Wondering What to do in St Petersburg?
There are so many things to do in St Petersburg Russia, planning your itinerary can be a little overwhelming at first.
We have narrowed down the best experiences and attractions in St Petersburg to help you make the most of your visit. There are also loads of St Petersburg travel tips to make your visit more enjoyable.
About St Petersburg
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.
Dubbed the “Venice of the North”, this great city of Russia has so much to offer, but you can still manage to see the top St Petersburg sights even if you only have a few days.
Visiting St Petersburg
Independent travel is popular for visitors to St Petersburg due to its proximity to Europe. Although, many will visit as part of a cruise or tour group, especially those travelling beyond St Petersburg.
For many, organised travel offers a much more efficient and economic way to see the most of Russia, or visit as part of a cruise itinerary where a visa is not required.
Cruise to St Petersburg
A popular way to visit St Petersburg is by way of an ocean cruise. The second time we visited St Petersburg was on Viking Cruises Viking Homelands Cruise.
This is a great way to experience St Petersburg, especially for those who may not have otherwise visited Russia. However, we feel, for a more comprehensive visit to both St Petersburg, and Russia, a river cruise is a great way to travel in Russia if you prefer organised travel.
Ocean cruise passengers will also have visa restrictions throughout their stay.
River Cruise to St Petersburg
The first time we visited St Petersburg was on Viking Cruises 13-day Waterways Of The Tsars cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow. As part of the itinerary, we had three full days to spend in the city which was plenty of time to see the best of St Petersburg.
Many of the suggestions we make in this article are included in the free and optional excursions on a river cruise itinerary. Other suggestions would be achievable thanks to ample free time on your own to explore.
St Petersburg Travel Tips
Best Time to Visit St Petersburg
Peak tourist season in Russia is May through October with mid-June to September being the most popular. It is during these months St Petersburg experiences nearly 24 hours of sunshine and puts on a show with the White Nights of summer celebrations.
Festivities aside, the main tourist attractions will be very crowded. Pre-booking skip the line tickets is strongly advised if not visiting as part of a cruise or tour group where tickets are pre-arranged.
Summer in St Petersburg
Summers in St Petersburg are pleasant with temperature averaging 21℃ / 13℃ | 70℉ / 55℃. Remember to still pack accordingly for cooler evenings.
Winter in St Petersburg
Winter temperatures drop well below freezing. While not a popular time for tourists, winter can still be an interesting time to visit if you are willing to brave the cold.
Travelling From the Airport to St Petersburg
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!). Head straight to the designated taxi lines out the front of the airport. Don’t go with the taxi people who will try to ambush you in the arrivals hall.
Some people prefer to arrange for a private transfer to collect them from the airport on arrival in St Petersburg. Private airport transfers with a meet and greet service from St Petersburg Airport start as little as $10.50 (~₽685). You can get more details or pre book here.
By Public Transport
Public buses leave every 15 minutes from both terminals to Moskovskaya Metro Station. Nevsky Prospekt in the centre of St. Petersburg is seven stops to the south on the blue metro line. The bus will cost approx USD $1.00.
- From Pulkovo-1 terminal, the N39 departs opposite Exit 1 of the arrivals lounge. Buses run between 5.30am to 1.30am and take 30 minutes to reach the Metro.
- From Pulkovo-2 terminal, N13 buses depart from the left of the exit of the arrivals hall. Buses run between 5.40am (6 am at weekends) and 0.47am and take 20 minutes to reach the Metro.
Marshrutka Shuttle Buses
Marshrutka minibus shuttle taxis follow the same routes as the buses although are slightly quicker. A ride to the Metro will cost around USD$1.00, double if you have large luggage.
The marshrutka service from Pulkovo-2 (the K3 service) continues past Moskovskaya Metro Station up Moskovskiy Prospekt to Sennaya Ploshchad in the city centre.
Airport Express is a larger, more comfortable service leaving from both terminals to:
- Metro Station around USD $1.50
- Tekhnologicheskiy Institut around USD $5
- Vladimirskaya in the centre, approx 200m from Nevsky Prospekt around USD $6.50.
The shuttle operates 24-hours. Tickets are available from booths in the arrivals lounges. Card payments are accepted.
Getting Around St Petersburg
All public transport in St Petersburg costs ₽40 (~USD$0.45) per trip. ₽45 for the subway. You can also buy multiple ride tickets. See here for more details about public transport in St Petersburg.
Hop On Hop Off Bus
We find the Hop On, Hop off Bus a great way to get around any city and the best way to get your bearings. You can get a one or two-day pass starting at ₽2,000 (~ USD $29). You can pre-book tickets here.
Russian Visa Requirements
Most foreign nationals will require a tourist visa for Russia. Starting October 2019, St Petersburg will be added to the list of e-visa eligible cities in Russia. At this stage, the e-visa for St Petersburg will only be valid for a stay of eight days within the month of validity.
You can read more about getting a Russian visa here. It is important to check your requirements and plan well in advance of your travel.
Confirm Your Accommodation For Your Visa
You will need confirmation of your address in Russia when applying for your visa, even if it is just your first hotel on arrival. Also, St Petersburg can be notoriously expensive, especially over the peak tourist months. Take advantage of any deals you see before you go. Don’t leave your hotel booking to the last minute if you don’t have to.
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.
A fascinating history of spectacular Russian excess and opulence by a family dynasty worthy of a soap opera. Catherine Palace is without a doubt one of St Petersburg's top attractions.
History of Catherine Palace
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 Infamous Royal Parties at Catherine Palace
The Catherine Palace was renown for receiving and entertaining guests at any time of the day, or night and lavishing them with overwhelming hospitality. It is not surprising fabulous stories surround the palace and its parties.
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
We recommend arriving at the Catherine Palace before opening to beat the crowds. Being one of the most popular attractions in St Petersburg, it gets very busy with tour groups and cruise ship passengers and the security screenings can really delay things.
Some of the higher-end cruise companies have an arrangement to be let in first as soon as it opens so you want to be on the back of them.
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.
The State Hermitage Museum
The most famous museum in St Petersburg Russia, the Hermitage Museum located in the Imperial Palace of the Tsars 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.
Thanks to the founding Tsars 'amour de' everything European and Catherine The Great's penchant for art, St Petersburg and the State Hermitage Museum is a veritable world-class treasure trove of art and culture. A fascinating and eclectic mix of classic and contemporary.
The current Hermitage Museum far exceeds any vision Catherine The Great had when she set out to create a collection of the finest artworks in the world in 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.
Visiting the State Hermitage Museum
Get a Guide for your Hermitage Visit
To maximise your time in the Hermitage, we recommend either getting a guide or planning your visit before you go. The museum is so large with so many exhibits it is easy to get lost and waste much of your precious time. With a number of definite must-see works, it would be a shame to miss these if you just went in blind.
A guide will take you to the most important artworks sharing facts about the collection and the history of the palace. A guided tour will also give you the luxury of skip the line tickets.
A small group private tour of the Hermitage will usually last around 3 hrs and prices start at around $50 pp. Get full Hermitage tour details here.
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 Russian Viking River Cruise itinerary. For us, to see the ballet in Russia was one of those priceless travel experiences we will always remember and one of the most popular things to do in St Petersburg.
You can pre-book Swan Lake Tickets here with hotel pickup.
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.
Opening in 1907, the magnificent church took 24 years to build. Following Soviet vandalism and looting in 1932, the church was closed. In the following years, the church was used for all manner of purposes including a vegetable storage facility, a dump, even a temporary morgue at one point. In a state of serious disrepair, a 27-year project began to restore the church reopening to the public in 1997.
Visiting the Church On Spilled Blood
The Russian Orthodox style colourful domes are one of the most recognised symbols of the city and one of the most popular tourist attractions in St Petersburg.
Expect crowds at the Church on Spilled Blood at any time of year so plan your visit around this. We recommend pre-purchase tickets to save time at the door.
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.
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
Enjoy The White Nights in St Petersburg
For only a few months from May, the sun never entirely sets in St Petersburg, this is known as the White Nights St Petersburg 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.
White Nights Festivals St Petersburg
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.
The Stars Of The White Nights Festival at the famous Mariinsky Theatre has daily performances of opera, classical concerts and ballets feature some of the best stars from Russia and abroad.
The White Nights Drawbridges Cruises are popular during the summer months. The simple pleasure of heading down to the Neva river in the middle of the night to sip champagne and cheer as the drawbridges open to allow the ships to pass through.
St Petersburg Canals Cruise
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 the 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 most impressive buildings.
Take a St Petersburg Hop on Hop off Cruise
A St Petersburg Hop on Hop off Cruise is a great way to experience the river and famous canals and get around the city. The cruise has five stops around the city and audio guide. Tickets are valid for 24 hours from activation so you have plenty of time to make the most of the transport.
Stroll Through Palace Square
Palace Square St Petersburg is the city's main square and one of the most famous squares in the world. Alexander I wanted a monument to the Russian victory over Napoleon 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.
The site of 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 of Palace Square is 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 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. Nonetheless, this ancient and important 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 around the graveyards is a lovely way to spend time 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.
Visiting Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Take Metro Line 2 or 3 to Nevsky Prospekt Station.
Peterhof Palace and Park
More of a day trip from St Petersburg, the Peterhof Palace and Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 30 km from the city is one of the most visited attractions in St Petersburg and Russia.
Peterhof is another lavish display by Peter the Great in his quest to mimic some of Europe’s most beautiful cities and palaces. In this instance, he succeeded in outshining the inspiration for the palace and gardens - the Palace of Versailles.
The opulence of the palace is what can be expected of Russia’s imperial family. Yet, it is the extravagance of the water gardens that are the real highlight of a visit to Peterhof.
The lower park boasts around 150 fountains, 500 statues, and four magnificent cascades. An addition by Empress Elizabeth who also favoured the residence is the spectacular Grand Cascade in front of the palace.
As with nearly all of St Petersburg’s most impressive estates, Peterhof was destroyed by German troops during WWII although, was one of the first to be restored.
It took over 1,000 volunteers with the assistance fo military engineers to restore the lower gardens which reopened to the public in 1945. The palace facade was restored in 1952.
You may visit the Grand Palace on a pre-designated route as part of a guided tour. Photographs are not allowed, and tours are moved through quite briskly. The gardens can be visited at your leisure.
Visiting Peterhof Palace and Park
We recommend allowing a half to full day for Peterhof Palace and Gardens. It will take some time to reach the palace depending on which mode of transport you choose.
Summer is the best time to visit as the fountains are only operational early May to early October. It is also when it will be most crowded with queues for the Palace and transport to and from the city. We recommend an early start and skip the line tickets.
How to Get to Peterhof From Saint Petersburg
Peterhof Palace is located in the suburb of Petrodvorets, approx 30 km from St Petersburg on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland.
- The easiest and fastest way to get to Peterhof is by hydrofoil, which will take around 45 minutes. Service leave from the Hermitage jetty and Admiralteyskaya Naberezhnaya. You can pre-book hydrofoil tickets here.
- Train and bus will take 1.5 hrs and minibus around 1 hr.
- Trains leave from Baltiyskiy Station to Noviy Peterhof. Expect around 45 minutes and a 20-minute walk from the station across Proletarsky Park to the gates to the Upper Garden. Marshrutka minibuses run from Baltiyskiy Station directly to the park gates of Peterhof if you don't want the walk.
- Marshrutka minibuses also run from various points around the city- From Avtovo (K-424) and Leninskiy Prospekt (K-242) Metro Stations. Travel time approx 1 hr.
Take a Tour of St Petersburg’s Rooftops.
See St Petersburg from a different angle. Take a small group tour along the rooftops of St Petersburg’s historical centre to see the city’s most famous landmarks from above.
Thanks to a lack of highrise buildings and a joint community, government effort to preserve and restore old buildings, many buildings still have roof access. With the buildings so close together is it easy to literally roof hop your way around the historical centre.
A local guide will take you on a tour of the accessible rooftops showing you a unique view of Russia’s most beautiful city. The roofs do slope so this activity, while safely traversed with a guide, is for the more adventurous traveller.
Tours range from 1 – 1.5 hrs and cost around $18 pp. Get full St Petersburg Rooftop Tour details here.
St Petersburg Metro Tour
Much like the famous Moscow Metro stations, St Petersburg Metro stations are also "palaces for the people". More in line with the lobby of a five-star hotel, many of the stations boast opulent décors such as marble and glass columns, ornate bas reliefs and claims to the deepest metro station in the world.
Discover the subterranean beauty and fascinating history of the St Petersburg Metro on a guided tour. Tours last for approx 1.5 hrs and visit some of the most notable stations in the Metro system. The tour includes subway tickets and local guide. Prices start from $32 pp. See full St Petersburg Metro tour details here.