The best things to do in the vibrant city of Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg was the brainchild of Tsar Peter the Great. Once a swamp, now it’s a beautiful bustling city on the Finnish Gulf. There is a lot to explore. The two major tourist attractions are the palaces and the museums. This combination comes together in the Hermitage Museum, this winter palace is one of the greatest museums in the world.
So, to do this city justice stay for at least three days. Let us guide you to spend these days wisely.
Day 1 Saint Petersburg
The first day in Saint Petersburg is a full one with a schedule that would take at least 8 hours to complete. So, if you want to create some extra time, skip the Stroganov Palace, the Marble Palace is the better of the two city palaces.
Since Kazan Cathedral is free and opens early, this is the best place to start your exploration of Saint Petersburg. The cathedral is loosely modelled after the Saint Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican. Inside Russians will line up to kiss a copy of our Lady of Kazan. The original was a 13th Century Icon brought to Russia from Constantinople. The cathedral is consecrated to this Icon.
Kazan Cathedral lies along Nevsky Prospekt, the main road through the city centre. It’s a good place to watch people, do some souvenir shopping and have a drink. It’s just a short walk from the cathedral to the Stroganov palace.
This beautifully restored pink palace is part of the Russian Museum. You can buy a combination ticket for the Stroganov Palace, the Marble Palace, and the Russian Museum. It was in the kitchen of this palace that the famous beef Stroganoff was invented. The palace is also a good first introduction to the splendour of upper class living in pre-Soviet times.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Cross the street and walk to the Griboyedov Canal, walk northwards on the left bank for a better view of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The long name refers to the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II here in 1881. The inside of this church is decorated with beautiful mosaics.
Just behind the church lies the Russian Museum. This museum houses the largest collection of Russian art in the world. You’ll find great medieval icons and paintings by Russian greats like Ilja Repin and Kasimir Malevich.
When you’re done with all the art, spend some time leisurely walking through Mikailovsky’s Garden. Cross the Moyka river and continue your walk in the beautiful Summer Gardens. The Summer Garden is the city’s oldest park and began as the private garden of Tsar Peter the Great. Take the northern exit and head to the Marble palace a couple of meters to the west.
The Marble Palace gets its name from all the different forms of marble used in the construction and decoration of the 18th Century palace. It houses different art collections and temporary exhibitions.
After the head towards the Neva and take the Trinity Bridge to cross it. From here you have a great view of the waterfront of the city.
Peter and Paul Fortress
On the other side of the bridge lies the Peter and Paul Fortress. This is the oldest site in the city. From this fortress, the rest of the city evolved. Climb the ramparts for more great views of the river and the city.
Peter and Paul Cathedral
The oldest landmark of the city and the island is the Peter and Paul Cathedral. The cathedral has the highest Orthodox bell tower in the world with a height of 122 meters. The cathedral also houses the tombs of most Russian emperors, from Peter the Great to the last Tsar Nicolas II and his family. The grave of Anastasia is one which is particularly often photographed.
If you have some energy left, go to the Erarta Museum which is open until 22.00 every day but Tuesdays when it’s closed. So, this is a good thing to do in the evening to maximize your time. On Wednesday and Friday, the Hermitage museum is open until 21.00. So, if you’re in Saint Petersburg on those days either get a head start or finish things you have missed before by visiting the Hermitage museum in the evening.
The Erarta Museum is an excellent contemporary art museum which focuses on Russian contemporary art. The museum has a good flow and a good mix of art, so everybody should find something to their liking.
Day 2 Half-day trip and more Saint Petersburg
Start the second day in Saint Petersburg early and get a ticket for the hydrofoil to Peterhof at the Lion palace pier. You can buy tickets online or at the pier. This is a great way to see Saint Petersburg from the water and the fastest way to get to Peterhof.
If you’re going to visit Peterhof individually it’s best to go as early as possible since it will be busy. Buy a ticket to the park via the official website so you can skip the line once you get off the boat.
The highlight of Peterhof is the Grand Palace. Sadly, you can’t buy individual tickets online. You can decide to opt for a guided tour package. Choose one with good reviews if you choose to do so and expect to pay at least 2.5 times the normal entry price. Otherwise go directly to the fountain show when you get off the boat, it starts at 11.00. Afterwards, do some exploring of the park. Go to the ticket office for the sale of the individual tickets for the Grand Palace a half hour in advance, to avoid long lines. Ticket sale should start at 12.00, check the website for the latest information. If you’re with more people, rotate your waiting spot and explore the surroundings while you wait.
The Grand Palace
The Grand Palace was completely destroyed by Stalin during the Second World War. After he heard that Hitler wanted to celebrate New Year here he ordered the palace to be bombed. So, the palace and the interior are post-war reconstructions.
Head back to the hydrofoil and try to get back in the city around 15.00. This would give you enough time to get a good impression of the Hermitage museum. It’s too big to see in a single visit for most people anyway. If you go on a Wednesday and Friday, you’ll have more time as it is open until 21.00 on these days. Buy a ticket online to avoid another queue.
The collection of the Hermitage Museum is enormous and provides a complete overview of Western art throughout the centuries. The museum started with the collection of Catherine the Great, who was the biggest art collector of her time. Nicolas I expanded upon this collection and opened it to the public in 1852. The collection expanded threefold in Soviet times when many valuable private collections were seized by the state. After the Second World War, even more art was added as the Soviets looted many private and public German art collections.
This results in an enormous museum. So, decide what you want to see and stick to that and the highlights. Our favourites are the Italian and Dutch art and the ancient Egyptian pieces. Another approach is to do everything and systematically explore the whole museum room by room. Adjust your pace to your interests and you should be able to cover the Winter palace side of the museum under four hours.
Don’t forget to pay attention to the palace itself, as its architecture is almost as impressive as the art that it exhibits.
General Staff Building
Whatever you do, don’t forget to visit the General Staff building on the other side of the Palace Square. Although the building is far less impressive as the winter palace the art is exquisite. The General Staff Building houses an amazing collection of Impressionism, Modern, and Contemporary art. Highlights are rooms full of artworks by Monet, Matisse, Malevich and Picasso. But there is so much more. Plan wisely as this part of the museum only has extended visiting hours on Wednesday.
Day 3 Another half-day trip and more Saint Petersburg
Tsarskoe Selo lies in the town of Pushkin 25 km south of Saint Petersburg. You can get there by bus and or by train. If you want to spare yourself the hassle of public transport, get a taxi via a taxi app which won’t be that more expansive when travelling in company.
The highlight of Tsarskoe Selo is Catherina’s palace. Construction started under Empress Elizabeth and was finished by Catherine the Great in 1796. The interior of this palace is magnificent and well worth it to explore. Getting in requires some preparation though. The easiest way is to buy tickets online. But there are only limited tickets available this way and they usually sell out a month in advance. So, plan well in advance. If they are sold out it’s back to queueing again. Arrive early, the queue starts when the parks open, but the ticket office will only open at 12.00. So, if you’re with company, rotate your stay in line and use the time to explore the beautiful palace gardens and surrounding buildings.
The highlights of the interior of Catherina’s Palace are the great mirror room and the mythical amber room. The interior was completely destroyed and looted during the Second World War as was the Grand Palace at Peterhof. It’s still a mystery what the Germans did with the amber. The restored interiors here have a more authentic look than those of the Grand Palace.
Get back to the city by whatever means of transport you prefer. Finish your visit to the Hermitage Museum or go to the Erarta museum if you haven’t been there yet.
End your stay in Saint Petersburg with a night out at the Mariinsky Theatre. The theatre itself is worth the visit but the ballet shows are a highlight too. Book tickets in advance to get decent tickets at a good price.
Also visiting Moscow? Then read our 4-day Moscow itinerary!