We’d always regretted not starting our Trans-Mongolian Railway adventure nine years ago in Saint Petersburg, but in Moscow. Ever since Saint Petersburg featured at the top of our city trip bucket list. Relatively expensive plane tickets and the high costs of getting visa (not to mention the tedious visa application procedure), however, had steered us elsewhere over the course of years.
This year we decided it was high time to go. To make the costs of getting there a little bit more bearable we turned it into an eleven day holiday, including some side trips outside the city. Saint Petersburg has so much to offer that even the longest city trip in our travel career was way too short to see it all.
Below are 15 of the things we did get around to do in Saint Petersburg (which in reality were much more).
Start at Peter and Paul Fortress
Built as a defensive fortress in 1703 the Peter & Paul Fortress is the actual beginning of the city of Saint Petersburg. The former outpost on Zayachy Island in the Neva River was designated as the new capital by Peter the Great only 10 years later, government institutions moved from Moscow and the city developed rapidly.
The fortifications include the St Peter and Paul Cathedral – the burial place of Russian tsars –, a strangely proportioned Peter the Great statue, a prison, bastions and administrative buildings, most of them housing museums these days. The fortress and cathedral can be entered for free, for the museums, the 112,5 meter high bell tower and bastion walls along the Neva tickets have to be bought.
We got distracted, however, by a military ceremony taking place in front of the cathedral which we thought was much more interesting than visiting museums. We haven’t been able to find out what it was all about, but it certainly was a show of military pride and nationalism. Interesting to see through a western pair of eyes.
Visit Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Still a working monastery, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery is the oldest (founded by Peter the Great in 1710) and still the most important religious institution in Saint Petersburg. It’s possible to walk around the monastery grounds and have a look at the gorgeous interior of the Trinity Cathedral for free.
Surrounding the monastery are several cemeteries. The atmospheric Nikolsky Cemetery behind the cathedral is a tranquil hideaway in a very busy city and also can be visited for free. Most people buy tickets, however, for the Tikhvin and Lazarus Cemeteries where many of Russia’s greatest composers and writers have found their last resting place. We’re not like most people, so we skipped these two.
Go to church
Saint Petersburg is full of breathtakingly beautiful cathedrals and churches, most of them Russian orthodox, but built in several styles. For a young city – Saint Petersburg is ‘only’ 300 years old – it has an incredible wealth of cathedrals and churches (and palaces for that matter). We compiled a list of the eight cathedrals and churches we found the most memorable and made a separate post about it with lots of pictures.
Wander through the Hermitage
No visit to Saint Petersburg is complete without a visit to the Hermitage. It’s one of the oldest museums in the world, with over three million works of art it’s also one of the biggest museums in the world and on top of that with over three million visitors each year it is one of the most visited sites in the world. So you won’t be alone as you wander the many beautiful rooms. We compiled a separate blog (again with lots of pictures) about our visit to the Hermitage with a few tips to escape the crowds.
Search for Soviet heritage
Although the Soviet period is now regarded as a bad time in Russian history by many Russians and much has been destroyed after the collapse of the USSR in the 1990’s, there are still many remnants of this period to be found in Saint Petersburg. This is not so strange as it is an integral part of the architectural build-up of the city.
One of the best examples is the huge House of Soviets, located near the Moskovsky metro station in the south of the city. Planned to host the administration of the Soviet Leningrad government, it was built in Stalinist style. Nearby is the impressive 1975 Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad symbolizing the defense of the city during the 900 day siege by the Nazis in WWII. The monument consists of a 48 meter high obelisk, a bronze ring (40 meters in diameter) and an underground memorial hall.
To see how the political leaders in Leningrad lived we visited the Kirov Apartment Museum, one of the many house museums in the city (most are of artists, writers and composers though). Kirov was a famous Soviet political leader who lived here from 1926 to 1934. Located on the fourth floor of a nondescript apartment building on Petrogradside it doesn’t attract many visitors. We were the only ones when we were there (closely watched by three employees). Quirky but fun.
To learn more about the Soviet period in Russian history we also went to the State Museum of Political History (formerly known as the Museum of Revolution), which can be found close to the Peter & Paul Fortress. The museum documents the political history of Russia from the 19th century onward, but the emphasize is on the Soviet period. There’s a lot of reading involved, so you have to be really interested to appreciate this museum. We wouldn’t have missed it if we’d let this one pass.
Celebrate Scarlet Sails (or not)
What to say about this most important public event during the White Nights (see the end of our post). It was hard to find dependable information about it, let alone get a hold of a time schedule. Scarlet Sails started after WWII to celebrate the end of the high school year, with fireworks, a massive water show and music concerts. It now attracts hundreds of thousands of people (we even saw a figure of three million mentioned!).
Palace Square in front of the Hermitage was transformed into a giant rock arena for Saint Petersburg’s school youth and the entire area between the Trinity Bridge and St Isaac’s Cathedral turned into a heavily guarded fortress that could only be entered if you had a ticket to the concert. But how to get near the Neva river for a good view of the fireworks and water show? Nobody could tell us, we only got contradictory instructions.
We first thought that it was just our foreign stupidity that we were completely lost on how to find a good spot to watch, but with the streets filled with (sometimes visibly frustrated) Russians milling about, we concluded it was the same for everyone. At the last moment we managed to push ourselves with hordes of other people onto Dvortsovy Bridge for a (still distant) view of the show, that started at 00.40 AM and lasted maybe 15-20 minutes. It was nice but not really great. In all we found it a very disappointing experience.
Shop on Nevsky Prospekt
No visitor to Saint Petersburg will have left the city without walking at least a stretch of the 4,5 kilometer Nevsky Prospekt, the most famous street of the city. It’s one of the oldest streets of Saint Petersburg and runs from the Admiralty building to Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Several historical buildings line the street, the magnificent Kazan Cathedral being the most noteworthy. Most people come to shop here with al big and expensive brands represented.
Navigate Saint Petersburg’s canals
When Peter the Great made his plans for building Saint Petersburg he was very much inspired by the Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular. So several canals were dug. In combination with the many rivers that flowed through this former marsh that Saint Petersburg was built on it very much is a city to be explored by boat as well.
There are many, many companies throughout the city offering boat tours, but the only one offering them in English is Anglo Tourism with boats for the 90 minute tour leaving near Anichkov Bridge on Nevsky Prospekt. Walking along the canals and rivers is also a good – but much more strenuous – option to see the many grand buildings built facing Saint Petersburg’s waterways.
Admire Yusupov Palace
No other city in the world has more palaces than Saint Petersburg and many of them are open to the public as a museum. Inspired by the Winter Palace many grand mansions were erected along the city’s waterways, the 1770 Yusupov palace – notorious for being the assassination site of Rasputin – is one of the grandest.
The palace on the Moika River has one of the best preserved original palace interiors in the city. This attracts a lot of visitors. Too many if you ask us. Maybe we were unlucky with many tour groups visiting at the same time as us. With tour guides talking loudly we had problems to hear our audio guides, even at full volume. Pity, but with a bit of patience we managed to get some of the rooms almost to ourselves once in a while. And they were beautiful.
Go to a Mariinsky ballet
We’d never been to the ballet before, so what better place to see it for the first time than the world famous Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Since it opened its doors in 1860 it has been the premiere venue for countless opera and ballet performances with the best musicians and ballet dancers in the world. We wanted to see a ballet with some of today’s ballet stars, but were a little late – one month before our trip – buying tickets online.
So we had to make do with the final graduation performance of Students of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. The historic theatre is beautiful and the ballet was nice to see (we haven’t become big fans), but the first tier, second row seats we had managed to buy only afforded us a half stage view and we had to crane our necks to see around the people in front of us. For guaranteed good seats you have to book early or see a performance at the new Mariinsky Theatre (Mariinsky II) next door, which promises good seats and views for all spectators.
Get out to Udelnaya flea market
For those who love flea markets a trip on the blue metro line 2 to the Udelnaya market in the north of Saint Petersburg is a must. This most famous flea market in Russia takes place throughout the year on Saturday, Sunday and holidays and is best visited between 11 AM and 5 PM.
Next to the usual crap on sale at these kind of markets – there seem to be buyers for stuff that most people would consider garbage – you’ll also find all kinds of memorabilia from the Soviet period, medals, antiques, silverware, coins, porcelain et cetera. The big question is: How much of all these collectibles are authentic. We managed to walk away empty-handed.
Discover metro art
Though less majestic than Moscow’s metro stations, the metro system in Saint Petersburg also hides some architectural gems deep underground (at 105 meters deep it’s actually the deepest metro system in the world, the escalators sure took a long time). The most eye-catching stations are on the oldest line of the city, the red line 1. It’s a prefect and cheap excursion (a metro token costs about 45 eurocents) for a rainy day.
Walk, walk, walk
Some of the sights that you’ll see along the way that we haven’t mentioned yet include the Bronze Horseman statue (a monument to Peter the Great), Peter the Great cabin (we found this a bit disappointing), the General Staff Building, the Kunstkamera museum and the Russian Museum.
Sample typical Russian dishes
Saint Petersburg has restaurants serving food from all over the world. But trying local food is part of the fun of traveling so it would be a shame not to try some typical Russian dishes like borsch or borscht (red beet soup with a dollop of cream) or blinis (yeasted pancakes typically served with toppings like sour cream, berries, salmon or caviar).
We can highly recommend the Severyanin Restaurant, which was located near our hostel. It’s a small and popular restaurant with a homely décor serving yummy northern Russian cuisine. It’s advisable to make reservations as they’re often full. Prices were really affordable (think 30-50 euros for two) and most staff spoke English. A real budget alternative are the so-called stolovaya or canteens, local self-serve buffet style eateries which serve Russian staple dishes.
Thanks to the former Soviet Union also many restaurants from the former Soviet states can be found in Saint Petersburg, especially from the Caucasus. We enjoyed eating some delicious Georgian soups and stews at Khochu Kharcho near Sadovaya metro station. On Nevsky Prospekt the self-serve Marketplace restaurant has affordable dishes from all over the world.
Do day trips from Saint Petersburg
Some of the most famous sights of Saint Petersburg are found outside the city. During our stay we made four day trips outside the city, two close by and two a little bit further afield. We wrote special blogs on each of these outings.
Peterhof – The attractive summer residence of Peter the Great on the Gulf of Finland is one of the most visited palaces of Saint Petersburg, but is most famous for its exquisite lower gardens and amazing fountains.
Pushkin and Pavlovsk – The ravishing Catherine Palace and Park are probably the most impressive palace you’ll see in Saint Petersburg. Prepare for big crowds though. Just a few kilometers down the road are the more modest but also picturesque Great Palace and landscaped palace gardens in Pavlovsk.
Veliky Novgorod – A three hour train ride brought us to the oldest recorded city of Russia. Less splendid than Saint Petersburg, but with interesting architecture, a more down to earth vibe and far less tourists.
Kizhi Island – This trip required two nights away from Saint Petersburg to get to the biggest open air museum in Russia, located on a lovely island in Lake Onega in northern Russia’s Karelia, a region where nature rules.
Travel tips Saint Petersburg
Sleep – We spent a total of nine nights at Club Chao, Mama in the Sennaya neighborhood. Club Chao, Mama calls itself a hostel – it has some dorms with shared facilities – but our room far exceeded hostel standard. We stayed at the 30 m2 Twiggy apartment which had a comfortable king size bed, air-conditioning, an almost fully equipped kitchen (no stove or hotplate however), a toilet and a shower cabin (with rain shower) and good wifi reception. The room got cleaned daily.
The rooms are located on the second floor of a historic building, only an 8-10 minute walk from the Sennaya/Sadovaya/Spasskaya metro station where three lines intersect, making it an ideal hub to connect to most of the city. We always walked to the city center, however, the Hermitage being about thirty minutes away and sights like the Kazan and St Isaac’s Cathedrals or the Mariinsky Theatre within 10-20 minutes walking distance.
Transport – The best way to move around the city is by metro. It’s cheap (45 eurocents per ride), fast (Saint Petersburg is a big city) and almost all signage and ticket machines are in English too, so it’s easy to navigate. Because we stayed eleven days we bought a smart card to put trips on. It didn’t save us money, but it was very convenient.
We flew KLM from Amsterdam to Pulkovo International Airport, south of Saint Petersburg. In line with the visa application procedure we had expected immigration to be slow and tedious, but within 30 minutes of exiting the airplane we walked out of the departure hall with our backpacks! Regular buses and marshrutkas (minibuses) that are a little bit quicker will take you in 20-25 minutes to Moskovskaya metro station. Here you can take the metro into the city. It took us one hour to get to our hostel.
When to go – We visited Saint Petersburg in the second half of June during the White Nights, the period from late May to early July when the sun hardly sets and it never really gets totally dark. It’s highly advertised as the best time of the year to go to Saint Petersburg as days are long and the White Nights Festival is held with lots of cultural activities, including the Stars of the White Nights, a series of classical ballet, opera and orchestral performances at the Mariinsky Theatre.
If we’d go to Saint Petersburg again we’d absolutely not go in this period again. It was very busy in the city. The Hermitage, Peterhof, Yusupov Palace, Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, St Isaac’s Cathedral and Catherine Palace in Pushkin all were so packed with people that it was hard sometimes to really enjoy and appreciate these amazing sights.
At times it was downright tour group terror, one time at the Peterhof Palace a tour guide even scolding us for being there as independent travelers. According to him we had no place being there, blocking the progress of the tour groups. WTF. Other disadvantages are long waiting lines (two hours to get into the Catherine Palace!), higher prices, the need to reserve Mariinsky tickets far in advance and Palace Square full of podia, fences and other paraphernalia for performances all the time. We never got to admire the majestic arch of the General Staffs Building or the vastness of Palace Square.
We visited Saint Petersburg in June 2016