Strategically situated along the Baltic Sea, St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great as a display of imperial status. Once the capital of the ruling Romanovs, it was also Russia’s first “modern” city. There are lots of wonderful things to do in St Petersburg.
It is still one of the country’s busiest ports and retains much of its old grandeur through its fabulous palaces and grand museums. The city is also lined with waterways and canals, as well as the broad Neva River, leading to it being called the “Venice of the North”. Here are some of the best things to do in St Petersburg:
1State Hermitage Museum
St Petersburg has some of the finest museums in the world, and the best of these is the Hermitage Museum. This vast museum was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 has over three million items, though only a small part is on display. Spread out over six buildings along the Neva River, including the magnificent Winter Palace, it would take you weeks to cover the entire collection. Apart from the displays of coins, antiques, sculptures, and artifacts, it houses the largest collection of paintings in the world. There are works by Rembrandt, van Gogh, Titian, Rubens, and Picasso. Also don’t miss the Impressionist Art Collection in neighbouring General Staff Building, and the Hermitage cats.
2Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood
The multi-coloured and five-domed Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood lies along the Griboyedov Canal. It is St Petersburg’s most elaborate church. Completed in 1907, it is built in the medieval style to resemble Moscow’s iconic St Basil’s Cathedral. It also serves as a memorial to the “tsar liberator” Alexander II who he was fatally wounded at this very spot in 1881. The church also has over 7,500 square metres of mosaics spread across the inside and the outside.
3Taking a cruise along the canals
St Petersburg is crisscrossed by over 80 rivers and canals, giving it the name “Venice of the North”. You can stroll along these waterways and explore the city’s stunning architecture, or take one of the many boat tours that explore the Neva River and the larger canals. Just remember that the river is completely covered in ice, so the cruises don’t run.
4Peterhof Palace and Gardens
The Peterhof Palace and Gardens complex, originally constructed by Tsar Peter the Great, is one of St Petersburg’s most impressive landmarks. Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, it sits just outside the city and overlooks a cascade of fountains and gardens. The gardens of this summer palace are also famous for their intricate designs and creative arrangements.
5Fabergé Museum and Kunstkamera
The wonderful Shuvalovsky Palace is home the largest collection of artefacts by famous jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé; including the exquisite imperial Fabergé eggs that once belonged to the royal family in pre-revolutionary Russia.
You can also visit the the Kunstkamera, which was founded in 1714 by Peter the Great himself. This Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology is part ghoulish collection of deformed animals and odd body parts, and part fascinating exhibits and dioramas of rare objects and cultural practices from around the world
6Watch the Russian ballet
St Petersburg is famous for its ballet. And, one of the best places to go and see it is the grand Mariinsky Theatre, a spectacular venue for ballet and opera. Opened in 1859, this opulent building is one of Russia’s most loved institutions. It has seen performances by many greats, including Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. You can also check out the Mikhailovsky Theatre, founded in 1833 by Tsar Nicolas I.
7St Isaac’s Cathedral
Constructed in the 19th century by Tsar Alexander I, St Isaac’s Cathedral was once one of the tallest buildings in St Petersburg. Even today, it remains remains the largest Orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The sumptuous interiors are decorated with pure gold and semiprecious stones. It was converted into a museum by the Soviet government, though regular worship has since resumed. Don’t forget to climb to the top of the colonnade that runs around the dome for panoramic views of the city.
This beautiful blue palace was created as the centrepiece of Tsarskoe Selo, a royal suburb, under Empresses Elizabeth and, later, Catherine the Great. Its rich interiors and intricately decorated rooms recreate 18th century Royal life. Don’t miss the world-famous Amber Room that disappeared during World War II and was recently recreated.
9Visit a bathhouse
The Russian banya, or bathhouse, once played a central role in family life. They are still enjoyed today, though as more of a luxury than a necessity. Visit one of St Petersburg’s many bathhouses to experience this age-old tradition. For an authentic experience, thwack yourself with the bundle of aromatic twigs provided (which is said to improve blood circulation), and follow it up with a cold plunge into an icy pool.
10Peter and Paul Fortress
Visit the historical Peter and Paul Fortress that covers most of Hare Island in the Neva River. It was established by Peter the Great in 1703 as one of the very first buildings in the city. Though it was meant to be a defensive fort, it was instead used as a political prison. Inside the fortress lies the Peter and Paul Cathedral which is also the final resting place of most of the imperial Romanov family.
Housed in the neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace, the State Russian Museum has the biggest collection of Russian fine art in the city. Form ancient church icons to 20th-century paintings, its magnificent collection includes 400,000 works. Among these are pieces by famous artists like Bryullov, Repin, Goncharova, Aivazovksy, and Vasnetsov.
12Explore the magnificent subway stations
Russia is full of beautiful train stations, and St Petersburg is no different. Here, taking the subway is not only a convenient way to get around, but it is also a unique experience. The stations are decorated with ornate tiles, colourful designs, and even installations and statues. No two stations are alike. Some subway station you shouldn’t miss include Pushkinskaya, Bucharestskaya, Avtovo, Zvenigorodskaya, and Sportivnaya.
This spectacular palace is located on the Moyka River and was once the main residence of the noble and wealthy House of Yusupov. The palace is known for its luxurious 19th-century interiors with halls decked out in silks, tapestries, and even gilded chandeliers. However, it is also famous for being where Grigory Rasputin was assassinated in 1916 – something that — ended up being far more difficult than the conspirators imagined (he survived being poisoned and shot by Prince Felix Yusupov and his co-conspirators, finally succumbing to hypothermia after being dumped in the Moyka River). Remember that the tour of the rooms where this happened takes place only once a day and requires an additional fee.
14Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Named for Alexander of Novgorod, the patron saint of St Petersburg, this is the city’s oldest and most prominent monastery. It is said to sit on the site where Alexander of Novgorod beat back the Swedes in 1240 (though this is contested). The monastery became a larva (the most senior of Russian Orthodox monasteries) in 1797 and is still working today. Look out for the graves of famous Russian artists around the grounds.
15Eat delicious Russian food
No visit to St Petersburg would be complete without sampling the delicious Russian cuisine on offer. Try pyshkas, tasty sugar-coated Russian doughnuts, and classic borscht, or beetroot soup. Another favourite is chicken Kiev (stuffed chicken breast that is fried or baked), as are Russian dumplings, or pelmeni.
Set atop an islet in Vyborg Bay, this castle was originally built by the Swedish in 1293. Though it has seen many16th-century alterations, you can still explore the original whitewashed St Olaf’s Tower for some stunning views. There are also many exhibition halls and the museum on local history.
17Street Art Museum & Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art
Located slight far away from the city centre are two of St Petersburg’s most well-known modern art museums. The Street Art Museum in Petrograd is set inside a 11-hectare former industrial site and features huge murals and mixed-media installations by top artists from around the globe.
The Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art is located on Vasilievsky Island, and has a permanent collection of over 2,300 pieces of Russian contemporary art spread over five floors. There are also regular temporary exhibitions and concerts.
18Go see the city’s drawbridges
When St Petersburg was first built, its canals were intended to be the city’s main roads. However, the first bridges were constructed in the 18th century, and now its havd almost 350 of them. The most famous of these lie across the Neva River, and are lit up and drawn up at night to allow large boats and ships to pass through. Go see this beautiful sight at the famous Palace Bridge, or at the Troitsky Bridge.
Of course, there are lots of other things to do in St Petersburg. If we’ve missed any, e sure to share them in the comments below.