Saint Petersburg has long been one of my favourite cities in the world. I first visited it back in 2009, when my parents first moved to Russia and I fell in love with the city. Its mix of modern culture and fascinating history made me incredibly attracted to it, so I was delighted to visit it again this year. Often referred to as the “cultural” capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great (hence the name Petersburg). During the reign of Catherine the Great, who famously said, “I do not like Moscow at all, but I do not have any prejudice against Petersburg,” St. Petersburg’s population grew to 160,000 and grew closer to becoming the beauty that it is today. More palaces were built in the city and its suburbs, and the empress started an art collection, which would later turn into the Hermitage Museum.
St. Petersburg enjoyed the status of the capital of Russia for a little over 200 years. In 1918, Vladimir Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow. After his death in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad, and after communism collapsed in 1990, the city was renamed back to Saint Petersburg. The first time that I visited, I stayed there for a month, so I really got to explore the city and everything that it has to offer. There is SO much to do in Saint Petersburg, that the minimum time that I recommend spending there is at least a week. Here is my list of my favourite things to do in Saint Petersburg and if you ever plan to visit this majestic city, you must do this!
- Stroll along Nevsky Prospect and admire the beautiful architecture.
This is the main street in Saint Petersburg, and it’s absolutely gorgeous! It spans just over 4.9 kilometres and beautiful buildings, breath-taking bridges and powerful palaces become only snippets of a walk down this sight-satisfying street. Also add some of the worlds best shops and restaurants onto it, and it becomes a whole day stroll for me! On Nevsky you will find the world famous Hermitage Museum (more on that later), Kazansky Cathedral, Church of Savior On Spilled Blood, Anichkov Bridge and many more beautiful cultural sights. That’s a lot for one street, right?! And don’t forget the shopping- there are plenty of little spots to pop in and check out, but if you want a complete shopping experience, Gostiny Dvor is your first stop. This is the largest department store taking up an entire city block and is known to be one of the world’s first shopping malls. You can find almost everything in one of the 178 shops so whether you have a list or just want to browse, you won’t leave empty handed.
I would say you need at least half a day to explore the street if you don’t intent on stopping at any of the major landmarks, because they need their own time! If you want to see all of the big landmarks and museums, then you will be exploring Nevsky for 3 days 😉
2.See the Church of the Savior On Spilled Blood
This is one of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg, especially because I have such fond memories of this beautiful Church. My parents used to live right in the middle between Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and the Kazansky Cathedral, so every morning I would wake up and have my coffee on the balcony overlooking this majestic sight. This church is almost a twin to the Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow, but this Church is actually pretty “new” and it carries a very significant meaning. Savior on Spilled Blood, was built in memory of Alexander the Second who was assassinated in 1881. The church stands in the very place where a bomb was thrown into his carriage by a young man who opposed the Tsar’s reforms.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood took 24 years to construct and, after early Soviet vandalism, 27 years to restore. People would even joke that as soon as the construction trestles outside it were removed, the Soviet Regime would fall. It may have been a coincidence, but the reconstruction that finished in 1991 was followed by the famous events which put an end to the Communist regime. The Cathedral is decorated with Italian limestone and various semiprecious stones like jasper, mountain crystal, topaz, and others. On the outside, there are twenty granite plates which tell the most important events of Alexander II’s reign. As you can see at the moment one of the domes is busy being restored, but it doesn’t take away from the churches beautiful demeanor. It’s even more beautiful on the inside, and something that you should see for yourself! Entrance to the Church is 250 rubbles (about R55 rand) and the Church is open all year around.
3. Visit The Hermitage Museum
Home to the Tsars, this building is powerful and awe inspiring. Currently the Hermitage Museum, this structure houses art and exhibitions from all across the world. From the private rooms of the Russian Empresses to ancient Greek art, this museum has a collection for all history enthusiasts. I’m not lying when I say that you need DAYS to explore the full potential of this museum. The total number of pieces kept by the museum tallies to somewhere around 3 million- isn’t that crazy!?
The Hermitage was created in 1764 as the private collection of Empress Catherine the Great. She commanded Russian ambassadors around the world to purchase the best pieces of art they could find. Naturally, only a small portion of the collection can be displayed at any given time. You can visit many different exhibitions in any of several buildings which are the Small Hermitage (the original home of the collection); the Great or Old Hermitage, its first great extension; the New Hermitage, opened along with the Old one in 1852; and the many exhibition halls in the Winter Palace, including the Malachite and Great Nicholas rooms (the latter a former ballroom). The Renaissance collection with its Raphael’s, the Impressionists (including works by Cezanne and Monet), and the 20th century painters (such as Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky) are among the highlights of the collection. A one day entrance ticket will set you back about R350, but it is worth it. The first time I went, I spent a day there but I went back that same month again. Whether you are a history lover or not, this beautiful museum will definitely impress you. PS How old is that pic, haha! This was back in 2010
4. Visit Peterhof Palace
I enjoyed my visit SO MUCH to the Peterhof Palace (also known as the Summer Palace) and I cannot wait to go back again one day. Admittedly, the Peterhof Palace is best to visit in the summer months, although it is also enjoyable all year around. Peterhof is not strictly in Saint Petersburg, but about an hour ride away (if you are going by car, and 1:30 hour if you are catching the mini bus/tour bus), but it is so worth it! Peterhof was commissioned by Peter The Great back in 1703, and he was inspired by the grand Versailles Palace in France. Peterhof consists of the Grand Palace (very worth a visit inside, even though it is a separate entrance fee of R150), Monplaisir (Peter the Great’s original palace is a charming baroque mansion), Marly Palace, Cottage Palace & Alexandria Park, Peterhof Hermitage, and the famous Peterhof gardens and fountains (which are only operational from late May to October). There are also museums on the grounds as well as souvenir shops and food kiosks, so you need a full day trip to explore the Peterhof gardens properly. And what a gorgeous sight it is!
5. Go Up To The Viewing Deck At Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
The dome of St Isaac’s has dominated the St. Petersburg’s skyline for 150 years. Its elaborate mosaics make it one of the most impressive cathedrals in Russia. The golden dome of the iconic St. Isaac’s Cathedral inspired the dome on the U.S. Capitol Building and is similar to that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was originally built as a cathedral but was turned into a museum by the Soviet government in 1931 and has remained a museum ever since.
The Cathedral is of course absolutely stunning inside, but my favourite thing about this gorgeous cathedral is its viewing deck right at the top. Entrance is 250 rubbles (around R55) and once you’ve climbed all the stairs to the top, the view is simply majestic. You really get a 360 degree view of this beautiful city, and I think it’s breathtakingly!
6. Take a casual Canal tour along the Neva River
I always like to think of Saint Petersburg as the Eastern European version of Amsterdam, because this city has a network of canals all along it (and over 300 bridges)! The beautiful Neva River flows along the side, and I always like to see a city from a different point of view, hence why I suggest taking a canal tour. There’s a huge choice of boats and operators, ranging from small private launches to multi-level river cruisers, so you can join a timetabled tour or organize your own if you’re travelling in a small group. Nearly all boats, however, follow one of a few tried and tested routes along St. Petersburg’s rivers and canals, as well as some longer routes out to the city’s suburban visitor attractions. Inner-city tours start from around R100 for adults and last from about an hour. I’ve done a few of the canal tours and have really enjoyed them, so this is a must-do for me when vesting the city. The boats become operational around end of April, because as you can see in this picture when I went in March, the Neva was still frozen!
7. Witness The White Nights
This only happens around 4 weeks a year, but what a time that is! From late May to early July the nights are bright in St. Petersburg, with the brightest period, the White Nights, normally lasting from June 11th to July 2nd. The White Nights (Beliye Nochi) are a curious phenomenon caused by St. Petersburg’s very northerly geographical location – at 59 degrees 57′ North. Saint Petersburg is the world’s most northern city with a population over 1 million, and it stands at such a high latitude that the sun does not descend below the horizon enough for the sky to grow dark. In fact night becomes curiously indistinguishable from day, so much so that the authorities never need to turn the city’s streetlights on!
I experienced this back in 2010 when I was visiting my parents, and it is a bit of strange thing to suddenly look at the clock and see that its 11 o’clock, but it’s still bright outside! This is also the warmest time in Saint Petersburg, and the perfect time to go out for a bit of a party. The city truly comes alive in the month of June, and as a summer baby, I highly recommend that if you ever do go to Saint Petersburg, you go during the month of June!
8. Have Tea at Signer Building
This is one of my own personal favourites because when my parents lived in Saint Petersburg, I would often go into the Signer Building and get lost among all of the books. The Signer Building is also known as the House of the Book and it was opened in 1904, and is one of the favourite sights on Nevsky Prospekt.
The building was designed by architect Pavel Suzor for the Russian branch of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The management of the Singer Company initially intended to construct a skyscraper, similar to the Singer Building in New York, but the Saint Petersburg building code did not allow structures taller than the Winter Palace (the Emperor’s residence). Suzor found an elegant solution to the 23.5 meter height limit: the six-story Art Nouveau building is crowned with a glass tower. Now you can browse the vast variety of books inside the building and then head on up to the Signer Café for some delicious cherry tea. The view that opens up onto the Kazanski Cathedral is gorgeous, don’t you agree?
9. Have Doughnuts From The Best Doughnut Shop An All Russia (maybe ;))
I’m being dramatic here, but how do I describe the most amazing doughnuts that I’ve ever had in my life? Pyshki (doughnuts) are not just another dish, they are pretty much a part of life. Hot and soft, the doughnut-like sweet treats are enjoyed best with a glass of burning hot tea or coffee–a dream come true during cold autumn or winter days. Pyshki became popular in the 1960s and quickly became an integral part of St Petersburg culture. Pyshechnaya (cafes that serve pyshki) are a tasty local alternative to international fast food and they are usually not expensive!
The one that my family and I favour the most, is the original Pyshechnaya Café on Bolshaya Konyushennaya Street. Established in 1958, this tiny café has been serving up hot fried donuts since the day it opened its doors. The look of the place hasn’t changed much since then either, giving it a retro Soviet feel that’s very niche. The pyshki are cheap (5 rand for 1!) and are served with sweet coffee. The doughnuts are just dusted with some sugar and are so delicious that I can’t even explain it! If you’re lucky, you can grab a table (as the place is usually very busy) alongside its resident orange cat, Ryzhik, like I did.
10. See The Beautiful Kazansky Sobor
You won’t accidentally walk past this amazing construction. The cathedral is a horseshoe encircling a large grassy sitting area, which is popular for locals and visitors to the city alike. Constructed over ten years from 1801, the cathedral was inspired by the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome and was intended to be the country’s main Orthodox Church. This stone masterpiece became a monument to the victory after the defeat of Napoleon in 1812.
I love the architectural style of this building, and I never fail to visit it every time I’m in Saint Petersburg. Entrance inside is R55, and again It is simply gorgeous (I normally don’t take any photos inside any of the cathedrals).
I hope you enjoyed this post, and will fall in love with Saint Petersburg just like I did when you do visit it!