St. Petersburg, the jewel in Russia’s Imperial Crown, is an enchanting city with a rich history and elegant buildings. Formed around a series of canals the appearance of the city is reminiscent of Venice and it was from St. Petersburg that the Autocratic Tsars ruled Russia for two centuries until the revolution in 1917. If it is history you're interested in then there is plenty in this grandiose city to keep you entertained with an illustrious past that spans 300 years and culture vultures will not be disappointed either with treasure-filled museums and remarkable galleries.Read More
Highlights of the city include the fabulous Winter Palace, once home to the Tsars and now where you will find the world famous Hermitage collection, one of the biggest art collections on earth. Explore St Peter and Paul Fortress with its impressive baroque interior - the oldest building in the city, which up until 1917 was a political prison that housed famous political prisoners including Trotsky. Take a look around St Isaac’s cathedral, one of the world’s largest cathedrals, and the beautiful Church on Spilled Blood, which was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881. You can also pay a visit to the Summer Gardens at palatial Peterhof, which overlooks the Gulf of Finland, and Catherine Palace at Tsarkoe Selo.
St. Petersburg is a real favourite with visitors and great for walking around with most of the inner city sights on or just off the main thoroughfare – Nevsky Prospekt. As well as its standout sights, St. Pete’s (as it is affectionately known) also boasts a vibrant music scene, hedonistic nightlife and a burgeoning choice of quality restaurants.
Best sites to visit in St Petersburg
The HermitageView on map
With some 360 rooms and over 3 million items in its collection, the State Hermitage Museum - to give it its full name - is one of the world's largest and most prestigious art collections. Providing a comprehensive history of Western European art from 11th century Russian works to the Italian Renaissance paintings of the 15th century and 17th century Flemish Baroque, the Hermitage is also home to a modest collection of Egyptian and Classical antiquities with artifacts dating back as early as the 3rd millennium BC.
Winter PalaceView on map
Dominating Palace Square on the banks of the Neva River in the city's historic centre, the Winter Palace is a magnificent sight with a richly decorated facade of columns, golden sculptural details and statue parapets. Dating back to the early 18th century, the building occupies an area of 60,000 square metres with 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases making it one of the largest royal residences in the world. Since 1852 the Winter Palace has played host to Catherine the Great's remarkable art collection as the State Hermitage Museum.
Church on Spilled BloodView on map
The elaborate Church on Spilled Blood is one of St Petersburg's most colourful sights with flamboyant onion-shaped domes and golden spires. Construction began in 1883 and took 24 years to complete with a lavish interior decorated in detailed mosaics of gold leaf, coloured marbles and decorative stones that cover over 7500 square metres with biblical scenes and important figures. The church marks the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, an event that inspired the church's commonly referred to name.
St Isaac's CathedralView on map
As the city's largest cathedral, the golden dome of St Isaac's Cathedral is a prominent sight on the St Petersburg skyline. The 100kg of gold leaf used to cover the dome, along with the granite columns and detailed sculptures that decorate the facade, give only a hint to the building's lavish interior which features superb bronze relief doors, marble floors and semiprecious stone detailing. The church once accommodated 14,000 standing worshippers but since 1930 has served predominantly as a museum with church services now only held on important religious holidays.
St Peter and Paul FortressView on map
Founded in 1703 when Peter the Great first claimed the land now known as St Petersburg, the Peter and Paul Fortress is the city's oldest collection of buildings. The citadel contains within its fortified walls a former prison where political dissidents were detained and a Baroque-style cathedral where the majority of Russia's emperors are buried including the Romanovs. It's also a prime place to enjoy panoramic views of the city and delta islands from atop the fortress walls.
Recommended things to do in and around St Petersburg
Catherine PalaceView on map
The elaborate Catherine Palace is the centrepiece of the Tsarskoe Selo imperial estate, situated 25km south of St. Petersburg in the town of Pushkin. With its spectacular bright blue and white facade with columns and gold-gilded capitals (sculptural details that sit above the column shafts), the palace is a highly popular sight and with good reason. The sprawling complex required 100kg of gold in its construction and the interior is no less incredible with beautifully restored halls, dining rooms, ballrooms and the exquisite Amber Room.
PeterhofView on map
Overlooking the Gulf of Finland 29km west of St. Petersburg sits Russia's very own Versailles - the imperial palace and park of Peterhof. Founded in 1714 by Peter the Great, the complex suffered major damage during the First World War with many of the buildings now a reconstruction of the original yet this does not detract from the grandeur of the complex with the imposing Grand Palace and the remarkable ensemble of fountains. These 64 ingenious gravity-powered water features are decorated with over 200 bronze statues and detailed bas-reliefs.
Ballet at the Mariinsky TheatreView on map
Dating back to 1859 and having played host to some of Russia's most celebrated performers, the historic Mariinsky Theatre is the best place to watch a ballet or opera show. The majestic architecture and marvelous 1,625-seat auditorium make the theatre an attraction in its own right and with an annual calendar that incorporates top rate classical ballet, world-renowned opera stars and innovative productions of the classics as well as more modern offerings. Tickets can be purchased online and should be booked in advance as shows often sell out, especially during the summer months.
Canal CruiseView on map
Built around a network of canals and rivers and with low-rise classical architecture marking the skyline, the city of St Petersburg lends itself well to boat cruises. During the summer months there's a plethora of boat companies providing cruises along tried and tested routes in multi-level vessels, some with audio-guides in a range of languages that cover some of St Petersburg's most impressive riverside sights. Other boats specialise in evening entertainment with jazz performances, cover bands and elegant dining. Late night pleasure boats also ply routes to watch the opening of the grand bascule bridges across the Neva River.
Tasting at the Vodka MuseumView on map
It would be a sin to visit Russia without sampling the national tipple and the private Vodka Museum is the ideal place to do so. Attached to a restaurant, the museum details the history of the drink from its first days as a 'bread wine' to its current popularity around the world. The tasting is the most enjoyable part of the tour with a chance to try some of the 240 different types of the alcoholic beverage with typical Russian snacks including herring and black bread. English-speaking guides and audio guides are available and recommended as the exhibits are only labelled in Russian.
Visit during the White NightsView on map
Due to the city's northerly position at a high latitude, during the summer months the sun barely touches the horizon and the sky remains disconcertingly bright between dusk and dawn. St Petersburg has capitalised on these 'white nights' with a programme of cultural events that incorporate festivals, concerts and extended opening hours at many of the city's top museums and galleries. The White Nights Festival runs between May and July though the true white nights of no nighttime darkness only last for a few weeks from mid-June.
Eating out in St Petersburg
SeveryaninView on map
Located in the heart of the historic centre close to the Mariinsky Theatre, the Severyanin restaurant is a top choice for traditional Russian cuisine in a beautiful setting. The sophisticated bohemian-style decor is inspired by the city's literary traditions with a calendar of concerts and poetry readings further complementing the scene. The signature menu features a carefully chosen range of well-prepared dishes including pancakes with caviar, dumplings, soup and meat & fish dishes. Between 2pm and 5pm on a Sunday you can enjoy Sunday tea with homemade pies, jams and honey.
Meal prices: $$
MarketplaceView on map
In the style of a self-serve canteen with a spread of dishes and cuisines from around the world, this budget eatery is a great option for those looking for a bit of variety with everything from Asian specialties to Russian classics and French dishes. Many dishes are cooked to order with only the freshest ingredients used and it's a great place for vegetarians with healthy salads and noodle dishes. The interior is far removed from any canteen you may know with a hip decor of exposed brickwork, indoor plants and funky artwork. Spread over three levels there's plenty of seating space.
Meal prices: $
L'Europe RestaurantView on map
Part of the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, this sumptuous restaurant is a high-class dining experience to remember with a stunning interior of Art Deco stained glass windows, grand vaulted ceiling and piano stage dating back to the early 1900s. It's like stepping back in time with silver service and live music accompanying the culinary experience. Highlights on the menu include the 'egg in egg' with caviar and the Chef's Inspiration of quail with baked apple pumpkin cake. There's also a decent wine list to complement the gastronomical offerings.
Meal prices: $$$
SchengenView on map
This small urban restaurant offers a truly international menu with dishes inspired by the world's most popular cuisines from Asian noodle soup to Italian spaghetti dishes with plenty more in between. The airy space incorporates two dining halls with large windows offering great views of Kirochnaya street and a bar counter perfect for enjoying a social drink. On weekdays from 11am to 3:30pm a 10% discount is available, which makes lunch here even more affordable.
Meal prices: $$
Shopping in St Petersburg
Udelnaya Flea MarketView on map
Known as “the Udelka” by locals, this huge market is something of a novelty in St Petersburg, a city that favours large shopping malls. Here you'll find a ramshackle treasure trove of goods from genuine Soviet merchandise to silverware, antique samovars to bicycles and books. On weekends the independent stalls set up behind the large permanent market and this is the best time to visit whether for some serious bargain hunting or simply to enjoy the sight of others doing the same.
GaleriaView on map
For international brands in clothing, cosmetics and other goods, head to Galeria, a one-stop shopping destination spread across five floors. There's some 290 shops including familiar names such as H&M, Gap and Zara with a good choice of cafes and restaurants. There's also a 10-cinema multiplex with an IMAX screen, bowling alley and children's amusement park so it also serves as a popular entertainment venue.
Imperial PorcelainView on map
Established in 1744 as the first porcelain manufactory in Russia, the Imperial Porcelain Factory (previously known as the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory) has a long history of producing high quality tableware and figurines. So impressive is the quality of the goods produced that the factory once exclusively provided the Romanovs with their tea sets. There's two city-centre branches where you can shop through their range though for better prices head to the factory outlet in Obukhovsky Oborony.
Kuznechny marketView on map
Laid out like a supermarket with aisles dedicated to a particular food item but set in a building more reminiscent of a railway station, the Kuznechny market is one of the finest food markets in town. Colourful fruit and veg is piled high besides caviar and smoked fish, pungent cheeses, cuts of meat and dried mushrooms and berries. Prices are higher than what you'll find elsewhere but walking the aisles where vendors beckon for your custom with samples is an experience in itself.
Transport links in St Petersburg
Flying InView on map
Russia's second busiest international airport has recently undergone major renovations to become a state-of-the-art transport hub with two terminals for international and domestic departures. Direct flights operate between St Petersburg and many of Europe's capitals. It's roughly a 30 minute drive from Pulkovo airport to St Petersburg's city centre with private transfers, taxis, public buses and marshrutka - a routed taxicab - all available options.
Railway ServicesView on map
Travelling around Russia by train is one of the best ways of getting around and with several major long-distance train stations, St Petersburg is brilliantly connected to the rest of the country. Self-service ticket machines provide an instant booking service in a number of languages making it a lot easier to arrange onward travel. There's daily and overnight trains to Moscow as well as regular services to Novgorod, Pskov and Yekaterinburg along with international destinations including Helsinki.
By BoatView on map
The city's location on the Gulf of Finland means it's possible to reach St Petersburg by public ferry services or vacation cruises. International passenger ferries operate services to Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn in the summer months between April and September. Inland Russia is also accessible by boat with week-long cruises linking St Petersburg with Moscow and other points of interest including the enchanting island of Kizhi.
Best Time to Visit
For the best chance of sunny and dry weather, the ideal time to visit St Petersburg is between mid-June and September. During Russia's summer the days are long with the sun barely touching the horizon in June and July so you can make the most of the day out sightseeing or visiting museums during the annual White Nights Festival. This is also the best time to visit Peterhof with the fountains only working between June to October. As a maritime city St Petersburg experiences rain throughout the year so it's worth taking a rain jacket or umbrella with you whenever your visit. For further information on when to go, check out our Best Time to Visit Russia page.