St. Petersburg is one of my favorite cities in the world. It really is yin and yang to the Russian capital, Moscow. Beautiful architecture, picturesque churches, and charming canals—what more could you ask for?! And no time is better to see the city than during White Nights, when the sun goes down for just a few hours and the whole city stays awake to party. There is so much to see and do, so here’s a short list of the things you can’t miss out on during a trip to this beautiful city. Here are 25 things you must see in St. Petersburg!
1) Hermitage (Winter Palace)
The former Winter Palace, home of the tsars and Russia’s royals in St. Petersburg, today houses the Hermitage, which is one of the best museums in the world. Its collections rival the Louvre, and the building alone is enough to warrant a visit. You could easily spend a day here, so give yourself anywhere from 2-5 hours to enjoy it all. Queues can be quite long (especially in summer), so be prepared. Even though students (of all nationalities) have free entrance, you still need to wait in the queue to get an admission ticket. For a beautiful history of the building, I recommend watching the film Russian Ark (Русский ковчег), which is on Netflix with subtitles.
2) Palace Square
Directly outside of the Hermitage is Palace Square, with the Alexander column in the middle. Your best photos of the Winter Palace will be from here! There are frequently excellent buskers playing here to big crowds during White Nights.
3) Peter and Paul Fortress
Located on the small Hare island in the Neva River is the impressive Peter and Paul Fortress. It used to be a military base, but today the main attraction is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is the burial place of Russian tsars and their families dating back hundreds of years. The Romanov family who were murdered in 1918, have their own separate chapel in the church. Besides the cathedral, there are several other museums on the island.
4) Nevsky Prospekt
The main drag in St. Petersburg is Nevsky Prospekt. Many of the cities attractions are located on or near the street, and there is always something happening—from buskers to art vendors, it’s an experience to just walk through. Gostiny Dvor (an 18th-century shopping mall) and Dom Knigi (the House of Books) are two major architectural landmarks you can’t miss. The street stretches about 4.5km (~2.8 miles), from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery to the Winter Palace and the Neva River.
5) Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood
One of the most magnificent churches I’ve ever been to is the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood. Built in between 1883-1907 on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, the church is full of bright, colorful mosaics inside. The exterior, especially the onion domes, rivals St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
6) St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Another of St. Petersburg’s finest churches, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is another one you simply must see on a visit to St. Petersburg. The interior is astounding—so beautiful and ornate. Building finished in 1858. You can pay a bit extra to visit the colonnade for excellent views across the city.
7) Bronze Horseman
Not far from St. Isaac’s Cathedral on the banks of the Neva River is the statue of the Bronze Horseman, the statue celebrates the arrival of Russia into European culture and a new era under Peter the Great. The statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great, who wanted to portray herself as Peter the Great’s rightful heir—despite her shaky claim to the throne.
This was the first museum in Russia, established in 1727 by Peter the Great! This is a hot-ticket museum for its infamous collection of “oddities”: abnormal fetuses, strange deformities, skeletons of two-headed deer, etc. While those objects may be the reason people visit, the exceptional global ethnography collections are why you should stay. The museum is located on Vasilevsky island, just across from Palace Bridge. There’s English descriptions and information boards.
9) Rostral Columns
Standing guard over the Neva River are the Rostal Columns. They were built in 1810 to indicate the two major channels of the Neva, surrounding the Vasilevsky Island. The columns are 32 meters high, and decorated with sculptures of sea creatures, anchors, and naval-inspired objects.
10) Kazan Cathedral
This magnificent cathedral, located on Nevsky Prospekt, is definitely one place you must see in St. Petersburg. The cathedral was built in 1811, but closed following the 1917 revolution—it was re-opened as the “Museum of the History of Religion and Athiesm” in 1932. After the fall of the Soviet Union, regular church services resumed. Best of all, there’s no entrance fee!
11) Yusupov Palace
The Yusupov Palace, on the banks of the Moika Canal, is infamous for one big reason: it was the site of the assassination of Rasputin, the so-called monk whose close relationship with the Romanov royal family contributed to the revolution. If you book a special tour in advance, you can get a “Rasputin tour” of the basement (where he was first given cyanide-laced food and drink, before being shot several times). But the palace itself is stunning and transports visitors back to the aristocratic glory days. There’s an audio guide in several languages that’s included in admission (which you should take) that gives a tour of the rooms. My favorite is the personal theater in the palace, which still hosts performances on occasion.
12) Smolny Cathedral
This small cathedral is nowhere near as magnificent as St. Isaac’s Cathedral or the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, but the beautiful blue and white exterior is reason enough to visit. For a small fee, you can go up the bell tower to see the view of the city (although being so far from the center of attractions, I’m not sure what you’d be able to see!).
13) Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Another of St. Petersburg’s important holy places, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was founded in 1710 to honor the saint/savior of medieval Russia. The Russian prince Alexander Nevsky defeated the Swedes in battle in 1240. There are several different buildings you can walk around and see, although the cathedral is the most impressive. The grounds are quite nice as well. While there is a ticket desk near the entrance that says tourists must pay an entrance fee, I walked in and had no problem. You can also visit the nearby cemetery, with important graves such as Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky.
14) St. Petersburg Mosque
The mosque in St. Petersburg may be a bit of a rarity in a country that is predominantly Russian Orthodox, but its stunning exterior is reason enough to visit. The vibrant blues and greens will make you feel as if you’re in a different world! Be aware that visitors are not allowed during prayer times and on Fridays.
15) Aurora Cruiser
The Aurora is a warship, built in 1900. It gained its name to fame by firing the shot that signaled the beginning of the attack on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, which was the beginning of the October Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks won the palace, and won the war, establishing communism and laying the foundation of the Soviet Union. You can see the ship still docked on the Neva River, where it’s now a museum.
16) Boat Cruise
One of the most classic attractions in St. Petersburg is a boat cruise along the canals (especially the Fontanka) and the Neva River. Seeing the city by water is one thing you must do in the “Venice of the North.” There are people everywhere offering excursions by boat, so you’ll have your pick of choices. If you’re visiting St. Petersburg during White Nights, this is one thing you absolutely must do to see the bridges go up!
17) Siege of Leningrad Museum
One of my favorite musems in St. Petersburg was the Siege of Leningrad Museum. During World War II (the Great Patriotic War for Russians), the city of St. Petersburg was called Leningrad and was besieged by the Nazis for 900 days. The fact that Leningrad refused to surrender (despite losing millions of people—mostly civilians—to war, disease, starvation, etc.) is something Russia is still very proud of to this day. The museum gives a fascinating insight into nearly every aspect of the siege—from everyday life to the military advances around the city. Make sure to get an audioguide (they have several languages available), since there isn’t much in English.
18) Faberge Museum
The Faberge Museum, located on the Fontanka Canal, has a huge collection of decorative and fine arts. But it’s worth visiting for one big reason: a group of 9 Imperial Easter eggs made by Peter Carl Faberge for the last two tsars of Russia. Booking tickets in advance (which you can do online) is advisable, as it’s timed-entry only.
19) Russian Museum
Art lovers may have had their fill at the Hermitage, but there’s even more art to see in St. Petersburg! The Russian Museum also has a renowned collection of art, and boasts the country’s biggest collection of Russian art. My advice? Don’t go on the same day as the Hermitage, otherwise you’ll run the risk of being “museum-ed out.”
20) Museum of Political History
This excellent museum, housed in the former mansion of Mathilda Kshesinskaya (the prima ballerina famous for her dancing and for her taste in royal men), is all about Russian politics. There are translations of English (in separate leaflets or information books) for just about everything. The house is also famous, as after the revolution it was briefly the Bolshevik headquarters, and Lenin frequently spoke to the St. Petersburg crowds from the balcony!
21) St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral
This pretty blue church, tucked between two canals, may not be as opulent as the others, but is worth a visit if you’re in the area. The church is closely associated with the navy, and has memorials for sunken submarines. It’s right next to a very nice park.
22) Marinsky Theater
St. Petersburg’s answer to the Bolshoi Theater, the Marinsky is the place to go for theater, opera, ballet, and more. The Marinsky II is a new, state-of-the-art opera house, which opened in 2013. Make sure to book tickets in advance, especially for popular shows and in the summer season.
Peter the Great’s magnificent palace on the Gulf of Finland is one of my favorite places I went during my entire trip to Russia. While technically not in the city limits of St. Petersburg, it’s easily connected to the city and one place you absolutely must see. Photos just don’t do it justice! The palace itself is beautiful with massive rooms and an ornate interior, but the real draw of Peterhof is the surrounding gardens—especially the very impressive fountains. It can get quite crowded during peak summer season, especially as they don’t allow entry for foreign tourists between noon and 2:30pm from June to September. There’s an entrance fee for the Lower Gardens (with the fountains) and the palace, but the Upper Gardens are free to visit.
24) Tsarskoe Selo
Meaning “tsar’s village,” Tsarskoe Selo is again located outside of St. Petersburg proper. But it is one place you (and the millions of other tourists) must see on a trip to St. Petersburg. The main attraction is the magnificent and massive Catherine Palace (palace tours are in Russian unless specially booked, and you’ll be shunted from room to room with a tour group) and the beautiful Catherine Park, which you should certainly take the time to visit and walk around. In addition, the less famous Alexander Palace (which was unfortunately closed for reconstruction when I visited this time around) is much quieter, and is where the last tsar (Tsar Nicholas II) and his family spent most of their time. The Alexander Park is free to visit with lots to see.
This tiny island near St. Petersburg, a former naval base, gained its infamy with a failed mutiny against the Bolsheviks in 1921—the Red Army then walked across the ice and killed the entire sailor force. Yet the Naval Cathedral makes it well worth the trek out from St. Petersburg—the interior is colorful and ornate, and the cathedral itself quite impressive. You can take marshrukta (minibus) #405 from outside Chernaya Reka Metro station.
Have you ever been to St. Petersburg? What places would you add?