If you are visiting Saint Petersburg for the first time, follow this guide around the city’s main attractions to discover the key must-see locations.
State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace
The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is not only one of the oldest museums in the world, it is also one of the best. It occupies six different buildings, out of which the Winter Palace of Empress Catherine, a stunning mint-green, white and gold profusion of columns, windows and recesses, with its roof topped by rows of classical statues, is the most famous one. It spans more than 1,500 rooms, with the enormous collection (over three million items, only a fraction of which are on display in 360 rooms) almost amounting to a comprehensive history of Western European art, including antiquities, paintings, sculptures and decorative art works, and also the astonishingly opulent 18th and 19th century state rooms of Russia’s imperial family.
“The Russian Versailles”, Peterhof is the one place which is absolutely unmissable. It was the first imperial palace to be built outside Saint Petersburg. The palace complex overlooks the Gulf of Finland and has several different sections, including the enormous Alexandra Park. Built by Tsar Peter the Great, it features the richly decorated Grand Palace – the main summer residence of Russian Tsars. But the main draw is the palace’s exterior, with many gilded domes and dozens of fountains of the Grand Cascade of the Lower Park drawing millions of tourists each year. The park itself is a marvellous collection of fountains, statue-lined lanes, and picturesque canals.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Colonnade
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral dominating the historic centre of Saint Petersburg is an architectonic marvel. The life’s work of French architect Auguste de Montferrand, it is not only the city’s largest and most spectacular religious building, but also the largest orthodox basilica in the world as well as the world’s fourth largest cathedral. The giant gilded dome can be seen from many places around central Saint Petersburg. Today, it’s actually a museum, with only a small portion of the huge Cathedral devoted to regular worship activity. The interiors are as grand as the exterior, decorated with different types of marble, lapis lazuli and other rare stones. Travelers are also welcome to climb the 300 steps up to the colonnade to enjoy some of the best views of the city.
Of all the grand operas in Russia, the Mariinsky Theater is the finest and the most prestigious one, representing Saint Petersburg just like the Bolshoy Theatre does Moscow. Opened in 1860, it was named in honour of Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander II. Since its inception, the Mariinsky has seen some of the world’s greatest musicians, dancers and singers on its stage. World renowned for the impeccable discipline and devotion to tradition of its ballet company, and blessed to have Valery Gergiev, one of contemporary classical music’s most talented conductors, as well as international stars of ballet and opera including Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva and Anna Netrebko, the Mariinsky Theatre is a world-class venue for ballet, opera and orchestral music.
Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Saint Petersburg’s iconic sight, this five-domed dazzler is the most elaborate church with a classic Russian Orthodox exterior and an interior decorated with some 7000 sq metres of unbelievably beautiful mosaics. Unlike the infamous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the Church of the Savior is much younger than its counterpart. Officially called the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, it’s far more striking colloquial name references the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II, here, in 1881. The many domes – some gilded, some colourful and others painted in a spiral pattern – make the Church of the Spilt Blood the city’s most unique place of worship. It has now been turned into a museum.
Nevsky Prospekt – or Nevsky Avenue – is Saint Petersburg’s grand catwalk at the very heart of the city. Spanning 4.5 kilometers from the Admiralty in the west to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in the east, there’s hardly a building on Nevsky Prospekt that was built after 1917. A reference point for visitors and locals alike, its highlights include the magnificent Art Nouveau Singer Building, the baroque Stroganov Palace, Kazan Cathedral with its curved neoclassical colonnade, the Horse Tamers statues on Anichkov Bridge, and the 18th century shopping arcade Gostiny Dvor. With all its landmark buildings, palaces, churches, and luxury hotels, uncounted shops, upmarket boutiques, bars and cafes, this fabulous street is truly the main artery of the city.
The Peter and Paul Fortress
Built in 1703, the Peter and Paul Fortress marks the very spot Saint Petersburg was founded on. It all started with a small wooden hut erected by Tsar Peter the Great to oversee the construction of the mighty fortress. Built to protect “Russia’s window to the West” from Swedish invaders, it never actually saw military action, but has fulfilled a variety of functions over its three-century history, from burial place for nearly all of the Romanov Emperors and Empresses, to notorious political prison, to the site of key experiments in the development of Soviet rocket technology. Nowadays, it is home to a number of smaller museums, galleries, as well as Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. The church’s golden needle can be seen from miles away and it’s also possible to visit the upper part of the tower.
Occupying the magnificent Mikhailovsky Palace, the Russian Museum’s main collection is a treasury of Russian visual art from throughout the ages, with highlights including medieval icons, atmospheric late-19th-century genre paintings, and several modernist masterpieces. The collection, which, unlike the gigantic Hermitage, can easily be viewed in half a day or less, includes works by Karl Bryullov, Alexander Ivanov, Nicholas Ghe, Ilya Repin, Natalya Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, among many others, and the masterpieces keep on coming as one tours the beautiful Carlo Rossi–designed Mikhailovsky Palace and its attached wings. Permanent and temporary exhibitions by the Russian Museum are also held at the Marble Palace, the Mikhailovsky Castle (also known as the Engineer’s Castle) and the Stroganov Palace.
Tsarskoye Selo and Catherine Palace
Home to two vast 18th century palaces, surrounded by beautifully landscaped parkland with a rich variety of follies and monuments, Tsarskoye Selo is a testament to the immense wealth and lavishness of the Romanov Imperial family. Located in Pushkin, some 25 kilometers outside Saint Petersburg, the rococo Catherine Palace was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli. A sister building to his Winter Palace in the city center, it is perhaps the grandest of the numerous palaces in Saint Petersburg, with superb interiors of the Great Hall, the Arabesque Hall, the baroque Cavalier’s Dining Room, the White State Dining Room, the Crimson and Green Pilaster Rooms, the Portrait Hall and, of course, the world-famous Amber Room made entirely out of amber and backed with gold leaf and mirrors. There are many other highlights to see, with almost every notable Saint Petersburg architect of the 18th and early-19th centuries contributing something to the ensemble.
The spectacular Yusupov Palace on the Moika River is a unique 18th-20th century architectural ensemble and a cultural and heritage site. It is one of two surviving Saint Petersburg residences of the monumentally wealthy Yusupov family, and is one of the few aristocratic homes in the city to have retained many of its original interiors. The history of the Palace and its estate date back to Peter the Great’s epoch, the time of foundation of the Russian “Northern capital”. The Palace went down in Russian history as the place where Grigory Rasputin, a Siberian peasant, mystical spiritual mentor and friend of the family of Emperor Nicholas II was assassinated. After the Russian Revolution the Palace housed a Museum of the Nobility Lifestyle, Regional Teacher’s House and Saint Petersburg Palace of Culture for Educators. Today, this grandeur building hosts government and diplomatic meetings, international conferences and symposia.
Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Named after the patron saint of Saint Petersburg, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery is the city’s most ancient and eminent monastery founded by Peter the Great himself, and located at the far end of Nevsky Prospect. In 1797 the monastery turned into a lavra, the most senior grade of Russian Orthodox monasteries. Nowadays, this revered and holy place attracts the most devout believers. It also serves as the gravesite of some of Russia’s most famous artistic figures. Entrance to most of the grounds is free, with separate fee to enter the graveyards.
Rivers and canals
Referred to as the Venice of the North, Saint Petersburg is a city of many water canals. In fact, there are over 800 bridges, crossing a total length of 300 kilometers of artificial canals, serving as important transport ways and keeping the city built on marshlands dry. Like in real Venice, a boat tour is one of the best ways to see the city’s magnificent architectural beauty and romance. There are different boat tours around town available at the various quays or near Nevsky Prospekt, offering all kinds of views and experiences – larger boats offering guided tours (some in English) and onboard refreshments, and smaller boats that you can rent by the hour, choose your own route, and bring your own food and drinks.
The Fabergé Museum opened in 2013. Housed in the magnificently restored Shuvalovsky Palace, this relatively new and privately owned museum is home to the world’s largest collection of pieces manufactured by the jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé (including nine of the fabled imperial Easter eggs) and some 4,000 other exhibits from Farbergé and fellow master craftsmen of pre-revolutionary Russia. Tickets for the guided one hour long tours) can be booked online up to a week in advance.
Kupetz Yeliseevs (Eliseev Emporium)
This huge grocery store on Nevsky Prospekt is the ideal place to buy authentic souvenirs or some branded goods from blends of tea to caviar and handmade chocolates, as well as delicious freshly baked breads, pastries and cakes. Housed in Style Moderne consumer palace, ordered by wealthy merchant Grigory Eliseev, it boasts of huge plate-glass windows giving glimpses into a dazzling interior of stained glass, chandeliers, polished brass and a giant pineapple palm. The building’s exterior is no less lavish and was graced with four allegorical sculptures representing industry, trade and commerce, art and science. The building also included a theatre, which is still functioning, and a little café inside, so it’s also an ideal spot to take a little break from shopping, or just come in for a cup of tea…or even something a bit stronger.
If you’re looking for somewhere to enjoy a relaxing walk, it will take 20 minutes by metro from the city center to get to Yelagin Island (also known by its Soviet-era name as the “Kirov Central Park of Culture and Leisure”). The island offers visitors a chance to explore the comparatively small but very elegant Imperial palace built by Carlo Rossi, an attractive parkland, a boating lake in the summer and the surprisingly avant-garde wonders of the Museum of Glass Art. Here, you can also enjoy outdoor skating in the winter. Although it rarely finds a place on tourist itineraries, it’s less busy, very lovely and has a small entrance fee. It is a secluded and tranquil spot and is one of the best of the green spaces within the city.
The Neva River connecting Lake Ladoga to the Baltic Sea is a transportation artery for tens of cargo ships per day during the summer navigation season. For ships to pass through, the bascule bridges across the Neva in central Saint Petersburg have to be opened, which is done after midnight. It is an unmissable experience, especially, during the White Nights, to gather along the embankments to watch the raising of the bridges together with crowds of city residents and visitors. The raised arches of the Palace Bridge, in particular, make an iconic view of Saint Petersburg – worthy of any tourist photo collection.
This equestrian statue to Peter the Great is one of the most instantly recognizable symbols of Saint Petersburg. With his horse (representing Russia) rearing above the snake of treason, Peter’s enormous statue was sculpted for 12 years for Catherine the Great by Frenchman Etienne Falconet. Completed in 1782 it was immortalised as the Bronze Horseman in the epic poem by Alexander Pushkin. The pedestal of the monument, the “Thunder Stone”, is purportedly the largest ever moved by man. Nowadays, it’s also a popular spot for jolly wedding parties – it’s a tradition for local newlyweds to be photographed here after their wedding ceremonies.
The Strelka (“Spit”) is located right in the middle of the Neva River Delta and is a small promontory of land at the eastern end of Vasilevskiy Island. The place offers stunning views on all sides, including the Winter Palace, Palace and Trinity Bridges, the Peter and Paul Fortress and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. It’s a must-stop at bus tours and a perennially popular site for wedding parties. The highlights of this sight are the magnificent Rostral Columns, with their gas beacons lit for public holidays and maritime anniversaries, and the elegant classical temple of the Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange, all works of the French-born architect Thomas de Thomon.
Used for ship-building in Peter’s time, the complex is now an artistic cluster with plenty events happening throughout the year – summertime concerts, art exhibitions, yoga classes and film screenings, plus restaurants, cafes and shops. Its name refers to the place where the Russian Tsar learned the ship-building trade, and offers some of the city’s best examples of Russian classicism, particularly, the impressive red-brick-and-granite arch, designed by Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe in the late 18th century. For the most part of the last three centuries it was closed, and has recently opened to the public.
This garden is the oldest in the city, designed in the early 18th century in a Dutch baroque style. Before becoming a strolling place for Saint Petersburg’s 19th-century leisured classes, it was a private retreat for Peter the Great. Only in the 20th century were commoners admitted. This leafy and shady garden follows a geometric plan, with fountains, pavilions and 92 marble statues, busts and sculptural groups studding the grounds. The garden also features several cafes, including the Teahouse which occasionally hosts music concerts on summer evenings.
Russian cruiser Aurora
Travel back in time by stepping on board the infamous ship named Aurora. The cruiser Aurora was built between 1897 and 1900 and joined Russia’s Baltic fleet in 1903. The ship played an important role in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. During the Russo-Japanese War, the cruiser took part in the Battle of Tsusima. In 1917, the Aurora took an active part in the Revolution. On the night of October 25-26 1917, it fired a blank shot at the Winter Palace (then the residence of the Provisional Government), signalling the workers, soldiers and sailors of the city to storm the palace. That moment triggered a dramatic episode in Russia’s history and was the start of over 70 years of Communist leadership. Now it serves as a museum. The admission to the Aurora is free, but for a small fee you can tour the engine-room as well.