegal in the country, but there are a handful of tours organized that are known to be safe. Don’t worry, I would not recommend it if I was not sure about that. But please use common sense, you still have to be careful.
Experienced roofers will take you up one of the buildings. As long as you respect their advice, it is safe and they also have agreements with the locals who live in the building, so no worries about that. This is the rooftop tour I took.
I chose to go during the sunset, so I could watch the red disk of the sun hiding behind the Isakiy cathedral. What an unforgettable experience!
HINT: Just bring suitable shoes (and your camera!) and you will have a lot of fun!
7. Peter and Paul fortress
The fortress was built in 1703 by Peter the Great to protect the territories that were conquered by Russia in Sweden.
The Peter and Paul fortress (“Petropavlovskaya krepost” in Russian) is the place where Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. Later on it was used as a prison and execution ground for Bolsheviks (until XX century). From 1954 until now, it is a museum called State Museum of Saint Petersbourg History.
You can just walk around on the island (called Zayachiy island) or visit one of the many museums including the emperor’s tomb in the Petropavlosvkiy cathedral. Here is a cool interactive map of the attraction.
Admission to the fortress is free, however, you have to pay to get into museums. There are different option depending on what you want to visit, check the rates here.
HINT: Don’t miss the daily firing of the cannon from the Naryshkin Bastion at noon!
8. The Admiralty
The Admiralty used to be a shipyard for the Baltic fleet and a fortress at the same time.
The first ship sailed from there in 1706 (with the participation of Peter I himself, who was an expert in shipbuilding). Now the place is completely rebuilt, and it has a gilded spire with a little ship at the end. The ship has become a symbol of the city, you will probably see it on many postcards or magnets!
Just pass by the building when you are near St. Isaac’s cathedral, it is two minutes away by foot.
9. See peculiarities in Kunstkamera museum
It might be one of the weirdest museums you will ever visit!
No, this time I don’t invite you to enjoy fine art, far from that! You will see some, khm… peculiarities.
Kunstkamera (or officially the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography) is the first ever museum in Russia and one of the oldest in the world.
The museum was founded, you guessed it, by Peter the Great.
Back in those times, human or animal malformations of any sort were treated as black magic, the devil’s creation. People were scared of them. So what did the Tsar do? He sought to educate people and fight those superstitions. He gave a prize to anybody who would contribute to his museum of peculiarities – a deer with two heads, an unborn baby with a huge head – every kind of abnormality was welcomed there.
Oh, there are quite many unborn marinated babies in jars there!
I was there when I was just 15 years old and the museum completely freaked me out. I remember my mom was pregnant back then and I don’t know how she could be so calm looking at all those marinated kids.
To be fair, the museum holds thousands of ethnographic, anthropological and archaeological artifacts from all over the world, this was just one of the exhibitions. But of course, it was the one I remembered the most!
10. See the maquettes of Russia and St. Pete
There are two scale model museums that I really liked.
The first one is about Russia, the second one is dedicated to Saint Petersburg specifically.
1. Grand Maket Show Museum is 800 m2 of colossal working layout of different cities in Russia. The exhibition gives you a chance to have a glimpse of today’s Russia in less than one hour!
Grand Maket is a great choice if you are traveling with kids – they will have lots of fun as the exposition is dynamic – all the trains and cars are moving, and many objects can even be controlled by visitors!
2. Petrovskaya Akvatoria shows how the Northern capital (one more way we call St. Petersburg) looked back in the 18th century.
25, 000 tiny pieces were carefully placed on the maquette, where everything has its place and its meaning. They even have a change of day and night time! You can see the balls in the palaces during the night. I mean, how cool is that?
I highly recommend visiting it, it is located five minutes away from the Palace Square. But go when you got to know the city a bit better, say in two-three days.
The guide in English (included in your ticket) will tell you some fascinating facts about the places of these times. If you want the tour in English, please write them an email with your time in advance. Here are the contacts. If you did not write in advance, no worries, there is an audio guide for 100 rub.
11. Get wet in Petergof
Last but not least! Petergof (or Petrodvorets) is an imperial palace in the suburbs or St. Petersburg that Peter the Great built.
Now, you might have the impression that all the amazing things were built by Peter the Great. Yep, that is pretty much true!
People call it “the Russian Versailles”.
Peter the Great was indeed inspired by French architecture, but, in my humble opinion, Peterhof is more beautiful and more fun than Versailles (yes, I know, I am biased, but it is truuuue!).
You can take a tour that will explain the history, take you to the upper and lower parks and explain the unique system of fountains, the famous Samson fountain.
The best time to visit is summer, but the park is open and all fountains operate from May to early October.
How to get to Peterhof from Saint Petersburg:
Even if it is outside of the city, it will take you no more than an hour. I’ve got you covered, you won’t get lost!
Now, here are a couple of options – expensive and budget. You choose which one works best for you:
Fast and expensive: Go by Meteor, which is a speed boat. The price is 750 rub one way and it is just 30 minutes to get.
LIFEHACK: You can get your Meteor tickets also pinks stands that you will see in all touristic places, the price will be 550 instead of 750.
A bit adventurous (nothing crazy, you just need to take public transport):
Get to either “Avtovo” or “Leninskiy Prospect” metro station and take a “marshrutka” (a minivan that has a fixed route) that says Peterhof (Петергоф) on them. The driver is usually outside calling for passengers, or you can just ask him “Peterhof?” See, no Russian knowledge needed!
The minivans are every 10-15 minutes. The price is 50 rub and the time altogether with the metro ride from the center is about one hour.
Don’t worry, you won’t miss the stop, it is the last one!
Even more things to visit:
The only reason these places did not make it to the top list is because it already had so many suggestions and I could not squeeze them all in. Nevertheless, these are awesome, consider visiting these sights too:
SIDENOTE: Leningrad is an old communist name of Saint Petersburg
- Canals excursion – Saint Petersburg was built similar to Amsterdam and we have many canals with countless pretty bridges, each has an interesting history!
- Erarta – contemporary art museum. I haven’t been there but I have heard it is one of the biggest ones in the world!
- Free walking tour – you pay as much as you think the tour was worth at the end. I love the concept and try to take this tour everywhere in the world I go!
- Chizik Pyzhik – a funny little statue to a bird. Try to throw a coin so that it lands on the bird and your wish will come true!
- Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad – the siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and took place during World War II. For more than 2 years (can you even imagine?), its citizens suffered chronic deprivation and constant bombardment. People’s extraordinary endurance is a source of immense pride, but almost a million died of starvation. Leningrad Blockade is a source of deep sorrow for the locals. I haven’t visited the museum yet, it was on restauration, but not it is open and you can visit! There is an audio guide in English, but if you want to know more about the siege, I highly recommend taking this private tour.
- Communism Leningrad Tour – for those interested in the communism era, take in just 2 hours the tour will take you to places with important events of the Communist past of St. Petersburg. You will see a unique side of St. Petersburg that not many tourists see!
Where to stay in Saint Petersburg?
There is abundance of hotels of all price ranges in St. Petersburg!
Try to choose your hotel to be within walking distance to the metro, this way all the attractions will be easily reachable.
Now, about the visas – you will most certainly need the registration (Don’t even ask me why. It is a very old useless communist rule, but you still need the invitation from the hotel nowadays, sorry!)
Most of the hotels will make you a registration, you should double check with yours just in case.
Here is a list of recommended hotels – all with fabulous reviews, best rated locations and they do registration (for visa) if you need it.
Luxury hotels ($190 and up) – Trezzini Palace Boutique Hotel is a perfect place for those who want to splurge themselves in elegant imperial interiors. Just look at the pictures – isn’t it a small palace? Alexander House is another great hotel located in a historical center. It has a cozy firelplace and a charming patio with a library, I loved the rooms design as well!
Middle price ($70 – $190) – Pushka INN hotel is a 18th Century mansion located in an historic heart of St. Petersburg, what’s better – it is just 1 minute walk from the Palace Square! Galunov Hotel is also centrally located tastefully decorated hotel with great service!
Budget accommodation ($70 and less) – Station Hotel Premier S10 is a great value for money hotel, 5 minutes walk from Sadovaya metro, they have attic rooms with an amazing city view! Chemodan MiniHotel can be as low as $6 for a bunk bed or $15 for a room if you book it in advance. it is clean, centrally located and have great reviews!
How to get around in Saint Petersburg?
1) Taxis are quite cheap (especially with the recent currency fluctuations). The normal fare would be 33 RUB (now ~0,6 USD) per km.
These are the companies that locals use in St. Pete, all of them have an app of course:
- Uber – that is what I was using. Usually, cheaper than a normal taxi and the service is always great! If you still don’t have an account, register here (or type this promo code – “YULIAS774UE”), you will get your first ride for free!
- Yandex Taxi – the same thing as Uber, more or less the same prices. Yandex is a Russian competitor of Google by the way! 🙂
- Gettaxi – another app that you can use if none of the ones before worked for some reason.
2) Don’t omit the metro!
Metros in Moscow and St Pete are so beautiful, you can take a separate excursion to metro stations. Download this application on your phone, it will help you calculate the fastest route with changes in the metro. 1 ride costs just 45 rubles at the moment (about 70 cents).
NOTE: Oh, and one more thing – if you want to ask people about the nearest subway station, use the word “metro” instead. People who speak little English will point at the fast food chain that is called “Subway”. 😉
How to get to the city from Saint-Petersburg airport?
There is just one airport in the city, it is called Pulkovo airport.
Here is how to get from Saint Petersburg airport to the city center:
- By bus: City buses 39 and 399 (express) run between the airport and “Moskovskaya” metro station from 5:30 a.m. to 01:20 a.m., the time ride is 30 min. without traffic (20 min. for express) and the tickets is just 40 RUB (0,7 USD).
- By fixed-route minivan taxi: (“marshrutka” in Russian) minivan K-39 will get you to the same metro station for the same price just that a bit faster – 15 min. if there is no traffic. Note that it works only until 11:30 p.m. See the stop on the map here.
- By taxi: taxi price to the city center should be about 600 -700 rub if you get it through one of the apps above. You can also get your taxi from a taxi stand, but it is much more expensive, multiply the mentioned price by 2.
Which sim card to get in Russia?
If you arrive in the working hours in the airport, you can get a Sim card with internet right there.
Any mobile operator tariffs are pretty cheap. The average price that I looked up right now is 5GB for 300 Rub a month.
You could make a research on all these sites in advance (Google translate them) to understand which one currently has the best promotions, but you can also just stop by in any of those offices with your passport and get a sim card, the price difference is really not that significant!
NOTE: if you are going to travel to Moscow or do the Trans-Siberian, make sure your internet works in all regions, not only in Leningrad (domestic) region!
When to visit Saint-Petersburg?
I have visited Saint Petersburg 4 times, all the times in June – August. These are usually the sunniest days in the city. Not only that, you will also be able to enjoy a natural phenomenon that is called the “white nights” if you go in July. It is really cool, totally recommended! It is basically a never ending day, even if there is no Sun in the night, it is still light! I have only seen something similar to this in Sweden.
I have never been in the autumn, but I have heard from my friends what September – Early October can be incredibly beautiful and romantic, too!
Winter is wet, very humid and well, let’s face it.. quite depressing. But hey, the architecture is the same beautiful and no tourists around!
So, the best time is summer, but it is the same beautiful at any time of the year.
Day trips outside of St. Pete:
If you have even more time, don’t worry, there are still plenty of interesting places to visit outside of the city!
All of these places are reachable in an hour trip from St. Pete, so you can easily make it a day trip.
- Pushkin – Tsarskoe selo, the place where our great poet A. S. Pushkin studied and a summer residence of Russian tsars.
- Pavlovsk – another breathtaking imperial estate and park complex. You can combine Pushkin and Pavlovsk in one tour.
- Kronshtadt – St. Pete’s main old seaport. If you want to explore this island of the Gulf of Finland, you can take this half-day tour for just 20 USD.
- Gatchina – not that touristy, but worth it for its natural beauty and architecture. It was a home to Romanov family once upon a time.
- Oranienbaum – I haven’t been there yet, but looking at the pictures of this posh palace, it seems like it is one of those undiscovered by mass-tourism gems!
Other useful things to keep in mind:
- It is not obligatory to learn the Russian alphabet, you will get around without it. But believe me, it is really easy –
half of our letters are the same and another half is just funny mirror reflection of the Latin alphabet! 🙂
You will have a lot of fun reading signs and will impress your travel buddies by investing about just 30 minutes of your time. So why not to do it, huh?
Here is a great Youtube video to get you a pro in the Cyrillic alphabet:
- The cards are widely acceptable almost everywhere, usually you can pay with your credit card in any restaurant, museum or a supermarket.
- It is better to visit popular museums in the afternoon or in the evening, because there are many tourists from cruises during the mornings, they all leave the city by evening.
- The public transport does not work after midnight, so you will have to go by taxi. Oh yes, some routes will be unavailable even by car because the bridges are opened up at night, remember? Take care of that fact in advance. If you stay on 1 island after 3 a.m. and you hotel is on the other island, it might be that you will have to make a big loop, oops! Or, stay overnight until 6 a.m. We have many romantic song about these kind of stories by the way!
As we say in Russia: “Moscow is the financial capital and Saint Petersburg is a cultural capital”. There are so many things to do in St. Pete, you see now why this post is so long! This city is an eye candy for photographers. It is my favorite city in Russia and one of my favorites in the world!
We talked about 11 places that cannot be missed in the city and some important info as transportation, accommodation, things to do outside Saint Petersburg etc. Also I suggested tons of other great activities for those of you who have more time and are eager to explore!
Us, Russians, we all love Saint Petersburg for its charm and cultural heritage. I hope I managed to pass a tiny bit of love to this city and you will be able to feel its imperialism, scale, communism and its great history. All of this is reflected in every square meter of this city and you will feel it when you see the places described here in this post!
Remember, you haven’t been to Russia if you haven’t seen Saint Petersburg!
I will be happy if you will manage to see them all. If not, oh well, you have to come back!
Let me know if my tips were useful!
Do you want to know anything else? Like sim cards, flights, packing lists?
Ask me in the comments, I will gladly reply!
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