There’s something eerily fascinating about coming to St. Petersburg. Many visitors are faced with a combination of stern-faced customs officials, guidebook warnings about pickpockets and black marketeers, and their own Cold War remembrances (this was, after all, once an “Evil Empire”).
Once in the city, though, you’ll find St. Petersburg a wonderful place, particularly if you’re lucky enough to come during White Nights — when the sun barely sets and the entire city seems to be up all night. Peter the Great founded this beautiful city in 1703 in what was then swampland, and it has unbelievably sumptuous czarist-era palaces (efforts have been underway for years to fix the crumbling ones), onion-domed churches and the lovely Neva River (where twilight cruises are offered). Peter was inspired by London, Paris and Vienna and carefully developed the city by plan, creating canals and passageways that will remind you of Venice. Most of the design remains intact today, testimony to St. Petersburg’s pride — and the inability of Hitler to conquer the city during World War II. It’s a fascinating place, with a lurid past fit for a romance novel. You could find yourself falling in love.
Be sure to make time to explore the countryside as well, where past the bland Soviet-style apartment buildings of the suburbs are opulent country palaces — impressive memorials to the best czarist money could buy.
St. Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 to 1914 and remains Russia’s cultural capital — all the big names have been affiliated with St. Petersburg including Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. The city itself is like a living museum — you are likely to find yourself oohing and ahhing at the architecture from your cab or bus — and art is a key attraction. You’ve been to the Louvre in Paris; now see the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, home to significant collections of Matisses, Picassos and Rembrandts. And don’t miss a chance to see Russian ballet performed live.
The city isn’t without its hassles. The key museums and attractions are not air-conditioned and rarely have special facilities for the disabled. There are few signs in English and understanding what you are seeing — whether it’s a street sign, a shop name or a painting description — can be impossible. And the Hermitage is typically packed to the gills; you may have to do a lot of jostling to see the art highlights if you aren’t on a tour that specifically avoids the crowds.
St. Petersburg Attractions
The Hermitage is the world’s second largest art museum (behind the Louvre) and easily St. Petersburg’s most famous attraction. The four buildings that make up the museum include the opulent Winter Palace, which was built by Peter the Great’s daughter (Elizabeth) and has undergone major renovations that have left it sparkling. Walk up an imposing Baroque marble staircase and marvel at all the gold leaf, and check out the several heavily decorated rooms including a throne room.
Your guide will tell you how the art collecting began with Catherine the Great (although what she collected could only be viewed by royal eyes and invited guests). Today’s art collection is in chronological order. On a recent visit we started with names familiar to fans of the old Ninja Turtles cartoon — Botticelli, Leonardo (Da Vinci), Raphael, Michelangelo. Next you move on to the Spanish collection (Velazquez, Goya and El Greco, to name a few).
While the Hermitage’s Rembrandt collection is the second biggest after Amsterdam‘s Rijksmuseum, many of the more famous pieces have returned to Holland as part of the Hermitage Amsterdam. Still at the Hermitage on a recent visit: The Danae, which may or may not actually be by Rembrandt, but has a place in history for being slashed and burned with acid in 1985 by a madman. It took 12 years to restore the work.
Get there early to view the museum’s famous Impressionist collection, put together by collectors in Moscow. Declared bourgeois by Stalin, the collection sat in warehouses until the end of World War II, when it was divided up between the Hermitage and the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow. There are Renoirs, Van Goghs, Cezannes and Gauguins in room after room, followed by a lot of Matisse and some Picasso too. Don’t miss the fabulous gift shop, which is a great place to buy quality souvenirs.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the biggest in St. Petersburg, is an immense, awesome spectacle. It’s not all that old — it was completed in the mid-19th century — but it’s replete inside and out with gorgeous mosaic murals, granite pillars and marble floors. Its huge gold dome can be seen for miles around.
Church of the Resurrection of the Christ (Savior on the Spilled Blood) gets its gruesome name from Emperor Alexander II, who was assassinated on this very spot in 1881. Modeled after St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the onion-domed exterior makes you feel like you really are in Russia. Inside, there’s 7,500 square meters of mosaics, all restored, as well as a shrine to the departed czar.
The Russian Museum is housed in the former Mikhailovsky Palace and is one of two top places in all of Russia to showcase the culture of the country, from 12th-century icons to the avant-garde. Don’t miss the adjacent Mikhailovsky Gardens — a lovely spot to rest.
Peter & Paul Fortress is the original part of St. Petersburg. Built in 1703, it was initially planned as a defense against Sweden, but the Russians won that war before the fortress was completed, so it was used until 1917 as a political prison instead. Many of the czars and other Russian royalty are buried here; other highlights include the Baroque-style Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Trubetskoy Bastion.
The primary palaces are Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great’s Peterhof — and you can do them in a day (but just barely). Peterhof lies on the Baltic Sea, a magnificent landmark of Russian artistic culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, founded in the very beginning of the 18th century by Emperor Peter the Great.
Pushkin neighbors the palace of Pavlovsk, which was built for Russian Czar Paul I, the only son of Catherine the Great. Both Catherine’s Palace and Pavlovsk were built in the mid- to late-18th century, have been beautifully restored, and are situated among gorgeous parks and gardens.
Nevsky Prospekt is St. Petersburg’s most famous street and the city’s major commercial thoroughfare. One warning: Despite the presence of pedestrian crossings, there is no such thing, in this city of frantic drivers, as walkers’ rights; pay close attention to traffic or cross the street through some of its underground tunnels. Nevsky Prospekt is life in Russia on display, with street vendors and exclusive Western boutiques (ranging from Hugo Boss to Versace), cathedrals and parks, cafes and canals. One fun diversion is a boat ride along the canals; plan to pay about 200 rubles (about $6.65 USD at the time of this writing) for an hour-long trip. Boats leave from Anichkov Bridge (the Fontanka River) just off Nevsky Prospekt each afternoon.
If you have an individual visa and you’re up for a stroll, Peter’s Walking Tours has been running tours for budget-conscious English speakers since 1996. The half-day tours leave rain or shine from the Life Hostel at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Vladiminsky in the historic center. You can also set up private walking tours with one of their guides for an hourly rate.
St. Petersburg Restaurants
St. Petersburg’s dining scene has experienced a facelift in recent years. While Russian food tends towards meat and potatoes as well as fresh fish, simply prepared, you’ll find that the quality and cafe atmosphere have improved, especially in the city’s historic center. Grab a blini — pancake with filling — for a quick snack, or stop in one of the tempting pastry shops on Nevsky Prospekt for a sweet treat.
In a Russian restaurant, you’ll see a bewildering array of “salads” on the menu, many containing fish or meat; try the salad Olivier, a dish that holds a special place in Russian hearts. For something different, try Georgian cuisine, the Russian equivalent of “Southern” food.
Stolle, located not too far from the Church of the Spilled Blood, is the place to get pies, either the meat or fruit variety. Disregard the cranky counter people and have a seat. Once you’re done, buy another to bring back to your room for a late-night snack. They’re that good.
Rossi’s, part of the Grand Hotel Europe, is a pleasant sidewalk cafe just off busy Nevsky Prospekt; the food is adequate, the people-watching sublime.
The Idiot Cafe,named for the Dostoyevsky novel, is a favorite with St. Petersburg’s expat and artsy crowd. It’s known for its borscht and other vegetarian dishes, served in a quasi-Bohemian atmosphere in a cozy basement space. Wash it all down with a free shot of vodka. Staff speaks English.
Teplo, near St. Isaac’s Cathedral, is one of St. Petersburg’s more popular restaurants. With outdoor seating and kitschy home-style decor, it reminds you of an independent cafe you might see in a major American city. The potato pancakes, which come with Buko cheese, red caviar and smoked salmon, are delicious, as is the beef stroganoff made with mushrooms and veal. Reservations are recommended.
Kafe Tbiliso is considered one of the best places to experience Georgian food, which is considered fashionable right now in St. Petersburg. Make sure to try the khachapuri (cheese bread) and some Georgian red wine; menus are available in English.
Sever, located on Nevsky Prospekt, is a legendary Soviet-era cake shop where people used to line up for the brightly colored sweets. Do some drooling before you pick, although prices are reasonable enough that you might choose more than one.
Shopping in St. Petersburg
Shopping in St. Petersburg can be a little disappointing. Souvenirs can be expensive, although haggling is expected in street markets such as the one across from the Church on Spilled Blood. Popular gifts include porcelain, jewelry, icons, stacking dolls and fur hats. Counterfeits are legion; if you see a price for a purse that’s too good to be true, you know it’s a fake.
Even non-shoppers will want to gawk at Gostiny Dvor, a department store dating back to the 18th century that envelops an entire block of Nevsky Prospekt. Inside, you’ll find all kinds of luxury goods, set aside in boutique-like settings, plus top-quality (read: expensive) souvenirs on the ground level.
Yes, it’s a museum store. But for curated souvenirs that you know people back home will love, it’s hard to beat the Hermitage Museum Shop. Look for sales on amber jewelry, as well as porcelain tea sets.
The Russians are resolutely politically incorrect about their fur. Winter nights where the temperature drops down well below zero will do that to you. If your conscience can handle it, check out the fur and leather coats, hats and scarves at Mekhlandia on Nevsky Prospekt.
As befits a cultural capital, St. Petersburg is full of bookstores. Luckily, one of the most centrally located is also in one of the city’s more beautiful buildings. Dom Knigi, in the historic Singer Building, has English-language books nestled among its huge selection. When you get tired of browsing, go to the cafeteria to take a pastry break and watch the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt below.
–written by Chris Gray Faust
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