The Imperial City of the Tsars and Tsarinas was built by Peter The Great with an eye on the west, as a display of Imperial Russia’s burgeoning position in the world. It was to become Russia’s first great, modern city.
A beautiful, creative city adorned with Baroque and Neoclassical buildings lining Venetian inspired canals. St Petersburg, Russia’s window to the west has grace and grandeur that will leave you both enamoured and impressed. This great city of Russia has so much to offer, but you can still manage to see the top attractions in St Petersburg even if you only have a few days.
These are the Best Things to do in St Petersburg
If you want to get a feel for the real opulence of the House of Romanov, head to the summer residence of the Tsars, Catherine Palace. The Catherine Palace is where the Tsars and Empresses of Russia lived the high life in almost over the top proportions.
Initially commissioned by Catherine I, the palace was rebuilt on a grand scale by Empress Elizabeth using no less than 220 pounds of gold to decorate the interior. However, the palace is mainly associated with Catherine The Great who, ironically disliked the building describing it as “Whipped Cream”. She had nothing but contempt for her mother’s excesses and gaudy sense of style.
The Catherine Palace has a fascinating history of spectacular Russian excess and opulence and a family dynasty worthy of a soap opera. Without a doubt, Catherine Palace is one of St Petersburg’s top attractions.
The Infamous Royal Parties at Catherine Palace
Renown for receiving and entertaining guests at any time of the day, or night and lavishing them with overwhelming hospitality; fabulous stories surround the palace and its parties.
Guests were treated to tremendous VIP treatments. Guests could order any meal they liked when dining at a Palace function. Meals would be prepared immediately by the chefs, no matter the ingredients required, no matter the season.
In the Pavilion building, tables would be lifted into the ceiling via a dumbwaiter arrangement in between courses, replenished with the next course and sent back down. The sole purpose of this was to maintain the anonymity of the Palaces distinguished party guests, even from the staff. This was the grandiose image the House of Romanov wanted to send to the world.
The Catherine Palace Amber Room
One of the biggest controversies surrounding the palace lies in the famed Amber Room. Constructed with over six tonnes of carved amber on panels backed with gold leaf; the room was so spectacular it was once referred to as the “eighth wonder of the world”.
Prior to the invasion of German troops in 1941 and the subsequent destruction of the building, the panels from the Amber Room were quickly dismantled and shipped to Germany to avoid them falling into the hands of the Nazis. The panels never arrived at their final destination, and to this day, no one knows their exact location. Finding the panels of the famed Amber Room has become the quest of treasure hunters worldwide. So great is the obsession, the search has sent great men into financial ruin.
The Amber room has since been replicated at the cost of over $12 million along with the rest of the palace which was destroyed during the war. The mystery of the original Amber panels continues. *Note: Photography is not allowed in the Amber Room
Visiting Catherine Palace
How to get to Catherine Palace – The Catherine Palace is located in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, 25 km south of St. Petersburg, Russia. The museum can be reached by:
- Electric train from Vitebsk railway station.
- By public transport from metro stations Moskovskaya, Zvezdnaya or Kupchino.
Guided tours are also available from St Petersburg starting from around USD$45 pp. See here for more details.
Opening Hours: Open Wed-Mon. Closed Tuesday. Opening hours vary according to the time of year.
- Oct – April 28 – 10.00 – 16.45
- March – April 1 – 12.00 – 16.45
- Apr 8: 10.00–15.45
- Apr 29,30, May & Sep: 12.00–19.00
- Oct: 10.00–19.00
- Jun to Aug: Mon, Wed: 12.00–20.00 | Thu to Sun: 12.00–19.00
Visit the official Catherine Palace site for detailed information on opening hours before visiting.
Entry to Catherine Palace:
- Adults – ₽1000
- Students – ₽350
- Visitors under 16 – free
Note- Tickets are only valid for up to one hour after purchase.
Enjoy The White Nights in St Petersburg
For only a few months come May, the sun never entirely sets in St Petersburg, this is known as the White Nights or the season of the Midnight Sun. In the warmth of the day, locals take to the flower-filled parks and river banks to bask in the brief but cherished summer (clothing optional!).
And by the glow of the pearlescent evenings, the city comes to life. It is when locals will take to the city for all night celebrations such as the Scarlet Sails Celebration, the largest public event anywhere in the country and The Stars Of The White Nights Festival at the famous Mariinsky’s Theatre. Daily performances of opera’s, classical concerts and ballets feature some of the best stars from Russia and abroad.
Even such simple pleasures as heading down to the Neva river in the middle of the night to sip champagne and cheer as the bridges open to allow the ships to pass through are popular throughout the short summer.
Visit The Peter and Paul Fortress
St Petersburg’s most defining landmark and the cities oldest building, the Peter and Paul Fortress tells the history of some of St Petersburg’s most famous residents. Used mainly as a political prison, the complex lays claim to famous names such as Dostoevsky and Trotsky as inmates.
While in stark contrast to the cells of 19th century political prisoners, the magnificent Peter and Paul Cathedral within the fortress is where the Romanov family, along with other Russian royalty are interred. The golden spire of the cathedral stands at 400 ft tall, making it visible from almost anywhere in the city.
Visiting The Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress Opening Hours: The area of the Peter and Paul Fortress within the fortress walls is open daily from 9.30 to 20.00. Specific exhibitions, museums and attractions within the walls may close between 17.30 and 18.30. Check in advance of your planned visit.
Entry Cost: Ticket prices range from ₽70 – ₽450 depending on the attractions you want to visit. See here for a full list of ticket prices.
Cruise The St Petersburg Canals
Described as “The Venice Of The North” St Petersburg has over 100 canals stretching around 300km with over 800 bridges. Peter The Great was so taken with Venice he set out to replicate it in the new capital. He even decreed everyone must travel through and around the city by boat, so the introduction of bridges came much later; much to the local’s relief.
Take a boat trip along the canals that are still so integral to this city. Enjoy the summer months while the canals are not frozen and get a whole new perspective of St Petersburg’s granite embankments and some of it’s grandest buildings.
Stroll Through Palace Square
Palace Square St Petersburg is the cities main square and one of the most famous squares in the world. Alexander I wanted a monument to the Russian victory over Napolean and so commissioned The Alexander Column, one of the most impressive monuments in Russia. Made from a single piece of granite, it is the tallest monument of its kind in the world kept in position only by its own weight.
Bearing witness to many historical events such as Bloody Sunday, the Bolshevik revolution and the 1991 communist coup, the square also has an impressive panorama of buildings.
On the northern side, the beautiful Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage, with its wedding cake Baroque facade. The entire southern side is encircled by the General Staff Building with the majestic central Triumph Arch leading to Nevsky Prospekt. Standing in the middle of the enormous Palace Square, it is easy to imagine the days of St Petersburg ‘The Capital’.
Visit The Hermitage Museum
Thanks perhaps to the founding Tsars ‘amour de’ everything European and Catherine The Greats penchant for art, St Petersburg is a veritable world-class treasure trove of art and culture. A fascinating and eclectic mix of classic and contemporary.
The Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. They say if you spent just one minute at each exhibit it would take over nine years to see everything in the Hermitage.
This far exceeds any vision Catherine The Great had when she set out to create a collection of the finest artworks in the world and a place where it could be enjoyed in peace and solitude. While the word “Hermitage” is almost an oxymoron when you encounter the crowds, over 20,000 on an average day, it is one of the world’s great galleries not to be missed.
Get a Guide for your Hermitage Visit
We do recommend either getting a guide or planning your visit before you go into the Hermitage and start wandering aimlessly. The museum is so large with so many exhibits it is easy to get lost. With a number of definite must-see works, it would be a shame to miss these if you just went in blind.
The Hermitage Opening Hours:
- Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday: 10.30-18.00
- Wednesday, Friday: 10.30-21.00
- Monday: Closed
Hermitage Entry Cost: Tickets range from ₽300 -₽700 pp depending on areas you wish to visit. See here for full ticketing details including purchasing tickets online.
Tip: Entry is free of charge for all visitors on the first Thursday of each month and daily for students and children.
See a Show at the Famous Mariinsky Theatre
If after a day at the Hermitage you have not had your fill of art and culture, head to the Mariinsky Theatre. One of Russia’s largest and oldest theatres famous for world-class opera and ballet performances as well as big name music festivals throughout the summer months. We had a wonderful evening at the ballet as part of our Viking River Cruises Waterways Of The Tsars itinerary. For us, to see the ballet in Russia was one of those priceless travel experiences we will always remember.
Church Of Our Saviour On Spilled Blood
Taking inspiration from one of Russia’s most famous landmarks; St Basil’s in Moscow, the Church On Spilled Blood or Church of the Saviour On Blood strikes an impressive picture with it’s dramatic, vivid domes. If you think the name of the church sounds a bit gruesome, it is because it is quite literal.
The History of the Church On Spilled Blood
The Church was funded by the Imperial family in 1883 to honour the death of Emperor Alexander II who was killed on that spot in 1881. A grenade was thrown at the Tsar’s carriage by an anarchist conspirator. A second conspirator threw another grenade as the Tsar fell from his carriage, killing himself and mortally wounding the Tsar who lay bleeding in the street.
While the exterior is incredibly impressive with detail and colour, the interior is almost overwhelming containing over 7500 square meters of intricate mosaics.
Entry to the Church: ₽ 250.
Opening Hours: 10:30 to 18:00. Wednesday: Closed.
During the summer months, the museum is open in the evenings from 18:00 – 22:30.
Visit Nevsky Prospekt
It would be difficult to visit St Petersburg and not somehow end up on Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s main thoroughfare. The immensely wide avenue planned by Peter The Great as the start of the road to Moscow is still the most famous street in Russia. Lined with splendid architecture and squares it is very much the epicentre of St Petersburg and where you will still find the majority of St Petersburg’s shopping and nightlife.
Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Peter The Great built this monastery complex at the eastern end of the Nevsky Prospekt on the assumption this was the spot Alexander Nevsky defeated the Swedes in the Neva battle in 1240. The battle actually took place 12 miles from the site. None the less, this ancient and most eminent monastery is still a revered holy place attracting many devout believers.
The monastery is surrounded by a number of graveyards containing the graves of some of Russia’s most important and famous cultural figures including Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. Just to walk the beautiful gardens of the graveyards is a lovely way to spend a rare sunny day in St Petersburg.
There are separate entry fees for the two cemeteries and the monastery itself. Once inside the main complex, you are free to wander the remaining grounds and graveyards.
St Petersburg was the first stop on our Viking Cruises 13-day Waterways Of The Tsars cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow. You can find the details of this cruise here. We had three full days to spend in the city which was plenty of time to see the best of St Petersburg.
Getting Around St Petersburg
Taxi. Expect to pay ~ $20- $30 USD equivalent (~₽1,000) for a taxi from the Airport to the city. Make sure you get a metered taxi as it is not uncommon to get hustled by a non-metered taxi (speaking from experience!).
You can get a bus for ₽30 Rubles to a metro station. All public transport in St Petersburg costs a flat fee of ₽30 Rubles per trip no matter how far you are travelling.
Russian Visa Requirements
Most foreign nationals will require a tourist visa for Russia. You can read more about getting a Russian visa here.
It is important to check your visa requirement and plan well in advance of your travel as processing and issuing can take some time.
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